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The Women (and Mary?) at Lukes Supper

The Women (and Mary?) at Lukes Supper

by Tony Cassidy CSSR)
A Talk to the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Canterbury, 29th October 2007
Published on our website with the permission of the author.

Preliminary Note:

It is a principle of biblical study or exegesis that an understanding of the context of a particular quotation is vital to its proper interpretation: it is easy to quote a verse or passage of scripture to support a certain point of view (this is called using a proof text), but often an examination of the wider setting of the words in question, and an understanding of the background of the society in which the author was at work, as well as the literary conventions of the time can yield quite a different interpretation or meaning.

* * * * *

The central figure in the Gospel tradition is Jesus of Nazareth, and any other person in the story is to be understood in relation to him. This principle applies to the figure of Mary. Her importance in the gospels of Matthew and Luke lies in her role in the mystery of the Incarnation, the coming of the Son of God into our world as one of us (St Athanasius describes her as the guarantee of the Incarnation). Luke presents her not only as a woman and mother, but also as the model disciple of Jesus, one who hears the word of God and puts it into practice (1:38, 11:28). For him, this is her true significance. Her status as the physical or natural mother of Jesus is subordinate to this, and the emphasis on discipleship as listening to the word of God and putting it into practice is clear from the incidents regarding the defining of the true family of Jesus (8:19-21) and praise for Mary as his physical or biological mother (11:27-28). In the first of these, Luke presents his mother and his brothers in a more positive light than do the other synoptic evangelists (Mark 3:31-32, Matt 12:46-50), who make a clear distinction between Jesus’ natural family and his true family, which consists of the circle of disciples around him.

In the first of these examples, the members of his natural family are presented as deliberately standing outside the house and summoning Jesus to them, in Mark probably because they have heard reports that he is out of his mind (Mark 3:21). Luke’s presentation is much more favourable, following onto the picture which he paints of Mary in the first two chapters of his work (the theological account of the birth of Jesus, which serves as the overture to the body of the gospel, in which the main themes to be developed later are introduced.

In the second of these scenes (11:27-28), when a woman calls out from the crowd, Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breast that suckled you! in other words, Blessed is your mother, Jesus deflects the attention from the fact of Mary’s being his physical mother to that of her exemplifying the characteristics of the person who is his disciple, Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it: for Luke, there is no distinction between the two groups, Jesus’ relatives are members of the circle.

We should note that the work of Luke includes the Acts of the Apostles, and is generally known as Luke-Acts. The Gospel has a geographical theme which shows Jesus travelling towards Jerusalem, the focal point at which the saving event of his passion, death and resurrection will take place: in Acts, Jerusalem becomes the centre from which the missionary activity of the community of disciples radiates. At the beginning of both of these stages of the story of redemption, Mary is present at the coming of the Holy Spirit, which represents God’s power at work in human beings to carry out the divine plan, first at the Annunciation (1:35), and then at Pentecost (Acts 1:14, 2:1-4).

The fact that Luke presents Mary as present at Pentecost with the other disciples, who number about one hundred and twenty in all, who had accompanied Jesus during his ministry and were with him (the whole multitude of disciples (19:37) when he entered Jerusalem, were present at the Mount of Olives immediately after the Last Supper (22:39) and at the crucifixion (23:49), suggests strongly that the evangelist envisages the entire group of disciples, including the women mentioned at 8:1-3, as participating in the celebration of the Passover (the Last Supper, 22:14-38), which takes place at the heart of the events located in or near the city.

It is worth noting in passing that many of our ideas about scenes from the bible owe more to sacred art than to the actual text describing the event or incident: for instance, the accounts of the birth of Jesus by Luke and Matthew are to all intents and purposes two entirely separate stories with practically no details in common. As will become clear, our conception of the Last Supper is probably coloured by the fresco of Leonardo da Vinci.

It might be useful to consider the idea of the Twelve in the context of the disciples. It is clear that Jesus chooses them from the wider group (6:15) and given the additional title apostles (Luke specifically says that he also named them apostles). The significance of the number is that they represent the twelve patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel, the community which Luke understands to be replaced by the christian church, hence the need to make up the number again after the defection of Judas, in preparation for the Pentecost event (Acts 1:15-26).

