In two days Christian churches will observe Maundy Thursday, focusing on Jesus’s last meal with this disciples, “the Last Supper”.
Reading the Gospel texts afresh each year often raises new questions and, occasionally, yields fresh insight. This year it was a line in Matthew’s text.
Jesus and the twelve apostles are at table. They have all washed their hands before the meal, a ritual practice before the meal. They will all use their hands to eat and share the food in common. All hands must be clean. Or, perhaps, Matthew is referring to the bowl of herbs and spices into which they had all dipped their hands.
Jesus has been speaking of betrayal. “‘Truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ And they were greatly distressed and they began to say 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.'” – Matthew 26:21-23 NRSV.
ONE? Only ONE?
All of them – all 12 – had dipped their hands into the bowl.
Matthew does not say “One of you.” It says “the one.”
The reply “Surely not I, Lord,” assumes innocence. “Not I!”
THE WIDER MEANING OF ‘BETRAY’
The Greek word we translate into English as ‘betray’ has multiple meanings: hand over/arrest/betray. “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will hand me over” or “. . . arrest me” are alternative translations to the “. . . betray me” preferred by Christian translators.
But, whereas Judas alone asks the question that begs a positive reply – “Is it I, Lord?” – the story that follows shows all the apostles handing him over. The possible exception is Peter who cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s servant at Jesus’s arrest, but following the arrest, Peter, like Judas, betrays him. “I do not know the man!” he says three times in the the High Priest’s courtyard.
Only Judas at the last supper responds in a way that indicates guilt. “Is it I, Lord?”
Jesus responds, “You have said so.”
A DEEPENING SELF-KNOWLEDGE
The dominant interpretations of Judas’s act of handing Jesus over to the authorities single him out as the one betrayer, the one who has dipped his hand into the bowl. But is it not worth considering that Matthew’s narrative offers every one of us a somber reflection on universal culpability and a window into one’s own denial and lack of self-knowledge?
“Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him.” – John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, Chapter 1.
“The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.”
“Is it I, Lord? Is it I?”
- Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Tuesday of Holy Week, April 11, 2017.