This is My Body… But Why?

I have a general take on the Lord’s/Last Supper: the Synoptic Gospels depict Jesus predicting his death as the pathway to his Messianic enthronement. This cross-shaped life is also the call to Jesus’ followers: take up the cross and follow.

In addition, you might start probing the significance of rewriting the Passover ceremony around Jesus, such that the “ransom saying,” (the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many) is illustrated in the meal. The body of Jesus is given in order that we might be set free and might become the New Covenant people of God. Taking and eating is our participation in [the people of] this deliverance.

All this from some combination of Matthew and Mark, perhaps with a little Paul thrown in if I’m honest.

But what’s going on in Luke?

One thing, at least, is definitely different in this telling of the story of the supper itself. A cup is passed before the bread.

Another interesting choice Luke makes is to put the disciples’ dispute about greatness here. Whereas in Mark this happens on the way to Jerusalem, after a passion prediction, Luke locates the fight in the upper room after they’ve taken the Supper.

This is even more interesting in that Jesus’ response to the disciples here is part of the talk he gives them that culminates in the ransom saying. But Luke eliminates the ransom saying. He substitutes a more generalized call to imitate him, who is in their midst as a servant.

Finally, this is followed by another lesson from Jesus: the disciples are the ones who remain with him in suffering, and therefore receive from Jesus the same kingdom that Jesus receives from the father–its food, its drink, and its rule (you will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel).

What are we to make of all this?

First, Bart Ehrman has famously argued that the interpretation of the bread (“which is given for you”) and the “second cup” are not original to Luke, but later insertions to bring the passage into conformity with the other Synoptic Gospels.

Although the manuscript evidence for this is weak, it works really well with the passage as a whole.

With the removal of the ransom saying in particular, the idea of Jesus dying “for you” is muted, and the notion that Jesus dies as an example and in order to bring about a surprising sort of divine reign is drawn to the forefront.

By placing here the saying about Jesus as servant to be imitated, without ransom, participation in the supper is drawn more in the direction of finding our own lives drawn to self-giving service.

By following that with the definition of the twelve as “those who remain with Jesus in his sufferings,” and thereby receive the kingdom, the imitative note is struck even more forcefully.

Why take the cup? Why drink the bread?

Here, the most clear reason is to remember that Jesus received the kingdom through suffering, and that self-giving life in service of others is the call of discipleship.

15 thoughts on “This is My Body… But Why?”

  1. So, Luke is an advocate of the Moral Exemplar atonement model in general or just in this passage? Or does this have nothing at all to do with atonement?

      1. Hmm…what about the “new covenant” language? Is that excluded from your reflection because of the later-insertion theory noted above? Couldn’t it have been original, added by Luke to better reflect the multiple passings of the cup in the seder? Also, what then is the nature of the “kingdom of God,” until the coming of which Jesus will not drink wine again? Does it come when we finally live out that expectation of fellow-suffering?

        1. Re. multiple cups. Maybe.

          But with text critical issues, the tendency is typically to harmonize with the other gospels. In this case in particular, the story being told seems to be part of the regular tradition of participation in the supper on a weekly basis in the early church. If the version of that ceremony we see in 1 Cor or the other Synoptics is well known, then it seems probable that someone would add the missing post-bread cup.

          Or, to put it the other way: if both cups were there originally, why is there a manuscript tradition with the 2d cup missing, when “taking the cup also after supper” is what we know was the routine from Paul, Mark, and Matthew? It seems more likely that the adjustment would be made in the other direction.

          I don’t know when that coming kingdom is. I hope it’s at my house tonight over dinner. But that’s not likely to involve suffering. Except that I’m cooking.

  2. Weak manuscript evidence for a questionable omission of one passage from Luke is a small foundation for building an approach to Luke’s understanding of atonement.

    The incident of the rich young ruler (18:18-23), which connects “eternal life” directly to moral behavior, could be used to support a moral exemplar or moral influence doctrine of atonement– but wouldn’t such a usage mistake Jesus’ answer for a textbook recitation instead of the personal confrontation that it was?

    Luke refers to faith (5:20), repentance (24:47) the giving of mercy (6:36-37; 10:25-37), and the humble request for mercy (18:13-14; 23:42-43) in connection with the forgiveness of sins. Elsewhere he emphasizes personal attachment to Jesus (7:36-50): even 9:24 doesn’t say “whoever will lose his life” just generally or even after the manner of Jesus, but “for my sake.” In Luke 15, the shepherd/woman/father find or reconcile the lost sheep/coin/son for no other reason than that the lost object belongs to them. See also 19:9-10.

    And what’s the importance relative to atonement in Luke’s gospel of “knowing” the Father and the Son (10:21-22)?

    I think that Luke over all is proclaiming the advent of the Messiah who claims and rescues his own by the healing, sheep-finding, storm-stopping, demon-defeating, sin-forgiving power and authority that he has as God’s Son. The rescued will display (not establish) their connection to him by the shape of their lives.

    [I hope this doesn't read too much Calvin back into Luke, who probably did not have any of the later editions of Institutes lying around.]

    1. John & JSN,

      The “new covenant’ language is tied to the “second” cup in the passover meal in Luke. Thus, it’s not in the passage omitted.

      John, two things on the weak evidence: (1) it’s weak external evidence, but without looking at the mss, the internal evidence for the omission’s being original is overwhelming, I’d say. (2) I’m not really building a theology of atonement on this, but it fits other indications, such as…

      (1) Omission of the ransom saying.
      (2) The theology of the sermons in Acts. What does the cross do? It shows the Jewish people that they, like the Gentiles, need to ask for forgiveness. That’s it.
      (3) Especially in tandem with 2, there’s the recent argument that “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” on the cross (argument made by Nathan Eubank in JBL) is, in fact original. If so, that further indicates that the point of the cross is tied to the need for the world to realize that what it needs is for God to extend forgiveness.

      I think that those examples you cite fit fairly neatly into this. Yes, there are things that need to be done, but both Jews and Gentiles need to recognize they don’t do them and ask forgiveness, because God is going to judge the world by this Jesus whom he raised.

      1. Sorry, mistook your earlier comments to say that Luke generally puts forward a Moral Exemplar or Moral Influence view of atonement, whereas I see more of a Christus Victor structure at work.

        I don’t see that Luke answers the question, “What does the cross actuallydo for atonement,” in the way that we’re probably asking it. The sermons in Acts seem to refer to the resurrection as Christ’s vindication and exaltation and, as you say, don’t say much about atonement.

        1. No, you didn’t mistook. That’s what I was and am saying. :)

          Luke doesn’t give us a “fully worked out” atonement theory, but (1) the sermons in Acts do tell us why the cross was necessary/what it does and/or should do; and (2) Luke does change Mark and possibly Matthew, and I think that’s a window into his atonement theology.

          I do think Christ is victorious in Luke, but I’m not sure that’s connected to why God can forgive or how God comes to forgive, etc.

  3. Thanks for this post. I’ve been toying around with some ideas for a sermon on Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom from Luke 17. Given the stories and teachings calling for preparedness, readiness, and faithfulness, it has seemed that one of the primary barriers to living or ‘performing’ the kingdom is self-centered absorption (and, in today’s culture, consumerism). We prefer our kingdoms over the kingdom of God.

    One of the more profound responses/counters to this barrier, I think, can be the eucharist. God’s body broken and blood shed for us, so that we might, in Christ, have real kingdom life marked by sacrifice and service to others. I think this squares with your last statement – that “self-giving life in service of others is the call of discipleship.”

    1. YES. I’m completely with you, Dave. One of the reasons I think eucharist is so important is that is it renarrates the story that defines us, and indicates that our lives as individuals and as communities are to tell that story as well. And that story, of course, is the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

  4. Although it was never a hill that he was prepared to die on, CK Barrett used to wonder out loud if Acts (or significant portions of it) was written prior to the gospel of Luke.
    Its an interesting thought-experiment for some of the ideas you are playing with here.

    But importantly – and I think this idea is not considered here (you are in good company with Yoder and many others) – that in Acts the disciples are commissioned for the “forgiveness of sins”. I find it hard to imagine that the specific focus of this commissioning was ever but irreducibly connected to Jesus’ death and resurrection as Luke understood those events
    This does not mean we have to “import” an atonement theology into Luke’s account because he omits the ransom sayings, but rather to “join-the-dots” through the entire Luke-Acts story.
    (Otherwise we will find ourselves reading Luke as Conzelmann and Haenchen did with the inevitable reduction-by-redaction. I for one, don’t want to go back there…)

    So back-to-Barrett’s wondering: what if Luke is actually joining the dots between:
    ‘forgiveness of sins’ commissioning & preaching with the meal / cross narrative and with notions of imitation / suffering?

    I think this works when the point of view of Dunn (BFJ) and others who are finding in favour of more coherence b/w Luke and Paul where the meal is surely both suffering love and forgiveness of sins.

    BTW, Rob Banks (a long time friend, mentor and my PhD supervisor) said he enjoyed connecting with you earlier in the year! cheers.

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