Although the Twelve constitute a kind of inner circle within the whole multitude of disciples, their prominence diminishes with the appointment of the Seven ((deacons) Acts 6:1-6) and the conversion of Saul/Paul (Acts 9:1-22): they are the only ones who remain in Jerusalem when persecution breaks out (Acts 8:1), and take no direct part in the wider mission. Their only further role in the story is to adjudicate on the question as to whether gentile converts were to be obliged to observe Jewish customs (15:1-21). With the coming of the Spirit, which is the completion of the Easter event, Jerusalem loses its significance as the locus of salvation, and with the ministry of Stephen and then of Paul, the preaching of the gospel, which means giving witness to the risen Christ, passes from the Twelve, and they gradually fade from the story. It may be of interest to note in this connection, that after all the concern to complete the number of the Twelve, Matthias is never mentioned again.

Note: the term “apostle” is not restricted in the wider New Testament to the twelve disciples specially chosen by Jesus. Paul, writing before the gospels were written, uses the term about himself, citing an experience (“Seeing”) of the Risen Lord as the criterion (1 Cor 9:1), and mentions “apostles” as one of the ranks of ministers within the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:28).

* * * * *

There is, as mentioned already, a consistent picture of a wider group accompanying Jesus during his ministry: to have done so, all the while the Lord Jesus was going about among us, from his baptism by John until the day when he was taken up from us, is the qualification for being elected to the number of the Twelve. We might consider some indications as to the nature of this group.

We have seen that Jesus calls the Twelve out of a larger group (Luke 6:12-16). Luke mentions three women by name and many other women who accompany him and the Twelve on a preaching tour and look after them out of their own resources (8:1-3). Jesus sends out two sets of disciples on parallel missions, the Twelve (9:1-6) and the Seventy (-two) (10:1-20). The total comes reasonably close to that of the hundred and twenty gathered before Pentecost, and it is clear that women are included in the circle of Jesus’ disciples. There is no reason from the text of the gospel for confining the mission which Jesus entrusts to the disciples simply to male disciples. There is also no reason from the text why the companion of Cleopas on the road to Emmaus could not be his wife or other female companion (24:13-35, cf John 19:25, which speaks of Mary, the wife of Clopas: there are connections between the traditions underlying these two gospels).

* * * * *

The Last Supper (Luke 22:1-38)

We now come to consider the Last supper itself. Jesus sends Peter and John to prepare the Passover, and to ask “where is the guest room, where I am to eat the Passover with my disciples?” (22:11). The word in the original text, which is translated as guest room is in fact the same word normally rendered as inn during the story of the arrival of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem (2:7), so it suggests a sizeable building containing a large upper room (22:12). (A better contemporary term, which would capture the transitory character of the pilgrim clientele might be motel. The Passover was one of the three pilgrimage feasts which were celebrated at Jerusalem, the others being Tabernacles and Dedication. It would seem that this is the place where the disciples lived for the duration of their stay in Jerusalem, rather than being simply a dining-room for this one significant meal, and was large enough to accommodate about one hundred and fifty persons (see Acts 1:13-14).

The city was regarded as being the property of the nation, and the inhabitants were expected to extend hospitality to the pilgrims, so the idea of the two putting this question to a perfect stranger is not as peculiar as it might seem at first glance.

Although the celebration of the Passover had been centralised around the Temple and Jerusalem, it never lost its character as an essentially family occasion, so although the lambs destined for the meal were slaughtered in the Temple precincts, the priests took no other official part in the feast. The presence of women and children is taken for granted. The story of the institution of the Passover is related in chapters 12-13 of Exodus, and lest the significance of the use of blood and unleavened bread be lost, ritual questions are prescribed: And when your children ask you, “What is the meaning of this rite?”, you must say, “It is the Lord’s Passover … “ (Exod 12:26-27). The explanation of the unleavened bread, and of the redeeming of this first-born, is directed specifically to the son (Exod 13:8,14-15).

The text then suggests that although Luke says that when the hour came, he sat at table, and the apostles with him, this need not mean that only the twelve were present (as the da Vinci fresco would have it), but rather that there was a “top table”, with the other disciples around and nearby. As Joachim Jeremias observed in 1966, “According to Mark 14:17 (par Matt 26:20) Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with the Twelve. It is not possible, however, to assume from this that the women mentioned in Mark 15:40; Luke 23:49,55 were excluded; in Eastern text the argument from silence is inadmissible in such cases” (my italics. He had earlier expressed surprise at the absence of the women who appear elsewhere in the gospel in the first edition, published in 1955. Another scholar, E. Schweizer, suggested that without women present, the Last Supper could not have been a Passover meal).

