By Harris Franklin Rall
We have seen how Jesus left the temple in the evening, foretelling its destruction and preparing his disciples for the days that lay before them. That day was apparently the last day of his public ministry. There may have been a day of quiet in between, spent with his disciples. In this interval, according to Mark's order of statement, occurred the supper at Bethany and the anointing. Then on the next day came the last meal with his disciples and, swiftly following, the terrible events of the ensuing night and morning. In these last hours we are moved by the tender solicitude of Jesus, so keenly conscious of what was coming, yet thoughtful for his disciples rather than fearful for himself. At the same time the unconsciousness of these disciples strikes us as something almost tragic, as they go on dreaming, quarreling, loving, but unable to realize, despite their Master's words, that the end is near.
The Supper and the Anointing
A Deed of Devotion. —The little village of Bethany lay just outside the city. Here Mary and Martha and Lazarus lived, and here, apparently, Jesus had other friends as well. He had no doubt visited Jerusalem year by year at the time of the great feasts ever since that first visit when he was twelve, and Bethany was probably a regular stopping place. Simon the leper, as Mark and Matthew call him, may have been one whom Jesus had healed; if so, the supper was his gift of gratitude and honor. But the evening brought a greater gift to Jesus, and one that called forth his deepest appreciation. It was no breach of Oriental custom for those who were not invited guests to look into or to enter the room. It roused no comment, therefore, when a woman entered during the progress of the meal, and passed around behind the couch where Jesus reclined at the table. There she brought out an alabaster bottle filled with spikenard, an ointment so precious that only those of great wealth could use it. Standing behind Jesus, the woman poured the whole of the rare and costly contents upon the Master's head. The bottle itself she had already broken, that after this high service it might never be employed for lesser use (Mark 14 1-9).
The Appreciation of Jesus. — It was a beautiful deed. Its meaning was not measured merely by the cost of the ointment. There was a symbolism in the breaking of the bottle, and a special fitness in the time at which this tribute of prodigal devotion was paid. And Jesus missed none of this. As we watch him, we have another evidence of the wonderful completeness of his character. But a few hours ago he stood before the leaders of the city; all that was strong and heroic was in that scene. He knew the danger, but was not afraid. His words of rebuke were like the smiting of a sword. Here everything is gracious and tender and sympathetic. He is the Christ of little children, the Christ of the loving spirit, appreciative of all that is beautiful in nature and in the hearts of men. But he saw something deeper still, which the woman herself could not know. All unwittingly she had anointed him for the burial, performing before his death that last service of sorrowing love. In the hard hours of these last days the woman's gracious deed was doubly appreciated.
The Criticism and the Rebuke. —The words of the disciples stood in unlovely contrast with the deed. They were blind to its beauty and its meaning. They criticized the waste. The ointment was worth three hundred denarii —about sixty dollars. Why had it not been sold and the money given to the poor? The rebuke that Jesus spoke was well merited: I shall not be with you long, but you will always have the opportunity of caring for the poor. Then he added his tribute: "Wheresoever the gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, that also which this woman hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her." There is a sublime confidence here that we must not overlook. On the very eve of defeat and death, he knows that his gospel will yet be preached throughout the world.
The Last Evening
Jesus' Plan. —The last evening had come. So far Jesus had escaped his foes. By day they had not dared to seize him on account of the sympathy of the people; by night he had eluded them by stopping outside the city, perhaps each time in a different place. Now, however, the end was at hand; his work was done and their plans were ready. This last evening he had carefully planned to spend in privacy with his disciples. Apparently as a measure of safety, Jesus himself had made the plans for this supper, arranging with a friend in the city for the use of a room. He knew how imminent the peril now was, and he wanted to make sure of this evening with the disciples. Not even they knew where it was to be. When the time came he gave two of them directions how to find the friend who was to be host, and how to make preparations for the meal (Mark 14. 10-16).
The Supper. —The Gospels differ in their report as to the nature of this meal. The Synoptic Gospels—that is, the first three—state that it was the Passover. The fourth Gospel makes clear that it was the day before the Passover. The latter is probably correct. Some have thought to reconcile the two accounts by the theory that our Lord, knowing the end at hand, had arranged to eat the Passover one day earlier. The question is interesting, but not important. What really counted that night was not any Jewish rite, but the words of our Lord concerning a better faith; it is not the old feast which they left behind that concerns us so much as the new covenant which he established.
A Last Opportunity. —To this last hour Jesus had looked forward with deepest longing (Luke 22. 15). How little these men yet knew, these upon whom so much depended! How much he had yet to tell them! And then there was his personal affection for them. They were his friends. How often they had sat thus at table together in the old days; and how loyal these men had been through it all, not only in sunny Galilee, but in the wanderings to the north and in these last days of strife and peril.
An Example and a Warning
Washing the Disciples' Feet. —Three incidents are preserved for us from this evening. The first of these we owe to John's Gospel (John 13. 1-16). When they arrived there had been no servant present to remove their sandals and wash their feet, dusty from the walk. It was a part of hospitality as well as a requirement of cleanliness and comfort. None of these men who had so lately striven about place thought of taking this servant's task. So Jesus himself finds basin and water, lays aside his outer garments, binds a towel about him, and, clothed thus like a slave, takes up the humble task which they had scorned. The rebuke went deeper than words. Shame made them silent until Peter spoke out, for Peter could not bear the thought that his Lord should do this service for him. Then Jesus, taking his seat, enforced the unforgettable lesson which he had given them. The highest privilege in his kingdom is that of service. What he had done, they should do, to count it their calling to be the servants of all.
