by Daniel Harrell
The account of the Last Supper is familiar. It begins with the first day of the weeklong Feast of Unleavened Bread—commemorating Israel’s exodus from Egyptian slavery—of which Passover was a part. Jesus and his disciples traveled to Jerusalem where thousands of Jewish pilgrims swarmed for the celebration. Amping the annual enthusiasm over Israel’s divine deliverance from Egyptian slavery was fervent expectation of future deliverance from current Roman oppression. Into the expectant throng, Jesus sent a couple of disciples to find a man carrying a jar of water. “Wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.”
This passage used to make me think of that classic scene from The Return of the Jedi where Luke Skywalker strolls into the lair of his nemesis, Jabba the Hut. With a mere wave of his force-filled hand, Luke compels Jabba’s bodyguard to unwittingly cooperate with him and his scheme to humiliate the Hut. “You will take me to Jabba now,” Luke directs. Against his better judgment, the bodyguard does as instructed: “I will take you to Jabba now.” Surely Jesus, having calmed storms with the mere wave of his hand and fed thousands with a meager bag lunch, could easily maneuver a man with a water jar and a homeowner to set a table for thirteen. When later asked by his wife why he did it, the homeowner would say, “I don’t know, I think we’re having company.” At which point the disciples would knock at his door.
Less fascinating but more likely, both the homeowner and the man with the water jar were followers of Jesus in on his secret plan. Why all the intrigue? Knowing the religious authorities were out to get him, and that Jerusalem lay in their jurisdiction, and that as a devout Jew he’d to eat Passover before they got to him, Jesus needed to enter the city undetected. Granted, he could have miraculously popped in as he would a few days hence, but here Jesus exercised his human side and employed more pedestrian means. As carrying water was woman’s work, a man with a water jar made it easy for even the disciples to spot. That the homeowner knew who the “The Teacher” proved he was clued in. From Mark’s perspective, all the secrecy darkens the treachery about to unfold. None aside from Jesus’ closest companions would know his whereabouts. Betrayal would have to be an inside job. It would be as the Scriptures portended, specifically Psalm 41: “Even my close friend, whom I trusted, who shared my bread, has turned against me.”
Granted, Jesus wasn’t specific as to which Scripture. He said: “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him.” Referring to himself as “Son of Man” is usually code for Daniel’s prophecy where the “Son of Man” victoriously rides in on clouds at the end of time. Jesus had described himself as doing the same thing in Mark 13. In Daniel, the Son of Man was “given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” In Mark, Jesus added that “he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.” Not wanting to get too apocalyptic this morning, I’ll just add mention that Daniel also features God’s saints in a fierce struggle with evil; evil that gets the upper hand for a time. It’s a Last Days struggle played out at the Last Supper. In the gospels of Luke and John, Satan “enters Judas” to induce the double-cross. And yet to be possessed is not to be coerced. Judas remained his own man and could have said no. But because Judas did not, Jesus bewailed him as one who should have never been born.
Little wonder the disciples each frantically worried whether he might be the traitor himself. One by one, each sought reassurance. “Surely, not I?” they pleaded. Echoing Psalm 41, Jesus informed them that the guilty party would be “the one who dips bread into the bowl with me.” The unleavened matzo bread of Passover worked a bit like a pita chip with which you ate food served in large bowls spread on the table. I imagine each disciple doing all he could to avoid Jesus’ bowl so as not to get fingered. Perhaps this is why John’s gospel has Jesus handing a piece of bread directly to Judas. In Mark, sharing bread serves mostly to accentuate the intimate friendship Judas and Jesus shared. It also accentuates a sacred cultural norm. To eat with another was to foreswear ever doing him harm. Ancient covenants and peace treaties were ceremonially sealed over meals. Jesus declared this Passover meal to be a covenant too―a new covenant between God and his people. The evil Judas perpetrated therefore crossed every imaginable line. It violated the bonds of friendship, the bonds of society and the bond of God.
In Matthew’s gospel, Judas was stricken with remorse after realizing what he had done. But rather than turn back to Jesus, Judas turned to the priests who recruited him and tried to give back the money they paid him to do their dirty work. The priests haughtily refused. Judas threw their blood money on the floor and went out and hung himself. He died before Jesus. This is very troubling. If Judas as one of the twelve so willingly betrayed Jesus for money, why chance do you and I have to be faithful? Worry over these implications led to centuries of rethinking Judas. Writer Joan Acocella summed it up thusly: “If Jesus informs you that you will betray him, and then tells you to hurry up and do it [as he does in John’s gospel], are you really responsible for your act? Furthermore, if your act sets in motion the process—Christ’s Passion—whereby humankind is saved, shouldn’t somebody thank you? No, says the Church. If you betray your friend, you are a sinner, no matter how foreordained or collaterally beneficial your sin. And, if the friend should happen to be the Son of God, so much the worse for you.”
