This is the forty-first installment, comprising Act 6, Scene 4, chapter 14:12-26, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the fortieth installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
Scene 4: 14:12-2612 On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, "Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?" 13 So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, "Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, 14 and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, "The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?' 15 He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there." 16 So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal. 17 When it was evening, he came with the twelve. 18 And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me." 19 They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, "Surely, not I?" 20 He said to them, "It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. 21 For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born." 22 While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, "Take; this is my body." 23 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. 24 He said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. 25 Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God." 26 When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. (NRSV)
Judas’ betrayal of Jesus has been set in motion in Act 6,Scene 3, although we do not yet know the manner in which Jesus will be turned over to his opponents. We have understood the inevitable nature of Jesus’ death from the end of the first act of the Gospel, but the inevitability of an event does not diminish the dramatic power or tension as we await it. Jesus, too, has been clear to his apostles that he must die; he has even sketched out the nature of his death and his subsequent resurrection on multiple occasions. Yet, this does not mean that questions have all been answered. How will he be turned over to his opponents? When will they turn him over? Why will they turn him over? Will his apostles and his other disciples come to grips with what his death means? And what exactly does his death mean? Jesus has explained it, yes, but what will the impact be of his death? Will it be the coming of the apocalypse, the day of the Lord? What twists and turns still await the reader or hearer of this story?
Mark sets Scene 4 rapidly and directly, noting that it is “the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed” (14:12). In light of Jesus’ impending death, the Passover cannot be a random reference and neither can the mention of sacrifice; instead they are clues as to the meaning and significance of his death. Yet, the immediate concern of the disciples (and Mark) is to determine where Jesus wants to eat the Passover meal (14:12). The subsequent directions of Jesus remind us that he is in charge of the events of his life, and so his death, and that all is mysteriously going to come to pass not just how his opponents and betrayer desire, but more deeply how he desires.
After his disciples ask, “Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?,” Jesus directs “two of his disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there” (14:12-15). These directions are incredibly detailed, foreseeing not just the presence of a man, but what he is carrying and the fact that he will enter into a house which he apparently does not own and where a guestroom will be prepared. It is possible that like a spy, the operations have been set up by Jesus in advance, including the code words, “The Teacher asks,” but it seems more likely that Jesus’ knowledge is due to his prophetic nature. It is reminiscent of his entrance into the city at the beginning of Act 5, Scene 1. In that Scene, I wrote,
So as they approach Jerusalem and Mark locates their entry “at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives” (11:1), and Jesus instructs two of his disciples to “go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately,’” (11:2-3), it creates the dramatic context in which all that has been and will be unfolds. Jesus knows, for instance, that there will be a colt awaiting his disciples that has never been ridden. Jesus’ need for the colt will be understood, somehow, by the owner, when the disciples tell him that “The Lord needs it.” And, finally, Jesus identifies himself, or the fulfillment of his mission, or perhaps both, with the Lord. In either case, Jesus knows the will of the Lord. The prophetic context has been set in these simple instructions.
Indeed, when the disciples go and take the colt, which they find as Jesus said, “some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’”(11:4-5), which is a fair question. You might ask the same question if someone decided to take your car while you were standing in front of it. It is more than just the owner of the colt, though, who might be expected to question why someone is taking his colt. These are bystanders. They know these disciples of Jesus do not own the colt, but when “they told them what Jesus had said…they allowed them to take it” (11:6). This means that the prophetic nature of the act is “known” in some manner even by these bystanders, who are not major players in the unfolding drama. All has gone according to plan, just as Jesus outlined it.
The same fulfillment happens here in Act 6, Scene 4, including the words that Jesus sent “two disciples” to carry out his wishes and the fact that even those people who do not know Jesus – as far as we know - act in accordance with Jesus’ wishes. The two disciples did as Jesus told them and “went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal” (14:16). The welcome of Jesus into the city as Messiah in Act 5, Scene 1 was foreordained, and all went according to plan; so, too, the Passover meal, which presages his death, and the spot where it is held, is also foreordained and we grasp that it too will go according to plan. That plan will necessarily include his death. It is essential, though, prior to his death that the eating of the Passover meal be fulfilled first.
