Just as there were two movements in Mark 14:1-11, a conspiracy to kill and a mealtime anointing in preparation for death, so there are two movements in Mark 14:12-26. The first recognizes the conspiracy along with the subsequent faithlessness of the disciples and the second describes another meal that carries the significance of Jesus’ death.
Though Mark 14:12-16, the preparation for the Passover meal, is often barely mentioned, it is significant as a “set-up” for what follows. On the one hand it links us to the conspiratorial atmosphere of the text and on the other hand it provides an explicit context for the meal itself. The conspiratorial dimension is often overlooked. A few disciples are sent into the city ahead of Jesus to prepare the Passover meal. Jesus himself does not enter the city till nightfall. In effect, Jesus avoids the crowds and the authorities. It is possible, as Myers (Binding the Strong Man, 360-361) suggests, that the signal (a man carrying water!) and pre-arranged space are part of a counter-conspiracy to protect Jesus while in the city for the Passover. In any event, the preparation is covert rather than pubic.
The procedure Jesus utilizes reminds readers of Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city where he sent disciples ahead to secure a donkey (Mark 11:2-6). The contrast between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Sunday and his entry on this Thursday evening is startling. In the first he is publicly hailed as a Messianic figure but now he sneaks into Jerusalem under cover of darkness. Mark’s emphasis on the arranging of the events in both chapter eleven and here underscore how he uses the two events to provide a context for understanding the words and actions of Jesus. Jesus entered the Temple as a messianic royal figure in chapter eleven but here enters Jerusalem under the threat of death as the suffering servant of Isaiah.
Further, the text identifies this meal with the Passover. We are to read the actions and words of Jesus through the lens of Passover theology. What he does and says at this meal has Passover meaning. Whatever problems and difficulties this entails in terms of comparison with other Gospels or chronology need not detain us here as we read the Gospel of Mark. Our author wants us to read this narrative against the backdrop of the Passover. This provides a hermeneutical frame for understanding the meaning of Jesus’ death.
The meal itself is described in two phrases. First, Jesus reveals his awareness of the conspiracy to kill him. Second, Jesus interprets his death. The former acknowledges the breakdown of community among his disciples which will further reveal itself when they all scatter in the wake of Jesus’ arrest, but the latter—through the solidarity of eating the bread and drinking the cup—invites the disciples to participate in his ministry, suffering and death. The latter starkly contrasts with the former.
First, Jesus acknowledges that one of his disciples will betray him to the authorities. This is an astounding announcement in the midst of a Passover meal which is designed as the fellowship of a family or intimate group. The community that Jesus has formed during his ministry with the Twelve is now breaking down and it will disintegrate before the night is over. The very meaning of the Passover meal is subverted by the betrayer. The fellowship of the meal (eating together) is colored by the darkness of betrayal.
Probably nothing could have stunned the disciples more than this news. They are first saddened and then introspective (“Is it I?”). The term that describes their grief is the same that characterizes the emotion of the Rich Young Ruler who walked away from Jesus’ invitation to follow him (cf. Mark 10:22). The disciples are disappointed, and this turns them even more inward. They begin to question their own allegiance. Perhaps they don’t even know themselves or perhaps they have done or said something that inadvertently betrayed Jesus.
As the disciples look within themselves, Jesus offers a theological interpretation of the betrayal. He alludes to Psalm 41 where the Psalmist laments that not only his “enemies whisper” against him and “imagine the worst” for him (like the Temple authorities), but that even his “close friend” whom he “trusted” and who “shared [his] bread” has also “lifted up his heel against” him. With the language of “dips the bread into the bowl with me,” Jesus is not so much identifying the betrayer as he is identifying with the Psalmist. This should have alerted the disciples to the danger of this night. The Son of Man must suffer, as Jesus as told his disciples on previous occasions (cf. Mark 10:32-45).
The word against the betrayer, “it would be better for him if he had not been born,” is not so much a condemnation or judgment as much as it is a recognition that the betrayer will wish that he had never been born. Job and Jeremiah, in quite different circumstances, felt that way. But the difference between Job and Judas was while the one endured through faith the other ended his life. This horror, however, will not only encompass Judas but the other disciples as well (e.g., Peter will deny Jesus). All the disciples will become complicit through their desertion of Jesus.
In the second phase of the meal in Mark’s story, Jesus interprets the significance of the meal that evening. Mark nowhere describes the meal but assumes it. We get no details about the length of the meal, the food at the meal or conversation surrounding the meal. In fact, Mark provides the briefest account in the Gospels. It is short, but on point. Still, the Passover contextualizes this brief interpretation and should not be read without that referential frame in mind. At the same, Mark does not highlight any memoralistic understanding of the meal (he does not say, “remember me”). Mark has another emphasis.
