The passover provides the dramatic backdrop for all that comes next, so that the meaning of the Passover infuses every scene. Do not read “It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread” as mere trivia. God is about to work redemption.
There is much to say about the costly sacrifice of the anonymous woman who poured out a year’s wages on Jesus’ head. There is also much to say about those who failed to grasp the significance of the moment—one of the precious final moments with the Messiah. But the current of the story to this point draws our attention to the significance of the wordless action and the deeper significance that Jesus finds in it. This woman, in extravagance fit for a king, proclaims Jesus the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ. In keeping with the understanding of the Messiah that Jesus has been trying to inculcate, he makes clear that to be the Anointed One is to be anointed for death.
This final morbid prediction is the last straw for Judas. There has been prolific speculation on Judas’ motives. The historical church has not been generous to the traitor. More recent conjecture on a historical basis has met tepid acceptance and cautions against unfounded conclusions. Such caution is fair enough, but if the main idea of this study is right--that the disciples (and many Second Temple Jews) were wrapped up in very powerful expectations for their liberator-king--then we are not engaged in mere speculation when we imagine that Judas was fed up with all this talk of death and (it would seem) defeat. It was time to toss a lit torch on the dry stubble. And Jerusalem was ready to go up like a tender box. No doubt Judas had mixed motives—as most of us do. But it is as likely as not that he expected Jesus, or at least the disciples, to resist arrest once it came to that. Having witnessed Jesus’ power all along, not to mention his intrepid ability to avoid capture, it is hard to imagine that Judas would have thought the chief priest’s henchmen could actually manage to take him. More likely, he was attempting to force the start of the inevitable revolution. In any event, it is a woeful betrayal of Jesus’ teaching. “And he began looking for how he might hand him over conveniently” (14:11).
The disciples go about making preparations for the Passover meal in the mean time. Jesus has made prearrangements, and Mark’s style conveys the secretive nature of the whole affair. Jesus is determined to share this meal without being interrupted. If not for Judas, their whereabouts would remain discrete.
The first thing Mark tells us about the meal is the prediction of betrayal. It is easy, knowing Judas‘ actions, to miss the importance of the conversation. Yes, Judas betrays Jesus. But their vehement denial to a man, Judas included, highlights the bigger issue: they all betray him. In fact, as the discussion continues later, Jesus makes another prediction of betrayal: Peter’s. Let us not deceive ourselves; Peter’s emphatic denouncement of Jesus is fully and completely a betrayal. It actually must have seemed as though Jesus had named Peter as the predicted betrayer. In the end, though, all of them would “become deserters” of the king (14:27; NRSV), which is treason in any kingdom.
The most astonishing thing about this Passover meal, however, is the fact that Jesus refocuses it on himself. This celebration of God’s foundational saving act--the exodus-- finds its meaning now realized in the body and blood of the man Jesus of Nazareth. Here we encounter, after 10:45, the only other statement in Mark about the effect of Jesus’ death. His blood establishes a new covenant, that which defines God’s people. This blood is “poured out for many” (14:24). These “many” benefit from his death. The concrete way that Jesus describes that benefit is covenant. Those who receive his sacrifice become God’s own people.
The scene at Gethsemane is a vital part of the gospel story. The call to discipleship has been the call to die to self and imitate Jesus in taking up the cross. The utter difficulty of that call comes to life in Jesus. He has not called his followers to something that was easy for him. His power does not trump his humanity. He is honest with the Father. He does not want to obey. It is too costly to want. He comes to the cross with true dread. And only in this is he the perfect example of obedience. Only in his agony does “yet not what I want but what you want” bear the real weight of discipleship. And of course, his sleepy followers are the contrast. The counsel to keep awake (13:35, 37) is already lost on them. Of course, they do not expect that this time of prayer has much to do with the dawning of God’s kingdom. At its inception, the Passover meal was about being ready for God to save his people. The twelve were not ready. As readers, we must ask ourselves whether we are ready for God to do so on our behalf through the body and blood of Jesus.