O Sinful Heart: confronting the Judas in each of us

Recently I was blessed to see Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper based on the gospel of John. It has gone through difficult times: the paint was experimental and hasn’t lasted well and it has been badly affected by poor restorations. During WWII most of the buildings where it was situated were reduced to rubble. It seems that even the survival of the painting has been a miracle.

Yet to the casual observer or historian, the original event on which it is based is an even greater miracle: that a small group of people meeting for a meal would change the history of the world and become the pattern for a ceremony that would touch every corner of the planet. How odd this success might seem given the uproar and chaos that appeared to be governing what should have been a calm and relatively straightforward dinner that was taking place in most other Jewish households at this moment.

Da Vinci’s picture is a strange one for two reasons. Firstly, all of the participants are seated on one side of the table. Secondly, as described, there is great consternation and animation amongst the diners.

This repast was not a tranquil and respectful gathering, remembering when God rescued His people out of Egypt. I have been to a shabbat dinner and worked in a Jewish environment, so can confirm that Passover meals are generally far more sedate. Certainly, the Last Supper was not the kind of meal that I would have signed up for.

In explanation of the first strange aspect, Da Vinci painted this picture (based on John’s gospel) so that an audience would feel like participants in the event. When it later became a refectory, that is a dining hall for the monks of the attached church, they were meant to feel as if they were eating with the apostles and Jesus. This unravels the first mystery and explains why the disciples were all on one side of the table as the leading guests at a wedding reception are in our society. The picture encouraged the monks to feel that they were very much part of a heavenly banquet and that each time they ate, they did so as part of God’s kingdom, having a direct link with Jesus’ first followers who sat at the higher table.

This is a truly amazing thought: here were the disciples dining with the God of the universe! What an unbelievable privilege!

But this is not how the disciples are feeling. Instead, they are greatly upset, as they have had a terrible and unsettling accusation made by Jesus against them: one of their number is a traitor and they are in an uproar. The Passover lamb; the blood painted on the doors; the miraculous rescue from the plagues have all been forgotten in their angst.

There is more than one traitor in this midst.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can quickly identify the traitor where the disciples couldn’t: our gaze is directed towards Judas, who sells his leader for a handful of coins, a pitifully small amount for the God who was about to provide a ransom that the world with all its wealth couldn’t afford.

Yet Da Vinci was an insightful artist: he knows that there is more than one traitor in this midst. Before the weekend is finished, Peter will deny even knowing Jesus and the others will all flee – a physical demonstration that they don’t want to be identified with Jesus.

I wonder at what point over the next few days these blustering, self-justifying men reached the point of profound understanding and acknowledgement of their personal betrayal, where the attitudes on display at the supper changed radically. “Is it me? I certainly couldn’t betray you!” is the prevailing attitude recorded in John’s gospel.

How easily Jesus could see through all of his disciples.

Yes, it’s very easy to point the figure at Judas at this table, as many have over the centuries. It’s much harder for me to point the finger at myself. I wonder, if I were sitting at that table, how I would be reacting.

At the core of my being there is fear of being found out as a fraud. I would like to pretend to Jesus that I was a good mate and that I couldn’t possibly betray his trust; in fact, that I could be recognised for my good qualities and hopefully be high in his esteem. That’s what I would like others to see about me anyway.

How easily Jesus could see through all of his disciples though.

They loved him (how could you not?), but we know from previous behaviours that they had never really understood. When they ask for places of privilege in God’s kingdom, they are as far from understanding repentance as anyone.

But at some point – as my song suggests – they, and I, and all of us must confront the awful reality that we are terribly flawed and don’t deserve to be at the table, let alone have any special place. I cannot point the finger at anyone else when I am really a disaster. It is really I!

Only then will I stop condemning others and pointing fingers and be ready to receive forgiveness.

At some point, I must collapse and admit to God what I really am: perhaps even crawl to God on my hands and knees; face the fact that my heart and innate desires are desperately sinful and deceptive, always wanting the wrong things, and that all my actions have been seeking to protect myself or promote my place in the world or maybe have even been stupidly justifying why I have a right to a seat at the table with God.

Every waking moment must be based on this reality: that God has persevered with me even though I am prone to self-deceit. Then I am reduced to tears and misery at how futile everything I have tried has been and how rotten I have been to people I have known on so many occasions. Then and only then will I stop condemning others and pointing fingers and be ready to receive forgiveness.

At some point every disciple must have come to this penetrating observation also. (Maybe even the ex-disciple, Judas.)

I imagine these men after Jesus’ resurrection sitting at a new and different dining table. Much calmer, they have realised they have nothing to prove and there is no point in defending their past actions. At this table, attitudes completely changed, tears dried, these apostles are filled with joy, not uproar, because their eyes were fixed firmly on God, not on themselves.

This Lenten reflection accompanies Jon’s song, ‘O Sinful Heart‘. Jon Seccombe is a seasoned musician who has been producing Christian music for four decades and received multiple international awards.

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