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The Last Supper
A Picture Worth a Thousand Words

by Barbara Reid, O.P.

Speak of the Last Supper to most any Christian and the painting by Leonardo da Vinci immediately comes to mind. Jesus and the Twelve are seated on one side of a long banquet table. A golden light streams in through a window, with the hills of Jerusalem in the background. Jesus' hands are open on the white lace-edged tablecloth, stretched out toward the disciples, whose eyes are riveted on him.

Countless other artists have painted this final supper of Jesus with his disciples, attempting to capture its meaning and message. Recently a Polish artist, Bohdan Piasecki, was commissioned by a group in Ireland to do a painting that would more accurately depict a Passover meal. The dinner is set at night, with all the family present around the table, including women and children. They wear distinctively Jewish garb and eat traditional Passover food.

Each artist attempts to convey the details and the significance of this momentous event, but none can fully capture it for us. Just so, each of the New Testament accounts of the Last Supper represent the efforts of a literary artist who is passing on to us the tradition as it has been received, while at the same time shaping it to meet the pastoral needs of particular faith communities. The received tradition has also been influenced by the liturgical life of the early Christian communities. The Gospel accounts are less concerned with when the Supper took place and who was there than they are with the meaning of Jesus' words of covenant and redemption, death and remembrance.


A Passover Meal?

Scholars still debate whether the Last Supper was a Passover meal or not. Complicating the issue is that the earliest source we have for a description of a Jewish Passover meal is in the Mishna, which dates to the early third century C.E. We do not know whether the customs described in this text were already in place at the time of Jesus. Clearly the Synoptic Gospels portray the Last Supper as a Passover meal for which elaborate preparations were made (Mk 14:1, 12-16; Mt 26:2, 17-19; Lk 22:1, 7-13), but not the Gospel of John. In the Fourth Gospel Jesus' last meal with the disciples precedes the Passover, so that Jesus' death coincides with the slaughter of the lambs in the Temple for the feast. This brings John's theme of Jesus as the Lamb of God to a climax.

In his classic work The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, Joachim Jeremias identified 14 details in which the Last Supper paralleled a Passover meal. Other scholars wonder, however, whether the meal was any more than a festive Jewish meal. They question whether Passover seder meals were celebrated before the fall of the Temple in 70 C.E. Also doubtful is whether a man would celebrate a Passover meal with 12 other males, since this was a family event. The New Testament accounts mention only bread and wine; a Passover supper would have lamb and bitter herbs as well.

Whether or not it was actually a Passover celebration, the symbolism of this feast permeates the Gospel accounts. In Jesus' day Passover was a pilgrimage feast. The population of Jerusalem would swell, as all those who could would come to the holy city to sacrifice in the Temple and to celebrate. The Gospel of John depicts Jesus coming to Jerusalem for Passover on three different occasions (John 2:13; 6:4; 11:55). The lambs for the feast were slain during the afternoon of the fourteenth day of Nisan. Passover would begin at sundown that day and continue until sundown the next. At the time when Israel celebrated its deliverance from bondage in Egypt (Exodus 12), Jesus would go to his death, bringing another exodus to freedom for a renewed Israel.

Matthew's Gospel was written for a largely Jewish audience. Consequently, it could be assumed that readers had been immersed in the Law and the Prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures all their lives. Explanations that are essential for us were completely superfluous for them. And so, when the writer of Matthew gathered the components of Jesus' thought and arranged them into five lengthy sermons, it was perfectly obvious that such a construct was a parallel to the five sacred books of the Torah or Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy). Jesus' words in this context take on particular solemnity, but none of Matthew's sermons is a verbatim transcript of a sermon Jesus delivered on one specific occasion.

The best known of these, of course, is the Sermon on the Mount (Chapters 5—7), woven within the section highlighting the proclamation of the Kingdom. In this discourse, Jesus tells his Jewish listeners, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill" (Mt 5:17). He then boldly "edits" the Mosaic Law, including some commandments of the Decalogue. A formula appears: "You have heard that it was said to your ancestors...but I say to you..." (Mt 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, 43-44). Only God had the power to alter the stipulations of the Law. Matthew's audience would quickly have heard the overtones of divinity. Most of this material is missing entirely from Luke's version (Lk 6:20ff) as it would have eluded his Gentile readers completely.

