Several years ago, there was a woman with a skilled habit of spreading false rumors about yours truly. Surprisingly, she was not my favorite person. One fine Sunday morning, she was standing about 4 rows in front of my wife and I getting her worship on as the entire congregation was singing. This woman raised her arms perpendicular to the floor while her palms were parallel and was swaying her hips to and fro. I can vividly recall glaring at her and contemplating how great of a hypocrite she was. I mean, here she was “pretending” to worship the Lord while she was slandering people behind their backs. Now, I have had very few moments as that which followed: while I was glaring at her, ripping apart the inconsistencies of her character, a “voice” whispered in the recesses of my conscience, “I loved Judas.” It was a voice not in the sense that it was audible but more in the sense of that it was clear and concise and not of my own. I instantly knew its meaning. Jesus loved Judas, even in the very moment that Judas was betraying Him.
That moment sparked a study of how Jesus engaged with Judas, which centered around the Last Supper, the occasion when Judas would leave Jesus to betray Him. Now, there is a debate about Judas’ motives. To simplify the debate, one side says he was purposefully stabbing Jesus in the back to turn a quick profit while another side says he was attempting to force Jesus’ hand and make Him bring His kingdom. Either way, Judas’ actions lead to Jesus’ arrest, humiliation, and death. The Gospels refer to him as the traitor (Luke 6:16) and the son of perdition (John 17:12) in multiple places. Truthfully, though, we paint him today in such a way that no lesson is able to be applied to our life from his. In our minds, we have made him simply an extreme figure, the arch-enemy and villain of the Jesus saga. This is not how betrayal works. Betrayal comes from those closest to us.
Regardless of your view, when Judas was moments away from betraying Jesus, we find a meal being shared. This was the Passover meal, one of the most important meals for a Jew. Jesus had secured a private location and ensured the proper preparations were made. Jesus, being the leader of the bunch, would have had the final say in the details such as the location, schedule, and seating arrangement. Positions at tables were not a minor detail in this day. They conveyed standing amongst the group you were dining with and relation with the host of the meal. As such, people often fell prey to the temptation of posturing and maneuvering for the better seats. This was the context of Jesus saying, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him” and the host tells you to move to a lesser seat (Luke 14:8). This is also why the apostles would discuss who would sit where when Jesus’ kingdom finally came, specifically requesting to be seated to the left and right of Jesus as these seats would distinguish those of most importance to Jesus (Mark 10:37).
The seating arrangement of this meal reveals who was being honored. The table they would have been eating at was a type of triclinium (“triple couch”). It would have had three sides in the shape of an upside-down U around which the guests would recline on cushions, leaving the fourth side open for the servers to tend to the guests. The left side would be the side where the people of prominence would recline at, called the lectus imus, and this would have been where Jesus reclined. Then to the left and right of the highest seat would have been the most distinguished of seats. So, all those artistic recreations of the last supper with Jesus sitting in the middle of a long table aren’t exactly accurate, but I digress.
We find that John is seated to the right of Jesus as the “best man” or closest friend. We can deduce this from when Jesus revealed that one of them would betray Him, John leaned back into Jesus to ask Him who it was (John 13:25). This also corroborates John’s use of “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 21:20) to describe himself. This seat would have also been reserved for queens, close advisors, and those second in command. Jesus then revealed to His disciples that the one to betray Him would be the one to whom He handed the piece of bread when He had dipped it, which was Judas. We know it was John on the right hand side of Jesus, so it had to be Judas on the left hand side of Jesus. This seat was for the guest of honor, for those who were being celebrated. We can also deduce that Peter was in the lowest seat, the servant seat. It would have been his job to ensure the meal and all aspects thereof were properly attended to. So, on the night that Judas would betray Jesus, Jesus gave him an incredibly honored seat rather than passively aggressively giving him a lower seat. If you’re having a hard time envisioning all of this click here for an illustration.
