Reading: Mark 14:17-31
Holy Week is really hard for me to get my head around. Today, our reading tells us about supper, Thursday evening. We will be talking about Thursday evening this week and next week; but what stands out is that this is worse than the worst Thursday that I could imagine. With a Thursday like this, if I were in Jesus’ shoes — I would seriously consider fleeing Jerusalem, and spending Passover somewhere else; you see, it is not just what happened, but that Jesus knew what was coming.
Mark’s version of the last supper is extremely short. If you recall, last year we studied John — and John’s last supper filled several chapters. The day is called Maundy Thursday by English speakers because of John; it is thought that this is “mandate Thursday”, the day Jesus gave Christians the commandment that they love one another. Mark however has the shortest account of this dinner — and, this account is to me the most uncomfortable. Mark does not include any of this teaching — so I cannot be distracted by anything other than the raw emotion of what is coming soon.
The account of the last supper starts with:
When it was evening, he came with the twelve, 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.”
Hearing this, the disciples were greatly distressed, and all denied that it was them; then Jesus goes through a disturbing ritual where he calls the bread and the wine his own flesh and blood. As you likely know, cannibalism is deeply offensive, and eating or drinking blood is not only a taboo but is is forbidden by Torah. Eating blood is one of the things specifically mentioned in Genesis 9 as God’s covenant with Noah, and by extension the rest of humanity. When Acts 15 forbids the eating of animals that are butchered by strangulation — the reason why is because the blood does not drain from the body, but stays in the meat. Kosher salt is called Kosher salt, because it is used by butchers to help draw blood out of meat, so that the meat becomes kosher.
If eating blood is such a taboo that the council of Jerusalem would order Gentile Christians to abstain from strangled meat, and Jews are so careful about getting blood out of meat that they not only let it drain, but they also use salt to draw more out, then how much more must they be offended by the idea of drinking blood; even if it is just symbolically.
After dinner, Jesus tells all the disciples that they will all leave him, and he tells Peter that he will deny them. No matter what Peter or the other disciples say, Jesus knows what is coming, and Jesus knows that when it comes he will be alone. The disciples on the other hand have no idea what is coming, but they surely had a disturbing night. Their teacher said and had them do something shockingly offensive, and then told them that they would all abandon him.
This isn’t the first shocking moment, remember what we talked about last week when Jesus came out of the temple and talked about the complete destruction of Jerusalem, and the end of everything that seemed solid in the world? From the Triumphal entry on Palm Sunday to the last supper must have been surreal. I cannot see how anything made sense, nor how any of them could be comfortable. Everybody must have been quite anxious this Thursday evening — but Jesus saw what was to happen — and, in his way he told the Disciples; he told them directly, he told them his body would be broken, and his blood would be poured out, he told them directly they would be scattered, he told Peter that Peter would deny him that very night.
When I read Mark, I respond to it by feeling how real this is. One might say that the last Supper in Mark makes me feel like the garden of Gethsemane is already in Jesus’ heart when he sits down to eat with Jesus’ disciples. Jesus is already committed to drinking the cup that he must drink. All day Thursday, Jesus knew what would come later in the day — and he knew what would come on Friday.
This is another point where Mark does not tell us anything more than the story, and he writes the narrative using as few words as possible. I feel like the only thing that I have to learn from this passage in Mark’s gospel is compassion for Jesus and compassion for the disciples. This is a challenging day for all of them, and by the time the day ends, it is a day that every one of the 12 is ashamed of — one will even die from his shame as he hangs himself. This is a passage that invites us to feel compassion, and it reminds us that Christ also has suffered, and is capable of compassion for us.