Jeremiah served God faithfully as his prophet in seemingly normal times when births, deaths and marriages were all occasions for friends and family to take time out to share food and fellowship together. Very few of his hearers believed his repeated warnings of the disasters soon to strike their nation that would stop all these social celebrations. So, to show his genuine belief in his own message, Jeremiah was forbidden to marry and have children, or to attend any funeral meals or wedding feasts.
Among the Lord’s detailed restrictions in Jeremiah 16:1-9 we find this fascinating explanation:
‘No one shall break bread for the mourner, to comfort him for the dead, nor shall anyone give him the cup of consolation to drink for his [deceased] father of his [late] mother’ (verse Jeremiah 16:7).
Normally at a funeral, friends supported the bereaved by providing nourishing sustenance for the mourners who felt too distraught to cook, bake and feed themselves. Jeremiah warned of imminent invasion, siege, famine and slaughter that would result in corpses left strewn across the land unburied, an invitation to hungry vultures. Burial normally followed within hours of death, as was the case with Jesus himself.
Same menu, new meaning
The phrases Jeremiah used in our text, ‘break bread’ (English Standard Version and New American Standard Bible = ‘funeral food’, New International Version) and ‘the cup’ are, of course, familiar terms in the Christian community, prompting the question: When Jesus instituted ‘the Lord’s Supper’ ‘on the night when he was betrayed’ was he perhaps quoting from this funeral meal menu mentioned by Jeremiah? Did he intend that, when we partake of the communion meal, we should consider its two basic ingredients as ‘the bread of mourning’ and ‘the cup of consolation’?
The answer is in fact the very opposite. Rather than mourning Jesus’ beautiful life cut short and forever cut off, and lamenting our sad and irreplaceable loss, we break bread to bring him to remembrance (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24) – we break the bread of reunion as Jesus did at the supper table in the home in Emmaus on that memorable Sunday evening (Luke 24:30-31). It is a means of grace that makes his presence known to us. And the cup is now a cup of celebration of his resurrection victory that he secured for himself and for us through his outpoured blood.
After all, Jesus selected these two universally available items of bread and red fruit juice from the annual Passover dinner table – the feast to commemorate Israel’s deliverance from lifelong bondage to Egypt’s Pharaoh. Those apostles who shared in that initial experience all lived under the domination of the pagan Roman Empire as citizens of an occupied land, longing for the restored rule of the great king David through the true ‘Son of David’. We who know that Son can strengthen our faith on this food and share it with others who stand together to spread his rule, for we celebrate his present enthronement in glory at God’s right hand as we await his future triumphant return as the King of kings.