Today’s text: Mt. 26: 1-30
Today we examine a long text. I want to focus mainly on the final 5 verses. Still we need to look at the full chapter as context.
The backdrop to today’s discussion are the previous two chapters in Matthew where he has discussed the end times. In this chapter, Matthew presents Jesus’ final meal with his disciples. Jesus begins the chapter by saying: “You know that in two days’ time it will be Passover, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” (Mt. 26:2) This statement is full of depth and meaning, imperial in tone. Jesus is announcing, in a single sentence, all that will follow; indeed, he seems to set the events in motion. For the very next verse announces that the chief priests and the elders have assembled and they are considering how they will arrest Jesus and put him to death. The events of the Passion are underway.
The next scene depicts Jesus in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper. A woman comes up to Jesus, seated at the table, and pours expensive perfume upon his head. The disciples do not approve; the cost of that perfume could have been given to the poor. But Jesus praises the woman. Says she did a good thing; says you will always have the poor to care for, but you will not always have me. A puzzling statement, considering he had just called the disciples to care for the poor as for Jesus Himself (Mt. 25:40). He closes by saying that this woman’s gesture will be praised and remembered throughout the world as a prophetic act preparing him for his burial.
Next we read of Judas’ decision to hand Jesus over for 30 pieces of silver, the price of a slave.
It is in this context that the disciples make the preparations for the Passover meal. As evening falls, they recline at table, Jesus reveals that one of them has betrayed him. There is a moment of recognition between Jesus and Judas; you might say an appeal to Judas’ conscience. To no avail.
Jesus moves on with the Passover meal – and this is where I want to pause and reflect. Passover was a sacred meal for the Jewish people. On this night they would eat the flesh of a Passover lamb, sacrificed that day, as a memorial of Passover night. This night is holy to Jewish memory; on it the people of Israel were delivered from the oppressive reign of the Pharoah of Egypt. As part of their deliverance, they were instructed by Moses to take an innocent, unblemished lamb – one per family – slaughter it, take some of its blood and mark the doorposts of their home. They were to roast the lamb and eat its flesh, their loins girded, ready for a journey. Indeed, that night the angel of death visited the kingdom of Egypt, image of the Kingdom of darkness. He struck the firstborn of every man and animal in Egypt, sparing those whose doors were marked with the blood of the lamb, whose families had eaten the flesh of the lamb. These families Moses gathered and, upon Pharoah’s word, led them out of Egypt. He led them across the desert where they were to worship God. He promised them a land God had prepared them; a land where they could live in a covenant relationship with God. They were to be His people, and He their God. And somehow the flesh and the blood of the lamb was central to this mystery.
All of this and more would have been in the forefront of the minds of Jesus’ disciples as they sat and ate. These things were understood; they were fixed deep in the Jewish memory.
But Jesus does something different this Passover night. While they were eating, he takes a loaf of bread in his hands. He blesses and breaks it. He gives it to his disciples. In these gestures, we should hear the echoes of those times when he multiplied the loaves and the fish. The same gestures were stated there: he takes, blesses, breaks and gives the bread to his disciples (See eg.Mk. 6:41). Then he says to them:
“Take. Eat. This is my body.” (Mt. 26: 26)
How are we to take such a statement? Is it literal? Is it a metaphor? We need to read on for clues.
In the next line, Jesus takes a cup, presumably containing wine. He gives the blessing of thanks. He gives it to the disciples, saying:
“Drink. All of you. For this is my blood, of the covenant, poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt. 26: 27-28)
Body. Blood. Covenant. Forgiveness of sins. These are themes with deep resonance to a Jewish mind. A Jew could scarcely speak of body, blood and covenant on the feast of Passover and not have his audience think about the Passover lamb, which was also eaten. The blood of the Passover lamb was a critical seal of the covenant. There is something profound happening here.
Do other texts in Scripture offer any clues?
We recall that John the Baptist had long ago identified Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). Place this word alongside John the Evangelist’s insight, in John Chapter 6, that the multiplication of the bread is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ final Passover meal. There John makes explicit that the bread Jesus gives is His “flesh” and the wine is Jesus’ “blood,” given as food, given as drink. The fulfillment of the Passover Lamb:
“The bread that I give is my flesh for the life of the world . . . Who eats my flesh and drinks my blood dwells in me and I in him. As the living Father sent me and I live by the Father, so the one who eats me will live by me.” (Jn. 6: 51, 56-57).
Hard as it is to rightly grasp these phrases, the meaning is clear: the disciples are to eat the flesh of Jesus, and drink His blood, as a means of entering into communion with the Son, a communion He elsewhere describes as “I in them and you (Father) in me” (Jn. 17:23). This is the fulfillment of the Promised Land. Though we might prefer it to be otherwise, the text allows for no ambiguity. Because Jesus’ hearers ask the very question on our minds: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (Jn 6:52) Jesus hears this question and doubles down. Next verse:
“Amen, amen, I tell you: if you do not eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (Jn 6:53)
Jesus doesn’t soften his tone; doesn’t make explicit that his meaning is metaphorical. People take him literally. They stop following Him because of these difficult words; even many of his disciples do (Jn. 6: 60,66). But He doesn’t prevent them from leaving by insisting that he was speaking in mere metaphor. This leaves us with but one reasonable conclusion: that these words, somehow, are not metaphor. That they possess a deep and difficult, but important truth.
Next week, we will explore this deep and difficult truth. For today, we close with a prayer that sums up today’s first layer of discussion.
How Can I Take this to Prayer?
Lord, Jesus, you are the lamb of God. Before a great crowd, you cause to appear a miracle of bread from heaven (Jn 6:33-35). You call this bread the bread of life; you say this bread is your “flesh for the life of the world” (Jn. 6:51). For your close disciples, on Passover night, you bless, break and give this bread, your body, to your disciples to eat; along with the wine that you say is your blood of the covenant (Mt. 26: 26-28). Jesus, long ago you did these things for your disciples; today you continue to do them for me, through your Church. Amen. I will listen. Help me to not to turn away because the teaching is difficult, as some of your disciples did (Jn 6:60). Instead, let me say with Peter: Lord where else shall I go? “You have the words of eternal life.” (Jn. 6: 68)