The Last Supper (Maundy Thursday)

08 April 2004 | Faith & Society

THE DIVINE PUZZLE AND THE LAST SUPPER

 

All four gospels make the betrayal of Jesus by one of the twelve disciples an integral part of his arrest and crucifixion. They link this betrayal to the last supper, remembered by Christians on the Thursday before Easter (and in every service of holy communion). Jesus says goodbye to his disciples, breaking bread, sharing wine and asking them to ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ (Luke 22: 19-20). What is betrayal doing here, so close to the heart of Christianity?

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The betrayal of Jesus by Judas is a puzzle – a puzzle around the questions what, why and what if.

What did Judas betray? What was worth thirty pieces of silver to the priests of the temple? Was it identifying to the authorities who Jesus was, as Luke suggests when Judas picks out Jesus for the arresting party with a kiss (Luke 22: 48)? But only a few days before the crowds had recognised and greeted Jesus like a football star. In John’s gospel Jesus steps forward himself as the arresters approach and says, ‘I am he’ (John 18: 6).

Did Judas reveal to the priests where Jesus would be?  But Jesus would have been easy to find and to arrest. The garden of Gethsemane was a place where he ‘often met … with his disciples’ (John 18: 2). Jesus himself says, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me’ (Matthew 26: 55).

What would have been worth money would have been trial testimony from Judas as to what Jesus had said. The trial nearly collapsed for lack of evidence (Mark 14: 56). If Judas had been prepared to testify and agree with another witness as to what Jesus was teaching, that could easily have been worth money – say sixty pieces of silver, half in advance. But it does not happen. Jesus is convicted on words out of his own mouth during the trial.

It’s the start of a puzzle – but only the start. Whatever Judas did betray, why did he do it? As commonly taught, Judas’ motive was money (Matthew 26: 14). Doubtless some among the disciples had been money-motivated earlier in their lives, as some among any group of people might be. But after two years of travelling, baptising, preaching and healing with this essentially penniless prophet, not relying on money taken with them but sleeping overnight wherever they were given space on the floor, how likely is it that any of them would have been motivated by money now? Indeed, Judas returns the money before hanging himself (Matthew 27: 5).

Then, whatever Judas betrayed and for whatever reason he betrayed it, what if he had changed his mind? What if Judas had had an attack of conscience over supper? Suppose he had decided - just a few hours earlier than in fact he did - to give the thirty pieces of silver back to the priests. Visualise the scene. Jesus says goodbye to his disciples over bread and wine and leads them out across the Kidron valley to Gethsemane. He prays intently while they keep falling asleep, but the authorities do not come. What does he say in the morning?  ‘Anyone know where we can get some breakfast? And by the way, we’ve got a bit of a theological problem about the salvation of the human race.’

The betrayal by Judas handed down to us is like an arrangement of chess pieces two thousand years old which does not make sense. It’s hard to see how the pieces got to the positions in which we find them, if they followed the rules of chess (meaning here, the rules of human behaviour). It’s tempting to decide that the puzzle has no meaning: that pieces have been stolen or added by passers-by, or that the board has been disturbed by centuries of over-zealous cleaners. There is no answer now: it’s just life. How unlikely that any of us today would encounter a divine puzzle!  

But if we did happen to take the puzzle seriously, we might pause on the use of the word betrayal. So Jesus characterises the act – ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me’ (Mark 14: 18). Used widely the word can mean any serious breach of duty and trust. Jesus could have said of Peter, ‘He betrayed me, he lied and he was not there for me when I needed him.’ But denial or desertion are the words used instead, for what Peter says does not reveal something which is true, but asserts something which is false (‘I do not know this man’).

True betrayals imply not only that trust is broken but that in the wreckage something true is exposed  – for example a hiding place, a confidence or an emotion (‘his nervousness betrayed him’). Only people who have secrets can be betrayed in this narrower sense. The secret might be a ‘good’ secret, one which a moral person would not want to expose, such as the Frank family’s wartime hiding place from the Nazis, but still there has to be a secret. So if Jesus was betrayed in this narrower sense, what was his secret, and what does it have to do with the last supper?

Here is a telling of the Judas story. It’s a fantasy. No-one can say whether it is true or not. But we can say whether it is a solution to the puzzle.

