Food in the Bible: The Passover Feast

Food in the Bible: The Passover Feast

lambMark 14:12-26

by Daniel Harrell

I’m back to preaching and cooking food in the Bible on this Communion of the Saints Sunday. A number of you have joined in by hosting a Bible meal using the ancient ingredients of previous sermons. Recipes are in the Common should you like to join the adventure. If you’re not a cook, spaces remain for joining others’ dinners this month, a chance to meet new friends. I’ll be opening up tables for Upper Room tonight when I preach and cook for them. Christians have long held that eating together offers a preview of heaven, a foretaste of glory, a sacred encounter where Jesus is present—especially when our hospitality extends to strangers, the needy and to our enemies.

Never more so than in the most famous of Biblical meals, the Last Supper of Jesus. Jesus carves it from Passover, the most important feast on the Jewish calendar; a Feast that in his day was part of the weeklong Feast of Unleavened Bread—commemorating Israel’s miraculous rescue and exodus from Egyptian oppression. Our sixth-graders baked unleavened bread for us today, a miracle in itself.

Passover required Jewish pilgrims travel to Jerusalem each year. Jesus and his disciples joined thousands packed into the Holy City to celebrate and pray for future deliverance, this time from Roman oppression. Think New Orleans during Mardi Gras or Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Pandemonium ruled as pilgrims road-tripped from all across the Mediterranean and the Middle East: Rome, Greece, Egypt, Syria and Babylon. Given the enormous and expectant throng, finding a place to lay your head would have been hard. “There was no room at the Inn,” you might say. Jesus sent a couple of disciples to locate a man with a water jar. “Wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.”

You may remember me describing how this passage reminds me of that classic scene from The Return of the Jedi—apropos given the expectancy over The Force awakening next month. Luke Skywalker strolls into the lair of his nemesis, Jabba the Hut. With a mere wave of his force-filled hand, Luke compels Jabba’s bodyguard to unwittingly cooperate with him and his scheme to humiliate the Hut. “You will take me to Jabba now,” Luke directs. Against his better judgment, the bodyguard does as instructed: “I will take you to Jabba now.” Surely Jesus, having calmed storms with the mere wave of his hand, could easily maneuver a man with a water jar and make a homeowner set a dinner table for thirteen. When later asked by his wife why he did it, the homeowner would say, “I don’t know, I think we’re having company.” At which point the disciples would knock at his door.

Less fascinating but more likely, both the homeowner and the water carrier were followers of Jesus in on his secret plan. Why all the intrigue? Knowing the religious authorities were out to get him, and that Jerusalem lay in their jurisdiction, and that as a devout Jew he’d want to eat Passover before they got him, Jesus needed to enter the city undetected. Granted, he could have miraculously popped in as he would a few days hence, but here the Lord exercised his pedestrian side. As carrying water was woman’s work, a man with a water jar made it easy for even the disciples to spot. That the homeowner knew who the “The Teacher” was proved he was clued in. From Mark’s perspective, all the secrecy darkens the treachery about to unfold. None aside from Jesus’ closest companions would know his whereabouts. Betrayal would have to be an inside job. It would be as the Scriptures portended, specifically Psalm 41: “Even my close friend, whom I trusted, who shared my bread, has turned against me.”

Granted, Jesus wasn’t specific as to which Scripture. He said: “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him.” Referring to himself as “Son of Man” is usually code for Daniel’s prophecy where the “Son of Man” victoriously rides in on clouds at the end of time. Jesus had described himself as doing the same thing a chapter earlier in Mark. Daniel’s Son of Man was “given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” Jesus added that “he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.” Not wanting to get too apocalyptic this morning, I’ll just mention that Daniel also features God’s saints in a fierce struggle with evil which gets the upper hand for a time. It’s a Last Days struggle played out at the Last Supper. In Luke and John’s gospels, Satan “enters Judas” to induce the double-cross. Still, to be possessed is not to be coerced. Judas remained his own man and could have said no. But because he did not, Jesus bewailed Judas as one who should have never been born.

Little wonder the disciples each frantically worried whether he might be the traitor himself. One by one, each sought reassurance. “Surely, not I?” they pleaded. Echoing Psalm 41, Jesus informed them that the guilty party would be “the one who dips bread into the bowl with me.” The unleavened bread of Passover worked a bit like a pita chip with which you ate food served in large bowls spread on the table. I picture each disciple doing all he could to avoid Jesus’ bowl so as not to get fingered. Perhaps this is why John’s gospel has Jesus handing a piece of bread directly to Judas. Sharing bread accentuated Judas and Jesus’ intimate friendship. It also accentuated a sacred cultural norm: To eat with another was to foreswear ever doing him harm. Ancient covenants and peace treaties were ceremonially sealed over meals. Jesus declared this Passover meal to be a covenant too―a new covenant between God and his people. The evil Judas perpetrated therefore crossed every imaginable line. It violated the bonds of friendship, the bonds of society and the bond of heaven.

In Matthew’s gospel, Judas was stricken with remorse after realizing what he had done. But rather than turn back to Jesus, Judas turned to the priests who recruited him and tried to return the money they paid him to do their dirty work. The priests haughtily refused. Judas threw his ill-gotten gain to the floor and went out and hung himself. He died before Jesus. This is very troubling. If one of the twelve so willingly betrayed Jesus for money, why chance do I have to be faithful?

There is a human evil, a Satanic evil, Judas represents. Not only in the horrific crimes we commit, but in the bonds of trust we voluntarily violate, in the relationships we righteously ruin, in the conflicts we cheerfully nurture, in the deception and disloyalty and lies we relish. We prove ourselves all to be complicit in Judas’ double cross that sends Jesus to his cross.