The remaining Matthean sermons or discourses are: the Mission Sermon (Mt 10:1-42); the Sermon in Parables (Mt 13:1-52); the Sermon on the Church (Mt 18:1-35); the Eschatological [Last Things] Sermon (Mt 24:1—25:46).

It's easy to see why it is often remarked that Matthew is more interested in what Jesus said as opposed to Mark's action Gospel, which is infinitely more concerned with what Jesus did.

Variations of the Tradition

There are several strands of tradition evident in the New Testament texts about the Last Supper, each overlaid with theological meaning. The oldest is in Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, written in approximately 54-56 C.E.: "For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes (1 Cor 11:23-26, NRSV).

The stream of tradition quoted by Paul is also known to Luke (22:14-23). Both interpret Jesus' body as given "for you," followed by a mandate from Jesus to the disciples, "Do this in remembrance of me" (1 Cor 11:24; Luke 22:19). "Remember" means not simply to call him to mind, but to make Jesus present again. "Do this" sums up the whole of his life and ministry poured out for others. It is a command to participate in the mission of Jesus by continuing to do the deeds he did and to love as he loved.

The tradition known to Mark (14:22-26) and Matthew (26:26-30) is slightly different. There is an explicit instruction by Jesus to "take and eat." He speaks not of his body given "for you," but of his blood given "for many." Matthew adds "for the forgiveness of sins" (26:28). The command "do this in remembrance of me" is missing.

Despite these differences in the words of Jesus, all four use the same words to describe the actions of Jesus: took, blessed, broke, gave. All four relate Jesus' words over the cup to the covenant. In Mark and Matthew Jesus speaks of the "blood of the covenant," echoing Moses' words when sprinkling the Israelites (Exod 24:5-8) as they professed adherence to the covenant. In the tradition of Paul and Luke Jesus speaks of a "new covenant in my blood," alluding to Jeremiah 31:31-34. All four have an eschatological tone. In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus declares he will not drink of the fruit of the vine again until the future fulfillment of the realm of God.

The Fourth Evangelist does not recount the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, but has in its place Jesus' washing of the feet of his disciples (John 13:1-20), followed by words of interpretation. The footwashing is far more than an act of humility on the part of Jesus. It is a prophetic action, highly symbolic, which reveals the true meaning of God's love for humanity through Jesus. Like the Synoptic accounts of the institution of the Eucharist, it interprets Jesus' approaching death as an act of love to the end, even for those who do not love him in return. Analogous to the instruction to "do this in remembrance of me" (1 Cor 11:26; Luke 22:19), the Johannine Jesus tells his disciples that he has set for them the model: what he has done for them, so they must do for one another (John 13:14-15).

Theological Meaning

Reflections on the theological significance of the Last Supper fill many a massive tome. Here we highlight three themes that run through all the strands of the tradition.

Service for Others. Each account of the Last Supper in its own way interprets the impending death of Jesus as the culmination of his life given in service to the least. In the Gospel of John this service is enacted in parabolic form and held out as an example to all. Luke moves the saying about Jesus coming to serve, not to be served to the Last Supper, where it becomes part of Jesus' farewell speech to his disciples (Lk 22:27; cf. Mk 10:45; Mt 20:28). Any of his followers who want to be leaders are told to follow this model.

There are at least three different ways that people render service. One is service that is required: for example, what an employee is bound to do for an employer. Another is service that people give freely, because they perceive that they are able to fill the need of another. Such is the kind of service a mother renders to her children, or teachers to their students. But neither of these is the model of service that Jesus gives. Both of these involve relationships that are inherently unequal, however altruistic the motivation for the serving. The Gospel of John highlights that the kind of service Jesus gives is one of self-gift, based on friendship (John 15:13-15). This is a model of service in which all inequities are abolished or rendered irrelevant, as friends freely choose to serve one another out of love. Moreover, Jesus' loving service is given even when it is not reciprocated. He gives his life even for the ones who deny and betray him.

