Sunday, October 04, 2009
by Daniel Harrell
The account of the Last Supper is a familiar one. Verse 12 tells us it was the first day of the weeklong Feast of Unleavened Bread, of which Passover was a part. Jesus and his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem where every Jew desired to be for the festival. Thousands of pilgrims from across the known world crammed into the city. Added to the normal enthusiasm surrounding the remembrance of Israel’s divine deliverance from Egyptian slavery was a fervent expectation of future deliverance from current Roman oppression. Into this enthusiastic and expectant throng, Jesus sent a couple of his disciples to locate a man carrying a jar of water. Jesus instructed them to “follow the man and say to the owner of whichever house he enters, ‘The Teacher wants to know where the guest room is, that he may eat the Passover with his disciples.’ Then the owner will show you a large upper room, all furnished and ready. You make preparations for us there.”
I used to read this passage and imagine it to be like that 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.” Against his better judgment, he 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, would have no trouble mysteriously maneuvering 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.
Of course, Jesus was no Jedi. Magic was not his MO. More likely, both the homeowner and the man with the water jar were followers of Jesus and in on a secret plan. Why all the intrigue? Knowing that the Pharisees were out to get him, and that Jerusalem lay in their jurisdiction, and that he wanted to eat the Passover before they got to him, Jesus needed to enter the city undetected. I guess he could have just miraculously popped in as he would do a few days hence. But here Jesus exercises his human side and employs more pedestrian means. Carrying water jars was predominantly woman’s work, so having a man with a water jar signal the disciples would be easy for even them to spot. That the homeowner knows who the “The Teacher” is proves he was clued in. Most importantly, at least from Mark’s perspective, the secrecy darkens the treachery that is about to unfold. None aside from Jesus’ closest friends would know his whereabouts. Betrayal would have to be an inside job. It would be as the Scriptures portended, specifically the Psalm of David we read to open worship: “Even my close friend, whom I trusted, who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.” So went David, so would go the Son of David.
Granted, Jesus isn’t specific as to the Scripture. He actually says in verse 21: “The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him.” Referring to himself as “Son of Man” is often code for the prophecy of Daniel, chapter 7, where “Son of Man” refers to one victoriously arriving on clouds at the end of time. Jesus described himself as doing the same thing in Mark 13. Daniel writes that to 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.” This sounds like Jesus. In Mark, Jesus adds 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.” But not wanting to get too apocalyptic, I’ll lastly mention that Daniel 7 also has the saints of God engaging in a fierce struggle with evil, which actually gets the upper hand for a time. This Last Days struggle between good and evil plays out at the Last Supper. In the gospels of Luke and John, evil takes the sinister shape of Satan who “enters Judas” to induce the betrayal. Nevertheless, Judas remains his own man. To be possessed is not to be coerced. He could have said no, it seems. But because he does not, Jesus bewails Judas as one who should have never been born.
Such ominous woe leaves little wonder as to why the disciples each frantically worried that he might be the traitor. One by one, they sought reassurance. “Surely, not I?” they say. 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 kind of like a pita chip with which you ate food served in large bowls spread on the table. However, I’m thinking at this point each disciple did all he could to avoid Jesus’ bowl so as not to get fingered. Maybe this is why John’s gospel has Jesus handing a piece of bread directly to Judas. Here in Mark, Jesus’ words about sharing bread serve mostly to accentuate the intimate friendship Judas and Jesus shared. They also accentuate a sacred cultural norm. Ancient near-eastern culture dictated that to eat with another was to foreswear ever doing him harm. Ancient covenants and peace treaties were often made over meals. Jesus declares this meal to be a covenant too―the one promised by Jeremiah: a new covenant between God and his people whereby God would transplant his law from stone tablets into their hearts. “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’” Jeremiah reads, “for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD.” The evil Judas perpetrates therefore crosses every imaginable line. It violates the bond of friendship, the bonds of society and the bond of God.