And yet, just as Jesus extended forgiveness to his executioners as they nailed him to a tree, so Jesus extended grace to Judas, even as he accused him. The bread dipped as an indictment of betrayal is the same bread offered as Jesus’ own body broken. But Judas does not accept it.

Grace implies blame which human nature instinctively resists. Step up to a stranger and simply say “I forgive you” and see what happens. The apostle Paul admitted how preaching Christ crucified was both offensive and foolish. For Jesus’ Jewish disciples, gathered around that last Passover meal, this was doubly so. Insulting enough that Jesus insinuated they needed forgiveness (Surely, not I!), but then to have him call the unleavened bread his body broken and have them eat it? What sort of foolishness was that? Add to that the sacrilege of calling a cup of wine his blood and having them drink that too? This was as offensive as it got. With this “new covenant” Jesus went way beyond sin and atonement.

Still, for those who made the connection to sacrifice― horrifying talk of Jesus himself as the sacrifice notwithstanding—to eat the body of the sacrificial animal was customary. The Passover Lamb was not burned, but cooked. Tens of thousands made their way to the Temple with their sacrificial, unblemished lambs. Between five and ten thousand priests would be on duty to do the deed. The lamb’s throat would be cut and its blood collected in a golden basin. This blood would be thrown on the altar as atonement for sin. The dead meat would be hung on a hook, then skinned and de-fatted. The fat would be burned on the altar as a thanksgiving for the reconciliation, the skin and meat returned to the worshiper. The lamb that saved, also nourished. The blood atoned. The meat was grilled for dinner.

In the original Passover story, grilled lamb meat was eaten along with unleavened bread because time was short. Justice and salvation were coming that night. You had to eat and run. No time for meat to roast or bread to rise. Moses instructed the Hebrews to spread lamb’s blood on their doorposts in Egypt to signal the looming angel of death to pass-over that house and not kill the firstborn inside. Why not leave a note or hang a nice Passover wreath? Because blood makes atonement and invites reconciliation—God’s chosen people were choice sinners too. Why strike down the Egyptians’ firstborn? Because blood also executes justice— a payback to God for life already lost. The reigning Pharaoh in Exodus 1 had murdered every Hebrew baby boy in a vicious demonstration of power. Only Moses was saved—a foreshadow of Jesus barely escaping the infanticidal King Herod at Christmas.

Not that the Egyptians weren’t offered mercy. The Lord sent nine plagues as warnings—nine chances to change, nine opportunities to repent and believe. True, we also read how the Lord “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” so that he couldn’t believe, just like Satan entered Judas’ heart, tricky details best left to better preachers than me. But the tenth and last plague still left a last chance for faith, a possibility for pardon. Anyone could be saved by the blood of the lamb.

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Given the Passover connection, why does Jesus call the bread his body (aside from making it easier for communion preparers ever since)? There are a lot of connections being made here: unleavened bread was a mark of Jewish obedience, but it also brought to mind the miraculous manna God provided Israel in the wilderness, a mark of God’s nourishing faithfulness. As bread of life, Jesus embodies both human obedience and God’s faithfulness. Moreover, Jesus predicted the pending doom of the Jewish Temple, fulfilled when the Romans leveled it flat in 70 AD. The destroyed Temple brought an end to the sacrificial system and to the Passover Lamb. John’s gospel has Jesus crucified at the same time passover lambs were being killed. As true Lamb of God and flesh-and-blood House of the Lord, Jesus rendered stone temples and sacrificial animals obsolete.

Of course the Temple sacrifices never really worked anyway. The New Testament book of Hebrews declares it impossible for the blood of animals to fully take away sins. Therefore God sent his only son to shed his blood instead. What kind of sick deity demands such a sacrifice? Critics label the cross divine sanction for child abuse, the vengeful violence of a tyrannical God. But such caricatures arise due to comparisons of divine atonement with human bloodlust. Atonement is not motivated by vengeance but by love. God so loved the world that he sent his son—which given the Trinity meant God sent his own self. On the cross, where humans unjustly executed what they thought to be justice, God reconciles us to himself. He suffers unbearable loss for a reconciliation he so eagerly longs for. Reconciliation is costly and painful, and even bloody, because it absorbs in itself all injuries committed and forgoes any gratification of retribution. Such reconciliation is not fair. True forgiveness is not fair—which is why it’s called grace. Jesus saves by shedding his body and blood. He then gives new life by transfusing his blood into us and feeding us his flesh. New life, Christ’s life inside us, makes possible both our forgiveness and obedience. Satan may have entered Judas, but we eat and drink Jesus.

For the Passover Feast, the Lamb had to be completely consumed, and the last bite the the last taste on your tongue at the end of the meal after everything else. You were not to forget the lengths God had gone to save you.

Lamb Kawarma

10 1/2 oz fillet of lamb, finely chopped by hand

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

1 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Good pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon crushed dried zatar

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon chopped mint

1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 teaspoon olive oil

Place all the ingredients apart from the butter and oil in a medium bowl. Mix well, cover, and allow the mixture to marinate in the fridge for at least 30 minutes, overnight is better.

Heat the butter and olive oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the meat in two or three batches and sear each side for a minute or so each. The meat should be light pink in the middle.

Place hummus in a shallow bowl,, leaving a slight hollow in the center of each. Spoon the warm lamb into the hollow and scatter with pine nuts, parsley and a squeeze of lemon. Drizzle with good olive oil.