Before Jesus selected the twelve, he “went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12). Then in the morning he gathered all his disciples together and from them chose twelve to be those closest to him, destined to become the apostles, the foundation stones of the Church. Among those twelve was “Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor” (Luke 6:16b).
So what does it mean that Jesus prayed all night and still selected one who became a traitor? Was his prayer not as discerning as one would expect, because he prayed and still made a bad choice? Does this cast doubts on Jesus’ prayerful wisdom or ability to hear God’s answer?
Of course not. Judas was necessary for the fulfillment of the many Scripture passages that all had to do with Jesus’ passion, sacrificial death, and resurrection.
Was Judas, then, “set up”? No, for God doesn’t work that way. Judas did what he did by his own choice—though his motivation and measure of repentance are not clear from Scripture.
What would have happened if Judas had been faithful? Of course we don’t know, but certainly Jesus would have been arrested by some other means. The twelve, in one of their best moments, believed that any one of them could betray him. (“Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” They began to be sorrowful and to say to him one after another, “Is it I?” [Mark 14:18b-19]. We are not told that they leaned together and said, “It’s got to be Judas. Can’t be anyone else, could it?”)
We are not told what Jesus prayed about “all night”; “Give me wisdom to choose the right men”? Makes sense, but probably much more than that. We can’t know. “Right men” would include the one who, in God’s economy and foreknowledge (but not force), would become a traitor.
A few things we can learn from this incident. One: critical decisions should be preceded by serious prayer, which in the end means leaving it in God’s hand and not telling him what we want done. Two: what we may think we are praying for might have a meaning and fulfillment much deeper than we can ever guess, especially if we’re not Jesus. Three: in answers to prayer, everyone’s free will is preserved no matter what we pray for or how the prayer is answered. Four: we may think that we didn’t get what we pray for if things appear to go really wrong, but that would be just because we prayed with conditions. Five: God’s will is always done in spite of what human free will may choose—even if the human choice is a really bad one.
And maybe one more thing. It’s easy to focus on the traitor, but the other eleven were pretty unlikely choices and as far as we can tell they all turned out great—some of them spectacularly far beyond any reasonable expectation. They were all prayed over before they were chosen too.