Angel of St Matthew - stained glass

Studying Matthew 26 17-30

What do we think of when we think of “the Last Supper”? Whatever it is, it is probably less than Matthew packed into his account of the event. The text we are studying for Sunday, April 10 – Matthew 26:17-30 – is packed with significant symbols and ambiguities and, we will probably find, personal meaning. Here are a few notes on this text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are continuing in Matthew’s gospel, after last week’s look at the story of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. Between that episode and this one, Jesus has overturned the tables of the money lenders, cursed a fig tree to death, and demonstrated his authority to interpret scripture – to the point that no one wants to ask him any more questions. He has also pronounced a long chapter’s worth of woes on the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23) [1], and followed that up with an apocalyptic discourse that ends with an outline of the way the last judgment is likely to go down: well for the wise bridesmaids, the prudent risk-takers, and the compassionate sheep; not well for the unprepared, the slothful, and the indifferent goats.

We – the readers – know that there’s a murderous conspiracy in the works. We know that Judas is in on it. Jesus seems to know it too. The anointing woman – not identified as Mary in this gospel, but who does appear at a dinner party in Bethany – may also know. Or perhaps she has just been paying good attention to Jesus’s warnings about his impending betrayal and crucifixion, and has been taking Jesus seriously. Unlike the rest of the twelve disciples, who seem to be completely in the dark.

Our text is the next episode in this rapidly unfolding drama.

It finishes with Jesus and the eleven – we assume – finishing their celebration of Passover and  heading off for the Mount of Olives. Or perhaps the group becomes the eleven at that point, with Judas peeling off to “do something” before he rejoins them in verse 47. Matthew doesn’t give us a precise time for Judas’s departure. But after the rendezvous at the Mount of Olives, the plot moves swiftly through the events of the passion to Jesus’s crucifixion and death – and ultimately to the climax of the resurrection, and then to the set-up for the [ongoing] sequel, the ascension.

The timing and significance of Passover has been a recurrent theme for us during the past several weeks [here, here, and here]. But in case we’ve missed that, we could review the instructions for the Passover in Egypt in Exodus 12. That text will remind us that the Hebrews were instructed to “take a lamb” on the tenth day of the month, and then [slaughter it and] eat the Passover meal on the fourteenth day. If we count our days right, we can come up with a symbolic correspondence between this instruction and the sequence of Palm Sunday / Last Supper.[2] That symbolism makes Jesus look a lot like the Passover lamb.

We should probably refrain from imagining that Jesus and his disciples were having “a seder” at that Last Supper, though. Such as our Jewish friends might invite us to these days. “Second Temple Judaism” – the religion of Jesus’s day – is not the same religion as Rabbinic Judaism – the religion of our day. In particular, there was still a temple. Some contemporary practices might be that ancient. Many, most likely, are not.

Matthew 26:17-30 is part of the Liturgy of the Passion [Matthew 26:14 – 27:66] in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary, and is likely to be an especially familiar text even for casual churchgoers.

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CLOSER READING: In the first three verses of this section, Matthew hammers home the fact of the Passover, making it the ending (or almost) of the first three sentences. V17 introduces the holiday as “the first day of the unleavened,” however, and we might want to think about whether thinking of this festival as the festival of unleavened bread carries with it some different or additional associations. [Like, perhaps, purification in addition to liberation.]

Jesus’s instruction in v18 is remarkably vague. It could be like how we might say “you’ll see So-and-so” or “What’s-his-name” – name redacted, in this case. How will they recognize this “certain man”? Maybe he will recognize them, by their look of confusion. Or maybe they know each other. Or maybe it’s a miracle. The text doesn’t specify, so we could choose, or else we could admit we don’t know.

Is it interesting that they eat “in the city”? Why not just stay outside the city? Why go in, and then come back out to the Mount of Olives? What is the significance of “the city”? I wonder. Especially thinking of the significance of cities in general, and this city in particular, in the Christian imagination.

The group reclines to eat dinner (v20) – like Greeks at a symposium, or like Romans, or perhaps like any other well-bred men of the first century Mediterranean world. A detail. Their world is different from ours.

Then there are several verses that emphasize the betrayal – literally, the handing over. V22 records the exceeding distress of the disciples – other than Judas. What does this mean?! That they don’t know what they’re doing? That they think it could be them, but they don’t know how? [On the other hand, their confusion is probably more self-aware than Peter’s later declaration that he would never deny Jesus, so …]

But what do we think is going on with Judas? Jesus makes a dire pronouncement in v24, and Judas responds – we suppose disingenuously – in v25. He might still have time to take it back. The text does not tell us that he leaves the room. The narrative leaves a lot open to our imaginations at this critical juncture – possibly, on purpose.

Then, whether with or without the participation of Judas, verses 26-30 relate Jesus’s blessing and breaking and giving bread, and taking and giving thanks and giving a cup, and making the equation of bread and wine with body and blood.

At this point a lot of significant symbolism converges, but also creates some tension. There is the idea of Passover lamb – now bread – presumably the [extra pure] unleavened bread of a Passover meal; nourishment; and we are well-trained not to think “cannibalism,” although the disciples might not have been. There is wine – festive and fermented, the opposite of unleavened self-denial; which is now blood – like in the Passover story, visibly on doorposts and lintel, a sign of protection; and, in the temple, the blood of sacrifices is poured out at the altar; and also, in the Torah, “the life” of a living thing is in the blood. But – that’s why no one is supposed to drink or eat blood! Not even priests. So, there is plenty of meaning, but also a fair amount of dissonance, in Jesus’s words here.

Sharing in this communion / Last Supper has more than a whiff of transgressive danger about it. It’s bold. Almost painfully bold.

Jesus’s cryptic statement in v29 seems to emphasize the festive, celebratory quality of wine, and links it to the new life of the “kingdom of my father” – which we probably immediately equate with the kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of God, and remember that Jesus is the Son of God, without him ever having to say so out loud.

They – Jesus and whoever else is still there – sing a hymn. Wouldn’t we like to know which one?? And go out to the Mount of Olives.

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[1] Donald Harman Akenson points out that Matthew’s Jesus treats the scribes and Pharisees much more harshly than does Luke’s or Mark’s, but not quite as harshly as John’s Jesus does. He sees this as evidence of an order in which the gospels may have been composed – and of an evolution in early Christian sentiment regarding those Pharisees. [See Akenson, Donald Harman. Surpassing Wonder: the Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds. University of Chicago Press, 2001, 284-287.]

[2] That is, if we think of the Last Supper as taking place on the 14th Nissan, then Palm Sunday would be the 10th Nissan, and the day for “taking” that Passover lamb. Good Friday might seem a bit out of place that way, but the institution of communion will work as a sharing in the body and blood of that lamb. John’s timeline is different, as we probably remember, explicitly equating Good Friday with the day of preparation for the Passover, which would include the slaughter of the Passover lamb [John 19:14]. And perhaps not coincidentally, John doesn’t have any “words of institution” – maybe because it’s hard to eat the Passover lamb before it’s been slaughtered. John’s counterpart to those “words of institution” comes in the context of the feeding of the 5,000, and that bread of heaven is full of life. [John 6]

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painting of bread and wine on a table

Images: Angel representing St. Matthew the evangelist, Nheyob, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Still Life with Bottle, Carafe, Bread, and Wine” Claude Monet / Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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