Friday, April 18, 2014

Jesus' Last Week: Palm Sunday and Passover


If we were in Jerusalem today, we would join hundreds of other pilgrims from all over the world for the Palm Sunday Walk.  It retraces Jesus’ steps, or rather the steps of the donkey he rode, up and over the Mt. of Olives and down into the city of Jerusalem. 

The original “Palm Sunday Walk” started in the little village of Bethany on the other side of the Mt. of Olives.*  As John tells it:  “Jesus, therefore, six days before the Passover, came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead…” (John 12:1).  Why did Jesus arrive so early?  It was the custom to come up to Jerusalem a week early to purify yourself for the festival.  This custom is mentioned in John 11:55:  “But the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up to Jerusalem out of the countryside before the Passover to purify themselves.”

* Today Bethany is known as al-Eizariya in memory of Lazarus.  The ancient center of the village is about 2 km from the Old City of Jerusalem.

The Hebrew name of Bethany is Beth-oni, the house of the poor.  Oni (poor) could refer to physical poverty.  But it also had a spiritual meaning:  those who recognized their spiritual poverty and need for God.  This is the same double meaning that Jesus intended when he taught, “Blessed are the poor.”* 

* As Luke puts it (Luke 6:20).  Matthew translates it as “poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3).

The whole idea of poverty, both physical and spiritual, with its opposition to wealth and power were a real issue among the Jewish people at the time.  They were an oppressed people, ruled by the Romans, who drained off their wealth in heavy taxes, and by priests who became wealthy by cooperating with the Romans.  Intentional poverty was a way to protest these worldly ways and seek after God. 

Remember when Zaccheus the tax collector received Jesus.  What did he say?  “Half of my goods I give to the poor…” (Luke 19:8).  Others, too, had given up much to follow God.  Jesus told his disciples, "So therefore, no one of you can be my disciple who does not give up all his own possessions” (Luke 14:33).  Peter answered Jesus, “Behold, we have left everything and followed you…” (Matt. 19:27).  

It wasn’t only Jesus’ believers that were struggling with this issue.  Many others had given up everything to follow God.  This includes the Essenes of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls.  They were one of several groups, and many individuals—altogether thousands of people—living out in the desert seeking God.  Even later, in Christian times, thousands of Christian monks lived in the deserts east of Jerusalem, seeking God by living very humble lives.    

Bethany

Bethany was right at the edge of this same desert.  Its name may have come from people like this, like the Essenes, living there in intentional poverty.  Jesus’ friends in Bethany may have been among them:  Mary, Martha, Lazarus whom Jesus had raised from the dead, and Simon the leper (Matt. 26:6).  None are mentioned with a spouse; perhaps they were single just like many of the Essenes. 

Six days before the Passover that year was a Friday, which means that Jesus arrived just in time to spend a quiet Sabbath with his friends.  Then the next morning, when the Sabbath was over, he began to walk toward Jerusalem, up and over the Mt. of Olives. 

Before very long, after only about 15 minutes of walking, he came with his disciples to the tiny village of Bethphage.  In Hebrew this is Bet-paghee, “the house of the unripe fig.”  Here Jesus waited while two of the disciples went into the village to get him a donkey (Matt. 21:2).  Then from there, he rode up and over the Mt. of Olives to Jerusalem, the same route the pilgrims will be taking in their walk today. 

Why did he ride a donkey?  This was the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, "Rejoice...O daughter of Zion!... Your king is coming to you.  He is righteous and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey."  Many assume the donkey was a symbol of humility.  And from a Roman point of view, it certainly was. But to the Jews, it was a symbol of royalty.  This was how King Solomon entered the city after he was proclaimed king just a short distance away (1 Kings 1:38-40).   

At the time of the major festivals, including Passover, so many people came up to Jerusalem that there was no room for them all to stay in the city.  Hundreds of thousands came up for the feasts, as many as four times the population of the city.  The pilgrims coming from Galilee made their campsite on the Mt. of Olives.  These were people who knew of Jesus:  they had heard him speak, had seen his miracles.  They were already excited about him.  Some had tried to crown him king once before in Galilee (John 6:15).  Can you imagine how the news spread through the camp that morning:  "The Rabbi from Galilee is getting on a donkey at Beth-pagee.  Maybe he's finally going to proclaim himself King Messiah!"  These are the people who met Jesus singing psalms and bringing palm branches when he rode through their camp. 