When Jesus speaks to the disciples during the course of the supper, he mentions that the leader of the disciples should be like himself, one who serves (22:27): the only others to whom this term is applied in the gospel, during his ministry, are women, Peter’s mother-in-law (4:39), the women from Galilee (8:3) and Martha (10:40), who exemplify the kind of leadership he expects from his disciples.

Jesus also says, you are those who have continued with me in my trials (22:28). If these trials (or better, tests) refer to events during his ministry, then the statement applies to a wider group than simply the Twelve (granted that Jesus is presented as speaking to them (see 22:30, 31-34, but then he mentions the mission, also entrusted to the seventy-two (9:1-6, 10:1-20). If the trials/tests anticipate the coming events of the passion, then all the disciples, including the women, are with Jesus at the cross (23:49), the women witness his burial by Joseph of Arimathea (not one of the Twelve, 23:50-55), prepare ointment for anointing his body and return to the tomb on the third day (24:1). Twice during those accounts Luke recalls that they (the women) had been following Jesus ever since Galilee (23:49,55). The picture of their perseverance could hardly be more clear” (Q. Quesnell, Supper (71).

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is presented as being among the disciples of Jesus during his ministry and at Pentecost. If she is present before and immediately after the Last Supper, there is no reason, on the level of narrative, to exclude her from that celebration of the Passover.

* * * * *


The words of Jesus in Luke’s account of the Last Supper are addressed to the whole multitude of the disciples. These words include the command, Do this in memory of me, and refer to the celebration of the eucharist, not simply to the consecration of the bread and wine. The biblical idea of memorial does not refer to the simple re-enactment of the Last Supper presided over by the human Jesus, but rather the ritual renewal of what that symbolises, namely the saving event of his passion, death and resurrection. This tradition goes back to the earliest days of the community of disciples, to the time before Paul (see 1 Cor 11:23-26), and is entrusted to the whole community of disciples, not just to the twelve.


When we study questions relevant to the church of our own day, it is natural that we look to the New Testament for light, but we should bear in mind that we may not find answers to specific questions which were not of direct concern or interest to the writers of that body of texts.

The church holds that there are two ways in which God’s word (Revelation) is transmitted, namely, Scripture and Tradition: the first is fixed and cannot be altered, the second develops and has to find a different way of expressing what the church believes, in a way which is relevant and understandable to the time in which it finds itself. This Tradition is the church’s reflecting on divine truth contained in the Scriptures, and anything in this Tradition must be contained, at least in principle in the sacred writings.

It is essential to distinguish between Tradition and custom. Tradition is the living belief of the christian community. This community is hierarchical and organised, and therefore ways of acting and behaving have grown up and developed over the centuries, but, although we may refer to customs as traditions, they are not to be identified with the Tradition of the church. In our present study, for example, the celebration of the eucharist, instituted by Jesus Christ, is part of Tradition: the way in which this celebration is conducted, and who presides at the assembly is not. It is the function of the Magisterium, the teaching authority in the church, to clarify and articulate what the church, the people of God, believes: it is not the function of the teaching authority to propose new doctrines.

The New Testament does not associate presiding at the eucharist with any named officials of the community.

The priest today acts within the liturgy in persona Christi, and also represents the church, using the pronoun we when praying in the name of the community. All baptised persons have put on Christ as a garment (Gal 3:37), just as all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:27), and so can properly represent the Risen Christ.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission, set up to study the role of women in the Bible and whether or not women can be ordained to the priestly ministry (especially as ministers of the eucharist and as leaders of the Christian community), pointed out in its Report in 1976 the limits of such a study, and concludes that it does not seem that the New Testament by itself alone will permit us to settle in a clear way and once and for all the problem of the possible accession of women to the presbyter ate.

Perhaps we should ask of any ecclesiastical practice or custom: does it reflect the mind of Christ? If it does not, then it must be changed. When we consider the christian community, perhaps the key text should be that from the letter to the Galatians, which precedes the written gospels:

Baptised into union with him, you have put on Christ Jesus like a garment. There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28-28).


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