The text on the day before Maundy Thursday invites us to reflect on the initiative taken by Judas in going to the chief priests and agreeing to betray Jesus, the preparation for the Passover and the prediction of Judas’ betrayal.
Matthew’s reason for the betrayal by Judas is greed. Judas wants something if he agrees to betray Jesus and agrees to the thirty pieces of silver offered to him, a detail mentioned only by Matthew. Unlike in Mark where the money is promised, in Matthew Judas is paid on the spot. Some see the reference to the thirty silver pieces as taken by Matthew from Zech 11:12-13 in which there is an obscure reference to the wages of a shepherd, who puts money back into the treasury. In Exod 21:32 thirty silver pieces is the price of an injured slave.
According to Exod 12:1-20, the Passover lambs were to be killed on the afternoon of the 14th of Nisan, and the festival itself began with the ritual meal on the evening that began the 15th of Nisan. The Festival of Unleavened Bread began on the 15th and continued for seven days, during which no leaven should be found in the house. By the first century, the two festivals had merged and their names were used interchangeably. In addition, the pious practice of removing leaven one day early, the 14th, had become common.
Preparation for the Passover involved (1) locating an appropriate place within the city walls of Jerusalem, the only legitimate location for eating the Passover meal; (2) searching the room for leaven and removing any items that might contain yeast (bread crumbs, etc.); (3) obtaining a lamb and having it ritually slaughtered by the priests in the Temple; (4) roasting the lamb and preparing it with the other necessary items for the meal in the place previously arranged. While it is important to Matthew for theological reasons that the last supper was a Passover, he narrates none of the details associated with the Passover meal and ritual, concentrating his interest on the meal of the new covenant to be celebrated.
While Judas’ question to the chief priests focuses on himself and what he can gain, the disciples question to Jesus focuses on Jesus and what he wants them to do.
After Jesus takes his place at the table, he announces the fact of his betrayal by one of the Twelve. This announcement leads to distress on the part of the disciples. Each asks in turn whether he is the one. Jesus responds by indicating that one of those who eat with him will betray him, but does not explicitly identify Judas. Judas’ question is left till after Jesus’ response.
The dialectic of divine sovereignty and human responsibility in the passion is brought out strongly in Jesus’ comment that it would be better for the betrayer if he had not been born. Jesus is fully aware of who it is that will betray him. God is not taken by surprise in the betrayal that leads to crucifixion; it goes according to the divine plan expressed in Scripture. But this does not relieve the burden of human responsibility. God is fully sovereign, humanity is fully responsible.
Judas who is in the process of betraying Jesus asks if he is the one. Unlike the other disciples who address Jesus as Lord, Judas addresses him as Rabbi indicating that he is not an insider but an outsider. Jesus’ response “You said it” is a clear affirmation that Judas is indeed the one.
There are some, who because they find it easier, prefer to lay the blame at God’s door for their “misfortune”. These are people who have not yet grown up. If children blame others for the mistakes they make or refuse to accept responsibility it can be understood, but when adults do that it is a sign of not having grown up. While it is true that God remains sovereign, it is also true that we as humans have total freedom and thus must accept responsibility for our actions. We are always free to act as we see fit, but we must also realize that our every action has consequences which we must be willing to accept.