Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.

Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.

Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University

Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.

John 13:1-17, 31b-35
In interesting ways, tonight’s Maundy Thursday meal is similar to the Passover meal that Moses directed the Israelites to observe so that they would remain connected with their escape from Egypt. Having sacrificed an unblemished lamb, each family “shall smear the blood on the doorposts and lintels of their houses and eat the flesh that same night….It is a passover offering to the Lord….This day shall be to you one of remembrance”. From that time forward, the passover meal was to be observed each year as long as the nation existed. On that first passover, the meal was eaten hurriedly by people who were beginning their journey to freedom. Later, when they were in possession of their own land, the meal would be eaten more leisurely and with more ceremony. But it would still be consumed with unleavened bread and bitter herbs in remembrance of the flight from Egyptian bondage.
Tonight we will say Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us – therefore let us keep the feast – and remember that the long awaited Messiah’s deliverance is greater by far than emancipation from any other slavery. The chains that bound us were our sins and the ultimate fate that awaited us was death. But that doesn’t happen. Christ our passover is sacrificed for us and we are set free from both sin and death. So following the pattern that Jesus instituted with his disciples before his passion and death, we celebrate with a different meal the freedom that our Lord’s sacrifice won for us.
In John’s gospel there is no mention of how Jesus took bread and broke it, and then identified it with his about-to-be broken body. Neither is there any mention of how, at the end of the meal, he identified the wine in the cup of blessing with his blood. It’s in the three Synoptic Gospels and the First Epistle to the Corinthians that we have an account of the institution of the Holy Eucharist in which Jesus takes bread, breaks it and gives it to the Apostles, and says: “This is my body which is given for you”. The Gospel of John does not include this event. Instead, in his ac-count, Jesus prepares the disciples for his departure by washing the Apostles’ feet, giving them the new commandment ‘to love one another as I have loved you’, giving a detailed farewell dis-course, and finally calling the Apostles who follow his teachings ‘friends and not servants’. On the other hand, none of the other gospels mention that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. So have you ever wondered, as I have, whether tonight’s account of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet means to suggest that this action is somehow related to the Last Supper? If it does, what could footwashing possibly have to do with Holy Communion?
In the time of Jesus, having others to assist you with your personal needs was an indication of your wealth and standing in the community. It showed that you were rich enough to hire servants or slaves to handle the necessary things of life – like bathing or grooming or disposing of your personal waste. In those days, however, even if one were unable to have slaves or servants, guests were shown respect and welcome by washing their feet, thereby simultaneously removing the dust of travel and offering a sign of hospitality. So now, in John’s gospel – and to the apparent embarrassment of his disciples – Jesus turns that practice on its ear. According to John, Jesus knew that his union with the Father – from whom he had come and to whom he was to return – meant that all things had been entrusted to him. (Jn. 13:3) So now, in contemplation of his imminent separation from his followers and his deep and intense love for them – and among all of the possible ways to act this out – Jesus surprisingly takes a towel and a basin of water and per-forms for his followers a task commonly done by a servant or a slave.
It’s common knowledge that the four gospels do not always report the same events, and that when they do the details are not always the same. As for Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, all four of them include accounts that are different Mark, the oldest gospel, reports that while they were at table Jesus says that one of the disciples eating with him will betray him. But he does not identify the disciple. In Luke’s account, Jesus says something very similar but again the deserter is not identified. But in Matthew Judas asks Jesus plainly, “Is it I, Master?” – and Jesus replies “You have said so”. John’s account of the Last Supper is very brief and at the be-ginning of a long section of John’s gospel – 4 chapters, in fact, (13:41-16:33) in which he asks the Father to watch over his disciples and keep them united after his death. He says simply, “The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him” – and then he writes at some length about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet before giving them a new commandment to love each other as he had love them. Mandatum novum is Latin for ‘a new commandment’ that’s how Maundy Thursday gets its name.
