The last suppers of Jesus Christ and Ledell Lee

Death-row inmate Ledell Lee. A ruling from the state Supreme Court allowing officials to use a lethal injection drug that a supplier says was misleadingly obtained cleared the way for Arkansas to execute Ledell Lee on Thursday, April 20, 2017, although he still had pending requests for reprieve. (Arkansas Department of Correction via AP) Death-row inmate Ledell Lee. A ruling from the state Supreme Court allowing officials to use a lethal injection drug that a supplier says was misleadingly obtained cleared the way for Arkansas to execute Ledell Lee on Thursday, April 20, 2017, although he still had pending requests for reprieve. (Arkansas Department of Correction via AP)

Some of the happiest words in any language are, “Let’s eat!” Eating is something that we do to stay alive. It is also something we do to stay together. That is why people don’t readily choose to eat alone. We sense that, if we are going to feed the body, we should feed the soul as well. The food on the table does the first. Who is at the table accomplishes the second. And, if we must choose between them, most of us would suffer poor food before we would sacrifice the qualities of family and friendship.

How strange then, is a condemned prisoner’s last meal. Why nourish a body, which is so soon to be destroyed? Why spend one’s last moments tasting favorites, unless you truly believe that these are the very last moments of your existence? That everything ends at death?

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What does it do to the human dignity of the condemned to proffer food yet deny fellowship? 

And how sad, even spiteful, to be forced to eat alone. What does it do to the human dignity of the condemned to proffer food yet deny fellowship? Isn’t eating a last meal alone something of a final affront? A man is fed like an animal, as though his soul required no nourishment.

How different the last meal of Jesus, the night before he is executed. He calls his friends to table, and he feeds them. Feeds them body and soul. Offers them food and love. Gives them his very self as he shares bread and wine.

This last supper seems to deny, even to ridicule, the reality of what will follow. Of course, it is not provided by those who will kill Jesus. Unlike a contemporary last meal, it does not insult him by depriving Jesus of table fellowship. It is the other way around. Setting his table, Jesus seems to slight death. Rather than about to be lost in death, he acts as though he will be its master.

We eat so that the body does not waste away. Arkansas kills before a poison expires. 

On April 20, the State of Arkansas executed Ledell Lee for the gruesome 1993 murder of Debra Reese. Although he and others contested it, raising important evidential questions about blood and DNA, Lee was convicted of killing Ms. Reese, during a robbery, by striking her 36 times with a tire tool. Ledell Lee has joined Debra Reese in death. Two are now dead. The justice of the state cannot restore her to life.

Arkansas didn’t execute Mr. Lee to make anyone else safer, which is probably the sole, and extremely rare, justification for capital punishment: when it’s the only way to insure the safety of others. No, Mr. Lee was executed because the State of Arkansas wanted to use up its toxin of choice, midazolam, before its right to do so had expired. What irony! We eat so that the body does not waste away. Arkansas kills before a poison expires.

Instead of a last meal, Ledell Lee choose to receive Holy Communion. That is something to ponder. Rather than a final, animal forage, the prisoner chose the most parsimonious of meals. Almost no nourishment for the body about to die, but, like the last meal of Jesus, a great and final sustenance of the spirit. To take Holy Communion in the face of death is to say that it is fellowship, and not food, that matters most. Our fellowship with Christ and with his saints.

To take Holy Communion in the face of death is to say that it is fellowship, and not food, that matters most. 

Is it blasphemous to compare Ledell Lee to Christ? One was convicted for murder. The other was murdered. But Christ does not stop being Christ in the face of heinous sin any more than he did in the face of heinous death. Christ is still—Christ is simply—mercy. Mercy, who sets her feast and summons her faithful.

Being but human inventions, states can, and often must, declare that mercy is spent. But Christ cannot cease being himself. He cannot stop being mercy. Ledell Lee’s crime may have sundered him from the protection of the state, but Ledell Lee’s sins cannot stop Christ from being Christ.

Were the last meals of Christ and Ledell Lee nothing more than rueful acts of rebellion? Perhaps even the friends of Jesus thought so at first. But then two breathless disciples rushed into their midst, racing back from the road to Emmaus. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Lk 24: 32)

Readings: Acts 2:14, 22-33 1 Peter 1:17-21 Luke 24: 13-35

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Beth Cioffoletti
7 months ago

Look at the eyes of the men in the photo that accompanies this article. Mr. Lee looks ahead with courage and faith. The other men cannot face the camera. They look away with shame.

Bruce Snowden
7 months ago

Lidell and Dismus, two convicted criminals with a lot in common. Both attained Communion with Jesus as death closed in, both saying in their own way, "Remember me Lord!" Both in the Land beyond the Stars, seeing at this moment up front and close, what we see only dimly trough Faith. Lidell, you seem to have lost, but in reality you won! Very uplifting story. And Beth I see your point - the prisoner is liberated, the liberated are imprisoned, shamed as they look way.

Vincent Gaglione
7 months ago

You write: "Being but human inventions, states can, and often must, declare that mercy is spent."

That statement for some might seem to imply that a state that declares mercy is spent can therefore morally murder someone as well. So I just add the caveat that even when a state's mercy is spent, capital punishment is not a moral option. In the modern world, no state worthy of the designation can find any reasonable justification for such.

Michael Roy
6 months 3 weeks ago

According to the author "Mr. Lee was executed because the State of Arkansas wanted to use up its toxin of choice, midazolam, before its right to do so had expired." I don't think that is accurate. Ledell Lee was executed for brutally murdering Debra Reese, a 26 year old woman who answered a knock on her door.
Terrance Klein also failed to point out that Ledell Lee had previously been convicted of two separate rapes in the Jacksonville, Ark., area. He was later accused of the strangulation murder of 22-year-old Christine Lewis in 1989, but a jury deadlocked, and prosecutors decided not to retry him after his death sentence for Debra Reese’s murder.
The moral equivalency of comparing Jesus and the Last Supper to alpha predator Ledell Lee is shameful.
And sorry Beth Cioffoletti (in the comment above), I don't think that the look on Ledell Lee's face in the photo provided is one of courage and faith.

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