Lent Week 5: A New Covenant

This year during the Lenten season we have been looking at events and conversations in the life of Jesus on his way to the cross.  The cross was the ultimate point of conflict between the kingdoms of this world and the new kingdom which Jesus had come to inaugurate.  The kingdoms of this world, with their top-down, violence-based, power-driven, what’s-in-it-for-me ways of doing things, and the kingdom of God with its upside-down, others-first, get-to-the-back-of-the-line-if-you-want-to-lead way of doing things.  But before we get to the cross there are a couple of loose ends to tie up.

At this point Jesus and the disciples are making their way towards Jerusalem for the Passover.  Now the Passover was the climactic celebration of the Jewish year, but by the first century it was a bittersweet celebration.  It looked back fondly on the great acts of deliverance by which God brought the nation of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and established them in the Promised Land, but with an air of wistful longing as the Jews found themselves enslaved again to a hostile foreign power and hoping–yearning–for a fresh act of deliverance from above.

It was against this backdrop that Jesus and his disciples prepared to enter Jerusalem.  The city was huge by ancient standards, and all the roads into the city were slammed with people headed there for the festival.  There was not a hotel room to be had.  (Think:  Athens GA on a football Saturday.)  And with all that Jesus had been doing, there was a buzz among the people heading into the city that had reached a fevered frenzy by that point.  People in the city and on the roads leading in were looking around anxiously, hoping to catch a glimpse of Jesus.  And when he and his disciples were spotted on one of the roads in, the whole crowd started laying out palm branches and broke into a chant:  “Hosanna!”  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  “Blessed is the king of Israel!”

The people had high hopes that this Passover would be different from all the others before.  That this would be the time when Jesus would pull off his rabbinic robes and declare himself the Messiah.  That next year at this time they would be celebrating their first Passover in a freshly liberated Israel with nary a Roman in sight.  They had no idea.

Once in the city, Jesus and his disciples skirted around from place to place–even causing a disruption in the Temple (you can read about it in Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17, or Luke 19:45-46) which was prophetic in that the whole sacrificial system ground to a halt, if only momentarily, as a sign pointing to a time when the sacrificial system would stop for good–but never staying in one place long enough for any of the chief priests or their spies to get a bead on them.  They were tailing Jesus the whole time, with the intent of keeping him in sight until after the Passover was over and the crowds thinned out and making their move then.  Once they had killed Jesus, then they would track Lazarus down and kill him too and this whole thing would be over and done with.

And then, an answer to prayer–from their perspective, at least.  One of Jesus’ closest disciples broke ranks and approached them, promising to deliver Jesus over to them at an appropriate time.

Finally we get to the Passover.  Jesus had his disciples find an out-of-the-way place where they could hole up and have the Passover meal and have those last conversations with the disciples, because he knew that time was running out.  This sets the stage for our reading this week:

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”

Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

–Matthew 26:26-29

Now get the picture:  Here are Jesus’ disciples all holed up in the upper room.  One of them has just left for God knows why.  Then Jesus starts acting all kinds of crazy.  There was the foot-washing thing, which we looked at last week.  Now this:  Jesus breaks the bread and starts talking about “This is my body”.  Wait–what?????  Luke’s version adds the words “given for you”.  What on earth is he talking about?????  This was the unleavened bread, the part of the Passover meal which represented the manna that God provided for the Israelites during their time in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land.  The disciples knew exactly what the unleavened bread was.  Come on, Jesus.  Stick with the Passover script.

But it gets worse.  In Luke’s version the next thing he says is “Do this in remembrance of me.”  At this point the disciples, if they were God-fearing Jews, should have all gotten up and walked out of the room.  Perhaps the whole Messiah thing was getting to his head, but the one thing you did not do under any circumstances if you were a devout Jew was mess with Passover.  The closest parallel would be if your pastor got up on Christmas day and said “Today we are going to celebrate my birth and sing songs to me and hymns about how great I am.”  If that ever happens in your church, it means that something has gone seriously off the rails and you should get up and leave instantly.

But it gets worse.  Now Jesus takes the wine, which represents the blood that was applied to the door of every Jewish house in Egypt so that the angel of death that struck down all the Egyptian firstborn would pass over their houses (thus the name Passover).  He says “This cup is the new covenant…”  If the disciples were thinking straight they would have asked “What kind of covenant?”  You see, in ancient times there were three basic types of covenants:  bilateral parity covenant, which was an arrangement between two equal parties (think:  business contract), bilateral suzerainty covenant, in which one party is clearly superior and lays down all the terms and conditions (think:  your curfew, when you were growing up), and promissory covenant, which is where one party takes on all the obligations of the covenant and agrees to provide all the benefit to another party (think:  middle school crush).  If the disciples were thinking straight they would have asked “Is this going to be like the covenant between our nation and God (a bilateral suzerainty covenant), or is this going to be something else entirely?”

But Jesus isn’t finished.  He goes on, “…in my blood, which is poured out for you.”  Now we’re right back to the Temple equation.  Every year for as long as they could remember, the disciples had gone up to the Temple, made some sacrifices, and obtained forgiveness of their sins for the year.  An animal was sacrificed, its blood was poured out, and forgiveness was received.  Wait a minute, Jesus.  Your blood is going to be poured out, as some kind of sacrifice.  But you can only do that once.  What on earth are you talking about here?

There is one more loose end to tie up before we get to the cross.  But that will have to come next week.

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