Why did they bring palm branches?  The waving of palm branches was something they usually did at the Feast of Tabernacles in the fall.  Why would they do it now, at Passover time?  Because the Feast of Tabernacles with its palm branches was a symbol of the Messianic Age, when they would have their independence again!  And many believed Jesus to be that Messiah!  They were hoping he would set them free from the oppression of the Romans!

Date Palm Trees

Jewish coins from the time of the Maccabees, before Christ, often have palm trees or palm branches on them.  This was a time of Jewish independence, when there were no Roman soldiers around telling the Jews what to do.  Also later, at the time of the Jewish Revolt against Rome, coins minted by the zealots had palm branches on them.  At the end of the revolt, after it was crushed by the Romans, the Romans issued Judea Capta coins ("Judea is subdued"), showing a Roman soldier, a drooping palm tree, and a weeping woman.  What did it mean?  The end of Jewish nationalism.  So the palm was a symbol of Jewish nationalism, of the desire for independence from Rome.  Everyone who brought a palm branch on Palm Sunday was saying, "We're with you against Rome.  Save us from this horrible oppression."  If they were doing it today, they would bring signs that said, "Pontius Pilate, go home."   

They also threw their cloaks at Jesus’ feet.  What did this mean?  These cloaks, with their tassels and fringes, were symbols of their personal identity and authority.  To throw them down before Jesus like this was a sign of submission to his royal and Messianic authority.  It meant they were willing to follow him in a war against the Romans. 
               
This means that Palm Sunday was actually a dangerous day.  It was not the gentle, peaceful event Christians imagine it to be.  It was more like Palestinians waving their Palestinian flags in a demonstration in front of Israeli troops.  That demonstration could have become a riot very quickly. 

Pontius Pilate knew what those palm branches were about.  In fact, the miracle of the story is that he didn't immediately send out troops to crush it.  There were “Palm Sundays” after that that were not so lucky.  In the reign of Governor Fadus (one of the successors to Pontius Pilate), a crowd followed a certain Theudas over the Mt. of Olives to the Jordan river.  He claimed he would miraculously part the river to prove he was the Messiah.  But he never got a chance to do it:  the Romans sent out soldiers on their horses.  Theudas and many of his followers were killed.  His head was brought back to Jerusalem (Antiq. 20.5.1). 

Acts 5:36 mentions another, earlier Theudas, who also failed to start an uprising.  He was killed with 400 of his followers ("Some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody; and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him.  And he was slain; and all who followed him were dispersed...").  The next verse mentions Judas of Galilee, the zealot who died starting an uprising (Acts 5:37).  The same happened to two of his sons forty years later.  Both of them were crucified (in AD 46-48; Antiq. 20.5.2). 

A Jew called "the Egyptian" is mentioned both in Josephus and the book of Acts (Acts 21:38:  "Then you are not the Egyptian who some time ago stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Dagger-Carriers out into the desert?").  The "Egyptian" gathered thousands of disciples to the Mt. of Olives.  Picture them waving their palm branches.  He promised he would miraculously cause the city walls to fall down, and then they would charge into the city.  But Felix, the governor you know from Acts 23 and 24, sent out troops that killed many as they dispersed the crowds.  The "Egyptian" got away. 

And there were others.  The Romans wanted to make one thing perfectly clear:  Jewish Messiahs will be killed.  Palm Sunday was a dangerous day. 
               
On their way to Jerusalem for the festival, the Jewish people sang the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134).  But now they added sections from Psalm 118:  "God, please save us."* In Hebrew, this is hoshiah-na.  What does that sound like? It comes over into Greek as Hosanna.  This was not talking about spiritual salvation.  It’s a psalm of deliverance from foreign nations:  "All nations surrounded me; in the name of the LORD I will surely cut them off.  They surrounded me, yes, they surrounded me; in the name of the LORD I will surely cut them off" (Psalm 118:10,11).  When they sang, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" what they meant was:  God, please use this rabbi to set us free from the Romans! 

* Psalm 118 is one of the psalms traditionally sung during the Passover Meal (as part of the Hallel, Psalms 113-118 and 136). 

