Andrea del Castagno, Last Supper (detail), 1447
The Revd Dr Fergus King
A few years ago, there was a craze for “What Would Jesus Do?” answers to difficult questions – and a shedload of accompanying merchandise. However, often, “What DID Jesus do?” can offer more confronting questions.
If we take it that the gospels give us a picture of what Jesus did, which is consonant with his life and ministry, we find that it is often surprising and can give more uncomfortable answers that what he would or might do.
Let’s think of the Last Supper. Jesus already knows that Judas is in the throes of handing him over to hostile powers. That need not mean that Jesus is caught up in some inexorable plot in which he dies. That is an all too human construct in which blame for his death might be shifted onto God: God needs Jesus to die. God does NOT. It is humanity which puts the vulnerable God-man onto the Cross. All it means is that Jesus is astute and aware of what is going on. He knows his people too well.
Nevertheless, at the Last Supper, Judas shares a table with Jesus and the other disciples. This is implicit in all the accounts, unless we posit Judas sitting in the corner, saying, “No, I am full”. In John’s Gospel, Judas’ eating is specifically pointed out – as is the realisation that Jesus knows what is about to happen (John 13:21-28).
Now this is highly unusual. Meals are associated with commensality, with the participants having much in common, being in a social fellowship with shared values and purposes. To have someone sharing at table who is actually subverting all that is highly unusual.
But that is what is happening here: Jesus feeds Judas, fully aware of the plan which he has already hatched. And, if, as many would suggest, this Last Supper anticipates the Eucharist, and the forgiveness of sins, and table-fellowship with God, it suggests that Jesus is forgiving Judas even as he does what he does.
Judas will not come to a sticky end because he is ultimately rejected by God, but because he does not seek forgiveness (as Peter does and as John recognises in the three questions [John 21: 15-17], which cancel out the three denials [John 18:12-27]), but because he wallows in his own remorse, and cuts himself off from the offer of forgiveness which he has already received (at the Supper).
And what of us? Well, none of us gets through this life without at some point, doing a Judas – of letting Jesus down, of (effectively) putting him on the Cross. But none of us needs to cut ourselves off from God by thinking that forgiveness is beyond us and, like Judas, become a victim of our own remorse.
Here’s the deal. Jesus already knows who we are, and how we are likely to let him down, but he still loves us and feeds us, in spite of ourselves. He will never turn his back on us – he looks us full in the face, knowing how we let him down – and always is ready to forgive.
That is “What did Jesus do?” manifest in his dealings with Judas. The question know becomes: “How do I respond to that gift of love?” Like Judas, or like Peter?