< March 24, 2016 >

Commentary on Mark 14:22-42


Jesus’ fidelity and the Twelve’s faltering: these cables bind the Last Supper and Gethsemane in Mark.

In a large upper room (Mark 14:22-31): Previously Jesus presided over two other banquets during which he “took, blessed, broke, and gave bread” (Mark 6:31-44; 8:1-10), anticipating a messianic banquet envisioned in the age to come (Isaiah 25:6-8; Matthew 22:1-4). What he has done for the multitudes he now does for the Twelve -- with important differences. In Mark 14:22 Jesus identifies a loaf with his own body. Soma is a flexible metaphor: “my personality” or “my essential selfhood” may capture some nuances here (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:17). Previously Jesus spoke of his self-sacrifice for many (Mark 10:45); here it is reiterated for his followers’ sake.

Predictably at Passover, Jesus gives thanks over a cup and gives it to all his companions (Mark 14:23). Unpredictably he associates its contents with “my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (14:24): a reminder of Jesus’ description of the Son of Man’s service as a self-sacrifice for others’ freedom (10:45). Jesus’ blood, a proxy for Israel’s life (cf. Leviticus 16:1-34), is implicitly correlated with the Passover sacrifice (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7). His sacrifice is “poured out” just as the woman in Bethany lavished on Jesus her fragrant ointment (Mark 14:3).

Bookending these explanations are Jesus’ final predictions of the Twelve’s desertion (Mark 14:17-21, 27-31; cf. 9:42-47). All his closest followers will “stumble” or “fall away” (cf. Zechariah 13:7), just as the rootless fold under pressure (Mark 4:17) and his countrymen have stumbled over him (6:3). Twice Peter repudiates Jesus’ prediction of his threefold defection before the cock has twice crowed that very night (14:29-31a). Peter’s peers also defy this prophecy (14:31). Jesus holds fast to his forecast, promising his own postmortem fidelity in Galilee (14:28). The mind reels at the interlocking ironies: Jesus’ injunction that his followers must deny themselves (8:34); their reckless refutation of their imminent denials of Jesus; Jesus’ denial of himself -- the giving of his life -- out of enduring loyalty to those who will presently prove traitorous.

The scene shifts to Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42). Throughout Mark Jesus is presented as a man of prayer (1:35; 6:41; 8:6; 11:23-25; 13:18); neither in 14:32-42 nor anywhere else does the evangelist show the Twelve praying. Jesus invites Peter, James, and John (cf. 5:37; 9:2; 13:3) to remain with him, “to stay awake” (14:33-34), just as he exhorted them during a previous visit to Olivet (13:33, 35, 37). Rabbi Akiba was remembered as teaching, “Chastisements are precious” (t.b. Sanhedrin 101a); Jewish history is filled with stories of heroic martyrdoms (among others, 4 Maccabees 10:8-11). By contrast, Mark 14:32-42 renders with harsh clarity this critical hour (14:35, 37, 41; cf. 13:32) in Jesus’ faith -- “distressed and agitated,” “deeply grieved” (14:33-34) -- reminders of earlier stories that presented tormented humanity’s need for faith (5:32, 35-36; 9:24). “For you all things are possible” (14:36a): a reminder of Jesus’ teaching to the epileptic child’s father (9:23) and to the Twelve (10:27; 11:23). “Remove this cup from me” (14:36b) evokes the cup from which Jesus must drink (10:38). “Yet, not what I want, but what you want” (14:36c): God’s will must finally override all others’ (11:22, 24). Jesus repeats this prayer (14:39, 41). Gethsemane is a rehearsal for Golgotha, where, wretched and isolated, Jesus cries out to an intimate yet distant “Abba, Father” (14:36), “My God, my God” (15:34). These are the only times in Mark we are privy to the content of Jesus’ prayers.

Three times Jesus returns to a waiting trio. Each time he finds them asleep (14:37a, 40a, 41a) when they ought to have been watchful in “the time of trial” (14:37-38a; cf. 13:33-37). An eager spirit, which Peter has expressed (14:29), is no match for human frailty (“flesh”), starved of prayer (14:38b). On his final return Jesus announces that “the hour” has arrived for the Son of Man’s ultimate betrayal (14:41-42). Another premonition of Golgotha: in the persons of Peter, James, and John, the Twelve have begun falling away from their teacher, just as he foretold (14:27; cf. 14:50-52).

Mark 14:22-42 encapsulates much of this Gospel’s theology. Theologically, as conveyed through scripture, all proceeds as required by God’s ordination (14:27). Christologically, Jesus reveals himself perfectly prescient and aligned with that plan (14:22-24, 27, 30, 36). Soteriologically, the goal of Jesus’ self-sacrifice is a liberating atonement for sin (14:24). Ecclesially, Jesus’ adherents prove themselves unreliable. Though they bluster (14:29, 31), after having conspired to betray him outright (14:10-11, 17-21), neither here nor elsewhere does Jesus’ fidelity to his followers depend on their faithfulness to him (14:28; cf. 16:7). Eschatologically, Jesus’ reminder at supper of the kingdom of God (14:25) -- the heart of his preaching in Mark (1:14-15; 4:11, 26-32; 10:14-25) -- casts events to come in an apocalyptic context (cf. 13:1-37).

While the preacher may legitimately pursue any of these trails, the juxtaposition of Mark 14:22-31 with 14:32-42 grabs my attention at one particular point: on the night of his betrayal, Jesus proved himself the faithful disciple that none of his own disciples could be. At supper he made good on his repeated promises to be the cross-bearing Son of Man (8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34); by offering his body and blood in the kingdom’s covenant, he did for the many what Paul realized personally: “[Christ] loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). At Gethsemane he demonstrated the disciple’s appropriate response to suffering: faith, expressed in prayer, which penetrates anguish. As obedient as he was beloved, Jesus was the complete servant of God’s will (Mark 14:36), which all his disciples proved themselves incapable of obeying (9:33-37). Jesus became the little child able to enter the kingdom (10:13-16). Only by doing so could his life be made whole, and ours as well (8:34-38). At Mark 14:22-42 a sleeping church is reawakened to its lesson at Caesarea Philippi (8:33-38): self-sacrifice for the gospel’s sake defines discipleship to Jesus Christ, from whom the cup could not pass and who finally wanted it no other way.

Holy Jesus, the bread and wine of your last supper have become your body and blood, given for us. Transform us with your holy presence. Cleanse us, forgive us, and renew us in your word. Amen.

For the bread which you have broken   ELW 494, H82 340/341, UMH 614/615
Go to dark Gethsemane   ELW 347, H82 171, UMH 290, NCH 219

Jesus, I adore thee, Stephen Caracciolo