Maundy Thursday: April 1, 2021
Text: Luke 22:14-30
Fr. Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
1 April 2021
In today’s Gospel reading from Luke, Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper. He is gathered with his disciples to observe the traditional Jewish feast of Passover. They share the ritual meal, which calls to remembrance the exodus story and how the Israelites were saved from the angel of death who passed over their homes during the final plague in Egypt. In the Gospel, Jesus reinterprets and transforms this meal in the light of his coming death. He tells his disciples as he shares bread with them: “This is my body, which is given for you,” and likewise, as he shares the cup: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19-20). Jesus, whose blood will soon be shed on the cross, is now the sacrificial lamb, offered to God for our sins and transgressions.
This is a holy moment, one that we remember and reenact every time we receive Holy Communion. And yet what immediately follows this holy moment is strange and shocking. Jesus says that there is a traitor among them: “But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table” (Luke 22:21). I can only imagine the scene at the table at this point. If I had been there, I would have immediately taken my hand off the table to avoid suspicion. We are told that the disciples are stunned by this revelation, and they start to ask each other who among them could possibly be the traitor.
Of course, we all know the identity of the traitor – Judas Iscariot. He will later betray Jesus to the authorities with a kiss. Why did Judas betray Jesus? As one of the Twelve Disciples, he had been part of the inner circle of Jesus’ followers. And considering all the time that they had spent together, I would imagine that their relationship was not just one of master and disciple; they were close friends. What would lead Judas to betray his teacher, mentor, and friend?
The Gospels present different views on this question. Mark does not give a clear motive. Matthew explains that Judas did it out of greed, getting thirty pieces of silver for his treacherous act. Luke and John suggest that he was possessed by Satan. On the other hand, some scholars attribute a political motive. A radical who wanted Jesus to overthrow the Romans and establish a Jewish kingdom, Judas betrays Jesus for his failure to bring about a revolution.
Or perhaps the reason was more personal, even petty. Did Judas get his feelings hurt by something Jesus said or did to him? Was he nursing a grudge and desire for revenge? Or perhaps Judas was jealous of the other disciples. Not all the disciples had equal standing. For instance, only Peter, James, and John had the privilege of witnessing the Transfiguration of Jesus. And Peter, in particular, figures much more prominently in the Gospel stories than the other disciples. He seems to emerge as a natural leader among them. Judas was not Jesus’ favorite disciple. Was this cause for resentment and eventual betrayal?
Whatever the motive may have been, Judas has earned eternal notoriety as the disciple who betrayed Jesus, joining the likes of Brutus and Benedict Arnold as names that are synonymous with traitor. But, in fact, it could have been any of the other disciples. Although it was Judas who handed Jesus over to the authorities, the other disciples all betrayed Jesus in some way. Peter denied him three times. And when Jesus was arrested, all the disciples fled and abandoned him.
Scripture is filled with examples of betrayal by friends. In Psalm 55, we have these bitter words of hurt and disappointment:
It is not enemies who taunt me--
I could bear that;
it is not adversaries who deal
insolently with me--
I could hide from them.
But it is you, my equal,
my companion, my familiar
with whom I kept pleasant
we walked in the house of God
with the throng (Psalm 55:12-14).
Jesus may well have been thinking these words of the Psalmist when he was betrayed by Judas. During this season of Lent, we have been reading the book of Jeremiah for Morning Prayer, and we find these words from the prophet: “All my close friends are watching me to stumble” (Jeremiah 20:10). For Jeremiah, the explanation for such treacherous thoughts and behavior lies in the human heart. He says:
The heart is devious above all else;
it is perverse--
who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9)
Our hearts are indeed incomprehensible at times, causing us to do things that we later regret. Last Sunday, Fr. Charles pointed out in his Palm Sunday sermon how fickle human beings can be. At one point, the crowds are praising Jesus with palm branches and hosannas, and the next moment they are shouting “crucify him!” And during the Gospel reading, we all joined in to signify our complicity in the betrayal and death of Jesus.
The sad fact of our human nature is that we all have a bit of Judas in us. All of us can probably remember the moments of betrayal in our lives. When have we engaged in gossip and backstabbing? When have we betrayed the confidence of a friend? When have we turned aside from those in need? Likewise, how many times have we been at the receiving end of such betrayal? In Judas, we see our human nature at its worst, the betrayal of those whom we love.
But in Jesus, we have the possibility of transcending our human nature and sharing in his divine nature. This evening, we remember Our Lord’s institution of Holy Eucharist. Soon we will come forward to receive His Body and Blood. We come to the altar as perpetrator and victim. We have betrayed our friends, and have been betrayed by them. We have betrayed our Lord. And so we come to the altar seeking forgiveness for our sins and healing of our wounds. We come to the altar to be cleansed, nourished, and empowered to be faithful disciples of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
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