Loyalty and Betrayal among Beloved Friends—John 13:18-38

Studies in John’s Gospel—Bible study lesson 34

by Reta Halteman Finger

"Christ Institutes the Eucharist" (Bowyer Bible Print 4473) from Wikipedia Commons
“Christ Institutes the Eucharist” (Bowyer Bible Print 4473)
from Wikipedia Commons

Last August my special group of friends from college had a reunion. We had started a circle letter years ago that traveled by snail mail to each of us in turn. We’d read all the letters, remove our previous one, and write a new one. Every few years we’d meet face-to-face. Each gathering was a holy time, full of laughter, singing, good food, and the comfort and security of being with forever friends. I can’t imagine how it would have felt had one of the five of us betrayed our confidences and broke from our group.

But that example is barely a shadow of the intense emotion conveyed in John 13:18-38. The issues of love and loyalty are similar to those of our group, but these are disciples gathered around one leader, who has been teaching them how to love each other in the way he has been loving them (vv. 34-35). Now he is leaving them for a painfully ironic reason: a member of their tight-knit group is secretly betraying him to authorities who want to get rid of him for their own purposes.

The devil is in the details

All four Gospels identify Judas Iscariot as the culprit, and only Matthew (in 27:3) says that Judas later repented of his deed. Various scholars have struggled with his behavior, trying to understand his motive. Did Jesus misjudge Judas when he first called him? Was Judas a greedy money-grubber? Was he a double agent who thought he could rescue Jesus and still keep the cash? Or did he think God would rescue Jesus at the last minute? At least one scholar suggests that Jesus was actually in cahoots with Judas—that it was a way for Jesus to finally get an audience with the high priest. Though I am not convinced, it is true that the Greek word translated “betray” (paradidōmi) in every other NT usage means “deliver” or “hand over,” as when a teacher “hands on” an important message to students. (See, for example, 1 Corinthians 11:23).

But in this Gospel, Judas’s action is so reprehensible it is as if the devil himself possessed him (Jn 13: 2, 27). As further evidence, Jesus quotes an apt line from Psalm 41:9—“Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.” (See Jn 13:18.) In that Mediterranean culture, to “lift the heel” means showing the sole of one’s foot to another. It is a great insult, a wish to utterly shame another.

Who was invited to the meal?

We’ll never know Judas’s motive, only his action. Instead, let’s imagine the scene of this final meal and the symposium that follows it. For one thing, I —and no doubt many of my readers— have a vested interest in knowing if the women disciples were present. Were we there? If not, why not? All four Gospels are clear that, when it came to absolute loyalty to Jesus, only those women disciples stayed with him to the bitter end. In contrast, Peter would soon cave in despite promises to die with Jesus (13:36-38).

Example of a re-created triclinium layout. Image from Wikipedia Commons.
Example of a re-created triclinium layout. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

On the other hand, the setting of this festive meal is a dining room (triclinium) where the guests are reclining on couches around three sides of the room with the food table in the middle. They lean on their left elbows and eat with their right hands. The only time women were present, according to Greco-Roman custom, was if a man invited his wife, who would then sit beside him as he reclined on the couch. If any unattached women were present, they would most likely have been sitting apart from the couches.

The center couch was viewed as most honorable, so we can assume Jesus was there, with the Beloved Disciple reclining on Jesus’s right. Perhaps Peter was catty-corner to the Beloved Disciple, since he motioned to him to ask Jesus who the betrayer was (vv. 23-24). (The Beloved Disciple, though never named, may very well be Lazarus, since he is the only male that this Gospel specifically notes that Jesus loved [11:5]). Since Jesus was able to hand Judas a piece of bread that he had dipped into a sauce dish, Judas probably was also reclining on the center couch, on Jesus’s left. Did Jesus invite Judas to sit there on purpose? (See 13:27.)

Honor and glory through shame

Jesus’s knowledge of what was happening can be seen not only by his Psalm quotation, but by his following statement: “I tell you this now, before it [the betrayal] occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I AM” (13:19). Jesus has used this two-word title (ego eimi in Greek) throughout this Gospel. In Hebrew, it is the four-letter sacred name of Israel’s God, YHWH, rooted in Moses’s burning-bush experience in Exodus 3:13-15. Both here in John 13:18-20, and in 31-32, Jesus ties his divinity and glorification to the shameful suffering and death that will result from his betrayal. If we miss this irony, we miss the point of this entire Gospel!

Questions for reflection and discussion:

  1. Have you ever been betrayed by a friend?
  2. In John’s Gospel, people are often asked to believe in Jesus or God. But here we see that belief implies absolute loyalty to Jesus—and thus to God—even to death. What does “believing in Jesus” mean to you?
  3. This loyalty calls for a new commandment: “love one another as I have loved you” (13:34). If you take this seriously, how do you do it?
Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.