What did Jesus say when the Pharisees told him to silence the crowds?  "Teacher, rebuke your disciples" (Luke 19:39).  He said, "If these become silent, the stones will cry out!" (Luke 19:40).  What was he talking about?  It comes from Hab. 2:11, "Surely the stone will cry out from the wall..."  Habakkuk's stone cried out because of the oppression of the armies of Babylon that were coming to crush the nation of Israel.  Jesus said, if not these people, the land itself will cry out to God for a deliverer.  Jesus knew why the people were there and what was in their hearts.  He had grown up with them.  He knew the tremendous oppression they were under. 

But he also knew the other side of the story:  that there was a reason they were under oppression, there was a reason the city would soon be destroyed.  As Jesus rounded the top of the Mt. of Olives, with a beautiful view of the city of Jerusalem beneath him, he wept and said:  "If you had known in this day, even you, the things that make for peace!  But now they have been hidden from your eyes.  For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a siege bank around you, and surround you, and hem you in on every side, and will level you to the ground and your children within you, and will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation" (Luke 19:41-44). 

This has got to be one of the most incredibly tragic moments of history.  The Jewish people are welcoming Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah with shouts and songs of celebration.  Yet he himself is weeping, over them and over Jerusalem.  The people were singing his praises, yet they did not understand his message!  Instead of the way of peace that Jesus came to bring them, they wanted war.  And Jesus knew they would soon get it.  Unfortunately, the result would be very different than the singing multitude around him would like it to be.  Forty years later, the city was completely destroyed in exact fulfillment of the prophecy of Jesus. 

It was not just the crowds that misunderstood him.  Even his own disciples were caught up in the crowd's expectations.  Luke tells us, "They supposed that the kingdom of God was going to appear immediately" (Luke 19:11).  As you can imagine, they were very excited.  Jesus had finally allowed people to sing verses about the Messiah to him.  He was riding on a donkey to Jerusalem.  They thought they would soon see the Romans fleeing for their lives! 

The disciples still didn't understand that Jesus was going to die.  Up until the very end, they thought Jesus was going to lead them in an attack on the Romans.  At the Last Supper, Jesus said, "That which is written must be fulfilled in me"—speaking of his crucifixion (Luke 22:37).  But what did the disciples reply?  "Lord, look, here are two swords!" (Luke 22:38).  Even after the resurrection, they asked him, "Lord, are you at this time restoring the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6).  Even after the resurrection, their main concern was getting rid of the Romans. 

Remember their arguments about who is the greatest?  They were not just thinking about getting good seats next to Jesus at a meal.  They were thinking about good jobs in the kingdom of the Messiah:  who will control the military, who will control the treasury.  Jesus was taking a low road of suffering and submission and they were all thinking of honor and glory.  They had their eyes on fame, fortune, and power. 

The procession continued down the Mt. of Olives to the bridge across the Kidron Valley, then across on the other side to the Golden Gate.  This led into the eastern portico of the Temple (the Portico of Solomon).  Once inside, they saw Roman soldiers standing beside every column in the Temple courts.  Why were the soldiers there?  To make sure a rebellion didn’t start during the festival.

The Inner Courts of the Temple in Jerusalem

If you’re still not with me and you’re not so sure that this was a dangerous a day—you still have your flowers and palm branches gently flowing in the wind—consider this:  Matthew's gospel says, "The children...were crying out in the Temple and saying, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David'" (Matt. 21:15).  Why only the children?  In the West Bank, when there is a lot of hatred for the Israelis, let's say something has happened politically, the parents will tell their kids to go out and throw stones at the Israeli soldiers.  Why the kids?  Because the kids won't be arrested.  As that Palm Sunday crowd entered the Temple, with Roman soldiers standing beside every column, the parents stopped singing and the children started singing.  That is a dangerous day.

But then Jesus began to throw "out all those who were buying and selling in the Temple, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who were selling the doves" (Matt. 21:12).  Why were there merchants and moneychangers in the Temple?  They were permitted to be there by the High Priests and the Temple officials.  For this favor they had to give a percentage of their profits—probably more than 20%—to the Temple officials.  This was corruption in the Temple.  As Jesus said, it was a den of robbers (Matt. 21:3).  Those shops shouldn’t have been there. 
                 
