Each post this week will focus on the biblical account of the events that occurred in the last week of Jesus’ life. Today’s reading is from Mark 14:12-25 (NRSV).
On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?” So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large upper room, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.” The disciples left, went into the city and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover. When evening came, Jesus arrived with the Twelve. While they were reclining at the table eating, he said, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me-one who is eating with me.” They were saddened, and one by one they said to him, “Surely not I?” “It is one of the Twelve,” he replied, “one who dips bread into the bowl with me. The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.” Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. “I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God.”
There has been some debate in high thinking theological circles about the Eucharistic Prayers we use. Specifically in question is a portion of the Institution Narrative which we have here in Mark’s account of the last supper. As Jesus shares the cup with his disciples he says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” In our liturgical texts, we tend to mash these words with Paul’s version from 1st Corinthians, which gives us the well known, “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this in remembrance of me.”
The subject of the debate is the word many, polos in Greek. Many is troublesome for some people because it sounds exclusionary. Honestly, it is exclusionary, but the fact of the matter is that the Greek word seems to clearly indicate many but not all. Smarter people than me might be able to tell us why, when The Episcopal Church published Enriching our Worship in 1998, they decided to forego the ancient tradition of “many” and instead use the word “all” in all three Eucharistic Prayers and both Eucharistic Forms. My gut says that the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music didn’t like the exclusive nature of many, so they simply chose to change it, which I think misses the point of what is actually happening in the story of Jesus’ Last Supper.
You see, many includes a whole lot of people. Those who were at the table with Jesus, part of the many who would drink from the cup of the new covenant and share in the forgiveness of sins, included Thomas, who in just a few days be uncertain if he could really believe that Jesus had risen from the dead; Peter, who in just a few hours would find himself denying that he even knew Jesus, let alone was one of his closest disciples not once, not twice, but three times; and, of course, Judas, who in only a few minutes will dart out into the darkness of the night to finalize the arrangements of Jesus’ betrayal to the Jewish authorities. Many includes a lot of people who have failed in a lot of pretty significant ways. Judas will take his own life before the night is over, but he drank from the cup, and I believe found his way into heaven. Peter will come back to the faith, be the rock upon which the Church is built, die crucified upside down for his faith, and I believe found his way into heaven. Thomas will, as legend suggests, take the Gospel all the way to India and die there at a ripe old age in the year 72CE. Whether he died of old age, from an arrow accidentally misfired by a fowler, or as a martyr at the hands of soldiers (all ways Thomas is said to have died), I believe he found his way into heaven.
Many is a troublesome word, but it is the word that Jesus used, and, quite frankly, its meaning is a lot wider than most of us are really comfortable with. As night falls and the events of Good Friday come swiftly upon us, we’ll find that the many from whom Jesus’ blood was poured out will include a criminal crucified beside him and the centurion and his detachment who took part in the crucifixion. Many doesn’t mean all, but it sure comes awfully close.