Shuck and Jive

Thursday, April 05, 2007

And They'll All Talk About Us When We Die

In just a few hours we will commemorate the last hours of Jesus's life at a Maundy Thursday meal (6:30 p.m.) and worship service (7:30 p.m.) I am reading through The Last Week of the life of Jesus through the eyes of Mark and with the assistance of scholars Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan. Another helpful resource is the new book by John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious. Spong suggests that the last 24 hours of the life of Jesus in Mark's Gospel is written as an ancient liturgical drama in eight three-hour segments. It begins with the supper at 6 p.m. and concludes at 6 p.m. on Friday with Jesus buried in the tomb.

Tonight, at our Maundy Thursday service, we are going to participate in that liturgical form. Here are the eight segments:

6 p.m. to 9 p.m. The Supper
9 p.m to Midnight Gethsemane
Midnight to 3 a.m. The Arrest
3 a.m to 6 a.m. Peter's Denial
6 a.m to 9 a.m. Pilate and the Walk to Golgotha
9 a.m. to noon The Crucifixion
Noon to three Darkness and death
3 p.m. to 6 p.m. The Burial

Borg and Crossan regard Thursday as everything through 6 a.m. Friday morning. I will use that division as well. The evening begins at 6 p.m. Thursday. Jesus has a meal with his followers. In the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) the final meal is the Passover meal. In John, Jesus is killed on the Passover (at the same time the Passover Lamb is slaughtered). For John, Jesus is the Passover Lamb.

In Mark, Jesus and the disciples have a Passover meal in which Jesus says that the bread is his body and the wine his blood of the covenant. It is unlikely that this goes back to the historical Jesus. It sounds like a post-Easter ritualization. It wasn't the only way the early communities remembered Jesus and his meal practice. The Didache, which could predate the Gospels has a liturgy for communion that has no body and blood symbolism.

1) Now concerning the Thanksgiving meal, give thanks in this manner.
2) First, concerning the cup:
We thank You, our Father,
For the Holy Vine of David Your servant,
Whom You made known to us through Your Servant;
May the glory be Yours forever.
3) Concerning the broken bread:
We thank You, our Father,
For the life and knowledge
Which You made known to us through Your Servant;
May the glory be Yours forever.
As this broken bread was scattered over the mountains,
And was gathered together to become one,
So let Your Body of Faithful be gathered together
From the ends of the earth into Your kingdom;
for the glory and power are Yours forever.

After the meal, they go to the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives where Jesus prays for three hours. There he says that his disciples will all scatter and that Peter will deny him three times. The disciples protest and vow to be faithful. However, even his three favorites, Peter, James and John are unable to keep awake while Jesus prays. It is hard to imagine that his disciples will be much help. At midnight he is arrested and Judas betrays him with a kiss. "All of them deserted him and fled." (14:50)

Jesus is taken to the high priest and in the middle of the night he is questioned. Mark says that different people say different things and their testimonies do not agree. Finally, the high priest asks Jesus if he is "the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?" Jesus says, "I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven."

In other words, Jesus is saying that God's kingdom is about to come in power, now. This all sounds like post-Easter confessional language including the question by the high priest. In fact, it is likely that we are fully in the realm of fiction now. The trial and crucifixion is based on Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.

We may have learned in Sunday School that Jesus fulfilled prophecy. From a historical perspective, it is the other way around. Decades after the death of Jesus, the followers wrote the story of Jesus by combing through the scriptures to find words and symbols that would be appropriate to him. Check out the comparisons between Psalm 22 and Mark 15:

  • My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Psalm 22:1
  • My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Mark 15:34 (The last words of Jesus)
  • 7All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;8‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver— let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’
  • Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him. (Mark 15:29-32)
  • 18they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.
  • 24And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take. (Mark 15:24)
Here is how I see it. Mark's account of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus is a fiction. None of this happened in the sense we think of things happening. However, the storytellers can only talk about the impact of Jesus, the God-presence they experienced in him, through the symbols they know. Mark is writing, as I said the other day, a parable of discipleship. Look at what happens to Jesus. Can you drink that cup? That is what Mark is asking his readers.

When the high priest questions Jesus and Jesus responds with the language of apocalypse found in Daniel 7, we get an insight of Mark's hope. He sees in Jesus, his person and his way, the way of the kingdom of God.

At three a.m. Mark shifts to Peter. Peter denies Jesus three times, once per hour perhaps, until 6 a.m. when the cockcrows and it is Friday morning. Peter, the rock, fails. It's not easy following Jesus, at least as Mark portrays him.

I wonder if Mark writes his story about the disciples who were at one time failures but now have now proven faithful. Mark is encouraging his audience and the rest of us who think that we could never be like them. In our own failure of nerve, we think we blew our chance, but hey, so did Peter. So did the twelve, so even, Judas. Perhaps there is forgiveness for all, yes even Judas. That could be one reason Mark is so hard on the disciples.

Or maybe he just never liked them! Perhaps in Mark's eyes, the twelve were always failures and the audience he writes for can do better. Don't look to the disciples for guidance. Look to the unnamed woman who anointed his head with costly ointment. In either case, Mark is, I think, a parable for discipleship. The disciples show how not to do it! Jesus shows the way.


  1. Of course, being fiction doesn't remove it from the realm of truth. Indeed, at it's best fiction is far more true than anything factual, because the quality of truth is something we can only apprehend evocatively or instinctually rather than empirically.

    I would guess that the gospel writers were looking at the events with a poet's eye - and thank God they were!

  2. as opposed to 'truthiness' a la Stephen Colbert, which can only be apprehended with your gut, and is also, technically, untrue.

  3. I'm discovering more this year that there's so much more to learn about Jesus than just when I was in Sunday school. I'm also learning that there are a lot of churches that are placing more emphasis on Maundy Thursday than Good Friday or Easter. Do you think there is a shifting movement or is it something that I haven't noticed before?

  4. Aric, absolutely. I talk a little more about that in today's post. Fiction and history are modern categories, of course. I am still looking for a better word to describe the literary character of the Gospels.

    Emmie, I am not sure about that. In my two previous congregations we held Good Friday services with neighboring congregations. One was a noon to three marathon and the other was an evening service.

    Maundy Thursday is a nice service for practical reasons. You can have a simple supper together and do various creative things, from a traditional last hours of Jesus service, like we did last night, to a Passover Seder, to a footwashing ceremony.

    One of the nice things about Maundy Thursday is that it gives Christians a chance to observe the Jewish ritual of Passover and heal Jewish-Christian relations.

    Good for you in moving beyond Sunday School!

  5. Spong is such a hack, but when it comes to talking about Jesus for non-believers you couldn't ask for a better candidate. He only presents a Jesus that unbelievers could be love.

    Anyway, I thought you might appreciate a book I recently found. I went through Dennis MacDonald's book, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark (Yale UP 2000)] where he argues that Mark extensively imitated the Iliad (ch. 15-16) and the Odyssey (ch. 1-14) to put together a distinctive Jewish national myth.

    There are some helpful parallels, though I think he overstates the possibility of direct borrowing from Homerica. Worse, some of his most persuasive arguments are set side-by-side and given equal emphasis with more far fetched comparisons, the cumulative effect of which undermines the force of the thesis. Still, since you argue (okay - propose) for non-factual truth in the Jesus myth, it'd be a read you'd probably enjoy.

    One other aside, Dr. James L. Blevins, Revelation as Drama (Nashville: Broadman, 1984). They don't have it at Emmanuel, but you might be able to get an inter-library loan. I think you'd like it.