Jesus feeds his betrayer.
As one commentator has observed, in Luke it seems Jesus is always at a meal, on his way to a meal, or coming back from a meal. Simon’s mother-in-law feeds Jesus (4:39), Levi throws a “great banquet” for him (5:29), various Pharisees feed him on three occasions (7:36-50; 11:37-53; 14:1-24), and Zacchaeus hosts him (19:5-7). There’s a good chance Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary involves food (10:38-42). No wonder bread figures prominently in the prayer Jesus teaches his disciples and his teaching concerning prayer (11:1-14).
Food is a big deal in Luke’s parables as well. The neighbor needs bread for his surprise guest (11:5-8). If we include Luke 13:25-30 among Jesus’ parables, there people facing judgment will claim, “We ate and drank with you.” Among the three parables in Luke 15, the father throws a party when his lost son returns — giving us the impression that the shepherd and the woman celebrate with food as well. The rich fool tells himself, to “relax, eat, drink, and be merry” (12:19), while another rich man feasts “sumptuously” every day while poor Lazarus longs from the table droppings (16:19-21).
And Jesus feeds his betrayer.
Experienced preachers are familiar with the sacramental nature of the meals Jesus “hosts.” When Jesus feeds the crowd of five thousand “men” he takes, blesses, breaks, and gives the bread to his disciples, who distribute it among the multitude (9:16). The yet-unrecognized Jesus joins two disciples in Emmaus, where he takes, blesses, breaks, and gives the bread to them. Only then “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him,” later recalling, “how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (24:28-34).
Between these two stories, Jesus takes and blesses the cup, then takes, blesses, breaks, and gives the bread to his disciples and gives the cup to his disciples (22:17-20). This is the sacred meal that reveals Jesus’ identity and nourishes his disciples. Readers know that Judas will betray Jesus (22:1-6).
Only after Jesus has distributed the meal do we learn that Judas is sitting at the table: “But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table” (22:21). Readers now realize that Judas was sitting right there when Jesus pronounced the bread and the cup “for you.” Luke is making a point by means of literary structure: the references to Judas and his activity frame Jesus’ preparation for and ministry of the holy meal.
Leave Judas Alone
Christians have rarely resisted the temptation to grapple with Judas’ psychology. The recent discovery of the Gospel of Judas simply attests that fascination with Judas goes way back. Jesus Christ Superstar and a host of Jesus movies only continue the trend of guessing Judas’ motives. That Matthew (27:3-10) and Acts (1:18-19) provide divergent accounts of his death only enhances our fascination.
We understand the curiosity, as Judas is such an intriguing character. In Luke he follows Jesus, but to this point all we know is that “Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor” stands among the twelve apostles (6:16). Quite a few commentators have assumed that Judas’ odd surname, “Iscariot,” derives from his radical activity among the Sicarii, or revolutionary assassins. More recent commentators tend to avoid that judgment.
May I suggest that preachers leave Judas alone? It does no good to speculate as to Judas’ motives for betraying Jesus. The Gospel itself attributes Judas’ behavior to Satan (22:3). At the same time, the betrayal also serves divine purposes while it clearly involves Judas’ volition consenting to the plot (22:6). It is unhelpful to imagine what Judas is thinking when Jesus says, “woe to the one by whom he [the Son of Man] is betrayed” and the others debate the identity of the betrayer (22:22-23). Let’s leave Judas alone, even as we focus on Judas.
Who’s at the Table?
When we attach specific motives to Judas, we render Judas largely irrelevant to the rest of us. Who among us would imagine herself betraying Jesus? But if we leave Judas at the table, we open another possibility for proclamation.
Jesus feeds his betrayer. In fact, Jesus feeds everybody. This is the case throughout Luke, where Jesus’ critics complain, “Why do you [Jesus’ disciples] eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (5:30) and “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (15:2). Moreover, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner” (19:7). So when Jesus includes Judas in this last, sacramental meal, he is simply extending the same ministry he has continued throughout Luke’s story.
Grace for Judas
Preachers can help congregations grapple with the relationship between grace and judgment. Luke never explains what Jesus means when he pronounces woe upon his betrayer (22:22): is Judas doomed because of God’s judgment or simply because of the path he has chosen? Nevertheless, popular imagination cannot hold grace and judgment together. Jesus Christ does: judgment often bears grace; grace always tempers judgment. Though judged, Judas eats with the other disciples.
On Maundy Thursday we need grace just as much as we do on Reformation Sunday. Some folks who hear our sermons may feel unworthy of inclusion. They may have been told that they need to be pure, “worthy,” in order to come to the table. But Jesus fed Judas. Others among us find themselves passing judgment on their supposed inferiors. But Jesus fed Judas. Jesus fed everybody. Even Judas.