Then one of the twelve – the one called Judas Iscariot – went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over. (Matthew 26:14-16)
This is a turning point in the story of Jesus’ life. Judas had been with him from the beginning, one of the core twelve; yet beneath the surface his doubts, frustrations and personal ambition had been bubbling away. In Matthew 26 Judas’ true colours come to the surface, as he trades in the life of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.
I don’t know if that sounds a lot to you; thirty pieces of silver? In Jesus’ day it was probably worth about four months’ wages for a labourer. Not an amount to be sniffed at; but also an incredibly small price for a human life. Exodus 25:32 tells us that thirty pieces of silver was the price that must be paid to a master if their slave was gored to death by an ox. On one level, Jesus’ life was valued the same as that of a slave, accidentally impaled by an animal.
But there is also something symbolic going on here. Matthew is deliberately evoking the language of Zechariah 11, a chapter from which he draws a good deal in the Easter story.Zechariah 11 is packed with evocative imagery of a shepherd who is tasked with caring for a flock doomed to death. He rescues them, only to then be rejected by the sheep. He breaks two staffs of ‘favour’ and ‘union’ and the sheep are left to the leadership of a worthless shepherd.
Having been rejected, the shepherd declares ‘“If you think it best, give me my pay; but if not, keep it.” So they paid me thirty pieces of silver […] the handsome price at which they valued me!’ (Zech 11:12-13) Zechariah’s words are dripping with irony: ‘the handsome price!’ Thirty pieces of silver is an insultingly low wage for someone whose job is to risk his life to protect sheep. And such was the minute cost for which Judas was willing to sacrfice his master.
The symbolism is striking: a shepherd, giving his life to protect sheep doomed to death, only to then be betrayed by them. But notice the key difference between Jesus and Zechariah. Zechariah grew weary and resigned his position, leaving the sheep to their fate (Zech 11:9). Jesus refused to desert his sheep, but paid the ultimate price, giving up his life for them.
How much is Jesus worth to you? The thirty pieces paid for the life of Jesus tell us that both Judas and the Priests esteemed him so little that they treated him like a common slave and a worthless shepherd. They were blind to the truth of who Jesus was. The most rich and valuable being to ever have existed made himself nothing, taking on the form of a slave, and being obedient to the point of death (Phil 2:4-8). The good shepherd laid down his life for the sheep (John 10:11-13, 17-18).