The Last Supper by Danish painter Carl Bloch (1834-1890), depicting Judas leaving early (John 13:21-30)
(…continued) There is also a second, deeper way to understand this question of the disciples. And this part that we can readily apply to ourselves.
The proud and foolish person looks at the mistakes and troubles of another and says to himself, “What a mess they have made of their lives; I have been able to do so much better, now haven’t I?” The humble and wise person looks at the failures of others and says, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” The second response is more like that of the disciples in the text; not accusing and not judging, but each one wondering if they themselves could be the one capable of such evil as to betray Jesus.
The hideous evil of the Nazi concentration camps in World War II is well known, but still difficult to comprehend. Millions were starved, raped, worked to death, experimented on, tortured, shot, gassed, cremated or buried alive. And who was responsible? Hitler, yes, but also the tens of thousands of people who carried out his orders. And who were these thousands? Devils from the depths of hell? No, they were the German people, many of them right off the farm and out of small towns—ordinary people like ourselves. Some of the officers lived close enough to the concentration camps that they could go home in the evening and be with their families; eating together, saying their prayers, and tucking their children in at night. Then, the next day they would get up and go back to work for another day of mass murder. These were people like you and me.
We all have our prejudices. We see news from other parts of the world and we say, “Life must be cheap over there.” Or we say, “They have been fighting over there for centuries. That is all they know how to do.” It is easy to stereotype and accuse and judge other groups of people.
But the behavior of the German people in World War II is deeply disturbing to me, causing me to take a hard and painful look at myself. I am of 100% German descent, only the third generation born in this country. I am proud of my German heritage, but it was the Germans who perpetrated all that evil and destruction. I am a baptized Lutheran, and so were many of them. I am from a small town, and so were many of them. What would I do if I had everything to gain by doing the wrong thing and everything to lose by doing what was right? What would you do? The horror that many felt at the Nuremberg trials of the war criminals was that the terrible devils there on trial looked and acted so much like ordinary people.
I recently finished reading a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor who stood up against the Nazis beginning already in 1933. As the Nazis took control of the churches, many pastors resisted, but most did not. Most of those who went along with the Nazis survived the war. Most of those who resisted Hitler died during the war years. Bonhoeffer was arrested, spent two years in prison, and then was executed in April of 1945, just before Germany surrendered. He was 39 years old. I am, just like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor. What would I have done in that situation? I don’t know.
We are all sinners. We have not much reason for self-righteous pride. If tested in such a way as the Germans were under Hitler, would we be strong or weak? The disciples’ response in Matthew 26 portrays a profound insight into their own hearts. They are saddened by what Jesus said. How could anyone ever do such a thing and betray Jesus? But they are uncertain. “Is it I, Lord?” Could I ever do such a thing? Maybe so. That was what troubled them, and that is why they wondered about themselves. They knew what sinners they were, and they responded to Jesus not with arrogant pride, but with heart-broken humility.
The response of Judas, the actual betrayer, is pathetic. He too asks, “Is it I?”, or in some translations, “Surely you don’t mean me?” But Judas doesn’t refer to Jesus as Lord like the others, but simply ‘Rabbi’ (teacher). And his question is not a noble or humble act; it is a lie. By now Judas should have known better. Judas should have known that Jesus would know. He had seen Jesus read people’s hearts and minds. Perhaps it was all he could think of to say, being as nervous as he probably was. But it was a pathetic response, and Jesus simply replies, “You have said so.” John 13:27 adds that Jesus also said to him, “What you are about to do, do quickly,” and then Judas went out into the night.
Jesus had still another bombshell to drop into the now, not so happy anymore, gathering. “This very night,” he tells them, “you will all fall away on account of me.” One would betray him, Jesus had said, and now he adds that everyone would soon desert him. This was too much for Peter, and he replied this time not with humility, but with boldness and confidence and fearlessness. “Not me,” he said, “I won’t desert you. Not tonight, and not ever. All the others might, but not me, I won’t. I’ll go to prison with you and I will even die for you.”
Jesus looked at him with sad eyes and said, “Peter, before the rooster crows tomorrow morning you will three times deny that you even know me.”
But Peter insisted emphatically, “Even if I have to die, I will not disown you,” and all the others said the same. Well, you know the story, and it all unfolds just as Jesus said it would. (continued…)