Warning: betrayal ahead

Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, c. 1495-1498

Gathered together in a borrowed room to celebrate a ritual Passover meal, the disciples reclined at table with Jesus. It had been a momentous week. In their minds, they could still hear the Hosannas of the pilgrims who called out to Jesus as king to save them from Rome; they could see Jesus driving the merchants and money-changers out of temple with righteous zeal. They remembered how one challenger after another sought to best Jesus in public debate, only to slink away in defeat. This Jesus — their master and friend, the healer and preacher, the one who calmed seas and raised the dead — this was the One, the Messiah. Surely victory was at hand.

But at some point during the meal, Jesus stopped the disciples mid-chew by somberly predicting that one of them would betray him.

He had tried numerous times to tell them what awaited in Jerusalem. He would suffer. He would die. He would rise again. The first time he told them, Peter told him to stop talking nonsense. The second time, the disciples were afraid to ask him to explain himself — so instead they argued among themselves about which of them had more followers on social media.

The third time, Jesus got even more graphic with his description: he would be mocked, spit upon, flogged, and killed. And of course, rise again. The response? It may not have been the same day, but the next thing Mark tells us is that the Sons of Thunder came asking for special places in the kingdom.

The Last Supper, in other words, was not the first time Jesus had spoken of betrayal. But the disciples repeatedly demonstrated that they didn’t understand a word of what he was saying — perhaps refused to understand. It wasn’t supposed to be on the program. It wasn’t part of the leave-everything-to-follow-the-miracle-man plan.

One might say that their failure of imagination, their inability to see beyond their own hopes and dreams, was their first betrayal.

Finally, when Jesus spoke again of betrayal at supper, the words sank in. Who would possibly do such a thing? they wondered. Each asked anxiously, “Surely, it’s not me, is it?” It’s clear by the question that they still didn’t understand; they thought Jesus meant that one of them would do something abysmally stupid without meaning to, like gossiping to the wrong person.

In Matthew, Jesus responds, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me” (26:22, NRSV). In Luke, he says, “the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table” (22:21). At this point, I imagine the disciples all yanked their hands back in alarm. But this was not a cryptic way of saying, “It’s Judas!” All of them had dipped into the bowl; all of them had their hands on the table. It was a way of lamenting, “I will be betrayed by someone who is as close to me as a brother.”

Judas would not be found out until later, in Gethsemane. But no one was off the hook. Tonight, Jesus declared, all of you are going to run away; when trouble strikes, you’re going to scatter like scared sheep. And poor Peter: his specific and personal betrayal was announced for all to hear. Despite his loyal, headstrong protest that he would stick with Jesus to the bitter end — despite all their protests! — Jesus insisted that Peter would deny even knowing him, not once, but three times.

There’s an old saying: “Forewarned is forearmed.” One might have hoped that having heard these dire predictions from Jesus, the disciples would have made a firmer commitment to stand with their master.

But we know how that turned out.

Even Peter seems to have pushed Jesus’ words out of his mind. His only intention was to stay close, trying to remain inconspicuous in the high priest’s courtyard. Didn’t his first denial of Jesus remind him of what Jesus said? The second? Apparently not. Matthew suggests that Peter didn’t remember until he heard the rooster crow (26:75); Luke adds the poignant detail that Jesus turned and locked eyes with Peter first (22:61). Overcome with sudden shame and remorse, Peter ran out of the courtyard and wept.

What about us?

We don’t necessarily intend to betray Jesus. Not all of our sin is premeditated. But even for those closest to the master, being forewarned didn’t change the outcome. There are different ways we might understand this, including the very real human tendency to resort to denial when threatened.

But the New Testament also teaches that now, with the help of the Spirit of Jesus within us, we can stay alert to sin. The one who warned us of his betrayal returned to life. He offers us that newness now, in the face of our own betrayals.

That seems an appropriate thing to remember in this season, as we meditate on the suffering of Jesus with an eye toward resurrection.