The people agreed.  Otherwise, it would have been impossible for Jesus to drive out the moneychangers and merchants with no opposition.  But now Jesus, by his actions, had publicly rebuked Annas the high priest and cut into his profit margin.*  And as with any very powerful and very corrupt man, “If you toucha the money, you die.”  From that point on, Jesus’ death was certain.  The Romans were upset because it looked like he was stirring up a rebellion.  The priests were upset because Jesus was defying their authority.  But it brought a breath of hope to the people. 

* Annas was the head of a family of high priests, whose son-in-law Caiaphas was the current high priest that year (Luke 3:2, John 18:13, Acts 4:6).  Yet Annas and other former high priests still carried the honorary title of high priest after they were no longer in office.    

For the next couple of days, Jesus continued teaching the crowds in the Temple.  During this time, he rebuked not only the Temple leaders, warning that God would take their leadership away from them, but also the Pharisees and the Sadducees, both of whom had not only religious but also political power. 

Before long, the time came for the Passover festival to begin, on Thursday.  The traditional location of Jesus’ last Passover was in a section of the Upper City known as the Essene Quarter.  This has been identified by the discovery of the Essene Gate, along with ritual baths and latrines just outside the city wall.  Peter and John found the place by meeting a man carrying a water pot (Luke 22:10).  This was unusual at the time.  Drawing water was considered women’s work, unless the man was unmarried—like some of the Essenes.  Could the man with the water pot have been an Essene?  He led them to the Essene Quarter of the city.  Could Jesus have arranged to eat his last Passover in an Essene house?  We don't know for sure. 

But we can be sure of this:  Jesus wanted privacy that night.  The last thing he wanted to hear was a thump, thump on the door, with a soldier saying, "You're under arrest."  He had a very special message he wanted to share with his disciples that night:  "How I've longed to eat this Passover with you" (Luke 22:15).  And this was his last chance to share it with them.  The next morning, he was on the cross. 

The setting of the Last Supper is described in Luke 22:11-12 as a large, upstairs, furnished, guest room.  Upstairs is where people’s living quarters were located and guests were received.  Downstairs is where animals were kept in the winter, or where the workshop or business of the family was located. 

The word “furnished” should more accurately be translated “spread,” as with couches or cushions for reclining.  Why did they recline for the meal?  Originally the Passover was eaten in great haste (Exo. 12:11).  But in Jesus' day, the rabbis ruled that all should eat reclining as a symbol of freedom. 


This explains why John was reclining at Jesus' chest (John 13:23).  They were not snuggling, as some have misunderstood this verse.  The position for eating was reclining on the left side and eating with the right hand.  So to describe your neighbors at the meal, you couldn’t refer to the one at your left or at your right.  Instead, they described the person reclining in front of them as being “at my chest,” just as you were “at the chest” of the person behind you.
    
Many different tables have been found from the time of Jesus.  But the large ones (mega in Greek) are usually a П shaped table  known as a triclinium .  The tri indicates the three sides on which people were reclining (clinium; see the picture below).

The rabbis ruled that if you lived within fifteen miles of Jerusalem, you must eat the Passover in the city.  Many others came as well, some from distant countries.  But not everyone had family in the city, so it was the custom for Jerusalemites to let strangers use their guest room.  It was considered inappropriate to rent the room for money, so guests would show their appreciation by leaving a new set of dishes they used for the meal and the lamb skin from their Passover sacrifice. 

What is the evidence that Jesus used a guest room?  The gospels make no mention of a host.  Only Jesus and the twelve were present at the meal. 

The Passover Meal is a special meal, different than ordinary meals.  Everything is done in a certain order, which gives the meal its name:  Seder (“order”).  Food is only eaten at certain times in the meal. 

When the disciples sat down at the last Passover with Jesus, it wasn't a new experience.  They had eaten Passover with him at least three times before.  But this time he started with a strange statement:  "I have greatly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you that I will certainly not eat it again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God" (Luke 22:15-16).  The disciples were expecting the kingdom of God at any minute.  So why was Jesus talking about suffering?  Was he going to be injured in a war against the Romans?

The meal started with a blessing over the wine, just as at the beginning of any formal meal.  This was not a blessing of the food itself as we often think of it, but a blessing of God for the food.  In fact, we know the exact words that were used in this blessing.  They’re still used today:  Baruch attah Adonai Eloheinu, Melech ha'olam, borei p'rie ha-gafen (Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, creator of the fruit of the vine).  

