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Bible Commentaries
John 13

Orchard's Catholic Commentary on Holy ScriptureOrchard's Catholic Commentary

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Verses 1-38

XIII-XVII THE LAST SUPPER The earthly ministry of the Christ to his own nation is finished. Through their leaders and as a people ’the children of the kingdom’ are standing in the darkness outside, when Jesus retires with his twelve apostles to eat the Paschal supper. That he did eat a Paschal supper with them is all but certain from the synoptics, but there is nothing explicit in Jn either about such a celebration or about the institution of the Eucharist. While the Synoptists narrate the things done at the Last Supper, Jn magnificently supplements them with a narrative which is mainly a report of the Saviour’s words. The whole comprises three great sections: (1) ch 13, an historical prelude (washing of the feet, separation from Judas, and a touching preamble about the Passion, the new commandment, Peter’s denial); (2) 14-16, the great discourse divided by a gesture of movement into 14 and 15-16; (3) 17, the sacerdotal prayer for unity.

XIII 1-38 Events In the Supper Room. XIII 1-17 Washing of the Feet —Jn has not a word to indicate or describe the place of the Last Supper, but he gives a precious date. Both here and in 18:28 he clearly indicates that the Sanhedrists were not themselves eating the Paschal supper, while Jesus was gathered with his own in the supper room (cenacle). Unless we suppose an improbable official transference of the Pasch of that year to 16 Nisan, the dates must be as follows: Jesus celebrated the Pasch on the evening which began 14 Nisan on the official calendar; he was crucified about noon 14 Nisan; the Jewish paschal supper began an hour or two after the Saviour’s burial. It is disputed whether Jesus anticipated the date of the Pasch by his own authority ( Fouard, Le Camus), or adhered to a Pharisaic rather than a priestly (Sadducee) dating ( Vosté, Prat), or followed a different (Galilean) observation of the moon ( Lagrange, Braun). Let it suffice to say here that recent studies seem to have given very strong probability to the opinion that Jesus ate the Pasch an instituted the Holy Eucharist after the sundown that closed Thursday 13 Nisan, died on a Friday which was 14 Nisan—a combination which gives very considerable probability to April 7, a.d. 30 as the date of the Redemption. (Nevertheless April 3, a.d. 33, still has its patrons, and their arguments are not negligible; cf. § 676b.)

1. St John loves prologues. They always sound the note of solemnity. Here ’his hour’, so often mentioned before, is defined (with an allusion to the Passover) as the hour of his passage from this world to the Father. The proofs of love which he had given to his own had been many. Now he gave his final proof of that love (unto death, says Aug.); or as the Gk phrase ’to the end’ may also signify, he gave them supreme proof of his love (Chrys., Cyr.).

2. What follows brings a terrible shock of contrast. The supper was in progress (de?+´p??? ????µe+´???, rather than ’when supper was done’), but the devil had sown treachery in the heart of one of the company, who is now named ’Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon’. Jn had named Judas with similar emphasis when chronicling the day of the Eucharistic promise, John 6:72.

3. There is another antithetic step from the baseness of Judas, to the sublime dignity which Jesus knew was his— universal sovereignty, divine origin, approaching glorification.

4 f. And we follow yet another step of contrast as Jesus fully conscious of this greatness rises from table to preform a menial act for all his apostles, including Judas, while they reclined at table (their feet outwards). A lesson in humility is, in this context, the obvious intention of Jesus, and as such he himself explains it, 12-17. The customary ceremonial required a washing of hands, but Jesus added the washing of their feet. It is really humility doing a service of charity, this latter virtue being the one which has chief prominence in the magnificent commentary provided by the liturgical texts of Maundy Thursday. The further purpose of symbolic purification, though popularly assumed since Orig. and Aug., does not clearly result from the text. Jn notes every detail of the Saviour’s actions, as if the wonder with which he then viewed the Lord thus serving his servants, still transpired through his pen.

6. Jesus began with Simon Peter, for we cannot conceive the impetuous apostle holding his protest, while the Lord washed the feet of one, or two, or eleven others.

