The Last Supper: Risking the Loss of Friends
(Luke 22:14-27, John 13:1-16, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26)
This week each of the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) have the same focus as does Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. Jesus offers thanks, breaks the bread, passes it to his disciples and tells them the bread represents his body. Similarly, he takes the cup and proclaims it to be the covenant in his blood.
But there are variations. The only Luke and .Paul call the cup a “new” covenant. The story of the argument among the disciples over who is the greatest among them is placed at the Last Supper by Luke.
Then we have the Gospel according to John. His story is an outlier. In John’s account, Jesus does not mention the bread or the wine as his body and blood. John tells that story back in chapter 6 right after Jesus feeds the multitude. “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in me. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day, for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” (John 6:53-55).
Now we could spend a whole sermon on just one of the five stories of the Last Supper. But that is a series for another time. Today we will look at the timing of the Last Supper in relation to the Passover meal, the betrayal, the bread and the wine, and lastly the task of service.
Paul does not give a date for the Last Supper. Matthew, Mark, and Luke place the dinner on the first night of the Passover. The Passover is a meal that celebrates the memory of the exodus from Egypt. The Jews would gather with family and friends over a meal that would tell the story of the Exodus. The meal is called a seder and special food helps to recall the trials of the Israelites. During Jesus’ time one would “eat the Passover.” The Passover was the lamb that had been sacrificed at the Temple. Luke writes that Jesus tells his disciples: “Go and prepare the Passover meal that we may eat it” ( 22:8). The way the Synoptic Gospels tell the story the Lamb sacrificed in the Temple would have been part of the meal.
John recounts the Last Supper differently. He places it on the day prior to the Passover holiday. The meal is not a seder. Thus Jesus would have been crucified on the first day of the Passover— the same day the lamb is sacrificed in the Temple. For John, Jesus is the lamb, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29). The lamb was not originally a sin offering but John connects the two. The original Passover was about moving from slavery to freedom. John’s account moves from sin to mending humanity’s relationship with God, from death to life.
In using Paul’s telling of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper we are confronted with a problem of translation. I always use Paul's words in communion liturgy. I say as did Paul, “on the night when he was betrayed” (1 Corinthians 11:23). While that is an acceptable translation, I have found that there is a better one. The Greek word translated as betrays is paradidomi meaning to “hand over.” A.J. Levine writes “In the rest of Paul’s letters, nowhere does the apostle say anything about Jesus being betrayed. To the contrary, when Paul uses the term paradidomi in relation to the cross, it is always God who ‘hands Jesus over’ or ‘delivers Jesus to death.’ For example, in Romans 8:32, Paul speaks of God who ‘did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up [Greek: paradidomi ] for all of us” (A.J. Levine). Paul doesn’t need a Judas because there was no betrayal.
But that leaves us with a conundrum. All the Gospels tell us that Judas was a guest at the Last Supper and that he betrayed Jesus. Judas becomes more malicious as we move through the gospel stories of the Last Supper. Beginning with Mark and ending with John each paints a more despicable portrait of Judas.
According to Mark’s account Judas starts out as a star disciple: he exorcises, proclaims the good news and heals. However, he changes rapidly after the anointing of Jesus by the woman at the First Supper. Mark tells us: “Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them” (14:10). Mark gives no motive for Judas’ action.
Matthew relates the same timing—following the First Supper. Here Judas has a motive—greed. “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” Judas asks the high priests. Matthew tells us that Judas received 30 pieces of silver. This information does not appear in any of the other Gospels. Matthew, however, repeats it three times. He wants to make sure we know Judas is greedy.
Luke really takes Judas’ flaw to a more evil place. “Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve” (22:3). John’s account ties it all together. “the devil had already put into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him” (13:2) John had previously told us that it was Judas who protested the woman’s anointing of Jesus because “he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it” (12:6). Judas had no concern for the poor in John’s Gospel.
What happens to Judas? Well, he vanishes from Mark’s Gospel after the betrayal. Luke tells us that with the money Judas received from the high priests he bought a field. Then things get gruesome. According to Luke in Acts 1:18 he writes: “falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.” A few short years after that the tale became even more repulsive. A.J. writes: “Papias of Hierapolis, an early Church Father, reports that Judas had become so grotesque that he could no longer see, because his cheeks puffed up over his eyes (the rest of the account is even more outrageous).” The aim of these stories was to warn the people that if they acted like Judas, they would also meet a disgraceful death.