The Scripture Must Be Fulfilled
Understandably, the prophecy of the betrayal produces agitation and curiosity among the disciples. “One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus: so Simon Peter beckoned to him and said, ‘Tell us who it is of whom he speaks.’ So lying thus, close to the breast of Jesus, he said to him: ‘Lord, who is it?’ Jesus answered: ‘It is he to whom I shall give this morsel when I have dipped it’” (13:23–26). . . .
Jesus’ answer, as given here, is quite unambiguous. Yet the evangelist says that the disciples still did not understand whom he meant. So we must assume that John retrospectively attributed a clarity to the Lord’s answer that it lacked at the time for those present. John 13:18 brings us onto the right track. Here Jesus says, “The Scripture must be fulfilled: ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me’” (cf. Ps 41:9; Ps 55:13). This is Jesus’ classic way of speaking: he alludes to his destiny using words from Scripture, thereby locating it directly within God’s logic, within the logic of salvation history. . . .
John gives a new depth to the psalm verse with which Jesus spoke prophetically of what lay ahead, since instead of the expression given in the Greek Bible for “eating”, he chooses the verb trogein, the word used by Jesus in the great “bread of life” discourse for “eating” his flesh and blood, that is, receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist ( Jn. 6:54–58). So the psalm verse casts a prophetic shadow over the Church of the evangelist’s own day, in which the Eucharist was celebrated, and indeed over the Church of all times: Judas’ betrayal was not the last breach of fidelity that Jesus would suffer. “Even my bosom friend, in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me” (Ps 41:9). The breach of friendship extends into the sacramental community of the Church, where people continue to take “his bread” and to betray him.
Jesus’ agony, his struggle against death, continues until the end of the world, as Blaise Pascal said on the basis of similar considerations (cf. Pensées VII, 553). We could also put it the other way around: at this hour, Jesus took upon himself the betrayal of all ages, the pain caused by betrayal in every era, and he endured the anguish of history to the bitter end.
The Mystery of the Betrayer
John does not offer any psychological interpretation of Judas’ conduct. The only clue he gives is a hint that Judas had helped himself to the contents of the disciples’ money box, of which he had charge (12:6). In the context of chapter 13, the evangelist merely says laconically: “Then after the morsel, Satan entered into him” (13:27).
For John, what happened to Judas is beyond psychological explanation. He has come under the dominion of another. Anyone who breaks off friendship with Jesus, casting off his “easy yoke”, does not attain liberty, does not become free, but succumbs to other powers. To put it another way, he betrays this friendship because he is in the grip of another power to which he has opened himself.
True, the light shed by Jesus into Judas’ soul was not completely extinguished. He does take a step toward conversion: “I have sinned”, he says to those who commissioned him. He tries to save Jesus, and he gives the money back (Mt 27:3–5). Everything pure and great that he had received from Jesus remained inscribed on his soul—he could not forget it.
His second tragedy—after the betrayal—is that he can no longer believe in forgiveness. His remorse turns into despair. Now he sees only himself and his darkness; he no longer sees the light of Jesus, which can illumine and overcome the darkness. He shows us the wrong type of remorse: the type that is unable to hope, that sees only its own darkness, the type that is destructive and in no way authentic. Genuine remorse is marked by the certainty of hope born of faith in the superior power of the light that was made flesh in Jesus.
John concludes the passage about Judas with these dramatic words: “After receiving the morsel, he immediately went out; and it was night” (13:30). Judas goes out—in a deeper sense. He goes into the night; he moves out of light into darkness: the “power of darkness” has taken hold of him (cf. Jn 3:19; Lk 22:53).
The Dating of the Last Supper
Thursday evening—Jesus’ Last Supper with the disciples, but not a Passover meal; Friday, the vigil of the feast, not the feast itself—trial and execution; Saturday—rest in the tomb; Sunday—Resurrection. According to this chronology, Jesus dies at the moment when the Passover lambs are being slaughtered in the Temple. Jesus dies as the real lamb, merely prefigured by those slain in the Temple.
This theologically significant connection, that Jesus’ death coincides with the slaughter of the Passover lambs, has led many scholars to dismiss John’s presentation as a theological chronology. John, they claim, altered the chronology in order to create this theological connection, which admittedly is not made explicit in the Gospel. Today, though, it is becoming increasingly clear that John’s chronology is more probable historically than the Synoptic chronology. . . .
We have to ask, though, what Jesus’ Last Supper actually was. And how did it acquire its undoubtedly early attribution of Passover character? The answer given by Meier is astonishingly simple and in many respects convincing: Jesus knew that he was about to die. He knew that he would not be able to eat the Passover again. Fully aware of this, he invited his disciples to a Last Supper of a very special kind, one that followed no specific Jewish ritual but, rather, constituted his farewell; during the meal he gave them something new: he gave them himself as the true Lamb and thereby instituted his Passover. . . .
