Talk by Mother Anne-Marie
The Last Supper
Our image of the Last Supper is highly influenced by the pictures we have seen – Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting is probably the most notable influence. In our mind’s eye, the twelve disciples are sitting in a long line on one side of the table with Jesus in the middle. It is what happens in TV drama. If you are watching one of the soaps, the family sit around the table with a gap on one side so that the camera can move in and everyone can be seen in one shot.
Obviously the disciples would not be sitting in one long row. But probably they weren’t sitting either. The Greco/Roman practice of reclining to eat would have been the norm, and as Paula Gooder can tell us from her Greek scholarship the word that we translate into English in the gospels as sitting at the table actually means reclining. So we need to reimagine the scene. The disciples on couches, probably in a circle with a low table in the middle, and their heads towards the table and their feet pointing outwards. It’s quite hard to reimagine it, but sometimes giving yourself a new picture can bring fresh meaning to the text.
But I want to take you one step further in reimagining. The room where they are meeting was, according to Mark’s gospel, a “mega” room – the Greek word is “mega”– large. It is highly unlikely that only Jesus and the twelve were there. For a start who was cooking and serving? They must have been in some sort of boarding house so there may have been cooks and people to serve, or was this task left to the women who the gospels tell us travelled with Jesus and looked after him and the disciples. Paula Gooder says it is unimaginable that the women, who are later to play such a significant role in the story, weren’t there at the Last Supper, even if only in “a waiting on” capacity. Paula Gooder goes on to say that, despite our tradition being that there were just thirteen at the supper, the texts tells us that two disciples went ahead to get things ready and then Jesus arrived with the twelve – so did two get things ready and come back or were there more than twelve? She simply asks us to imagine that there could have been more, that a wider group of disciples were possibly present in the large room, as big gatherings for the Passover feast must have taken place if all those present in Jerusalem managed to eat. And she says it helps us with one conundrum in the text, how Judas managed to slip away without being noticed.
So the gathering might even have been as large as the Passover Supper we had here at St John’s on Saturday, when about forty of us gathered to eat. I can certainly begin to imagine this larger group of people, reclining not sitting, and maybe not all around one table, but several. I get much more sense of hustle and bustle and noise. But I can imagine the hush when Jesus seems to be saying something special about the bread he is breaking as host of the meal, and the cup of wine he is blessing as part of the ritual. This is something more than the usual Passover. And then there is the washing of the feet, which we think came at the point in the meal where hands were washed. Surely then all eyes were on Jesus as he took centre stage not as host of the Passover, but as a servant, a slave even, humbling himself to wash the dirty, dusty feet. This washing of the feet does only occur in John’s gospel, but has become an iconic image of Jesus and a model for what discipleship means.
But one disciple in particular intrigues me. For this disciple is the significance of all this lost, or does he know only too well what is going on? Judas has been demonized by us. Even the gospel texts don’t paint such a bad picture as we tend to have of him. Mark gives no explanation of why he did what he did. Matthew hints he might have had a financial motive, and Luke and John, who paint the most negative picture of Judas, kind of excuse him by saying that Satan entered him. “It wasn’t me, the Devil made me do it.”. Paula Gooder also points out how the English texts make Judas seem worse, because the word we translate as betrayal is the same word in Greek as that also translated in the passion narratives as “hand over”. So the chief priests hand Jesus over to Pilate, and Pilate hands Jesus over to be crucified but Judas betrays – in the reading we heard from Luke – how does it sound if we say “one of you will hand me over”. There are nuances in words. And we are part of a tradition where Judas does take a lot of the blame.
But Paula Gooder asks if Judas’s action were any worse than others? Most of the disciples ran away and Peter denied ever knowing Jesus. And she also questions whether his motive was a bad one – it may well not have been money, but he may just have wanted Jesus to meet with the Jewish leaders and sort things out. Judas’s later remorse would indicate he did not expect Jesus to end up dead. As we are told in Matthew’s gospel, he is so remorseful he hangs himself. Paula Gooder poses a question I had never thought of, which is “If Judas had lived, not committed suicide, would he have been forgiven for his act of handing Jesus over, in the same way that Peter was forgiven for his act of denial? “ I found myself saying “yes he would”, and certainly feeling that for one so remorseful the forgiveness of God would be his beyond the grave. No sin is beyond the love and forgiveness of God.
Most of the disciples failed Jesus in some way. We remember Judas as the one who seems to have failed the most. But is this fair? Christians go on failing, sometimes from the best of motives. But the forgiving love of God is there for all who are sorry.