All the disciples whom Jesus had chosen were disciples in good faith. They followed him, they tried to understand him and sometimes they challenged his teaching.

During their journeys with Jesus they had seen visions and miracles. On a number of these occasions Jesus had told the disciples not to tell anyone about these ‘signs’. On other occasions he had taught openly – especially about ethics – to hundreds of listeners. Over time the disciples, and then some of the people, started to think that Jesus might be the person promised in the Old Testament who would save the Jewish people. But it was far from clear what that would mean, even if it was true. Whenever the religious authorities tried to pin down Jesus about his authority or his role, he was renowned for his ability to subvert the question.

Inevitably one of the disciples was cleverer than the others; cleverer, and perhaps more disciplined. And if other disciples were prone to failings such as vanity and impetuosity, the weakness of this one was pride.

In the final days, Jesus prayed increasingly intensely, almost feverishly, well into the night. In doing so sometimes Jesus spoke aloud. Most of the disciples enjoyed their drink and were asleep. But to this particular disciple it was obvious that something was happening. The disciple tried to keep awake and sometimes he succeeded, keeping still for long night-time hours so as not to distract Jesus. After all, keeping awake was faithful discipline of the kind which Jesus had repeatedly urged - ‘Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour’ (Matthew 25: 13). It was hard, but the disciple felt sure that his efforts would bring a spiritual reward.

And so this disciple heard, or perhaps put together in his mind, that Jesus was grappling in prayer with a new stage of understanding of his relationship with God; that he was one with God in a unique way; one might even say that he was God. But was this madness speaking?

What a question to consider! But right and appropriate (thought this disciple) that God should have chosen the burden of thinking about it to rest on his shoulders, rather than those of colleagues who were vain, ill-disciplined or (no need to name names) a bit thick. So the disciple did not discuss this question with them.

This disciple did not lack vision or faith. If, unthinkable though it seemed, this man with whom they had been travelling was God, then something of this importance needed to be revealed without delay – for the good of all the people. On some nights the thought occurred to him, might not the disciple whose faith and ability had proved equal to discerning these great matters be given even greater responsibilities after the revelation – perhaps as head of a new church? And, which was a consoling thought to a clever person whose faith covered 92 per cent but not 100 per cent of the matter in question, if Jesus was not God but afflicted by growing delusions, without question it was any righteous person’s duty to bring this nonsense to a rapid halt. A trial, where the question could be put to Jesus directly on oath, would resolve the matter elegantly.

The discussion with the priests was straightforward. Knowing that Jesus would assert his divinity if challenged on oath was easily worth thirty pieces of silver. It assured them that the trial would result in a conviction for blasphemy even if the witness evidence failed.

The last supper was both a goodbye and a hello. Jesus was with the disciples not only as someone familiar, but also as someone becoming new: someone more conscious than ever before of the divine plane and the human plane intersecting around him. At the divine level he knew that he would see his disciples again and be with them forever, but at the human level he wanted to leave something by which they could remember him. This ‘something’ was also a hello as much as a goodbye - a way to touch and be touched by those believers who would come after. So Jesus broke bread, poured wine and with a few words shared them.

If the disciple’s cleverness had managed to turn into wisdom, Jesus would have led his disciples out to pray and then taken them to the house of the high priest, to say what it had now come upon him to say. But the almost luminous quality of the meal only increased the disciple’s excitement that something glorious would happen that night, and the cleverness of his plan would be at the heart of it. Jesus even said to him, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do’ (John 13: 27). Provided now he was quick, history would record that he was the disciple who had had vision, the one who had kept awake, the one who had been brave: the one who had unveiled the greatest revelation of God in human existence.

The clever disciple anticipated the revelation of God in his power and glory, or perhaps Jesus being revealed as human and deluded. He waited until the priests had posed the critical question. The resulting situation shattered his world: God revealed, but without power and glory. Judas did not wait for the crucifixion.

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Lord Jesus Christ

You hear our hearts before they beat.

In your hands are our thoughts before we wake

and our desires after dark.

Still you choose to stand beside us

Never tiring from finding what is good

or from accepting the pain.

With nothing left for us to say, just ‘yes’

Help us to say it.

 

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