Questions for going deeper with the Scriptures for Sunday, August
As we finish our reading of Mark’s gospel, we arrive at the climactic end (and re-beginning) of the story of Jesus. I’m struck by the way in which the passage for today, commonly called “the Last Supper” is presented as customary, normal, the established way of celebrating the Passover: the ritual meal that creates community and names the love of a God who delivered the Hebrews from slavery in Ancient Egypt. Jesus takes this “normal” or “customary” way of explaining God, naming God’s love and experiencing God’s freedom and reinterprets it, turning it upside down and right side up. His interpretation of the meal is sandwiched between two stories of betrayal, denial and desertion. His love – best summarized in the offering of the communion meal – seems to be ineffective, not stopping betrayal, but preceding it; not preventing denial but rather naming it. Is the Love of Jesus that we invoke, proclaim and ask for merely a metaphor? Is it just pretty words intended to make us feel better in our own betrayals and suffering? How can it be true when Jesus seems to be a failure more than a victor in the story of the cross?
The story of Mark 14 lifts up the theological themes of God’s love, omnipotence and saving action in history. It’s in the context of the Passover: the meal eaten each year in the Jewish month of Nissan to commemorate the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. It’s not just a remembering of the past, it’s an active remembering in which the past is claimed as a promise for the future and a truth for the present. This defining moment in Jewish history is at the heart of Jewish faith, and the experience of the Divine as a loving, powerful, compassionate and freeing God. But how do we understand that in the context of the story of the cross, in which Jesus seemingly is defeated and his followers scattered?
The Passover meal, or Seder, is celebrated by Jesus and his friends, yet there is no reporting of the slaughtering of the lamb or the rites of purification which are essential parts of the ritual. Did Jesus celebrate the Passover without eating lamb? Is he reinterpreting this theologically laden meal? You can hear an echo of Psalm 23, “you prepare a table for me in the presence of mine enemies.” This story is filled with irony. Jesus speaks only of bread and wine, leaving aside the lamb, bitter herbs and other customary Seder elements. Why?
In the Ancient World your importance was visibly articulated by the proximity with which you were seated to the host. So Judas, who dips into the same bowl as Jesus, must be close to him? Is seems to be an echo of Psalm 41:7-9: “All my enemies whisper together against me; they imagine the worst for me, saying, 8 “A vile disease has beset him; he will never get up from the place where he lies.” 9 Even my close friend, someone I trusted, one who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.”
The last supper seems to be a way in which to participate in the blessings that God gives, to receive a blessing from Jesus (See 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). So why does Jesus serve and share it with Judas before he betrays him, when Jesus seems to know what will take place? Is he naïve? Or is there something else at work when the symbolic language of Jesus when he says that his death will accomplish an ultimate cleansing, an unimaginable Passover?
The disciples might have been horrified to drink his blood, for they thought that it was the very life of life force (see John 6:52 and Genesis 4:10). Jesus expects to be present at the messianic banquet in God’s kingdom or dominion (See Isaiah 25:6; Matthew 8:11; Luke 14:15 and Revelation 19:9). His words suggest that the death of Jesus is some way instrumental in bringing about the arrival of God’s kingdom.
Zechariah chapters 9 to 14 may provide a contract to the interpretation of those passages circulating in revolutionary circles in Jesus’ day. But instead of seeing the arrival of the kingdom of God in the appearance of a triumphant Messiah figure on the Mount of Olives, a miraculous deliverance of Jerusalem from the Gentile armies that surround it, and a resanctification of the Temple through its cleansing from pagan influence, Mark saw the arrival of the kingdom of God, paradoxically, in the deliverance of Jesus to his Jewish enemies on the Mount of Olives, his humiliating death at the hands of Gentiles in Jerusalem and the proleptic act of Temple destruction that accompanies that death. (Ben Witherington III).
Ironically the end of the passage has all of the disciples wondering if they will be the one to denounce and renounce Jesus. What a radical stance by Jesus to stay with such faithless and self-doubting friends. It makes me think of the teachings of Jesus about an eye for an eye (Matthew 5:38-42) and love for enemies (Matthew 5:43-48).
Questions for wondering and exploring:
• What is Jesus saying to you and our church community today through this text?
•I find myself thinking about the irony of this story. Granted we know the end, that Jesus resurrects and that his death and new life change the universe. But it’s a hard thing. When everyone thinks Jesus is being defeated his is actually triumphing, even though appearances seem contrary. How do you feel defeated, experience suffering, betrayal, desertion in your life – thinking that God has deserted you? How has Jesus brought the victory of resurrection in some of the places where you have known a little death? We might take such a truth as a simple way of justifying suffering; or we might take it as a radical, counter-cultural affirmation that the God of Jesus works in irony and paradox, not merely to make us laugh, but to transform death into life, darkness into light, to bring resurrection. How do you need resurrection practiced in your life today?