Four cups of wine were drunk during the meal, which divided the meal into sections.  The first cup was the Cup of Holiness, which provides the theme of the first section of the meal.  This included another blessing, to set aside the day as holy to the Lord (the Kiddush). 

The first thing to be eaten after the initial blessings were bitter herbs dipped in salty water.  Why did they start the meal this way?  The bitter herbs were a symbol of the bitterness of slavery in Egypt.  The salty water represented the tears of the Israelites in their slavery.  As with everything at the meal, these were intended to make you think of the original Exodus, to help you experience it as if you were there.  The idea was that after celebrating the meal, you would no longer say, ‘the Lord delivered our fathers from Egypt,’ but rather that ‘the Lord delivered us from Egypt.’* 

* This is also the intention of the Lord’s Supper, to experience the meal again with Jesus present by his Spirit.   

The second cup was the Cup of Instruction.  This is when the youngest one at the meal would ask the famous four questions:  (1) “Why is this night different from every other night?”  (2) “On other nights, we eat leavened or unleavened bread.  Why tonight only unleavened?”  (3) “On other nights we eat bitter or regular herbs.  Why tonight only bitter herbs?”  And as they say it today:  (4) “Why on this night did our ancestors recline?”

This is the cue for the father with his family or the rabbi with his disciples to tell the story of the miraculous escape of the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt:  from the plagues, to the parting of the Red Sea, to the escape through the desert, to the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai.  For the children, this was a very exciting story, especially in the days before television.

Another tradition was to explain the meaning of the food items on the table.  We’ll mention four that we know were on the table in Jesus' day:  First was the unleavened bread.  This was lifted to God with a blessing, then torn and eaten.  Why unleavened bread?  In the original Exodus, they had to leave Egypt in such a hurry that there was no time for the bread to rise (Exo. 12:34,39).  This was also celebrated in the week after Passover as the Feast of Unleavened Bread (1 Cor. 5:7). 

Bitter herbs had already been eaten once before, but this time they were dipped in haroseth:  a tasty apple paste that looks like mud.  Why would they eat something that looks like mud?  What does this have to do with the Passover story?  The Israelites in their slavery had to make mudbricks for Pharaoh in Egypt (Exo. 1:14, 5:8). 

The watery wine drunk at the meal was a symbol of joy.*  This was a feast of freedom, of deliverance. 

* This was a weak wine, with only about half the alcoholic content of modern wines.  They served it mixed with water, as some Eastern churches do for communion until this day.

The main course was a lamb stew.  Why were they eating lamb at Passover?  At the original Passover in Egypt, they marked their lintels and doorposts with the blood of the lamb, in what Christians have traditionally seen as the sign of the cross.  Why?  So the angel of death would pass over.  Otherwise the first born would die. 

In the time of Jesus, there were so many pilgrims in Jerusalem, there was not enough lamb to go around.  As many as 256,500 were sacrificed, but there were as many as 3,000,000 visitors to feed.  This works out to about 10-20 people per one-year-old lamb.  One year old lambs are not very big.  So they made it into a stew.  To give you an idea how "extended" the lamb was, the rabbis ruled you must have at least as much lamb as the size of an olive for it to be a valid Passover.  The stew was eaten with bread.  This explains the dipping of the bread in John (the “sop” in the KJV; John 13:26,27,30).  After this, they ate freely of the food at the table. 

After everyone was finished, the last thing eaten was a piece of bread, known as the aphikomen.  This was probably the bread which Jesus took, blessed, and broke saying, "Take, eat; this is my body" (Matt. 26:26).  Next followed the third cup, the Cup of Redemption.  This is the cup that Jesus took up saying, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins" (Matt. 26:28).  How do we know this was the cup?  This is the cup after the meal, and the Bible says that Jesus took “the cup after diner, saying...” (Luke 22:20).

After some more songs and prayers followed the fourth cup, the Cup of Hope:  specifically Messianic Hope, hope in the coming of the Messiah.  Today, when the fourth cup is poured, they also fill a special fancy cup, the cup of Elijah.  This is just in case Elijah comes first that night, announcing the coming of the Messiah, as Malachi says he will one day do (Mal. 4:5).  In some homes, the father will say to his children, "Go outside and see if you can see Elijah."  So the children go scampering to the door and look around in the night sky.  When they don't see anything, they come back disappointed.  So Papa says:  "Well, maybe next year."  We don't know if the practice of Elijah's cup had started already in Jesus' day, but we do know that the gates of the Temple were opened just after midnight on Passover Eve, just in case the Messiah came that night. 