That evening, after the two disciples had prepared the feast, Jesus came “with the twelve” (14:17). We are given very little detail about the rituals of the Passover dinner; we are instead told it is a Passover meal and then are brought into the midst of this meal. When the apostles and other disciples had “taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.’ They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, ‘Surely, not I?’ He said to them, ‘It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born’” (14:18-21). What is remarkable in this passage is that the meal is secondary to the reality and necessity of the betrayal.
The betrayal is critical for the drama that will unfold, though, for it points to the foreordained nature of Jesus' coming death. By having Jesus discuss it at the meal, Mark demonstrates that Jesus is aware of who his betrayer is, though he does not mention him by name, and is in charge of his fate that is now unfolding. The disciples on the other hand seem to understand themselves as bit players in their own lives, unable to control their own fates in Jesus’ drama now being revealed, as they ask, “Surely, not I?” (14:19). This is a dramatic trope that works powerfully here in Mark’s Gospel – would his closest friends, allies, students and disciples not know whether they desired to betray Jesus? Do they see themselves as so much flotsam and jetsam in the sea of Jesus’ life that they might become unaware, uncomprehending betrayers? Or has Mark simply created an even deeper tension than that which his readers experience, portraying the tension that must run through all of those in the upper room that Passover evening? How and when and by whom will Jesus die?
We know as readers it is Judas, but those in the upper room, with the exception of the betrayer and the betrayed, are left not only wondering, “who is it?,” but, “could it be me?” They are also left to wonder about the fate they might now gain. For Jesus’ fate goes “as it is written of him,” according to prophetic plan, but for the betrayer “it would have been better for that one not to have been born” (14:21). This final statement is particularly chilling, for later Christian theology maintains that "being," which is a participation in God’s nature, is preferable to "non-being," nothingness, yet it is nothingness that Jesus claims would be preferable than the fate of the betrayer.
Mark now gives us a short but powerful description and insight into the Passover meal. During the meal, Jesus interprets his imminent death in light of two of the elements of that meal: bread and wine. “While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body’” (14:22). Certainly his disciples must have immediately understood the broken bread as a symbol of his body soon to be broken to death. After the bread, Jesus “took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many’” (14:23-24). In the case of the cup, Jesus’ interpretation evokes even more sacrificial symbolism.
The cup is related to the Suffering Servant Song of Isaiah 52:13-53:12, especially the atoning sacrifice of the guiltless one whose blood is poured out for many:
11 Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
This "pouring out for many" was already discussed in Act 4, Scene 8, 10:32-45, where I wrote "Jesus desires his death not for the sake of death, not for the sake of glory, but for all those who cannot save themselves." Jesus’ interpretation of the cup, though, also reminds us of the sealing of the covenant with blood, as in Exodus 24. Finally, of course, Passover imagery is suggested by the very blood of the lamb which seals and protects the Israelites from death in Exodus 12. We are not told when this bread and this cup occur in the Passover meal, so it seems that the function of the bread within that meal, as the function of cups of wine which have been drank or will be drunk, are not as important to Mark as allowing Jesus to interpret the bread and wine sacrificially in the context of his own life and ministry, which certainly includes the whole panoply of sacrificial references associated with the Passover itself.
Jesus ends his discussion with his disciples in Scene 4 by promising them that his death is now so near that “truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (14:25). As each prophecy of Jesus has come to pass as he has said, the reader now knows that this prophecy too will come to pass. Jesus’ end is near, but so is the Kingdom of God, which Jesus promised and described at the end of Act 5, Scene 10. The Passover meal is coming to an end with the promise of Jesus' death, but also the promise of a new meal: the eschatological Messianic banquet in the newly established Kingdom of God which was promised by the Prophets. They end the meal with the Hymn, often identified as Psalms 113-118, known as the Hallel Psalm. After finishing the meal, the transition to Scene 5 begins, for “they went out to the Mount of Olives” (14:26). Mark has started to tie up loose ends in this account, as they all begin to coalesce in what is both the plot to end Jesus’ life and the destiny to which Jesus has been aiming his whole life.
John W. Martens
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