8th Lenten Reading – The Last Week in Jerusalem
Preparations for the Last Supper
Last night—Wednesday—we spoke to Lazarus, and as usual he quietly and efficiently provided us with the resources to cover the cost of the Passover meal. After everything was settled, I walked back into the city and to my apartment.
The next morning, I could view nothing with pleasure. I was not hungry. I could not face the bread and fruit I had bought the previous day. Neither did I feel inclined to wash or otherwise prepare for the day. I had to talk myself through the ordinary habits of the morning.
My first task was to get the room settled. I felt I was slogging through the mud found down by the Salt Sea. We had told the women with us about the plans for the evening. They would know what to do without any guidance from me or anyone else. Last night, they excitedly concurred when we announced the plans for the Passover feast to be celebrated this evening. I groaned to myself as I realized afresh that they did not know. They had no idea what was coming.
Judas had retreated into himself and was not communicating with anyone. I fancied he understood more about what Jesus had been talking about for the past month, and he now anticipated a disastrous ending to our work together. He had gone off alone last night. He wanted no one’s company. I saw him plunge on down the hill, and I even thought to call out for him to wait for me, as I was also returning to the city. I was too late. He was gone.
Now—fifty years or more later—as I think back to that night and the next day, I still wonder whether it would have made any difference if I had walked with him down across the Kidron Valley and up into the city. Maybe he would not have made those fatal arrangements. I still mourn Judas. Our present followers are all taught to hate him for what he did, but I cannot. I don’t think the Master did either. It was not in Jesus’ nature to hate.
Judas was with us from the start. I had always been aware that he was not like the rest of us. He had a cynical attitude to the world, which was at odds with everything he heard from Jesus. He hung on for over six years as a faithful companion. He tirelessly coordinated all the logistics for our enterprise and took delight in arrangements to look after us.
Yet even now, I refuse to believe that Judas was indifferent to Jesus. I believe he came to love Jesus as did we all. I think he thoroughly enjoyed Jesus’ profound insight into our world and relished the discussions that Jesus stirred up whenever we were together. Maybe Judas was an intellectual at heart and saw clearly the full implications of what Jesus represented. I think Judas saw but could not believe the evidence of who Jesus was. If only he had waited.
Instead, I think he jumped ahead of the moment and got everything wrong. There arose in him such a conflict that he could no longer contain his own suspicions, but he had to report them. Jesus, in Judas’s opinion, had gone over the edge.
But that night and the next day as we prepared for our feast, these worries were not uppermost in my mind. I got on with the job I had been given and forgot about everything else.
I was still operating in a fog, but dealing with mundane issues helped pull my mind into the present. I made arrangements for the room. I met with some of the Essene brothers, and I got from them all the necessary details of where everything was. We got the oven started for the lamb. The utensils for over twenty people had to be borrowed from somewhere. Everyone had a job to do.
So the morning was spent, and I climbed back up to Bethany to report to Jesus. I found him ensconced with Mary and Lazarus, talking in low tones. They fell silent at my approach.
Mary rose to welcome me and made a place for me. I sat between Jesus and Lazarus. After a quick glance at her brother, Mary smiled forlornly at me. “Jesus has told us he has to leave us. He believes we will not take up our own responsibility if he stays.”
Lazarus shook his head slightly. “We will be there tonight. We can all come back here and maybe take our leave in the morning. I realize things can’t go on like this. There is a growing opposition to the Master. Sooner or later we will be attacked, and, of course, Jesus will be the focus of it.
“The last time there was a hunt for Jesus, there was a trial or hearing in his absence, and he was condemned to be stoned. Since then I have heard from at least two sources that there was money on my own head. We have to take this threat of violence seriously.”
I looked back and forth between the others, and I realized Jesus had not told them that he expected to be arrested or worse. He had left the question of his departure wide open to interpretation. He and I had talked about his fear and expectation, but none of the others really understood what was coming.
I was relieved when Martha came in with a tray with lemon water, a bowl of dried apricots, and some cracked walnuts. “I thought I saw you come in, John. The Master has been telling us he must leave us again. I really don’t know why. We have only just got used to him being here. Can’t you persuade him to stay for another week at least? Why go now? Passover will be starting in a couple of days, and we could all have such a nice time together.”
Jesus sat back and allowed us to work through the issue of his leaving. I tried to move the conversation along.
“Maybe it’s time for us all to think about the next step in taking the road the Master has laid out for us. We have to stand on our own feet. If he is here we will be content to bask in his presence and have a nice time but not really change,” I said.
Mary looked up. “But what are we to do differently? The last time the Master left, we kept to ourselves and went about our business. How will this time be different?”
I thought for a while and looked over at Jesus, who gave no indication of helping me out. Instead, he was clearly waiting to see what I would come up with.
“Well,” I began, “we are like every other nation. Most of the people want someone to come along and set up a strong stable kingdom that we can all shelter in. We never think beyond an Alexander who will win battles for us and defend us from outside interference.”