This may explain why later religious writers wrote new gospels, including a late second-century rehabilitation effort audaciously entitled “The Gospel of Judas.” (You may remember our peeking at it last summer with the church father Eusebius. It was also the source behind Dan Brown’s enormously popular Da Vinci Code which many treated like gospel some years ago). In The Gospel of Judas, Judas gets portrayed as Jesus’ favorite, the only disciple who really understood him. It also portrayed Jesus as so divine as not to be human, meaning Judas couldn’t have him killed anyway. As a Gnostic gospel (Gnosticism a philosophy wherein anything physical is considered perverse), Judas actually did Jesus a favor by helping him get out of his physical, bodily imprisonment. The Gospel of Judas also features Jesus castigating a physical earth brought into being by a violent demiurge named Nebro, along with his stupid assistant, Saklas; an ancient version of Jabba the Hut whom Jesus easily subdues. The effort at rehabilitation quickly gives way to ridiculousness.
Rather than rehabilitation, others dealt with anxiety over association with Judas by making him into something out of a monster movie, so hideously disfigured and disgusting that no human being could ever imitate him. Such typecasting additionally provided for easy scapegoats. By the third century, Christians, mostly Gentiles by this point, smeared all Jews as “sons of Judas.” Even luminary church fathers Jerome and John Chrysostom joined in. Centuries of subsequent anti-Semitism, stoked by saints such as Martin Luther in his later years, fueled an already vicious succession of pogroms that reached their nadir with the Holocaust.
There is a human evil, a Satanic evil, that Judas represents. Not only in the horrific crimes we commit, but in the bonds of trust we so willingly violate, in the relationships we righteously ruin, in the conflicts we cheerfully nurture, in the deception and disloyalty and lies we relish–we show ourselves all to be sons and daughters of Judas, complicit in the double cross that sends Jesus to his cross.
And yet, just as Jesus extended forgiveness to his executioners as they hung him to die, so Jesus extended grace to Judas, even as he accused him. The bread that gets dipped as an indictment of betrayal is the same bread offered as Jesus’ own body broken. Judas does not accept it because grace is not good news. Pardon is only extended to those who need it. Forgiveness is fundamentally indictment. Grace begins with blame and human nature vigorously resists any blame, what have I done that is really that bad? Read one more verse in Mark’s gospel and Jesus announces to all his disciples, “You will all become deserters.” Or as the King James puts it, “all ye shall be offended.” Grace does offend. To have someone forgive you implies that you are not a good person. To have someone be cursed and crucified on a cross for you implies you are a terribly bad person.
The apostle Paul, whose own badness was his righteousness, admitted that to preach Christ crucified was “an offense to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” For the Jewish disciples, gathered around that last Passover meal, this was doubly so. Insulting enough that Jesus implied they needed forgiveness (Surely, not I!), but then to have Jesus call the unleavened bread his body broken and have them eat it? What sort of foolishness was that? No wonder critics of Christians called them cannibals. Of course for those who made the connection to sacrifice― disturbing talk of Jesus himself as the sacrifice notwithstanding—to eat the body of the sacrificial animal was customary. The Passover sacrificial Lamb, as is the case with Easter ham, was not so much burned as it was cooked. The lamb that saved, also nourished. Jesus is the sacrificial lamb. So then why call the bread his body (aside from making it easier for communion preparers)? There is a lot of symbolism going on here: unleavened bread was a mark of Jewish obedience, but it also reminded of the miraculous manna God provided Israel in the wilderness, a mark of God’s nourishing faithfulness). Jesus embodies both human obedience and God’s faithfulness, as well as his being the bread of life.
The same with the wine as his blood. Sacrificial practice dictated that flesh and blood be separated because blood was sacred and the source of life. Blood belonged to God alone. Kosher practice dictates still that blood be eliminated from all foods–it can never be touched or eaten. How revolting then, that Jesus would raise the cup as “the blood of the covenant” and have his disciples drink it. This was as offensive as it gets—a radically new covenant that goes beyond accusation and grace to a whole new existence. Jesus saves and forgives by shedding his blood. And then he gives new life by transfusing his blood. New life, Christ’s life in us, makes possible our forgiveness as well as our own faithful obedience. Satan may have entered Judas, but we drink in Jesus.
Paul calls it a mystery: “Christ in you, the hope of glory”―a glory Jesus alludes to here in our passage when he says: “Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” By calling the wine “the fruit of the vine,” Jesus acknowledged that its contents were not literally his blood, much to the relief of the devoutly Jewish disciples and Baptists ever since. But by also announcing he would not drink again, Jesus indicated that his death was literal, and coming soon. Yet for those making the connections, the hope of glory was evident. The offending cup of death and indictment ferments into the redeemed wine of gladness and grace―a new covenant in Christ’s blood shed for you. Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim Christ’s death and this hope, until the Son of Man comes again.