But while Jesus is washing his disciples’ feet, giving them a new commandment to love each other, his long farewell address, and the high priestly prayer that we all might be one as he and the Father are one, an interesting question occurs. So where is Judas while all this is happening? Have you ever thought about that? The answer is that Judas was right there – sitting at table with the other disciples when Jesus identified him as the one who would betray him and turn him over to his enemies? In fact, nothing in John’s account suggests that he had not been there all the time. There is no mistaking who the betrayer is; John has reported starkly that Judas’ heart was already defiled and that he would betray Jesus. But there he is – reclining at the table right along-side the others – dipping his bread in the same bowl with Jesus. In Matthew, this is the place where Jesus takes the bread, breaks it, and says “take and eat, this is my body” – then he takes the cup, gives thanks, and says “all of you drink this; it is my blood of the new covenant poured out for many for the remission of sins”.
So what I find interest in this account is that there is nothing in the texts to indicate that Judas was absent when all this was happening – or that he had left the room or been sent away – nothing to indicate he had been expelled from the group. In fact, there is nothing to suggest that Jesus asked him to leave or had him thrown out on his ear. So a really interesting point here is that there was a place for Judas at the table – that, betrayer that he was, he was served bread and wine just like the others. There was still a place for him in Jesus’ heart. Later in ch. 13, just after Jesus has dipped a piece of bread in the dish and given it to him, he tells Judas to “do quickly what you have to do” – and Judas immediately leaves. But none of the other disciples had the remotest clue what this meant. And you know the rest of the story – Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, Jesus was taken into custody, and a remorseful Judas committed suicide.
There is plenty here to raise a question about Judas’ future. He had betrayed Jesus to his enemies and to a fiendish death – he had ruptured the community of disciples – and he had com-pounded those despicable acts by hanging himself. Scholars have attempted to account for his role in the passion narrative in a number of ways. Some point out that he may have been a Zealot and was trying to force Jesus’ hand by showing his divine power nu using military force to over-throw the hated Roman governors. Less credibly, others have noted that while all the other disciples were from Galilee, he was the only Judean among them – and that he resented his fellow disciples, became a malcontent of some sort, and did this dirty deed just to assert his individuality. Some have even suggested that since he was the group’s treasurer, he may have had an obsession with money. But most NT scholars simply acknowledge what John says – that he was too weak to overcome the power of Satan – just didn’t have the moral backbone to say ‘no’ – and in addition that he was the agent by which OT messianic prophesies get fulfilled.
It’s true that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the four gospels of the NT – but a new gospel has been unveiled that tells a different story about Judas Iscariot. To most Christians, Judas is seen as a traitor, the disciple who betrayed Jesus to the Romans for 30 pieces of silver. But a newly restored papyrus document dating to the 2nd century AD portrays a very different man. Here Judas is shown to be Jesus’ best friend – and most important, Jesus himself asks him to dis-close his divine identity and betray him in order to fulfill messianic prophecy and liberate his soul to ascend to heaven. In the Gospel of Judas, Judas is asked to make the ultimate sacrifice – and that sacrifice is to sacrifice the life of Jesus in order that Jesus may attain eternity and immortality. Of course, we don’t accept that this is Judas’ own account. All we know is that a writer in the 2nd century told this story about an encounter between Judas Iscariot and Jesus that occurred some time after the Resurrection. In that story, Judas is Jesus’ best friend – and the one who enables Jesus to fulfill his mission and die. But it’s quite explicit that when Jesus asks Judas to make the ultimate sacrifice – that sacrifice includes Judas himself. So Judas sacrifices Jesus so that Jesus can fulfill his mission on Earth – and in the bargain he sacrifices himself.
I don’t think psychoanalysis is useful here. The mind of Judas will always be a mystery to us. We can imagine and we can guess but we cannot say with any confidence why Judas betrayed Jesus. What we can do is think seriously about whether – given what the gospels say about him – there is room in the Kingdom of God for a traitor, a thief, a suicide, an unreconciled sinner. The easy and careless answer is ‘no’ – there’s no place in the Kingdom of God for nasty, mean, people like that – and thank God we’re not among them! But of course we are – and Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, is a prime time to acknowledge that. I suspect that if the thief on the cross next to Jesus can be assured that he will join Jesus in paradise, there is strong intimation that the Kingdom of God is big enough and welcoming enough to make room for the most wretched and pitiful among us. That will include Judas – and thank God, it will also include us.
Now Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us; let us keep the feast.