7 f. English word-order blunts the force of St Peter’s protest, as it sounds both in Greek and Latin. The contrast between ’thou’ and ’my’ in the apostle’s words implies loving adoration expressing itself with utmost emphasis and vehemence. The amazed tone of the refusal comes from him who had declared Jesus ’the Christ, the Son of the living God’. Even when Jesus asks for acquiescence, adding a promise of explanation in the future, 12-16, Peter remains obstinate. ’Never’, he said. As the refusal proceeded from love, but not according to knowledge, Jesus overcame it by the proper weapon: ’if I wash thee not, thou shalt have no part with me’. In this threat with which Jesus subdues Peter’s love, it cannot well be loss of sanctifying grace, or loss of partnership in the Eucharist or in the priesthood or the apostolate that is meant—all interpretations proposed by different commentators— but rather dissociation of mind from the humiliation of the Passion (cf.Matthew 16:23).

9. The fear of any sort of separation from Jesus drives the ardent apostle to the other extreme of offering his hands and head also to be washed.

10 f. One who has taken a bath needs no subsequent partial washing, for total cleanness excludes the necessity of partial cleansing. This seems the most satisfactory interpretation, as the words ’but’ and ’his feet’ are absent from many of the best Gk and Vg MSS. It is in order to show his knowledge of the treason of Judas that Jesus passes to the moral sense saying: ’You are clean, but not all’.

12-17. Resuming full attire and his place at table, Jesus explained the lesson. The disciples called him the Master and the Lord, and such he really was. Humble service of one another (washing of feet being a type of all humble services) is what they must learn from this unique Master and Lord. The Church, while keeping the washing of feet in the liturgy of Holy Thursday, has not regarded it as a permanent sacramental, much less a sacrament. It is a generic example given by the Saviour; and the solemn sentence under double Amen emphasizes that the servant being less than his Lord and the apostle being less than his Sender must not be above doing such things. It is not the knowledge, but the practice of such an example that brings the happiness of true discipleship.

18-30 Elimination of the Traitor —It is from such happiness of true discipleship that Jesus passes to indicate the presence of a miserable apostate, without, however, revealing the person to the company. The happiness mentioned did not belong to all the twelve.

18. Knowing everything, Jesus had chosen them all as members of his apostolic college (cf. 6:71), but that one should, by his own fault, betray the confidence shown him was foreseen in the prophetic Scriptures. The text of Ps 40(41):10 is cited according to the Hebrew. The brutal treason of Achitophel, table-companion and intimate counsellor of David, is described as the backward kick of a horse against his Master. Achitophel was the type of Judas.

19. Jesus is careful to make this known beforehand, ’that, when it shall come to pass, you may believe that I am’—the suppressed predicate being ’what I revealed myself to be’, namely, the Messias, the Son of God. The undetermined ’I am’ on the lips of Jesus is particularly reminiscent of the majesty of ’I am who am’. 20. This grandeur of Jesus, Messias and Son of God, supplies, it seems, the connecting link between 19 and 20, which latter verse derives the dignity of the faithful apostles from the dignity of the Messias and the dignity of the Father who sent him. It is conceivable that the thought of this divinely high apostolic dignity brought on the disturbance which Jesus freely allowed to arise in his spirit, as he turned his mind to the traitor apostle. Though he had twice touched the subject of uncleanness, 11, and treachery, 18, in the apostolic group, he had not yet spoken directly.

21. Now, however, he solemnly attests with emotion, ’Amen, amen I say to you, one of you shall betray me’. Only one knew it was himself, but the eleven were in consternation and in doubt, each about himself (as the synoptics show) and each vaguely about everyone else. St Peter, as usual, wished to cut an intolerable situation short. Placed possibly at the right-hand curve of a horse-shoe arrangement of cushions round a more or less circular table which was probably only slightly above the level of the floor, Peter was near enough to communicate with the disciple in front of Jesus, who was reclining with his head about the level of his Master’s breast. Here the Evangelist for the first time covers his anonymity with the beautiful and distinctive title ’the disciple whom Jesus loved’. With a gesture of the hand and in a whisper Peter said to John: ’Who is it?’ The familiarity with which John leaned his head back to get the information is charmingly expressed in Gk by the adverb ’thus’ (cf. 4:6), that is, just as a bosom friend would do.

