The Jerome Biblical Commentary, my first and primary (though not exclusive) source when exploring Scriptural interpretation,* adopts the work of the biblical scholar Rudolf Schnackenburg in dividing the Last Supper into four parts: (1) an announcement of the hour and farewell to the disciples; (2) a discourse of exhortation to the disciples concerning relations within the community and in the face of external hostility; (3) consolation for the sorrowing disciples; and (4) Jesus’ prayer for his disciples. (JBC 1989 edition, p. 972, para. 170)
The discourse begins famously with the washing of the feet of the twelve (John 13: 1-20) which includes the powerful instruction that “You must wash each other’s feet.” Jesus goes on to predict his betrayer (13:21-30) and Judas’s departure into the “night,” a favorite symbolism of John’s for the power of evil and absence of faith. With Judas out of the dining room, Jesus talks intimately (13:31-14:31), and begins with the fact that he is leaving them in multiple senses, to arrest and death and ultimately to reunion with his Father. The emotionally ridden questions of the disciples—“where are you going” and “how shall we know the way?”—are brilliant literary insertions by John to address the present day fears of a young Church surrounded by hostility. Recall that the discourse was written as long as 70 years after the Crucifixion.
In this portion of the discourse Jesus reveals what may be the central theme of John’s Gospel: “that the Father and I are one.” He explains that the works he has done—namely, the six miracles or “signs,” leading up to the raising of Lazarus—are testimony enough of his identity and the touchstone of faith to enter eternal life. For catechists, it is worth noting that two of these signs are proclaimed during the final weeks of Lent in the Sunday Gospels of Cycle A as part of the initiation process into baptismal life. Jesus continues on a new topic with immense importance for the Church: The sending of the Paraclete. Under the Paraclete Jesus describes a future in which even greater works would take place; the JBC concludes wisely that Jesus is emphasizing here a unity of the disciples’ work with his own, a oneness of purpose protected by his Holy Spirit until the end of time. John’s Gospel is unique for a virtual absence of reference to the end times; in other locations Jesus has indicated that judgment is happening now in the decisions of his listeners throughout the Gospel (as dramatically portrayed in the character of Judas.) Here (14:20-23) however Jesus makes the promise that he and his Father will return, and that his faithful disciples will share in this same unity of Father and Son. It is a stunning promise.
Jesus again consoles his disciples in 14:25-31, reminding them that nothing but good will come from his return to the Father in glory, and in a touching way, encouraging them to be happy about the future state of affairs. He again reminds them that the Paraclete will help them “to remember” everything he had taught them. There are shades of the same theme in Luke’s Emmaus story, where Jesus himself explains for the two floundering disciples the plan of God revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Chapter 15 is the famous discourse of organic togetherness. “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Jesus uses several analogies to describe this togetherness including friendship and his own willingness to die for die for these very friends. He continues in Chapter 16 with another, more elaborate reference to the Paraclete or Holy Spirit. The Paraclete will stand by the disciples in time of persecution and concurrently “convict the world” of its hardness of heart. This same Spirit will guide the disciples in teaching the truth. It is worth noting here that there is continuity here with the three Epistles of John. The Gospel and Epistles were written late in the New Testament era. Relations between Christians and Jews, and Christians and Romans, had deteriorated badly. In addition, scholars believe that the Church itself was factionalized over issues as basic as the divinity of Jesus. Certainly these issues were on the mind of the Evangelist as he depicts the farewell meal.
The Last Supper Discourse concludes with Chapter 17, “Jesus’ Prayer for the Disciples.” Again, the contemporary stresses of the Church may have been on John’s mind as he composed this unique prayer composition. As the JBC notes, this is a prayer directed to the Father on behalf of his immediate disciples, then to the readers of the Gospel 70 years later, and then to all throughout history who would believe, to our own time. Jesus prays that they (we) may be sanctified in the truth, that we be one, and that we see his glory.
Fittingly, the Church draws heavily from the Last Supper discourse as the Ascension and Pentecost feasts draw near and we prepare to resume the work of the kingdom, united and in truth under the Spirit, as we resume Ordinary time in two weeks.
* My second source for the Gospels is John Meier's A Marginal Jew (four volumes.) Then I move on to individual book commentaries.