I felt flushed with my own eloquence and plunged on. “Our idea of the kingdom of God has been that his Messiah will come and do just that. Then God will reign here in Jerusalem, and we can all live in the shadow of his throne, secure from the outside world. As I understand the Master, that is not going to happen. The Master has said, ‘We are to be in the world and not of it.’ In other words, we are to become his teaching and allow others to be drawn to us.”
We all looked at Jesus, who nodded but said nothing.
Mary turned to Jesus and said, “I still do not see what we are supposed to do. Everything will be just the way it has always been. There will be those frightful clergy at the Temple, those grumpy old Pharisees, and the place always teetering on the verge of erupting into violence. Are we going to change all that? Don’t you see, you make all those old clergy afraid? They take you seriously. They may well be willing to negotiate with you, but no one is going to negotiate with us.”
Lazarus glanced at Mary with gentle tolerance. “Mary, I think the Master sees it all well enough. I think I understand what is needed. I am not really ready for it, though. Then, I will never be ready to step out. I am like the rest of our people, ever ready to follow, but I am never prepared to be my own authority in the world. We talk endlessly about how the world should be and how people ought to be different, but that is all we think is required of us. I believe the Master is going to make us talk with authority to the world. Until we take upon ourselves the task of being teachers to the world, we will not learn for ourselves what we have already heard and now possess.”
“That reminds me of your parable of the mustard seed,” I said, looking up at Jesus, sitting there with his attention focused on us. “You described how one small seed can grow into a bush, and it provides a place for birds and shade for animals to hide beneath. Once we begin to take upon ourselves the responsibility to act on what you have taught us, everything you have taught us will start to grow in us and, like the mustard seed, provide shade for everyone around us. Your teaching will take on a life of its own, and that will be the kingdom of heaven.”
I was flushed with my sudden insight and looked to Jesus for his confirmation, but he looked back and gave no sign of either approval or the opposite. I realized he wasn’t going to help, and from now on this was what it was going to be like. We were on our own and had to make our own judgments. Like children who always looked to their parents for confirmation, we looked to Jesus. Now, as I sat there hoping for his approval, I knew I was not going to get it and that he wanted me to find in myself my own conviction and truth.
Looking down at my clasped hands, with sudden clarity I saw afresh why Jesus’ death was inevitable. This time it was not just an abstract idea, but with a jolt, I felt the imminence of his death. Tomorrow Jesus would not be sitting here among us.
He nodded very slightly as if he knew what I had just intuited. I could not look at the others and, instead, examined my clenched fingers with interest.
The room in which our Passover supper was being prepared was a space created by ten stone archways. Twelve heavy stone pillars supported the arches and beams, which held up the flat roof above. There were herbs in pots, several plants, and even captive lemon and olive trees. I had come early to check that everything was ready, and now I leaned on the balustrade surrounding the roof.
I gazed out over the city in the gathering dusk. Not more than five hundred yards to the east, the Temple loomed. Smoke rose from the courtyard, and I thought of the sacrifices that had been offered that day. My mind filled with the memories of all the butchered animals I had seen burned to honor our God. I thought of the countless thousands down the centuries that had been herded up that hill, only to be butchered, burned, and eaten by the priests and all their hangers-on. What benefit had all that wasted life conferred on anyone? What good had all that waste served? I thought of all the gullible and simple people trusting their precious offerings to that army of rapacious clergy who assured and authoritatively claimed efficacy of their actions.
This evening was our last hope. A choice would be made—or maybe it had already been made—that would take the nation on the road to destruction. I shouted at the city rooftops before me in my agony of frustration, “Listen to him! He is your last chance!” I pounded the balustrade with my fists and screamed in my anguish, “Listen to him!”
Silence mocked my inner tumult. Dusk gathered the deepening shadows and obscured the Temple’s base. The Temple’s silhouette was now dark against the brightening moonrise. Huge and orange, the top arc of the moon showed itself just to the left of the Temple. It hefted itself above the horizon and swelled to an enormous size as if in its fullness it demanded primacy.
My thought went to a grimmer time, when the ancestors of those men who now fed the fires of the altar actually fed the fires of Moloch, the moon god who demanded human sacrifices. How many firstborns were dropped into the flames? How many people were sacrificed to head off disaster or to save the nation? Why didn’t the priests offer themselves? Why did it always have to be someone else? Why was it—so often—the young?
I looked again at the great globe of a moon and screamed at it, “This is your night, and you’ve come for your last sacrifice, you bloody face of sanctimonious evil. Tonight you will meet him, and he will puff out your dead fires with a blast of his breath.”
Hammering at the balustrade, I pointed my finger at the moon. “He will stand between you and all of us. You will have no more sacrifices from us.”
I sobbed in rage and grief, and I beat the balustrade again.
As my anger ebbed and the tears of grief dried on my face in the cool night air, I felt Jesus’ presence behind me. Wrung out, I spoke quietly, “I can’t believe the pain of so many for so long. Why do we do it, and why do we believe the nonsense we have been fed?”
“John, you were right. There will be no more sacrifices. From now on, if there is to be sacrifice, then I will do it. Nothing else needs to die.”
He placed his hand on my shoulder. “Come. Let us drive this terrible darkness away with the light of the Passover candles.”