The tragedy of Judas was how he valued Jesus. Whatever his reason, he chose to hand Jesus over to the temple leaders, accepting whatever they offered (Mark 14:11 || Luke 22:5).
The chief priests set the price (Matthew 26:15). Thirty silver coins was a small price to be rid of the prophetic voice that exposed them as mere actors (23:13-29), rulers relying on death (23:27-32), leaders leading the city to destruction (23:33-39).
Jesus was heaven’s life-giving leader for the earth, and Judas was the leading example of trading Life for something less:
Matthew 27:1-5 (my translation, compare NIV)
1 As morning arrived, all the chief priests and elders of the people colluded against Jesus to put him to death. 2 They bound him, took him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor.
3 Then Judas — the one who handed him over — saw Jesus was condemned. With deep remorse, he turned the thirty silver coins over to the chief priests and elders 4 saying, “I did wrong by handing over an innocent life.” They said, “Means nothing to us. Your problem.”
5 Tossing the coins into the temple, he left. Having gone away, he took his own life.
Whatever faith Judas had in the temple leaders evaporates as he sees them use their power to condemn the prophet who called them out. Even if he no longer believes Jesus is the Christ, Judas doesn’t want responsibility for the death of an innocent person (27:3).
Judas can return the coins, but things are out of his hands. The temple leaders hear Judas’ confession but don’t make atonement or set things right. They leave Judas in his remorse: “Your problem.” (27:4)
I wish I had the graphic skills to depict Judas’ world disintegrating. Imagine a black and white stop-motion video, a bent figure walking away from the place on earth where God’s presence has been. Jesus isn’t there; his hands are bound. In the distance the sun is rising, but darkness enshrouds Judas. We lose him as the void takes over (27:5).
6 Taking the coins, the chief priests said, “We can’t put these in the treasury since it’s blood-money.” 7 The council used them to buy a field from the potter to bury foreigners. 8 That’s why the field was called “Field of blood.” It still is.
9 That’s when the word spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled, “They took the thirty pieces of silver — the value by which he was valued by Israel’s descendants — 10 and exchanged them for the potter’s field, just as the Lord decreed.”
This second image is bare earth. With the clay removed, the potter’s field is as barren as a mine site. It has become a Field of Death, where graves are dug for people who died far from home.
In charge of this Field of Blood are the leaders preoccupied with death (compare 23:27-32), particularly the death of Jesus (27:1). Ironically, they know that death-money has no place in God’s house (27:6-7). The “Field of Death” is a graphic image of a world that rejects the Christ (27:8).
How can this be? Isn’t Christ the leader appointed by heaven to free us from the reign of death and reconnect earth with our Father, the source of our life? How could it turn to tragedy?
Matthew answers that question from the prophets. Zechariah wrestled with that question when the kingship had fallen and God’s people were under foreign powers. Had God sacked Israel’s kings as worthless shepherds who cared only with their own power? Or were the people devaluing the shepherd God provided, refusing to follow him?
The good shepherd of Zechariah 11 accepts whatever value the people place on him. He’s leading for the people, not the pay:
Zechariah 11:12–13 (NIV)
12 I told them, “If you think it best, give me my pay; but if not, keep it.” So they paid me thirty pieces of silver.
13 And the Lord said to me, “Throw it to the potter” — the handsome price at which they valued me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter at the house of the Lord.
Thirty silver coins was the value of a slave (Exodus 21:32). This “handsome price” was an insulting offer for a king, but that’s all the leaders of God’s people thought he was worth. And that is Matthew’s point.
The problem isn’t Pilate and the Romans. The problem is with God’s own people, the descendants of Israel who don’t value the Shepherd God provided for them (1:9). The problem is with the temple leaders who will trade him for thirty pieces of silver. The problem is with the disciple who accepts this demeaning payment in exchange for the Christ, God’s anointed ruler. No wonder God’s world is sold under slavery to the reign of evil and death.
It’s not clear why Matthew refers to Jeremiah rather than Zechariah. There is a story of a land sale in Jeremiah. Knowing the Babylonians were about to invade and land titles would be meaningless, Jeremiah bought a field to demonstrate his conviction that one day God would gather future generations back from exile and the land would be theirs again:
Jeremiah 32:8–9 (NIV)
I knew that this was the word of the Lord; 9 so I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel and weighed out for him seventeen shekels of silver.
Just as Jeremiah did in Babylonian times, Jesus has decreed the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in his time (24:2). Maybe Matthew is hinting that Jesus’ impending death is not the end — that despite how his people devalue and betray him, he will return from the dead with power, restoring heaven’s reign to the earth.
Without him there is no life, as Judas discovered. Devalue him and all we get is a Field of Blood, a place for dead bones. But the God who brings life out of death raises his Christ from death to the throne. He is our hope. The Lord will be king of the whole earth (Zechariah 14:9). Heaven’s life-giving authority and presence has arrived in him (Matthew 28:18).
What others are saying
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 1045:
While it was the thirty silver coins which presumably first drew Matthew’s attention to Zech 11:12–13, his reference to that passage also makes a more substantial contribution to his theme of the fulfillment of scripture in the life and passion of Jesus. We have noted already three references to apparently messianic figures in Zech 9–14 as fulfilled in Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem and what is happening to him there. See above on 21:4–5 (Zech 9:9–10); 24:30 (Zech 12:10–14); 26:31 (Zech 13:7). Many interpreters of Zechariah take these three passages together with 11:4–14 as parts of a unified concept of a shepherd-king whose coming will lead paradoxically to his rejection and death; that all four passages should have been taken up into Matthew’s Jerusalem narrative strongly indicates that he too saw them in that light, and found in this mysterious rejected and suffering Messiah a powerful scriptural model which could stand alongside the suffering servant of Isaiah and the suffering righteous figures of some of the psalms as a model for understanding why Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, must suffer and die in Jerusalem.