But I can tell you that Jesus did not drink from the fourth cup that night.  How do I know that?  Because after the third cup he said, "I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom" (Matt. 26:29).  If immediately after saying this, he drank another cup of wine, it wouldn't have made any sense.  You can imagine what a surprise this was to the disciples.  They believed Jesus was the Messiah.  They were hoping he would announce himself during this Passover week.  And this would have been the perfect time to do it:  the Cup of Messianic Hope.  But Jesus did not even drink it!  Jesus was an excellent teacher:  what was the meaning of this omission?  Do you remember what he said, just before they came up to Jerusalem, when the mother of James and John tried to reserve seats for them at the Messianic banquet?  "Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?" (Matt. 20:22).  First he had another cup to drink:  the cup of suffering.  

We have enough information about the events that night to reconstruct where some of the participants were reclining.  The seating was not random, but in a particular order:  To the left were the seats of greatest honor.  In the center were the seats of middle honor.  To the right were the seats of lesser honor.  Jesus mentioned this in one of his parables (Luke 14:7-11).  He said, when you go to a wedding feast, don't recline in the place of honor:  perhaps the host has someone important he wants to recline in that place, and will ask you to leave, which will be very embarrassing.  It’s better to recline in the lowest place:  perhaps when the host comes, he will move you to a higher place, which will be a great honor for you.  This is still good advice today.


The host reclined in the #2 position, counting from the left.  This would have been Jesus:  he made the arrangements for the meal, he led the meal, so he was clearly acting as the host.  If so, you immediately know where one of the disciples was reclining:  John.  He would have been in position #1. 

This first position was a seat of great honor.  Why would John be in this seat?  What was special about John?  Well, maybe because he is called the beloved disciple.  He was also the youngest.  He was also in the inner circle of disciples:  Peter, James, and John did things with Jesus that the others didn’t do.  Or maybe it was because he helped with the preparations that night.  We don't know for sure, but for any or all of these reasons, John was in position #1. 

Who then was on the other side of Jesus in position #3, also a position of great honor—in fact, the seat of the guest of honor?  Peter?  Good guess.  Peter was also in the inner circle, he also helped with the preparations:  but Peter was not in that position that night.  How do I know?  Do you remember, when Peter had to get John's attention to ask Jesus something (John 13:23-24)?  If he was sitting next to him, he could have just asked Jesus directly.  So if John was reclining in position #1, where must Peter have been located? 

Way over on the other side, in the seats of lesser honor.  Why there?  Perhaps Peter had expected to be in the highest position, but just like in the parable of Jesus, he had to come all the way around to the bottom, since the other seats were taken.  I know it's not evidence, but it certainly sounds like something that would happen to Peter.  But there is one more piece of evidence:  Do you remember when Jesus washed the disciples' feet it says, "And so he came to...Peter" (John 13:6).  It sounds like Peter was at the end of the line.  And do you remember Peter's reaction?  “You will never wash my feet!” (John 13:8).  Why did he say this?  Was he embarrassed because the one in the last position was supposed to wash the feet?  We don't know for sure.  But it seems clear that Peter was in one of the lowest positions. 

So who was in the seat of honor on the other side of Jesus, in position #3?  Judas.  Why Judas?  He was the one who dipped bread in the stew with Jesus (Matt. 26:23).  As you can see, this was only possible for those on either side of Jesus.  Also, do you remember, Jesus told Judas to go do something, and the others weren't sure what was happening (John 13:27-30).  This gives the impression that Judas was near Jesus.  But why would Jesus put Judas in this seat of honor?  Didn’t Jesus know in advance who would betray him?  Yes, he did.  So why would he put Judas there?  Could it be that he was showing us what’s very easy to say but hard to do:  love your enemies?  Or was Jesus giving him one last chance to repent? 

Meals in the ancient Middle East, and even in some places today, are not just "ordinary" as they are to us.  We might go to lunch with a group of people, and maybe we know all of them, maybe we don’t.  It’s no big deal.  But it’s not that way in the traditional Middle East.  When they eat a meal together, they establish a special relationship that I’d like to call a meal covenant.