One thing emerges clearly from the entire tradition: essentially, this farewell meal was not the old Passover, but the new one, which Jesus accomplished in this context. Even though the meal that Jesus shared with the Twelve was not a Passover meal according to the ritual prescriptions of Judaism, nevertheless, in retrospect, the inner connection of the whole event with Jesus’ death and Resurrection stood out clearly. It was Jesus’ Passover. And in this sense he both did and did not celebrate the Passover: the old rituals could not be carried out—when their time came, Jesus had already died. But he had given himself, and thus he had truly celebrated the Passover with them. The old was not abolished; it was simply brought to its full meaning.
Jesus before Pilate
In John 18:34–35 it is clearly stated that, on the basis of the information in his possession, Pilate had nothing that would incriminate Jesus. Nothing had come to the knowledge of the Roman authority that could in any way have posed a risk to law and order. The charge came from Jesus’ own people, from the Temple authority. It must have astonished Pilate that Jesus’ own people presented themselves to him as defenders of Rome, when the information at his disposal did not suggest the need for any action on his part.
Yet during the interrogation we suddenly arrive at a dramatic moment: Jesus’ confession. To Pilate’s question: “So you are a king?” he answers: “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice” (Jn 18:37). Previously Jesus had said: “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world” (18:36). . . .
With these words Jesus created a thoroughly new concept of kingship and kingdom, and he held it up to Pilate, the representative of classical worldly power. What is Pilate to make of it, and what are we to make of it, this concept of kingdom and kingship? Is it unreal, is it sheer fantasy that can be safely ignored? Or does it somehow affect us?
In addition to the clear delimitation of his concept of kingdom (no fighting, earthly powerlessness), Jesus had introduced a positive idea, in order to explain the nature and particular character of the power of this kingship: namely, truth. Pilate brought another idea into play as the dialogue proceeded, one that came from his own world and was normally connected with “kingdom”: namely, power—authority ( exousía). Dominion demands power; it even defines it. Jesus, however, defines as the essence of his kingship witness to the truth. Is truth a political category? Or has Jesus’ “kingdom” nothing to do with politics? To which order does it belong? If Jesus bases his concept of kingship and kingdom on truth as the fundamental category, then it is entirely understandable that the pragmatic Pilate asks him: “What is truth?” (18:38).
It is the question that is also asked by modern political theory: Can politics accept truth as a structural category? Or must truth, as something unattainable, be relegated to the subjective sphere, its place taken by an attempt to build peace and justice using whatever instruments are available to power? By relying on truth, does not politics, in view of the impossibility of attaining consensus on truth, make itself a tool of particular traditions that in reality are merely forms of holding on to power?
And yet, on the other hand, what happens when truth counts for nothing? What kind of justice is then possible? Must there not be common criteria that guarantee real justice for all—criteria that are independent of the arbitrariness of changing opinions and powerful lobbies? Is it not true that the great dictatorships were fed by the power of the ideological lie and that only truth was capable of bringing freedom? . . .
Again and again in the world, truth and error, truth and untruth, are almost inseparably mixed together. The truth in all its grandeur and purity does not appear. The world is “true” to the extent that it reflects God: the creative logic, the eternal reason that brought it to birth. And it becomes more and more true the closer it draws to God. Man becomes true, he becomes himself, when he grows in God’s likeness. Then he attains to his proper nature. God is the reality that gives being and intelligibility. . . .
In Christ, God entered the world and set up the criterion of truth in the midst of history. Truth is outwardly powerless in the world, just as Christ is powerless by the world’s standards: he has no legions; he is crucified. Yet in his very powerlessness, he is powerful: only thus, again and again, does truth become power. . . .
The Messianic Figure Barabbas
Barabbas (“Son of the Father”) is a kind of Messianic figure. Two interpretations of Messianic hope are juxtaposed here in the offer of the Passover amnesty. In terms of Roman law, it is a case of two criminals convicted of the same offense—two rebels against the Pax Romana. It is clear that Pilate prefers the nonviolent “fanatic” that he sees in Jesus. Yet the crowd and the Temple authorities have different categories. If the Temple aristocracy felt constrained to declare: “We have no king but Caesar” (Jn 19:15), this only appears to be a renunciation of Israel’s Messianic hope: “We do not want this king” is what they mean. They would like to see a different solution to the problem. Again and again, mankind will be faced with this same choice: to say yes to the God who works only through the power of truth and love, or to build on something tangible and concrete—on violence.
Jesus’ followers are absent from the place of judgment, absent through fear. But they are also absent in the sense that they fail to step forward en masse. Their voice will make itself heard on the day of Pentecost in Peter’s preaching, which cuts “to the heart” the very people who had earlier supported Barabbas. In answer to the question “Brethren, what shall we do?” they receive the answer: “Repent”—renew and transform your thinking, your being (cf. Acts 2:37–38). This is the summons which, in view of the Barabbas scene and its many recurrences throughout history, should tear open our hearts and change our lives.
These excerpts from the second volume of Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week are taken from chapter 3, Section 4: “The Mystery of the Betrayer”; Chapter 5, Section 1: “The Dating of the Last Supper”; and Chapter 7, Section 3: “Jesus Before Pilate.”