And yet, just as Jesus would extend forgiveness to his executioners as he hung on the cross, so he extends grace to Judas here, even as he accuses him. Mark doesn’t tell us, but it may very well be that the bread that gets dipped as an indictment of betrayal is the same bread that gets offered as Jesus’ own body broken. Grace is fundamentally an indictment. Pardon is only extended to those who need it. To forgive is first to blame. We chafe under the command to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors, begrudging Jesus for making us be doormats. We do so because we forget that to forgive is not to act as if the wrong never happened. Forgiveness fully acknowledges the wrong―but then refuses to press charges. Does this mean that Judas is actually absolved rather than doomed? No. Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. The waiting father forgives his prodigal son, but the parable’s not complete until the son returns to his father’s embrace. This is something that Judas never does.
In Matthew’s gospel, Judas is stricken with remorse. But rather than turn to Jesus, Judas returns to the priests who recruited him and tries to return their money. They haughtily refuse it. Judas throws the coins on the floor and then goes out and hangs himself. He dies before Jesus does. For many, this remains very disturbing. If Judas (as one of the Twelve) could so willingly betray Jesus for money, what chance do I have to be faithful? An August New Yorker article by Joan Acocella traces attempts made throughout history to rethink Judas. “Did Judas deserve his fate?” she asks. “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, the Church says. 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.”
Because the church’s verdict only exacerbates the dissonance we feel, efforts at rehabilitating Judas have proved necessary, if only to relieve our anxiety. Recent efforts have been fed mostly by an ancient text entitled “The Gospel of Judas.” Hailing from the late second-century (at best), the Gospel of Judas is a Gnostic gospel about Judas that portrays him as Jesus’ favorite disciple, the only one who really understood him. It also portrays Jesus as wholly divine and not human, the good news being that Judas couldn’t have had him killed anyway. As fitting to Gnosticism (where anything physical is considered perverse), Judas actually does Jesus a favor by helping him get out of his bodily imprisonment. But then speaking of Star Wars, Jesus goes on to castigate the physical earth which was brought into being by a violent demiurge, Nebro, and his stupid assistant, Saklas. Any relief gives way to ridiculousness.
On the other hand, there are those who have dealt with Judas hitting too close to home by making him into something out of a monster movie, so hideously disfigured and disgusting that no human being could ever imitate him if he tried. Regrettably, such typecasting proved conveniently advantageous to early Christians seeking to cozy up to Roman political power. Knowing that access to such power meant having to dissociate from their rebellious Jewish roots, these early Christians did so by smearing all Jews as “sons of Judas.” Even the 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 achieved its climax in the Holocaust. Ironically, postwar recoil from the horrors of the Holocaust actually improved Judas’ reputation. Portrayals of him as a political operative, betraying Jesus in order to force the launch of a revolution against evil Roman oppression, appear in films like Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.”
Acocella concludes that “the original, Biblical Judas may have had a bad influence on our politics [and our movies], nevertheless he does represent something true about our lives. Many of us, on many occasions, are not going to love one another.” I’d suggest that it’s worse than that. There is a human evil, a Satanic evil, that Judas represents. And it’s an evil that makes its way into us all. We are all complicit in Judas’ betrayal―in the trust we so often violate, in the relationship we wrongly ruin, in the conflicts we gladly nurture, in the deception and disloyalty and lies we relish. Scripture is clear that Jesus dies because of this sin, because of the perfidy we each commit individually and collectively.
In verse 24, Jesus calls the Passover wine “my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” Old Testament covenant-making involved sacrificing an animal to seal the agreement, symbolizing the extent to which a covenant-maker would go if ever he became a covenant-breaker. With his own death as sacrifice, Jesus seals the deal. But with his blood as poured out for many, Jesus also seals the breaches our treachery tears open. He forgives our treason.
