43 And immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. 44 Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man. Seize him and lead him away under guard.” 45 And when he came, he went up to him at once and said, “Rabbi!” And he kissed him. 46 And they laid hands on him and seized him. 47 But one of those who stood by drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. 48 And Jesus said to them, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? 49 Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But let the Scriptures be fulfilled.” 50 And they all left him and fled. 51 And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, 52 but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.
You would not know to look at it, but this painting was actually considered extremely controversial when it was painted. In fact, when it appeared the artist was summoned before the Inquisition to explain himself. I am talking about Paolo Veronese’s 1573 painting, “The Feast at the House of Levi.” Actually, that was not his original title. He renamed the painting after the Inquisition gave him three months to change it. Originally it was entitled, “The Last Supper.”
What was it that upset the Inquisition so much about the painting? If you look closely at it you will see the traditional elements of last supper paintings: Jesus in the middle of the table and the disciples flanking Him on either side. But what was surprising and, to some, upsetting, were the extra elements that Veronese added. For instance, the Inquisition seems to have been irked at the fact that there is a dog standing in front of the Lord’s Supper table. (Veronese reveals in the transcript of his exchange with the Inquisition that somebody suggested he paint Mary Magdalene over the dog but he declined for the reason that she would look very strange indeed positioned right there in the painting.) Also, Veronese included an image of a dwarf, an image of a man with a bloody nose holding a rag, a man dressed like a “buffoon” with a parrot on his arm, and maybe most provocatively, some men dressed as Germans wearing swords. This was upsetting to the Inquisition because in the 1500’s in Germany the Protestant Reformation was exploding and they were offended by what they might have seen as a nod to the Reformation in the painting. What is more, Peter, in the painting, is carving lamb to put on people’s place, an image that was certainly not traditional.
In short, some were offended by Veronese’s painting because it put Jesus in the midst of a situation that looked too real, too raw, too earthly, too worldly! Dogs and men with bloody noses and heretics with swords, and some guy with a parrot, and Peter cutting up lamb: all of this is just too much for folks who want their Jesus captured in a moment of soft light, religious piety, pretty colors, and a romanticized gloss.
But I like Veronese’s painting! In fact, I love it. Why? Because Jesus did not come to the earth to star in some first century version of a Hallmark Channel movie. He did not come for the gloss and the feel-good story. He came to step into the midst of the rabble of humanity where dogs roam around the table and where people have bloody noses and where the weird guy with the parrot is just wondering around the room and where the dangerous people with swords are and where people are doing commonplace things and heretical things and dangerous things and disturbing things. This is the world into which Jesus stepped! He came into the mud and the muck of raw everyday humanity.
More than that, he stepped into the darkness of human sinfulness. He stepped among us rebels and prodigals and scoundrals—that is to say, among all of us!—in order to call us home! Chapter 39 of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 is entitled “The Eternal City.” In this chapter, Yossarian walks through the streets of Rome and behold numerous horrible scenes of violence and excess. Then Joseph Heller writes this:
The night was filled with horror, and he thought he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatrist through a ward full of nuts, like a victim through a prison full of thieves. What a welcome sight a leper must have been!
Indeed! And nowhere does the contrast between the ways of man and the ways of God become more evident than in these scenes at the end of the gospels as we approach the cross. Mark 14 has shown us the Lord’s Supper and now we are in the garden. Jesus has groaned under the weight of the burden of the coming cross but He has not turned away. He has not been unfaithful. He still holds true to the task.
Now, Judas comes. The soldiers come. Peter lashes out. The disciples flee. In other words, now we see the ways of man and the ways of God in shocking contrast. Now we see that Veronense was right to paint what he painted, for God in Christ stepped not into a “Precious Moments” display case. He stepped into the nightmare of man and brought with Him the light of glory.
Let us observe the contrast between the way of man and the way of God.