Mark 14 is one of the longest chapters in the Gospel of Mark, spanning the sequence from Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem and the Last Supper up until His arrest and Peter’s subsequent betrayal. There’s a lot of action – and many moments to which many of us can relate.
This chapter begins with a conspiracy against Jesus (Mark 14:1-2), and Judas’ decision to turn Jesus in (Mark 14:10-11). When we discuss the question of why it is that Jesus had to die, there are two sides to the question. On one hand, Jesus needed to die in order to rescue us from sin, and to conquer death. But there’s also the worldly reasons why the religious leaders, along with Judas and Roman authorities decided he needed to die. Jesus’ teachings were – and remain – challenging. He doesn’t just say things people want to hear, things like “God loves you” and “judge not” (though He certainly does say those things!) Jesus’ words are also meant to change us… to draw us beyond our comfort zones, to turn each of us into saints. Our initial reaction to such teaching is to resist – when Jesus tells us we aren’t meant to Lord authority over others, that our popularity and wealth are fleeting, that our desire for pleasure and happiness needs to be subjected to our will… that God ought to come first and our neighbor second. It’s a difficult teaching to live – and it’s a lifelong challenge to learn to live it out. But inside of each one of us is a temptation to cling to our own way – not to allow His teaching to sink in… or to pick and choose those things we want to hear. For the religious leaders and for Judas… it was just too much. When Jesus is anointed (Mark 14:3-9), this seems to be the last straw for Judas – as is evidenced John’s account of the same event (John 12:1-8). Whether Judas really was concerned for the poor (Mark 14:5), or whether it was so he could sell it and keep the money for himself (John 12:6), it is from here that he plots to betray Jesus.
While in hindsight, it may be easy for us to judge Judas, the question for us in this moment ought to be a little more self-reflective. Do we turn on Jesus because His teachings are too hard? Do we look at what He has to say to us, and instead of hearing a voice of love and concern for our good… do we decide He’s asking too much? Do we turn on Him like the priests, the Romans, and Judas did?
Jesus knows what’s coming. As they prepare to celebrate the Last Supper (Mark 14:12-21), Jesus recognizes what’s gone on in Judas’ heart… predicting what he (Judas) is planning to do. I often ponder his perspective in this moment… because although His words are harsh (“it would be better for that man if he had not been born” -Mark 14:21), I have to think that Jesus was hoping he would turn back, in the end. Judas could have been one of the greatest saints in the history of the Church had he been willing to come back… but he allowed his guilt to turn to despair, and didn’t believe Christ would or could forgive him. Perhaps that’s why Jesus’ words are harsh: both to get through to Jesus, and because the more serious of Judas’ sins was not selling Jesus out… it was believing what he had done was unforgiveable – as though Jesus’ death wasn’t enough to save him.
Next, we read about the institution of the Eucharist (Mark 14:22-25). These few verses in Mark’s Gospel mark the central heart of Catholic Christian faith – a belief that deserves its own posting here – which I wrote earlier in the year.
Then Jesus heads out to the Mount of Olives (Mark 14:26-31), where he warns the Apostles that their faith will be tested… and that they will faith the test. But He won’t give up on them. Bringing Peter, James, and John with Him, He moves into the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42), where he prays one of the most beautiful prayers in the Gospel – very real words from the heart of Jesus: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will” (Mark 14:36). In spite of Jesus’ admonitions that they should stay awake, Peter, James, and John all fall asleep. How did they look back on that in the days that followed? Was it similar to the feelings many of us have when a loved one died… “if only I could have spoken to them once more?” Again, there’s a question for you and I here: do we miss the spiritual moments God has for us because we are not awake and alert?
Jesus is then arrested (Mark 14:43- 52) and put on trial (Mark 14:53-65). While it’s a familiar story to many of us, it’s a dark series of events as for the apostles, life as they knew it was being torn apart. Judas – one of their own number – had turned on them. Jesus wouldn’t even let them fight to save Him… and they were terrified that they would be arrested next. The accusations leveled against Jesus come from His own words… being twisted against Him. And Peter, one of those closest to Jesus winds up denying even that he knows Jesus (Mark 14:66-72). In the end, the only one of the twelve who would follow Jesus to the Cross was John – and Church tradition tells us that the only one who was willing to die with Jesus was the only one to live to an old age. It’s God’s irony and mercy: they would each get the chance to show their love for and solidarity with Jesus… each in their own way.
This is as much our story as it is the Apostle’s story. We, too, can find ourselves in a dark moment where life is being turned upside down. We can be afraid, we can hear Jesus’ words twisted… and our instinct is to flee just as it was theirs. But, edified by the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts (which they did not yet have!), the challenge is to learn to remain faithful not just in the mountaintop experiences, when Jesus is performing miracles… but also in the hard moments when what He is doing doesn’t make sense. We read this chapter knowing what comes next – the Crucifixion (Mark 15) and the resurrection (Mark 16) – but they didn’t understand that. When we suffer, we’re in the same boat – but God knows that there is a great deal of good still to come.