The Warning of the Betrayal. —Judas was the unenviable center of the second incident, Jesus' announcement of his betrayal (Mark U. 18-21; John 13. 21-30). Jesus had not been ignorant of what had been going on in Judas' soul. He had read in his face the dissatisfaction that had grown into disloyalty, and that was now ready for betrayal. He had used every influence and made every appeal, but in vain. The others had been slow enough in learning, but at least they had remained loyal; this one was to betray him. The words that Jesus now spoke in sorrow may have been meant as a last appeal to Judas: "One of you shall betray me.'' Brought face to face with his intended deed and seeing that Jesus knew it, perhaps the betrayer might yet yield. But Judas made no response. There was but one thing to do, to compel Judas to leave so that the sacred fellowship of that last hour might not be marred by his presence. Matthew tells us that Jesus pointed out Judas before them all (Matt. 26. 25). It seems more probable, as the fourth Gospel indicates, that Jesus spoke to Judas in such manner that only the latter understood. "What thou doest, do quickly," Jesus said. He then "went out straightway: and it was night."
The Parable or the Bread and the Wine
The Last Parable. —Judas had gone out and the supper was drawing to a close, when the third incident took place. How often in the days now past had these disciples listened to the matchless parables of the Master and learned the lessons of the Kingdom from the simple objects of the daily world about them! Now they were to have one last parable, a parable of both deed and word. In simplest manner, while they were finishing the meal, Jesus takes a loaf of bread, breaks it before their eyes, and gives them all to eat. "This is my body," he says of the bread. Then he hands them a cup of wine to drink, and when they have taken of it, he says: "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many." So Mark reports it (14. 22-25). Paul, writing even earlier than this, the oldest Gospel, adds these words of Jesus: "This do in remembrance of me" (1 Cor. 11. 23-25).
What It Meant. —Unnumbered times since then has this parable of the bread and wine been reenacted, in great cathedrals and in humble chapels, before reverent throngs or at the bedside of some dying saint. Often it has been surrounded with pomp and overlaid with ceremony, while the words were spoken in a tongue the people could not understand and the whole transformed into a priestly act of magical power. While Roman Catholicism has done this. Protestantism has sometimes tended to hide the meaning by its elaborate doctrines. Our first task here is not to discuss the doctrine of the Supper or of the Lord's death, but to tell what occurred, and to ask what Jesus meant by it. In doing so, we shall follow the simpler and older accounts of Mark and Paul.
These words and this act of Jesus were first of all intended for the twelve. It was his last lesson to them, his last effort to prepare them for what was coming. Mark's account makes plain three things: (1) Jesus again foretells his death. His body is like this bread, about to be broken. His blood is to be poured out like this wine. They had heard, but hardly believed, when he told them just now that one of their own number should betray him; now he warns them again of his death.
(2) In some way his death is to be for them: "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many." He has said before that his life is to be given a ransom for many. He does not explain it further, nor have all the theologians since that day explained its full meaning. But the world of his followers since that day has seen in his death, in some manner, the holy love of God and the power of God saving the world from sin. This was not something that happened to Jesus, but something done by Jesus and done for them. The theories of the atonement have often been crude, but the experience has been wonderful and real.
(3) His death is to establish a new covenant. Their minds, filled with the thoughts of Passover week, were prepared for this comparison. As the blood of the first Passover marked the old covenant, so his blood was to seal a new covenant between God and man. The prophet Jeremiah had spoken long years before of such a covenant, in one of the noblest passages in the Old Testament (Jer. SI. 31-34), declaring how God should write his laws upon human hearts, and not upon tables of stone; how religion should be a life within, and not a rule without. Now Jesus asserts that the time of this new covenant is come and that his death shall seal its gift. In this moment, when he faces death, his faith triumphs again. What he sees is not a terrible end, but the beginning of a new age. And the world has counted its new age from that day.
Some Further Meanings. —Such was the meaning which Jesus meant to convey to his disciples by his words and acts on that evening long ago. It is important that we go back of the theories and customs of to-day to this first simple message. We need not overlook, however, the wonderful lessons which the Supper, repeated as a memorial rite, has had for the church ever since. In this symbol of Christ's suffering and death men have seen the meaning of their sin and made it a time of confession. They have seen here God's great gift of forgiving love and made it a feast of solemn joy as well. It has been called the Holy Communion: a communion with Christ, not physical or magical, but a communion of the spirit, in which men have been filled with Christ's spirit of obedience and love and sacrifice. At the same time it has meant the communion of believers among themselves; an early Christian writer uses the figure of the loaf of bread in which the scattered grains of wheat are joined together.
Directions for Study
The Scripture passages: Mark 14. 1-25; (John 13. 1-30; 1 Cor. 11. 23-25).
Think of this chapter as marking a bit of peaceful road for the Master, lying between the conflicts past and the terrible day that waited.
The chapter deals with two suppers, the first being that at Bethany. What the woman did to Jesus and what Jesus said about the woman are the notable items. Read this chapter with Mark's account open before you. Try to think yourself into the circumstances so as to appreciate how Jesus felt about the anointing.
We hear a great deal of the efficient life. We must not forget the ideal of the complete life. What are some things needed for the complete life beside work and bread? Did Jesus appreciate this?
As to the Last Supper, read the passage in Mark and the reference in John. Now, as you read the discussion, note how carefully Jesus planned for this evening. What did it mean to him? Consider the three events connected with the evening: the washing of the feet, the warning about Judas' betrayal, and then the announcement of the new covenant through his death which we call the institution of the Lord's Supper.
What truths does the Lord's Supper set forth for us to-day? What practical lessons?