And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. [Luke 22:25-27 (ESV)]
While researching 1st century dining habits, I learned how guests traditionally were seated. Although da Vinci’s famous mural places Jesus in the middle of the group at a long rectangular table, the position of Jesus (as the host) would have been second from the left on the left side of a U-shaped table. Customarily, a trusted friend was seated to the host’s immediate right and the guest of honor to the host’s immediate left. The rest of the diners were seated to the left starting with the highest-ranking person and proceeding on down to the least important. If a servant were present during the meal, the last seat was his since it was closest to the door. With no servant, it was given to the youngest or lowest ranking guest.
Based on references in Scripture, it is believed that John (who was described as “lying close to the breast of Jesus”) was the trusted friend to the Lord’s right and Judas (who “dipped his hand in the dish” with Jesus) was in the honored position to His left. Since Peter had to signal John to ask the identity of the betrayer, scholars think he probably was directly across from John in the least important position at the far end of the right side of the table. As the host, Jesus would have determined this seating arrangement—and it seems to have been as much about role reversal in God’s kingdom as was Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. Normally, one would expect Peter, the rock upon whom Jesus would build His church, to have the place of valued friend to Jesus’ immediate right and John, the youngest of the men, to have the last place at the table. Jesus, however, seated the least in the first place and the soon-to-be leader in the servant’s spot. Was this yet another way to impress upon His followers the importance of the servant leadership?
But what of Judas? Not only did Jesus wash His betrayer’s feet, but He also gave him the guest of honor’s place immediately to His left. Judas didn’t just eat from the same bowl as did Jesus, John reports that Jesus actually dipped bread into a bowl and gave it to Judas, an action that openly honored the man. How could Jesus do that and why? As Jesus’ head rested close to Judas’ chest, was this a way of giving Judas one last chance or a way of assuring the man of His love? Was this a lesson for the disciples about God’s love for even the worst of sinners? Was it a lesson for all of us about the undeserved, unconditional, unselfish, and never-ending love of Jesus? Can we love and serve the way our Lord did?