Thursday: The Last Supper

April 1, 2010

Jesus’ instructions for preparing the Passover meal read like a spy novel: follow a man carrying water; he will take you to our secret safehouse. Give the homeowner a password and he will show you to an upper room. Besides the secrecy, five other elements of the Last Supper story indicate the revolutionary character of this gathering:

  • Jesus inaugurates a new covenant with the messianic banquet/common meal as the celebration of God’s newly established reign.
  • Jesus demonstrates for whom he has established his new ‘interim government’ in the way the meal is shared: this is, of course, for the poor.
  • Jesus reclaims the cultic authority of the temple and its officiating priests, instituting his own replacement—the Eucharist—for the central daily offerings to God in the temple.
  • Jesus takes a Nazirite vow, dedicating himself to wholehearted service as a consecrated ‘warrior’ to God’s deliverance of God’s people.
  • Jesus purchases weapons—why?

New covenant. As celebretory signs of the new covenant, Jesus uses bread and wine, which do not have such a central role in the Passover meal. I agree with Bruce Chilton that the bread and wine are meant to replace the show-bread and wine libation placed daily on the altar in the temple as the symbol/reality of Yahweh’s continuing presence among his (sic) people, his “supping with them”. With the words of the Eucharist, Jesus declares the government of the temple-state and its cultic foundation no longer constitutional and declares his own community the provisional government of Israel—provisional until God comes Godself to rule in the land.

Solidarity with the poor. Jesus’ treatment of the wine and the bread express the revolutionary character of his provisional government, also. Of the bread, the evangelists say, “While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it, he broke it and gave it to them and said . . .” In the ancient Near East, everyone at the table was provided his (sic) own loaf of bread. The host served the meal in serving dishes set in the middle of the table and individual diners broke pieces of their loaf off and used them as ‘tools’ with which to pick pieces of food from the common bowl. There were no forks, so bread was used to prevent touching the common food with your hands. (See Luke 11:5-6)

When Jesus breaks a single loaf and distributes the pieces to all the diners, he is doing two radical things at once. First, and most audacious, there is one loaf because only one loaf is placed on Yahweh’s altar in the temple—Jesus is distributing God’s own personal loaf of bread. The act symbolizes that God dines with them; this is the messianic banquet which Jesus described in his parable of the great banquet (Mt 22:2-14).

At the same time, using only one loaf expresses radical solidarity with the poor, with people who are too poor to provide a loaf for every person at the table. It also demonstrates how Jesus’ interim government in God solves the problem of poverty: by sharing, and by trusting in God to provide. We’ve already seen this sharing demonstrated several times in the feeding of the 5,o00 and of the 4,000.

The eucharist. The first covenant was sealed—and thereafter renewed—by pouring sacrificed oxen blood upon the altar by the priests. Jesus seals his new covenant, not with oxen blood, not with a cultic act at the altar, but with wine and a ‘cultic’ act at the table. He is saying, “That is their blood of the covenant, which they sprinkle on their altar; this is my blood of the covenant, that we share together as the cup of God’s fullness at God’s table.

This is not the traditional interpretation of the eucharist, of course—that Jesus really meant his own blood. But it is unthinkable that Jesus meant the wine to represent somehow his own blood. The law strictly forbad eating blood, even for Gentiles living among Jews (Lev 17:10-12). This prohibition is one of the few instructions from the law that the Council of Jerusalem chose to apply to Gentiles as part of its accommodation of Paul’s Gentile mission (Acts 15:19-20).

Equally unthinkable to Jesus and his first Jewish followers would have been the idea that Jesus himself would have served as either a human sacrifice or a divine sacrifice whose blood could atone for Israel. Yahweh had categorically rejected human sacrifice almost two thousand years earlier when God released Abraham from the necessity of sacrificing his son Isaac, a common cultic act when founding a nation (witness Agamemnon and Iphegenia for Hellenic Greece, Romulus and Remus for Rome, Cain and Abel for the Kenites). Likewise, the sacrifice of a god, on the model of Dionysus or Mithra in their respective mystery cults, and the associated salvific function of their blood, was so foreign to Jesus’ religion that Hebrew scriptures never even mention such a thing so as to condemn it. Drinking a dying god’s blood was the most extreme form of idolatrous paganism.

Instead, Jesus sealed the new covenant with a messianic banquet, at which God and the New Israel supped together in a celebration that anticipated the immanent arrival, judgment, and salvation of God Godself, as Israel’s true sovereign father.

The Nazirite vow. That Jesus expected the direct rule of God very soon is indicated by his Nazirite vow just after inaugurating the covenant: “For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:18). With this vow, Jesus dedicated himself to the climactic final work of his ministry.

The Nazirite vow was a warrior vow (see Numbers 6:1-8 for the instructions concerning Nazirite vows). Not exclusively a warrior vow, though; the example of Samuel, the Nazirite prophet, seems to fit Jesus’ case more aptly than the example of Samson, the Bible’s most famous Nazirite warrior.

For Luke, the correspondences between Jesus and both Samuel and Samson were strong enough to help shape his birth narrative. They have in common:

  • annunciation of the birth to the mother by an angel,
  • a miraculous dimension to the birth itself,
  • resistance or lack of understanding on the part of the father,
  • dedication of the infant to God,
  • a hymn sung by the mother of the child,
  • anointing of the man by God’s holy spirit, and
  • a career of service to God for the salvation of his people.

In particular, the Magnificat resembles the canticle of Hannah, Samuel’s mother. In both poems, Yahweh reverses the fortunes of the people according to his (sic) justice: “he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53)

Jesus vows only to “never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God. (Mark 14:25)” He does not mention the prohibitions against cutting the hair or contact with corpses or sex, the rest of the Nazirite proscriptions. So perhaps he means something else here. Yet he has certainly assumed the stance of the warrior. He has focused his mission over the past several days quite intensely on revolution, on fulfilling the Magnificat’s promise of liberation. He clearly expects a climax, and soon; nor does he seem to expect the denouement to take very long. And finally, he orders—or at least sanctions—the disciples to acquire weapons. This is, perhaps, the most incongruous action in all of Jesus’ career.

The swords. This passage implies something deeper and more disturbing, actually, than the obvious possibility that the disciples were preparing for a fight. Jesus seems to be abandoning his Jubilee commitment to radical dependence on God. He reverses the commandment he had given earlier to “take nothing for your journey, no staff (defense), nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. (Luke 9:3)” He seems to be saying, things have changed; it’s time we took matters into our own hands. And also that the moment of fulfillment is so close that you will not even need the shelter of your cloak tonight; you will need a sword more.

He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’ (Isaiah 53:12); and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.”

Luke 22:35-38

As rationale, Jesus quotes Isaiah 53, one of the Servant Songs, a poem that prefigures in many of its details the hours that will follow: the arrest, Jesus’ taunting and death and burial. The “lawless” here (Hebrew, pasha) means to break away from just authority; to rebel or revolt; it also could mean ‘bandit’.

With the line that Jesus quotes, he implies that bringing the sword will ensure that he will be “numbered among the transgressors,” and this will ensure that he dies. Immediately upon his arrest, he says as much, clarifying what he means by transgressors: “Have you come with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit?” Yes is the answer; they do “number” him a bandit, and the sword Peter uses against the high priest’s servant proves it. They “number” him among the transgressors when they crucify him among bandits, too. The authorities consider Jesus the leader of a bandit gang. At the arrest, Jesus ensures that only he is taken into custody, that he takes the rap for his followers, “the many”.

We’ll look at the Son of Man as bandit in more detail tomorrow when we discuss the arrest. In the meantime, we are left to ponder the mystery of the swords.

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