Palm Sunday of the Passion: a last meal

Altar-1The Gospel reading for Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion is quite lengthy and so will not be included here. It can be found at the USCCB website:

Jesus Inaugurates the Eucharist (26:26-30a) As Joachim Jeremias and other scholars have shown in looking at all the received Eucharistic traditions (Paul in 1 Corinthians and the synoptic gospel writers), Jesus follows the form and outline of the Passover Seder. The thanksgiving over the bread and the cup recorded in vv. 26 and 27 will therefore be a regular part of the main section of the Passover meal (making this the third of the four cups of the Passover), and we may reasonably assume that Jesus used the traditional words of thanksgiving. But it worthwhile to point out that said the blessing refers to blessing God, not blessing the bread.

The Catholic liturgy retains the blessing in its Eucharistic prayers: “Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life.” Matthew, taking these well-known words for granted, records only the startlingly unfamiliar words which Jesus added – words that were spoken when none to be said: “Take and eat; this is my body.” The Passover ritual had its own words of explanation for the food and drink, relating to the events of the deliverance from Egypt; but now Jesus gives a new interpretation in terms of a new and greater deliverance.

In describing the broken bread as my body Jesus makes unmistakably clear that he is to be violently killed; any hopes his disciples may still have cherished, that he did not mean what he said about going to Jerusalem to die, are now dramatically dispelled. That was no doubt hard enough to accept, but in commanding them specifically to eat (and in v. 27 to drink—only Matthew includes these imperatives, making more explicit the ‘Do this’ of 1 Cor. 11:24–25) he goes further, and introduces the concept of a personal participation in the effects of that death, a concept more powerfully spelt out in John 6:48–58. If the eating of the Passover meal served to identify the Israelite with the redemption from Egypt, so does this ‘eating’ and ‘drinking’ convey the benefits of Jesus’ paschal sacrifice to those who share his table.

The words over the cup fill out this idea. Blood … shed is unmistakably sacrificial language. The word which the NAB translates as “shed” is ekcheō which means to “pour out” [EDNT 1:424]. This is the preferable translation because it captures the sealing of Covenant which always includes a pouring out of the sacrificial blood on the altar. The phrase for many (v.28) identifies that pouring out as that of the Servant of God of Isaiah 53:10-12, who “gives his life as an offering for sin.” With this reference, the whole idea of vicarious suffering for the sins of God’s people which runs throughout Isaiah 53 underlies these words. Matthew makes this even more explicit by adding for the forgiveness of sins (v.28). And that last phrase, together with the mention of the covenant, echoes Jeremiah’s prophecy (31:31–34) of a ‘new covenant’ leading to the forgiving and forgetting of the sins of God’s people. The phrase blood of the covenant (echoing Exod. 24:8) recalls that God’s relations with his people had always depended on the sacrificial shedding of blood, and this new covenant is no exception.

So these words, rich in Old Testament associations, indicate that Jesus’ death will inaugurate the new relationship between God and his people to which the prophets looked forward. To speak of a covenant is to speak of a community of the people of God. From now on this community will be constituted by the sacrifice of Jesus and celebrated in the Eucharist. The Passover which brought about the formation of the nation Israel under the Sinai covenant (cf. the allusion to Exod. 24:8) now points forward to a new redemption constituting a true Israel in distinction from the merely national community of the old covenant.

Jesus’ words over the bread and the cup have focused on death. Again the Matthaean phrase ap‘ arti, ‘from now on’ serves to mark a point in time which separates the two situations of “now” and “one day;” a new day is now dawning – for beyond the impending death lies life, in the kingdom of my Father. The companionship of Jesus with his disciples, so soon to be broken by death, will be restored in my Father’s kingdom So the emphasis on death in the preceding words leads to a sense not of somber finality, but of joyful anticipation of new life through death.

Eugene Boring makes several points worth noting in his commentary [472-3] regarding the “trajectory” of Matthew’s account:

  • The meal points backward from Matthew’s time to the death of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins and to the life of Jesus marked by table fellowship with his disciples – and to sinner alike.
  • The meal points forward to its fulfillment in the kingdom of God.
  • The meal points inward as a call for self-examination on the part of anyone who would participate in the Eucharist and well as to the conditions for the possibility of wholeness and completeness in the sharing of Christ’s life.
  • The meal points upward to the heavenly realm where Christ is enthroned and exalted.
  • The meal points outward to the whole church and to the whole world

Notes

Matthew 26:26 this is my body: Matthew likely understood the words of institution in relation to the their Aramaic background. Since Aramaic, unlike Hebrew and Greek, does not have a word for “body,” Jesus’ original word was likely gup meaning “body” in the sense of “self,” “ego.” If true, the sentence would have meant, “This is myself.”

Matthew 26:28 the covenant: notably, the phrase “new” is not present in this text, nor in the older Markan text. Luke (22) and Paul (1 Cor 11) include the phrase “new.” Elsewhere in Scripture the phrase “new” in similar contexts implies an eschatological renewal which is consistent with God’s saving actions for his people.

shed: the word ekcheō means to “pour out” [EDNT 1:424]. This is the preferable translation because it captures the sealing of Covenant which always includes a pouring out of the sacrificial blood on the altar.

Matthew 26:29 fruit of the vine: These words were part of the regular thanksgiving which Jesus would have used over the cup (v. 27) – see m. Berakoth 6:1.


Sources

  • K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007) 90-100
  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 463-97
  • Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 2000) 503-40
  • T. France, The Gospel of Matthew in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2007) 976-1095
  • T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) 364-410
  • Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) 361-407
  • Daniel J. Harrington, “Matthew” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 898-902
  • Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009) 620-97
  • John P. Meier, Matthew, New Testament Message 3 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990) 313-58
  • Turner and D.L. Bock, Matthew and Mark in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, vol. 11 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005) 335-369

Dictionaries

  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)

Scripture – quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970

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