Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: The Last and Longest Week

This Sunday marks the beginning of the last, longest and most dramatic week in the life of Jesus, a week in which events in and around his life moved with increasing rapidity from the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday to the tragic end on Good Friday. The days of that last week are so much of one fabric that it is difficult to separate one day from the next or to insulate one event from that which preceded or followed it. The beginning of the week looked promising, but Jesus knew something about the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday to which the enthusiastic crowd was oblivious.

The week was tumultuous, like a frenzied and fast moving roller coaster. In Luke's account Jesus wept over Jerusalem. He "cleansed the Temple" -- driving out those who were selling things, and accused them of turning a house of worship into a den of thieves. The religious establishment intensified their challenge of his authority. The Scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees picked at him. They debated Jesus, but he responded with such wisdom that they had no reasonable or theologically sound rejoinder.

By Thursday evening there were multiple mini-dramas being played out in and around the main drama. The public proclamations and debates were over and Jesus wanted some private time with the disciples He devoted himself to "his own in this world" because he wanted to prepare them for what was about to happen as much as anyone can be prepared for such a terrible ordeal.

Time was of the essence. He had already said many things to them, much of which they had not yet understood. He said, "I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now." (John 16:12) He spoke to them of his impending death, but they would not hear of this because it did not fit the messianic dream in which their minds had been marinated. They could not face the possibility that death rather than political victory would be the final outcome. Jesus' goal for the brief time remaining was to help them face the stark reality of his coming death and give them something to hold their world together during the storm.

And there were other problems with which Jesus had to deal, but time was running out. There was the attitude the disciples brought to the Passover meal, a meal they did not realize was to be the Last Supper. Luke gives us some insight into the reason for the mood of the disciples to which John does not refer. On the way to the meeting a dispute had arisen among the twelve as to who was to be regarded as the greatest. (Luke 22:24) This was probably a continued contention resulting from an earlier occasion in which James and John had asked Jesus to give them places of eminence in his kingdom, with one on his right and the other on his left. (Mark 10:35-45) Matthew alleges that it was their mother who made that request on their behalf. (Matthew 20:20-28) When the other disciples heard of this preemptive request for superiority, they were jealous and indignant. It appears that by the time of the last supper with Jesus, the cancer of lust for power and prominence had spread to all of them.

Like pouting children, with their collective "noses out of joint", they arrived at the upper room with festering feelings of jealousy and resentment. It was customary when people came as guest for dinner, a servant would wash the dust from their feet. Since the apostolic team had no servant to wait on them, it is likely that their practice was to take turns at foot washing duty. But not on this night. They had unresolved issues with one another. They went stubbornly to their appointed places at the table, not one of them willing to compromise his dignity by doing a menial task which in their collective misunderstanding might lessen their image as well as their of chances of preference and prominence in this worldly kingdom which was to come.

So they began the holy meal with travel-stained feet because no one was willing to back down or bend over. Sensing the climate of childish anger, Jesus knew he would not be able to accomplish what he had hoped unless he could empty the atmosphere of the palpable ill-will. Words would not work. He had to do something dramatic to get their attention. So, Jesus "...got up from the table, took off his outer robe and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the feet of the disciples and to wipe them with the towel which was tied around him". (John 13:4-5) The disciples must have watched this act of humility by their master with growing uneasiness and embarrassment. The wordless lesson was clear, "He who is greatest among you must be servant of all".

Another pressing problem had to be resolved before he could continue. Judas was sitting at the table. The implication in John (unlike the other three gospels) is that the deal with the devil had not been finalized, but there had been preliminary negotiations. Jesus was troubled in spirit as he openly announces that one of the twelve would betray him, (John 13:21) The disciples began to look around and question who that might be and Jesus said that the betrayer was the one to whom he would give the bread he had dipped in the dish. (John 13:26) He offered the bread to Judas and said, "Do quickly what you are going to do". (John 13:27) The scene ends with Judas leaving. The import of this dark deed is underlined by John's closing sentence, "And it was night". (John 13:30b)

The New English Bible characterizes the 5 chapters of John, 13-17, as farewell discourses. Facing the death and absence of someone we love is painful beyond description. In a very short time, life for the disciples was going to collapse into chaos. Darkness would come at midday, and all would seem lost. It was against this that Jesus began to prepare his little company.

There comes a time for all of us in which life cracks open at the seams, and everything upon which we have counted falls in shambles at our feet. This was what was about to happen to the disciples, and Jesus was giving them something to hold on to until they could get their lives into manageable units. How beautifully, and with what great sensitivity Jesus comforted and prepared the twelve against the stunning reality of the next day. 2000 years later those who face death and absence of loved ones still turn to John, Chapters 13-17, for something to hold on to.

Both the Romans and the Jews had put out an APB on Jesus. Judas was on his way to do the dark deed for which his name woud live in infamy. Satan was tugging at the coattails of Simon Peter, the disciple to whom Jesus had given "the keys to the Kingdom". What a mess!

I am going to only refer briefly to that longest last day of the longest last week in deference to the column for next week on "Good Friday". Here I will say enough to put that day in some proper setting of the week.

That unspeakably terrible last day in the life of Jesus has such an emotional impact on any who simply read the unembellished known facts recorded in the gospels that we tend to forget what it all meant. Even considering all that could be seen and felt in and about the whole event, there was something happening that day on the rough hilltop that was beyond the knowing of everyone present except Jesus and his Heavenly Father, whose spirit hovered over the place like a heavy fog, a happening that is the focal point for the atonement. God was acting on behalf of all humankind for all time. It is too soon for the gospel writers, even though they wrote many years after the death of Jesus, to find adequate words and phrases to communicate the meaning of this divine transaction. It was a holy mystery of such magnitude that none present could doubt that it held meaning beyond their present knowing.

The gospels were not written to boost the power of the atonement by focusing on or embellishing the cruel physical details of the crucifixion to give it more psychological impact. The gospel writers simply told the story. They did not pose imponderables nor did they presume to resolve inherent mysteries. Unlike some "Hollywood" accounts of the passion of the Christ, the gospel writers avoided the gory details of the flogging, the "Via Dolorosa" and the crucifixion. This was not to withhold or obscure important features in giving a factual account of what happened. The writers of the gospels understood that the efficacy of the death of Jesus did not, and still does not, depend upon the intensity of the psychological effect it has on subsequent readers.

Those who loved Jesus hung onto every word he spoke from the cross. Some things he said were so graphically etched in their minds that they could not bear to translate them, but conveyed them in the exact words of the language in which he spoke. Near the very end he cried out: "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me). (Mark 15:34b, Matthew 27:46). Those haunting words were too heavy to translate.

One thing more. Luke said that after Jesus cried out in a loud voice, he said, " Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit (see psalm 31:5) and having said this died" (Luke 23:44-46) Jesus died with a prayer on his lips. In his book, The Gospel of Luke, (Daily Study Bible Series, Westminster Press, pages 301-2) William Barclay reminds us that this prayer was the first prayer that every Jewish mother taught her child to say at night. Just as many of us were taught "Now I lay me down to sleep," so Jewish mothers taught their children a prayer to end the day, "Into thy hands I commend my spirit." Jesus added the word "Father", and "died like a child falling asleep in his father's arms".

Thus endeth the longest day of the last week. There is more--next week.