(a meditation for Maundy Thursday, based on Matthew 26:17-29)
It’s actually a very quiet and disarmingly gentle way to begin what is almost certainly the most distressing story that’s ever been told: “When it was evening,” Matthew writes, “[Jesus] took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.’”
I’m discovering that one of the many benefits of having adult children is that mealtime is not always as chaotic as it once was! Granted, it’s still very busy, especially on holidays and especially when you live in a small parsonage and all three of the kids and their significant others have come to celebrate; oftentimes it’s nothing short of a miracle (and a testament to my wife’s great culinary and preparatory skills) that we even manage to be able to sit down and eat at all! But that said, compared to the days when we were regularly distracted with high chairs, fussy toddlers and projectile peas (!), even the craziest of holiday feasts (and trust me, we’ve seen a few!) seem relatively calm in comparison! I know that someday grandchildren will enter into this mix, and things will again become wonderfully crazy (!), but for now I have to say that I’ve really enjoyed these quiet, leisurely meals with my family.
The best part, however – at least for me – has always been the conversation that happens around the table; honestly, when our kids are around it’s what I look forward to the most! There’s lots of teasing and laughter – a multitude of very bad jokes, most courtesy of yours truly – and a whole lot of reminiscing about beloved people and of days gone by. And sooner or later there’s also lots of discussion and sharing about matters of life and living, hopes and dreams… even a smattering of things relating to politics and religion! And inevitably it goes on and on, long after dessert! The conversation can often be, as they say, “sparkling” and as light as air; other times things can get really deep and intense as we “hash it all out.” But the great thing is that there’s always a lot of love as we share together; along with, I might add, much hope and anticipation for everything that awaits each one of the people sitting around that table as the future unfolds.
I’ve been thinking about those mealtime conversations in relation to that passage from Matthew we just shared, the Passover meal shared by Jesus and his disciples on that fateful night of betrayal and desertion; a meal that as I alluded before sets the stage for the rest of the Passion story that’s to follow. Truthfully, speaking biblically, historically and theologically, there’s a whole lot to consider about this particular text; but I have to be honest with you here. For as long as I can remember, my thoughts about this account of Jesus’ “last supper” have always centered first on, well, atmosphere… what it must have been like for those disciples to be there with Jesus sharing that meal on that night; but most of all, what the mealtime conversation must have been like!
Now, remember this was the Passover meal, so you know that so much of the “feasting” was steeped in generations of cherished tradition; the kind of faith-fueled ritual that continues on even today amongst those of the Jewish faith. So understand that in the midst of the meal, there are no words spoken, no songs sung, no prayers prayed that do not stand for something important. But beyond this, there most certainly had to have been a great deal of casual conversation; and that’s where my fascination lies.
Simply put, I wonder what they all talked about! Did they speak about the day just past? Were they laughing together about some funny thing they’d seen or about something cute said by one of the children that were lingering about? Did they comment on the parables Jesus had shared with the gathered crowds along the streets of Jerusalem (backtrack in Matthew’s gospel and you’ll find that there’s some rich storytelling there!); did they ask Jesus for some clarification on some point or another? Or were they whispering to one another about the look of consternation on the faces of the scribes and Pharisees that always seemed to be there on the periphery, ever and always hanging on to Jesus’ every word, seeking new ways to trip him up? And were they quietly acknowledging some of the gossip they might have heard about a plot to arrest Jesus, and did that have anything to do with what Jesus had been saying about the Son of Man being delivered into the hands of sinners?
In many ways, it was probably more of the same kind of “table talk” they’d engaged in every evening for all these many months they’d been following Jesus… except tonight it was different. Because tonight, right in the middle of dinner, here’s Jesus saying, “One of you will betray me.” And even as the disciples, one by one, are all answering this by saying, “Surely not I, Lord?” Jesus “doubles down,” so to speak, by adding “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me… [and] woe to that one by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would be better for that one not to have been born,” words that certainly catch the attention of Judas, who at that very moment was seeking the proper moment to make his move.
Not your typical mealtime conversation, to be sure; but one that, as it turned out, needed to happen, and one that would serve to lift up for them and for us the infinite importance of what happened next.
Because then Jesus, again “while they were eating,” took a loaf of bread, blessed and broke it, and then gave it to his disciples, saying, “this is my body.” And afterward he took a cup, blessed the fruit of the vine within, and gave this to them, proclaiming that this represented his blood – his blood (!) – “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
And there was more: but as Jesus continued to speak, talking about how this was going to be the last time they’d share wine together until the coming of his Father’s kingdom, I’m sure that the disciples had to have been feeling utter confusion: Could Jesus actually be saying what it sounds like what he’s saying? What does he mean, someone’s going to betray him? Is he accusing us? Surely he knows us better than that! We’d never betray him, even if something does happen!
Of course, something was going to happen, and very soon: something sad and horrible and repulsive and filled with anguish and despair. There was about to be more darkness in the world than humanity had ever experienced and would ever experience again. And as Jesus spoke these words around the table, perhaps now those confused disciples had begun to get some inkling of it; but they couldn’t possibly understand; not yet.
Which is what makes this strange promise Jesus made regarding the bread and wine so important. Because in the memory of this strange meal they’d just shared, perhaps the disciples would begin to understand, if only in a glimmer, what Jesus was about to do for them and for all of humanity and for you and me. Perhaps it was Jesus’ promise in the bread and cup that would give them some scant comfort in the next few desperate hours and the couple of dark days that were to follow; maybe it would be the single thing that reminded them of the eternal truth of Jesus’ words even in those moments that seemed the most hopeless.
Or maybe not… at least for them; truthfully, I suspect that by Friday afternoon the disciples were so scattered so despairing and so without hope, they simply went into hiding and didn’t think about anything at all except the thudding pain of their own grieving hearts. Eventually, later on when everything had changed… well, then they’d remember; but not yet… not now.
For us, however, it’s different. We are also the recipients of Jesus’ promise the people of Jesus’ long ago promise at the table of blessing, and maybe… just maybe, as together we remember that night of betrayal and desertion and as we walk the way of the cross tonight, remembering in shame the many ways that we were there as they crucified our Lord, you and I will find our comfort and peace in the assurance that Jesus himself gave that he would be with us always and ever; bringing forgiveness, grace and saving love, even unto the end of the age.
It seems to me that this is the truly good news of what is a very difficult and painful night; and it ours in Jesus, our Savior.
So let us now come to the table of blessing, and let us feast together; engaging in the good conversation of God’s enduring spirit and infinite love, so that we might then go with him to Gethsemane and beyond.
Thanks be to God.
Amen and Amen.
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry