Mark Week 8

Dinner, Distress, and Denial: Mark 14:1–72

By Laura C.S. Holmes
Seattle Pacific University Assistant Professor of New Testament

Read this week’s Scripture: Mark 14:1–72


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“You know my methods, Watson. There was not one of them which I did not apply to the inquiry. And it ended by my discovering traces, but very different ones from those which I had expected.”

A. Conan Doyle, “The Crooked Man,” in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (New York:  A. L. Burt Company, Publishers, 1894), 145.

With the creation of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle developed a character that epitomized the ability to draw large inferences from small observations. The Sherlock Holmes stories operate on two levels: the narrator, often through the voice of Holmes’ sidekick, Watson, reveals part of the story, while Holmes pieces together the bigger picture behind the scenes.

With Chapter 14, Mark begins what is commonly called the “passion narrative,” describing the events leading up to and including Jesus’ suffering (passion), death, and resurrection (Mark 14–16). On the surface, these chapters appear to be the recitation of these basic events. However, if the early church had decided that Christians just needed to know that Jesus was arrested on false charges, was crucified by the Romans, and rose on the third day, there are many other ways to provide that knowledge beyond the lengthy accounts that the gospel writers give. Instead, the gospel writers choose a format that invites reflection at different points as the events unfold before our eyes.

This first glance at Mark’s passion narrative may seem like Watson’s storytelling: you get the basic events of the story. However, Mark also drops hints of a Holmes-like deduction process, where the episodes of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection point to a much bigger story than is on the surface of the gospel account itself.

When Watson told Holmes that he was astonished at Holmes’ powers of deduction, Holmes replied, “Watson, you see, but you do not observe” (A. Conan Doyle, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (New York:  Harper and Brothers, 1892), 6).  With this admonition to observe in mind, we should remember to look beyond the surface to observe how the Markan passion narrative illuminates the deeper story.

Plots and Perfume (14:1–11)

Mark 14 begins by orienting readers toward the setting of Jesus’ impending arrest and death. The narrative of the gospel slows down considerably at this point; nearly all the rest of Mark’s gospel takes place over five days. Currently, we are two days before Passover, and readers get to overhear some of the plotting between the chief priests and the scribes.

They have wanted to arrest Jesus for some time now, both because he has been something of a nuisance to established authority figures (e.g., 3:6) and because he is acting in ways that could incite a revolution against Rome (e.g., 11:12–25). However, they have resisted arresting Jesus so far because of their fear of the crowds, and they give the same rationale here.

In the first century, during the festival of Passover, the population of Jerusalem swelled to two or three times its size. If authorities arrest a popular messianic figure who is proclaiming deliverance during the festival in which Jews celebrate their deliverance from Egypt, they know popular opinion would be against them. At the same time, the reader of the Gospel of Mark knows that something curious happens here: Jesus is arrested during the feast of Passover (14:43–52), even though that was not the authorities’ plan. The chief priests and the scribes see, but they do not observe (see 4:12), as it appears that another plan, not their own, is at work (see also Joel Marcus, Mark 8–16, p. 933).

We meet the chief priests again in another 10 verses, as Judas Iscariot, always identified as one of “the twelve,” contacts them in order to betray Jesus (14:10–11). Sandwiched between these stories, Mark’s audience sees one of the gospel’s last positive portrayals of service to Jesus. Running against the storyline of betrayal, arrest, and death, one anonymous woman pours all of a costly perfume onto Jesus’ head (14:3; see Author’s Note 1).

While the woman’s presence at this dinner gathering is socially unusual, the objections that bystanders make are not about her presence. Instead, they criticize the economy of her actions. She wasted the perfume, which could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. From the bystander’s perspective, is that not better than pouring it on Jesus’ head?

Jesus does not concede the logic of these objections. Instead, he connects this woman’s action with the action of the widow at the temple (12:41–44). That widow gave her all to what Mark’s audience knows is going to be a lost cause. The temple will be destroyed. There is no human honor or approbation for the widow’s action. In fact, since the temple will be destroyed, her action does not even make sense.

Would she not be better off using her two small coins to buy herself food? Yet Jesus commends her devotion and her selfless giving, even as he critiques the temple establishment. Similarly, the woman in Mark 14 gives all of the costly ointment to a presumably “lost cause” — Jesus himself, because it prepares his body for burial (14:8). Jesus’ death is as certain as the temple’s demise, but honoring him deserves even greater commendation (14:9).

Passover (14:12–25)

When Jesus tells two of his disciples to prepare the Passover meal, and gives them specific instructions about who they should find and where they should go, we are not surprised when Jesus’ words are fulfilled (14:12–16; see also 11:2–6).

We have seen this motif before in Mark, but it is especially important now, as Jesus is predicting the betrayal of one of his followers, which leads to Jesus’ own death. Of course, this betrayal is a foregone conclusion to us: We already witnessed Judas leaving the others to offer the chief priests a way to arrest Jesus in return for money (14:11). This dramatic irony makes the disciples’ objections (“Surely, not I?”) stand out all the more (14:19).

Jesus’ prophetic pronouncement at the conclusion of this part of the meal is especially important for understanding how to observe, and not just see, the events of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. Jesus says, “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born” (14:21).

In other words, there are two primary forces at work propelling events to culminate in Jesus’ death. The first force is actually the fulfillment of Scripture, or God’s will. There is a very clear sense that the Son of Man, Jesus, is following a “script” that prophesies the events that are to come.

Secondly, the Son of Man’s betrayer, Judas, does not get a “get out of jail free” card as though he were simply an actor playing a role, with no responsibility of his own. The Gospel of Mark, as Scripture in general, claims that God is involved in human affairs and humans are also responsible for their own actions. On this point, Jesus dies because Judas betrays him, Jewish authorities put him on trial and convict him, Romans crucify him, he accepts this fate, and God wills it. No one force rules out the others; they all function indistinguishably together.

Mark is quite clear that the meal between Jesus and his disciples is the Passover, but his narration of it contains none of the distinctive marks of a Passover meal, such as bitter herbs or the Passover lamb. Instead, Mark focuses on the most common aspect of the meal, bread and wine. Jesus’ words over the bread and wine set them apart, signaling that they now have a different use. By eating this bread together, the disciples participate in Jesus’ body and life (14:22). After sharing the wine, Jesus claims that this event establishes a covenant, or a solemn and sealed promise, between him and those who partake. It looks back to God’s covenant with Israel, sealed in blood in Exodus 24, and it looks forward to the consummation of the kingdom of God (14:25).

Scripture and Gethsemane (14:26–42)

Upon leaving the upper room, Jesus and his disciples have another discussion. This time, Jesus cites Scripture to support his claim that all of his disciples will desert him. This quotation from Zechariah, slightly adapted by Mark, emphasizes God’s role in Jesus’ death. The “I” referred to, who will strike the shepherd (Jesus, see 6:34), is God.

The sheep, who in this case are Jesus’ followers, will be scattered as a result of God’s action. Nevertheless, just as all of Jesus’ predictions of his passion and death included his resurrection (8:31; 9:31; 10:33–34), so this prediction claims that Jesus will be raised from the dead, and will go ahead of his disciples into Galilee, where they first began their ministry (14:28).

The disciples do not acknowledge this prediction at all, but focus on their own reputations, claiming that they would not desert their teacher. Peter asserts an even higher plane of fidelity, but Jesus counters with a more dire prediction: “[B]efore the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice” (14:30, KJV).

With this ominous departure, Jesus and his three closest disciples withdraw to a place called Gethsemane. The disciples are to sit while Jesus prays (14:32), and they are to keep awake (14:34). Jesus’ actions in this scene are in stark contrast to his demeanor in the rest of the gospel. While he has formerly been in control and exhibited such authority that the demons tremble before him, now he is trembling (14:33).

Where he has just soberly predicted his own fate and his disciples’ desertion (14:27–31), now he is in the depths of grief (14:34). Jesus’ emotions are not the only striking difference, however. In his prayer, and echoed in Mark’s narration, Jesus asks God to “remove this cup” from him. “This cup” most likely refers to a “cup of suffering” (see 10:38–39). Despite knowing that the scriptures point to his death (14:26–27), and knowing that death is not the end (14:28), Jesus still asks God to find another way, because “all things are possible” for God (14:35, 36; compare 10:27).

Given Jesus’ previous teaching about praying with faith, there is reason to think that God would have answered this prayer affirmatively (11:22–25). However, Jesus did not end his prayer with this request, but rather with a submission to God’s will: “not what I want, but what you want” (14:36). Jesus prays this prayer three times; requests are not easily relinquished, and submission is not the work of a moment (14:41).

The storyline of the disciples nears its conclusion in Gethsemane. Instead of sitting and staying awake, according to Jesus’ instructions, the disciples fall asleep. This bodes ill on many counts: it places more weight on Jesus’ predictions of their desertion than on their assertions of fidelity; it increases Jesus’ emotional and physical solitude as he continues on his solitary journey towards death; and it recalls Jesus’ instructions to his disciples in Mark 13.

Their task in the future, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, is to “keep awake,” watching for the Son of Man (13:33, 35, 37; NRSV’s translation is “keep alert”) lest the master “may find you asleep when he comes suddenly” (13:36). If the disciples cannot stay awake while Jesus is present, how will they fare in his absence [see Author’s Note 2]?

Betrayal and Arrest (14:43–52)

When a crowd arrives with Judas, it is the first time large numbers of people have been present in the narrative since Jesus was teaching in the temple. At that time, the crowd “was listening to him with delight” (12:37). Now the crowd is brandishing swords and clubs. The favorable crowd has disappeared, and now Jesus is being arrested as though he were a “bandit,” or one who is plotting revolution against Rome (14:48; see 11:17).

Jesus points out this irony by referring back to the days earlier in the week when he was teaching in the temple (14:49) and could easily have been arrested there (compare 14:1–2). Ultimately, not only are the scriptures fulfilled (14:49), but so are Jesus’ words, as all his disciples desert him and flee (14:50–52; see Author’s Note 3).

Caravaggio, The Denial of Saint Peter (1610). Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Wikimedia Commons.
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Trial and Denial (14:53–72)

Peter has not deserted Jesus completely; on the contrary, he is in the very courtyard of the building in which Jesus’ trial is taking place. This trial before the chief priests, elders, and scribes includes a tale of two testimonies. Jesus provides the first testimony and Peter gives the second one.

Mark indicates that Jesus’ trial is a grave miscarriage of justice. Even witnesses who bring a charge against Jesus — namely, the destruction of the temple — are unable to corroborate their evidence. Finally, apparently seeking to explore Jesus’ connection to this charge of temple destruction to the utmost, the high priest inquires of Jesus whether he is “the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One,” or, in Mark’s terms, “are you the Christ, the Son of God?” (14:61).

For the first and only time in this gospel, Jesus answers this question forthrightly. Mark’s readers know the answer because the narrator has provided them with information withheld from the narrative’s characters. It is only here, on the cusp of his death, that Jesus can reveal his messiahship without apparent risk of misunderstanding. Of course, this revelation, paired with his prophetic adaptation of words from Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13, is enough to convict him in his accusers’ eyes (14:62). Jesus’ testimony is true (contrast 14:65), and its effect is his death (14:64).

The second testimony, then, is Peter’s. Asked three times about his relationship to Jesus, Peter swears that he does not know him. The servant-girl even inquires whether Peter is from Galilee, the very place Jesus has promised to meet his disciples after the resurrection, apparently reminding Peter — and Mark’s audience — of Jesus’ predictions (14:70; compare 14:28). Through his false testimony, Peter succeeds in avoiding physical death. By denying Jesus, he has killed a relationship that he left his home, his family, and his livelihood to pursue (10:28–30).

Sight and Observation

In each of the events that have occurred in this chapter, there is more to observe than can be known at first sight. What appears to be an anointing by an extravagant stranger is actually a prophecy preparing Jesus for death (14:3–9). What seems to be Passover becomes a meal with new covenantal significance (14:17–25).

What should be the next event on the journey to the cross for Jesus sends him into a paralyzing emotional and spiritual distress in Gethsemane (14:32–42). A true testimony earns a death sentence, while a false testimony allows another man to go free (14:53–72). Going beyond what one can see on the surface and looking in depth for what one can observe allow all facets of the story to emerge.

This is not simply a story about the death of a man at the hands of Romans and Jews in the first century. It is the story of God’s will, realized through the scriptures, to send Jesus to death, in order to defeat sin and death, and all that holds the world in bondage. Contrary to Sherlock Holmes’ frequent declaration, it is not “elementary,” but there is much to see, if we only observe.

Questions for Further Reflection:

  1. Reread Mark 14:6–8 alongside Deuteronomy 15:11. What is Jesus saying about the poor? What distinction is he making about the appropriateness of the woman’s action? What is the significance of Mark 14:9?
  2. Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane is powerful on many levels. How does Jesus’ request to God to “remove this cup from me” shape your understanding of who Jesus is? What do you think Mark wants his audience to understand and learn from this text? Does Hebrews 5:7–8 make a different, or similar, point to Mark’s? What does Mark’s text teach us about prayer?
  3. Describe your understanding of how God’s actions and human actions (commonly called “God’s sovereignty” and “human free will”) relate to each other according to Mark 14:21. Is an interaction between these two forces reflected in other texts in Mark? In your life? How?
  4. In Mark, Jesus says that “the Son of Man goes as it is written of him” and “let the scriptures be fulfilled” (14:21, 49), but he never specifies which scriptures he means. Which scriptures (if any in particular) do you think Mark has in mind? How should we understand these statements? (As a starting point, you might consider the Old Testament scriptures cited in the Lectio above, as well as the possibility of Isaiah 52:13–53:12.)

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

We have many archeological examples of alabaster jars from the first century. They were vessels that had long necks with stoppers at the top. Their purpose was to preserve costly perfumes and ointments. The woman in Mark 14 breaks the thin neck of the jar, thereby indicating that none of this ointment was meant to be withheld. She gave all of it to Jesus.


Author’s Note 2

Mark 13 already provides an answer to this question: the disciples will succeed not because of their innate spiritual qualities but rather because of the Holy Spirit, who will guide them and provide words for them when they come under trial (13:9–12). As in Acts 2, it is the Spirit that makes a difference in the post-resurrection church.


Author’s Note 3

The identity and significance of the young man of Mark 14:51–52 has been a consistent question since the early church. Among other possibilities, this young man could function symbolically for all Jesus’ followers who run away in shame (nakedness) at Jesus’ arrest and impending death. However, a young man (the only other instance of the Greek word νεανίσκος in Mark’s gospel) also appears at Jesus’ tomb to announce the good news that Jesus is risen on Easter morning (16:5). In this way, the young man is the last to flee and the first to be restored to Jesus’ companionship.


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Discussion and Comments

One Comment to “Dinner, Distress, and Denial: Mark 14:1–72”

  1. Julie Johnson says:

    I’m impressed that the woman’s actions (anointing with oil) seem to be related to Jesus’ response to John’s disciples in Matthew 9:14-15 concerning fasting: “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.” Jesus’ presence calls for a new response if we are paying attention.