One great danger must be avoided, however, when speaking of Jesus' self-gift and service. A theology of service and self-sacrifice can be used to reinforce oppression and to justify victimization toward a person who is oppressed or abused. Throughout his ministry, whenever Jesus encountered people who were oppressed he lifted them up with healing and empowerment. His instructions for giving up possessions, power, status, and privilege, were not to the downtrodden, but to those who had access to such.

In the Gospel of John it is not the Twelve who are at table with Jesus, but rather the "disciples." In the Fourth Gospel the Twelve do not play any significant role; there is no call of the Twelve, no sending of them on mission. They appear only briefly and unexplainedly at John 6:67-71. For the Fourth Evangelist, the words and actions of Jesus at the Last Supper are directed to disciples in general: all are called to emulate his mission enacted in footwashing. The notion that Jesus "ordained" the Twelve at the Last Supper is both anachronistic and too simplistic a reading of the Gospel accountss. The words and deeds of Jesus at the Last Supper are meant to embody the call to service for all disciples.

Expanding the Guest List. Paul invokes Jesus' words at the Last Supper in order to address social inequities at eucharistic gatherings in Corinth. The rich were arriving early, getting sated and drunk before the poorer members came, eating better quality food, and having places of honor. Paul is aghast at this shameful situation and recalls Jesus' death for his disciples so as to inspire the richer Corinthians to the same kind of selflessness. Just as Paul used the Last Supper tradition to call the Corinthian community to greater inclusivity and equality in the Eucharistic assemblies, so too might we find it encourages us to cross boundaries of difference in our own Christian communities.

The Synoptic evangelists sandwich the words of institution between the predictions of Jesus' betrayal by Judas and denial by Peter. Likewise, John situates Jesus' words about betrayal and denial immediately after the footwashing. This juxtaposition makes a sharp contrast between the weakness of the disciples in the moment of impending crisis and the faithfulness of Jesus to the end. The words of Jesus give hope that his love for his disciples will triumph over desertion, betrayal, and even death itself. This is not the only supper at which Jesus eats with sinners and opponents; rather it is the last in a series of meals with such people. Luke, in particular, emphasizes that Jesus was repeatedly criticized for eating with "tax collectors and sinners" and that he dined with Pharisees who were intent on destroying him (Luke 5:27-39; 7:36-50; 11:37-54; 14:1-6; 15:1-2; 19:1-10). The supper settings, and most especially the Last Supper, provide the venue for divisions and hatred to be overcome with forgiveness and loving service. In the example of Jesus, forgiveness begins with the victim, who responds not with vengeance and violence, but who is willing to forgive and love the perpetrator, even when they are not repentant. This does not mean turning a blind eye toward evil and wrongdoing, but rather confronting such, and inviting conversion, but from a predisposition to forgive.

Eschatological Fullness. The Last Supper also points toward future fulfillment of what has been begun by Jesus in drawing all to God. Like Isaiah 25:6-8 and Zephaniah 1:7; the image of a banquet expresses eschatological hopes in terms of rich food and choice wines, flowing in great abundance. No longer will there be any hunger or thirst, wants or needs, as all are filled at the messianic banquet prepared by God. When disciples are discouraged by meager fare in their work of love and justice, the hope of final fulfillment carries them in hope.


So many things about that Last Supper and about Jesus himself were unclear to his disciples at the time. They only came to understand later, after his death and resurrection. When a loved one dies, what is often most vivid are the words and actions of the last days, and particularly of the last meal together. Perhaps that is what happened with the first disciples as they struggled to understand all that had happened in their journey with Jesus.

As we continue the process in our day, whose version of the painting will we hang on our dining room walls? Or better yet, how will we replicate the meaning of that Supper in our meals, in our Eucharistic gatherings, and in our ministries as his disciples?

Barbara E. Reid, O.P., holds a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from The Catholic University of America and is Professor of New Testament Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She is the author of Parables for Preachers (3 volumes; Liturgical Press, 1999; 2000; 2001), A Retreat With Luke (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2000), and is New Testament Book Review Editor for the Catholic Biblical Quarterly.

Next: The Resurrection (by John Navone, S.J.)


Praying With Scripture

As you meditate on John 13:1-20 let yourself be one of the disciples whose feet Jesus washes. What does he say to you as he takes your feet into his hands? How do you respond?



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