Tuesday of Holy Week: Can you trust those nearest to you? Should you?
When Jesus says he is deeply disturbed (stirred up) and then immediately declares that one of those with him at table will betray him, I think it is natural to assume that the prospect of the impact of the betrayal on Jesus is what is distressing him. Perhaps he does not know who will do it, and this adds to his distress, one might think as well.
But the way the text unfolds in John it is clear that none of this is the case. Jesus clearly knew the betrayer was Judas, and even tells him to get on and do it quickly (v 27). He sees it all as leading to his glorification by the Father (v 32). So neither of these factors is the cause of his distress.
I therefore suggest that what is distressing him is the impact upon his closest followers - John does not name those at table with him explicitly as the Twelve - of his betrayal by one of their own number. What impact will it have on the rest of them? Will they think worse of Jesus? Or worse of his skill in character assessment and job appointment because of his choice of Judas to be among them? Will their confidence in themselves be smashed as they might then wonder if each of them might also do something similar? Will their confidence in each other be undermined by suspicion and fear because of this risk?
Quite possibly Peter was wrestling with something of this fear, or he just felt that Jesus needed to know that at least he will not let Jesus down, when he makes his bold, but rash, promise to lay down his life for Jesus (v 38). (In passing, this makes clear that the disciples knew Jesus was talking of his own death.) Jesus then adds Peter to the list of people who will badly let Jesus down, something that can only have added to the lack of ease, lack of self-confidence, and lack of mutual trust among the whole group.
What then is the strategy of Jesus? It is not to give them an immediate ‘feel good’ factor. It is not to assure them they have been chosen as the best natural communicators and preachers available in Palestine. It is not to persuade them that they have been chosen because of their innate goodness, irresistible zeal, and constant virtue. Rather they have been chosen in spite of the lack of these qualities. Jesus came to heal the sick. Those closest to him, those who will be leaders, are no different: they too are sick, and are with him on that basis. If Jesus accepts them as sick, as sinners, then they should accept each other on that basis. Even when entrusted with ministry and leadership, their basic weakness and need for ongoing medicine remained. And they should not forget it.
That in effect seems to be the kind of message that Jesus is trying to get through to them. But he is troubled because he fears that may not get it and so be scandalised not just by what is about to happen to him but by what their colleagues, and each of them, will do. It could irreparably rip this little group apart. Verses 34-35, which are omitted from today’s reading of this part of John’s gospel addresses this very theme: in them Jesus tells them to love each other, and it is by this that others will recognise them as his disciples.
In the end Jesus got through to them: they had gathered together by Easter Sunday and loved each other thereafter, despite their failures.
And us today? How do we view those around us? Should we trust them? We are not called to place a naïve trust in each other. Or to expect people always to get things right or be perfectly moral disciples. We are not called to cover up our sins or those of others – this can add to any sin and scandal already called. We are to encourage virtue and generosity in and from each other, and also ministerial competence. But we are called to realise we are all sinful and sick, all in need of God’s mercy and medicine and that we have been called to be with Jesus for this very reason, whatever ministry or vocation, big or small in the eyes of the church or world, that we get along with this. Therefore we are called to be merciful to others – and also to ourselves, with God’s mercy to us all as the foundation of our life and work together.
Should Jesus be troubled at us too or are we properly immersed in the merciful love of God, for us and for each other?