And yet because our evil by nature so vigorously resists any blame, we regard God’s offer of forgiveness as offensive. Jesus knows as much, which is why, citing Zechariah, he announces to his disciples in verse 27: “You will all fall away.” Or as the King James puts it, “all ye shall be offended.” The Greek word is scandalized, and in the passive voice means: “to have your moral sensitivities insulted.” How can forgiveness ever be so insulting? My favorite illustration is that of a blind date. Imagine you’ve been set up. You’re then met at the restaurant by this person whom you’ve never set eyes on before in your life. She walks over and the first words out of her mouth are not “nice to meet you,” but, “I forgive you.” To forgive is to blame. 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 really bad person—“grievously sinful and perniciously wicked, provoking most justly God’s wrath and indignation”—just like the old communion prayers confess.
The apostle Paul himself admitted that to preach Christ crucified was “an offense to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” As for the disciples, gathered around that last Passover meal, they had to think it odd enough to hear Jesus call the unleavened bread his body broken. But then to be asked to eat it? What foolishness was that? No wonder so many early 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 Lamb, as was the case with most sacrifices, was not so much burned as it was cooked. The lamb that saves, also nourishes. (Fortunately for communion preparers ever since, Jesus did not take a lamb shank and say “this is my body.”) Bread made the symbolic point: Jesus would be the final Passover Sacrifice. That Jesus tied his death to Passover rather than to, say, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, made the further point that his sacrifice not only nourished and saved, but kept safe too. In Exodus, as God readied to unleash his wrath against Egyptian cruelty―indeed against all human wickedness―the Israelites were instructed to smear lamb’s blood on their doorposts as a safeguard against God’s avenging angel. Likewise, Christ’s blood safeguards God’s people from the wrath to come, when all injustice and oppression and tyranny will be dealt with for good.
Seen this way, you’d expect Jesus to instruct that the disciples smear his blood on their foreheads or something. But instead Jesus tells them to drink it. This is where Jewish offense comes in. If Torah prohibits anything it prohibits consuming (or even touching) blood. The reason is found in Leviticus; namely, that “blood is life” and all life ultimately belongs to God, the source of all life. The blood drained from sacrificial animals (and never eaten) was splattered against the sides of the altar in recognition of this reality. If the paycheck for sin is death, then the payback to God is blood for the life that was lost. It is only with blood that lost life can be redeemed. This sacrificial separation of blood from the body explains the language of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus speaks of “my body” and “my blood,” as opposed to, say, “my flesh and bones” or my “heart and soul.” But it still doesn’t explain why Jesus would say drink my blood. To drink an animal’s blood would be scandalous enough. To drink the blood of a person—even metaphorically speaking—is the purview of cannibals and vampires. It insults anybody’s moral sensitivities.
Jesus clearly does something radically new here. Rather than thinking of the blood of the lamb only in terms of taking away sin, Jesus seems to add the idea of taking on life; specifically taking on his life. Instead of blood as life for life, Jesus introduces his blood as life in life. Having saved us from death by shedding his blood, he gives us new life by our drinking his blood. “Since we have now been justified by Christ’s blood,” Paul writes, “how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” Guarded by Christ’s blood and its guarantee of ultimate justice, we are freed to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors; forgiving them just as Jesus forgave us. We can do this because of Christ’s life in us. Satan entered Judas, but we drink in Jesus.
Paul calls it a mystery: “Christ in you, the hope of glory”―a glory Jesus alludes to in verse 25: “I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” By calling the cup “the fruit of the vine,” Jesus acknowledges that its contents are not literally his blood, much to the relief of the devoutly Jewish disciples. But by also announcing he would not drink again, Jesus indicated that his death was literal, and coming soon. However for those who made the connection between death and sacrifice, between blood and redemption, between death and resurrection, the hope of glory was evident. The offending cup of death and indictment ferments into the redeemed wine of gladness and victory―a new covenant in his blood shed for you. The same chapter in Jeremiah that promised the new covenant, paints a portrait of glory: “The Lord’s redeemed will come and sing for joy on the heights of Zion; their faces radiant over the lavish bounty of the LORD—the abundant grain, the new wine and the fresh olive oil, flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. They will be like a well-watered garden, and all their sorrows will be gone. … I will be their God, and they will be my people. … I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim Christ’s death and this hope, until the Son of Man comes again.