Jesus’ Last Object Lesson
So, why does the Last Supper’s seating arrangement matter? It’s what happens immediately after and before Judas leaves that makes this scene pregnant with significance. As soon as Judas leaves, we find Jesus did not talk about how big of a screw-up Judas was. He didn’t make an example out of Judas or preach against the evil he was committing. Rather, we find Jesus immediately introducing a “new commandment,” that we love one another just as he loved us (John 13:34). Two things are surprising about this. First, Jesus doesn’t actually introduce a new commandment but rather changes the basis of an old one: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This new command is based on Jesus’ love for His disciples, for sinners, for the world. Secondly, nothing is mentioned about Judas just after he had left the room. Instead, Jesus’ first words are about love. In that situation, what would you have done? I would have used the opportunity to rail against the hypocrisy of Judas’ character. I, in Jesus’ shoes, would have made an example out Judas. Instead, Jesus introduced a new command and that being that we would love one another as He loved us.
To understand this new command, we have to hear it in the context of what happened just before Judas was excused. Jesus had washed all of the disciples’ feet. This assumes one major detail: no one had had their feet washed. This would imply that the job should have fallen to Peter since he was in the lowest seat but he didn’t. So, Jesus got up, took off his clothes, wrapped a towel around His waist and washed everyone’s feet, even Judas’. Imagine the oddity of the whole situation. Can you hear the disciples quietly mumbling as Jesus works his way around the U-shaped table from one set of dust caked feet to the next, wondering why He was doing this? Can you see Peter sitting straight up from his reclined position as Jesus took Peter’s feet and declaring, “You shall never wash my feet” (John 13:8)? What was it like when Jesus, scrubbing the dust cracked callouses of Judas’ feet, glanced up from His position as servant into the eyes of the one that would deliver Jesus into the grasp of death?
When Jesus had finished, He said, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he” (John 13:13-19, emphasis mine). Jesus first stated that what He had done must be the standard for what His disciples should also do. But then He states that one will betray Him and that He had done and said these things so that after “it takes place” (referring to the cross and resurrection) His disciples would understand. What did He mean by that?
This whole last meal was Jesus’ final lesson He needed His disciples to understand: what love looks like. In the moment of Jesus’ greatest need, He would wash the feet of every one who should have been there for Him but instead would abandon and deny Him. In the moment of Jesus being betrayed, He refused to even mention a word of ill will towards Judas but rather taught about love. When Judas, for whatever motive, had determined to sell Jesus out, Jesus would give him the position of honor at the Passover meal. Later, when they had heard about Judas’ actions, they would fully understand all Jesus had done and said that night. The last lesson Jesus needed His disciples to fully understand was that love must extend to and serve all people, especially your enemies. We find this exact lesson from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount of Matthew 5:43-48:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Notice, again, that the basis of loving our enemies is in the nature of God. Just as God loves and provides for His “enemies,” so did Jesus…and so should we. In reality, it makes perfectly logical sense. When we approach our enemies as enemies they will remain enemies. When we approach our enemies as friends, we open up the possibility of reconciliation and that is what God is up to in the world (2 Corinthians 5:19).
The word for “love” here is agape. If you have been to church for any number of years, you have probably heard of it: forget for the moment how you have heard it defined. In the greek, there are three other words for “love”; storge (love for family), phileo (friendly love or affection), and eros (erotic love). Agape was an old word that was dying off at the time of Jesus. So, when the New Testament writers use this word, it is not surprising that they not only define it but that they redefine it. Jesus says to agape and pray for those who persecute you. Paul will say that God demonstrated His agape for us by dying for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). John will say in a later epistle that, “By this we know agape, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16). The New Testament adds a new category of love to the other three. If storge is the love of family, phileo is affectionate or friendly love, and eros is the love of lovers, then agape is the selfless love we have for even our enemies. True agape love is that we would serve those who would betray us.
This is what is so radical about Jesus’ message! We are called to love even those who have done nothing good for us, who have actively sought to destroy us, who have gossiped and slandered us, who have taken advantage of us, who have nothing in common with us, who drive us nuts, and who actively live a life that completely contradicts our own. The true love of Jesus is fully expressed in the way we wash the feet of those who will kill us rather than talking behind their back once they leave the room. While they may call us enemy, we will call them friend (Matthew 26:50) and this is how we might gain a friend from an enemy. The love Jesus exemplified was not just the love for those who like us but rather the love for those who would betray us. May you find your Judas, feed him and wash his feet.