26. The sign, a dipped morsel, shows that the supper was not yet finished—an indication that the Eucharist had not yet been instituted. The morsel was not the Eucharist, and was probably a cake of unleavened bread, dipped in the special sauce called charoseth. This sign, of which the whispered significance was known only to John, was a gesture of friendship towards Judas, but it finally hardened him.

27. ’After the morsel Satan went into him’ to clench the decision of betraying Jesus. By the words: ’that which thou dost, do quickly’ Jesus separates himself from one who had already completely gone over to the enemy. So well had the reputation of Judas been guarded that the company understood the Master’s words of a commission to the bursar regarding some festal expenses or almsgiving to the poor.

30. Judas went out immediately. ’And it was night’. To adapt a phrase of Aug., night went out into the night; Judas was going to the Prince of Darkness, separating himself from the Light of the World for ever. There seems to be a growing tendency to rally to the probability (though it is only a probability) that Judas had not received the body of the Lord and was not a priest. [It would be certain if the Eucharist was instituted between the second and third cups of wine and water, as Judas seems to have gone out before the second; cf. § 720a.—Gen. Ed.]

31-33 The Glorification of Jesus —Separated from the traitor and thereby set on the way to his Passion the man Christ regards his glorification, soon to be accomplished on the cross, as virtually realized.

32. Since he is to glorify God by his Passion, God will glorify him; ’in himself’ may refer to the glorified or to the glorifier. The resurrection and ascension, forming a unity with the Passion, are regarded as immediately imminent. It is after this verse that many harmonizers insert the institution of the Blessed Eucharist. If so, the term of endearment: ’Little children’ (of which this is the only recorded instance from the lips of Jesus) represents the glow of the heart which we now venerate as the Eucharistic Heart. In any case, it introduces a touching adieu, for the Master announces at once his proximate departure and visible withdrawal from his own, in such wise that they cannot accompany him.

34-35 The New Commandment —Jesus gives the old commandment of Leviticus 19:18 as a new commandment. Mutual fraternal love, as promulgated by the Saviour, is new because of the entirely new standard ’as I have loved you’. The first’ that’ introduces the commandment; ’as’ fixes the standard; the second ’that’ manifests the deliberate placing of that standard—in other words, Jesus’ intention in loving us was that we should love similarly—unselfishly (Cyr.), gratuitously (Chrys.), efficaciously, rightly (Aquin.). 35. Charity is the badge of true disciples of Christ. Tertullian ( Apol.30) sets it down as a note which pagans recognized in the Christian community. 1 Jn is full of the exegesis of this commandment. We should also recall the precious information transmitted by St Jerome (in Gal.) that St John in extreme old age could preach nothing else but ’My little children, love one another’. Aug. has the beautiful thought: As Christ the Saviour loved us to save us, so charity should be a thirst for the spiritual salvation of our neighbours, all of whom God wills to be saved. It is primarily amongst disciples in the Christian community, but extends to others without exception, that they also may be disciples.

36-38 Peter’s Love and Presumption —St Peter was totally absorbed in the departure of Jesus and fixed in the thought that wherever the Master went he should follow. When Jesus said ’not now’ but later, Peter made the bold profession of love and presumption which brought from Jesus the terrible reminder, in the form of a prophecy of the Apostle’s triple denial, that fervour does not avail without the consciousness of personal weakness and a correlative dependence on divine grace. Recall the touching prayer of St Philip Neri: ’Lord keep thy hand upon Philip, or Philip will betray thee’. The cockcrow mentioned is the second of Mk—that of the third or fourth watch— before which Peter shall have thrice denied the Master (the life, says Aug.) for whom he thought himself ready to die.

Bibliographical Information
Orchard, Bernard, "Commentary on John 13". Orchard's Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/boc/john-13.html. 1951.
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