Jerusalem is in an uproar. That teacher from Galilee has ridden into the city on a donkey to shouts of “Hosanna,” the town has gone Jesus crazy. Passover celebrations are in full swing and Jesus and his disciples, naturally, are planning to celebrate this significant Jewish holiday together. Like the best of holiday traditions, it involves gathering around the table, great food, great wine, and the company of your closest friends. But Matthew sets the ominous tone of the story right away:
Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
So Matthew’s reader knows before the story goes any further that Judas is the one to watch out for. Betrayal is coming. All eyes are on Judas as we continue into the evening’s festivities.
On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal. When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?” He answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.”
And at this point we readers want to shout out, “It’s Judas, it’s Judas! His hand is in the bowl, see, right there! Woe to you, Judas! Woe to you!” It reminds me a bit of the dream sequence in the movie The Princess Bride. Buttercup has been reunited with her true love, Westley, who she thought dead at the hands of the Dread Pirate Roberts. To save him when they are captured, she gives him up and agrees to go with the Prince to whom she is engaged (though he plans to kill her to start a war with his rival Kingdom). Buttercup, back in the castle, has a dream. It is her wedding day, and she is presented to the Kingdom. The fanfare plays, and then an old peasant woman steps from the crowd, sneering, Boo. Boo. Boo. Buttercup asks, Why do you do this? And the woman replies, Because you had love in your hands, and you gave it up…Your true love lives. And you marry another. True Love saved her in the Fire Swamp, and she treated it like garbage. And that’s what she is, the Queen of Refuse. So bow down to her if you want, bow to her. Bow to the Queen of Slime, the Queen of Filth, the Queen of Putrescence. Boo. Boo. Rubbish. Filth. Slime. Muck. Boo. Boo. Boo.
Admit it. It’s what we all, knowing the story, want to say to Judas. Boo, Filth, Slime, Rubish, Boo! Boo! Boo! But, astonishingly, it is not what Jesus says. Jesus knows that Judas will betray him. And yet, Matthew tells us, the very next thing Jesus does is bless the meal, share it with the disciples, including Judas, by the way, and proceed to tell them that this bread and this wine, his body and his blood, are given for their forgiveness. It is as if Jesus said to Judas, “You DO have true love in your hands. I love you, still. I forgive you. I know what you are going to do, what you are doing, what you have already done. And I forgive you.” Notice that Matthew makes a point of saying, “Drink from it, ALL of you.” No one at the table gets left out.
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
Then, much like the parable of the Prodigal Son where we meet the runaway wild-child son and the stay-at-home bitter son, after Matthew deals with the betrayal of Judas, he turns to the rest of the disciples, the “good kids” who stayed home and didn’t go cavorting with diabolical chief priests. In the light of the forgiveness he has already proclaimed, he foretells their fear-driven denial. Their desertion of Jesus is no less painful. All eyes have been on Judas, but the others will experience their own sense of woe, knowing that they abandoned Jesus when he needed their support the most. And yet, Jesus makes sure the disciples know that he will be waiting for them when it is all over. He’s going ahead of the them to Galilee.
When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. Then Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.”Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And so said all the disciples.
Paul tells us that nothing can separate us from God’s love. Nothing. I think that is the point of this part of the Passion narrative. No matter what we do, God’s love never fails. I had a pastor when I was growing up who told our youth group that he believed God had given up on his adult son. His son’s behavior had apparently been blasphemous in some way and he had not sufficiently repented. If I remember the story correctly, his son had cancer, and this pastor attributed his son’s suffering to his unrepentant spirit. The pastor told us, “There is a chasm, once crossed, beyond which there is no return, beyond which, God will write you off.”
My heart breaks when I think of this pastor, of his own suffering because he believed God, his God, had not only turned away from his child but had condemned his child to the pain and suffering of a terminal illness. It is one of the moments that I would like to be able to go back in time, to scream out, You’ve got it all wrong! God is NOT like that! God’s love NEVER gives up. God’s love did not give up on the disciples when they denied ever knowing him. God’s love did not give up on Judas when he betrayed that love. God’s love did not give up on your son. God’s love will never give up on you.
And God’s love will never give up on us. Drink of it, all of you. Thanks be to God.