“While they were eating,” Mark says, Jesus (1) took bread, (2) gave thanks, (3) broke it, and (4) gave it the disciples (and a similar structure for the cup). This deliberate construction—which is repeated in other accounts—is important. It is a deliberate, interpretative act on the part of Jesus. It conforms to the breaking of the bread in a Passover mea (though here it does not begin the meal) but it is given a radically different meaning. The four-fold structure highlights a ritual which carries the meaning of the eating itself. This bread is a gift from God that is distributed to the disciples.
“This is my body” is an interpretation of the meal. It gives new meaning to the Passover without subverting its previous meaning. It is a fulfillment of the Passover. Just as the bread of the Passover represented life and liberation, so the body of Jesus gives life and liberation. Bread is what nourishes life, and the body of Christ nourishes believers. Bread is life, and it is shared life. This is a communal experience of life that is grounded in the gift of Christ’s body. In effect Jesus says “my body” will give new life to this community.
“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” is an allusion to the sacrificial system of Israel and the Passover context gives specific meaning to this allusion. The blood of the Lamb—as blood in the Levitical system itself—gives life. Jesus is the Passover lamb whose blood has covenantal significance. This blood is covenantal blood; it enacts covenant (or, in Hebrew, it “cuts covenant”).
Jesus’ statement is itself an allusion to at least three texts in the Hebrew Scriptures. The “blood of the covenant” takes Jewish readers back to Exodus 24 when God inaugurated his covenant with Israel at Mt. Sinai (Exodus 24:8). More significantly, it raises the horizon of Zechariah 9:9-11. Earlier Mark had alluded to Zechariah 9:9 as he described the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, and Mark builds on that allusion by aligning Zechariah 9:11 with the story of Jesus as well. Covenantal blood frees prisoners; it is liberation. The King who rides into Jerusalem on a donkey is a liberator who “proclaim[s] peace to the nations.” But this king, in the Gospel of Mark, rides to his death rather than a military action. Jesus liberates the oppressed through suffering rather than through the pursuit of violence.
The blood of Jesus is poured out to free the prisoners; it is “poured out for many.” In that phrase we encounter our third Hebrew textual allusion. Isaiah 53:12 identifies the Suffering Servant as one who “poured out his life unto death” and “bore the sin of many.” Jesus will give life through suffering and deal with sin through dying. Jesus identifies himself with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah–he suffers that Israel might go free.
The Passover meal is given a new horizon of meaning. This does not subvert its original meaning. Rather, the original meaning is taken to a new height. The Passover lamb died to liberate the firstborn from death and bring Israel out of Egyptian bondage. Jesus is the new lamb; he is the true lamb of God. Through his death, he gives new life (body) and frees us from sin (blood). The original meaning of the Passover remains but it is transformed by the new reality that dawns in the death (and resurrection) of Jesus.
The communal dimension of the Passover is likewise carried forward. They probably sang the Passover Psalms at this meal (Psalms 113-118; Mark 14:26). When Jesus takes the cup, he shares it with his disciples. They drink from the same cup. It is the cup of suffering (cf. Mark 10:39-40; 14:36). They drank it that day in solidarity with Jesus as people committed to the way of suffering even though they would shortly falter in that commitment. The cup that Jesus drank, they drank. But they will not follow Jesus to the cross.
When we eat and drink at the table of the Lord, it is the gift of life and forgiveness. It is a table of mercy. But it is also a table of commitment. As we drink the cup, we commit ourselves to the way of the cross, the way of suffering for the sake of the world. As we eat bread and drink the cup, we share a communal life that is shaped by the ministry of Jesus. This calls us to a different kind of life—one that pursues peace and reconciliation rather than violence. When we eat and drink together, we recommit ourselves to that way of life.
The table bears witness to that new life which is the reality of the kingdom of God. The reference to the kingdom in Mark 14:25 is not primarily about a messianic banquet in the new heaven and new earth but is rather about the in-breaking of the kingdom of God into the present. Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is the reality of the kingdom in the world, so the bread and wine are now the reality of the kingdom. In this new reality—the kingdom of God—Jesus eats and drinks with us. We eat and drink with the living Christ whose death has transformed life.
We eat and drink, however, as flawed disciples—just like the disciples gathered around that Thursday evening table in the upper room of Jerusalem. We falter and fail, but the table renews our life and at the table we renew our commitment.