When we were working in Israel, we’d encourage new staff members to accept if they received an invitation to a meal with an Arab family.  Why?  Because they won’t invite you unless they have a very high opinion of you—it’s really an honor. 

One of my professors used to stay up watching late night Arab television to improve his Arabic.  He told us that Arab films are often about tension within the family.  In the last scene, the two estranged family members will often stand together uncomfortably in the room, but as they start talking, they begin to relax and move closer to each other.  In the end, in what we would call the "happily ever after" scene, they drink a cup of coffee together or eat a meal together. What does it mean?  That everything's okay now between them.  It’s a meal of reconciliation. 

Another example is when two Arab families are having troubles with each other, maybe there’s been a feud going on for generations, and they want to resolve the problem.  They’ll eat a meal together known as a sulkah meal.  It’s a meal of reconciliation.  After that meal, there’s no more fighting, no more trouble between them.

There are many meals like this in the Bible.  Abraham ate a special meal with Melchizedek (Gen. 14:17,18), Jacob with Laban (Gen. 31:54).  What did the father do when the prodigal son came home?  He killed the fattened calf to make a feast (Luke 15:23).  Why?  To show the boy and to show the community that he was accepted back into the family as if he’d never left.  It was a meal of reconciliation. 

This was not just done in the relationship of one person to another.  It was also done in the relationship between man and God.  In the Jewish Temple, not all the sacrifices went up in smoke (the whole burnt offering).  In some of them a portion was eaten by those bringing the sacrifice (Lev. 7:15-17).  What was the meaning of this meal eaten in the presence of God?  That now everything's all right again between us and God.  It was a meal of reconciliation with God (the peace offering).

Did you ever notice that after the resurrection, Jesus was eating meals with everyone:  on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-31), in the Upper Room (Luke 24:41-42), at the Sea of Galilee (John 21:12).  Why so many meals?  Does resurrection make you hungry?  There were lots of broken relationships to mend.  Peter had denied Jesus.  The others had run away.  They were probably feeling pretty unworthy to have any kind of relationship with Jesus.  But there he was, holding out his hands to them, saying, “Come and eat” (John 21:12). 

Do you remember what it says in Rev. 3:20?  "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and dine with him, and he with me."  What, he wants to go to McDonald’s?  No, he’s talking about a meal of reconciliation.  This was Jesus' message that night of Passover, which he so earnestly desired to share with his disciples:  that through his broken body and blood, peace—reconciliation—is available between us and God.  This is the true meaning of the Passover that Jesus shared with his disciples.  This is the meaning of the Christian Lord’s Supper (or Communion Service).  And this is the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross.  Peace is available with God through Jesus. 

Whatever it is that you’ve done in your life, Jesus’ blood was shed that you might be forgiven.  Whatever it is that was done to you, Jesus’ blood was shed that you might be restored.  God is reaching out to us through Jesus.  And all we have to do is come to the meal.  He’s calling out to us, “Come and eat.” 

What is it that you need from God today?  How has your relationship with God been broken?  Sometimes we get so discouraged with ourselves.  But God hasn’t given up on us.  He believes in us more than we do in ourselves.  And he has a plan and a purpose for our lives beyond anything we know about right now.  All we have to do is say yes to God.   

Today, I want you to see God’s arms reaching out to you in Jesus, inviting you, calling to you to himself, especially in those areas where there’s been a struggle in your life.  Maybe it’s a long term problem you’ve had with God.  Maybe it’s a problem with laying something down in your life to God.  But today I don’t want you to focus on the problem.  I want you to focus on the answer.  I want you to focus on Jesus.

Let’s pray together:  Lord, we’ve been looking at you in history.  But now we come to you in the present day.  Many generations have passed since you walked the streets of Jerusalem, but you’re still the same person today that you were back then.  And you’re still knocking at the door of our hearts.  You’re still inviting us to come to you, to dine with you, in spite of the things we’ve done in the past.  Because you come with healing in your hands.  Touch us Lord we pray, heal us, restore us, forgive us.  Go ahead now and speak in your heart to the Lord about whatever he’s put in your heart today, about whatever you need to get right with him today.  But don’t focus on the problem.  Focus on Jesus.  He’s here to help you.  Thank you Lord.  Our eyes are on you, Lord. Have your way in our lives, Lord.  Thank you Lord…. In Jesus’ name.  

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