By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
My first experience leading a Maundy Thursday service came back in 1972. I was student pastor of a small church in North Texas. I was clueless. So, you can imagine my delight when I attended the weekly chapel service at seminary in mid-March and heard what I thought was the greatest devotional message on the Last Supper ever given.
I forget the professor who was preaching at the time, but I’ll never forget what he said. He read the text of the Last Supper from one of the synoptic gospels – I think it was Matthew – and pointed out how Jesus had said, “One of you will betray me.” The disciples stirred anxiously and asked, “Is it I, Lord?” And Jesus said,
“He who dipped his hand with me in the dish, the same will betray me. The Son of Man goes, even as it is written of him, but woe to that man through whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would be better for that man if he had not been born.”
Judas, who betrayed him, answered, “It isn’t me, is it, Rabbi?”
(Jesus) said to him, “You said it.” (Matthew 26:23-25)
Jesus pointed out how, at this very moment, Judas sat at table with Jesus and the other disciples clearly identified as the one who would betray Jesus and hand him over to the authorities. In other words, there was no mistaking who the culprit was. He was sitting right there dipping his hand in the bowl with Jesus.
Then he went on to read the next verse, where Matthew says,
As they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks for it, and broke it. He gave to the disciples, and said,“Take, eat; this is my body.” He took the cup, gave thanks, and gave to them, saying, “All of you drink it, for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28).
He gave us a moment to let the drama sink in, and then he asked, “So, where was Judas?” And the answer is, according to Matthew (and Mark and Luke, for that matter), he was sitting right there, where he’d been all along. There’s nothing in the text to indicate that he left the room. There’s certainly nothing to suggest that Jesus asked him to leave or had him thrown out on his ear.
And this is the gospel message I heard that day: There’s a place at the table for Judas. Betrayer that he was, there was a place in Jesus’ heart for him. Jesus served Judas the bread and the wine, just as he served the others. I could hardly wait to get back to my own church and tell them the Good News!
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Well, I held on to that thought for several years. Then I took a group to Eureka Springs to see the Passion Play. It was everything we had hoped for, but it contained a surprise I hadn’t counted on. When the cast reached the part where Jesus and the disciples met in the Upper Room to celebrate the Passover and Jesus announced that one of them would betray him; and when it turned out to be Judas, Jesus dipped a piece of bread into the cup and gave it to Judas and said, “What you do, do quickly.” (John 13:27)
With that, Judas rushed out into the darkness and ran to inform the chief priest and the elders. I wanted to stand up and shout, “No, No! You’ve got it all wrong. Judas gets to eat and drink with the others.”
I went back the next day and read the gospels more carefully. Sure enough, the Synoptics agree, Judas doesn’t leave until the meal is complete. But, according to John, once Judas was exposed, he left the room in a huff.
Ever since then, I’ve been wondering what to do with Judas. Is there room in the kingdom of God for a traitor, a thief, an unrepentant sinner?
Biblical scholars have tried to explain Judas’ role in the passion narrative in a number of ways.
• Some point out that he was a Zealot and may have been trying to force Jesus’ hand; in other words, trying to get him to unleash his divine power and overthrow the Romans.
• Some point out that he was the only Judean among the disciples – the others were all from Galilee – and he may have simply been a malcontent. He had a bad attitude, in other words, and was trying to get even with Jesus and the others.
• Some point out that he was, after all, the treasurer – he held the money bag – and he may have had an obsession with money.
• And some say he was overcome by the power of Satan, in other words, he was weak and didn’t have the wherewithal to resist.
The question remains: What are you going with Judas? How are you going to deal with him and his role in the drama of salvation? Are you going to condemn him, or are you going to cut him some slack?
Don’t answer too quickly, because the truth is, there’s a little of Judas in each of us. None of us lives up to the image of Christ – not completely. None of us is worthy to sit at table with the Lord, not really. Charles Wesley said it best when he penned the words,
Depth of mercy! Can there be
Mercy still reserved for me?
Can my God His wrath forbear,
Me, the chief of sinners, spare?
I my Master have denied,
I afresh have crucified,
Oft profaned His hallowed Name,
Put Him to an open shame.”
What are you going to do with Judas? I, for one, am going to follow Jesus example. That is, I’m going to focus on the first part of the story, how, even though Jesus knew Judas’ heart, he took a wash basin and a towel and got down on his knees and washed Judas’ feet.
It was – and still is today – a powerful symbol of humility and devotion, and it says to me that no matter how you slice it, Jesus loved Judas every bit as much as he loved Peter, James and John and the others, and he gave his life for Judas, as much as you and me.
And this is the Good News I want to hold on to for as long as I live, that there’s a place for the vilest of sinners in the Kingdom of God – that God’s love has the last word, and that Word is a word of forgiveness and grace. Again, to quote Wesley,
“There for me the Savior stands,
Showing forth his nail-scarred hands;
God is love! I know, I feel;
Jesus weeps and loves me still.”
How shall we respond to such a message as this, except to sing with all the saints,
“Now incline me to repent,
Let me now my sins lament,
Now my foul revolt deplore,
Weep, believe, and sin no more.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2007, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.