Lectionary Commentaries for April 9, 2020
Maundy Thursday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Robert Hoch

John’s story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples is regularly assigned for Maundy Thursday.1

The reasons for this are self-evident: it supplies the characteristic actions of faithful community and, along with it, the Johannine explanation of those actions.

To me, though, what is most striking is the “set-up” for what should have been a show down—or would have been a show down had it involved anyone but Jesus. After all, Jesus knows everything—knows that his hour to depart from this world had arrived; that he had loved his own to the end; and that now, finally, the “devil had put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him” (verse 2).

Verse 3 offers a summary of Christ’s omniscience and power: “And during supper, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands … ” When I read this tonight, it shocked me: Why would anyone do what Jesus did next knowing what he knows?

Consider our own day and age: “I’ve got the evidence! It’s the leak I was looking for—betrayal!” It’s the “smoking gun” or the incriminating tranche of e-mails.

We fully expect, perhaps, Jesus to stand up at the table, the last supper, and announce that this is all a fraud, and I know it, you know it, and I’ve got the evidence to prove it! And maybe part of us would like him to do so—to be a divine whistle blower. The marriage vows, a sham. The business agreement, not worth the paper it was written on. The bread we break, an empty show.

We have a word for this experience: betrayal. Betrayal stings. Anyone who has ever felt betrayed knows this—and knows how implausible Jesus’ reaction. At this moment, Jesus doesn’t “show them what they are” even though, according to John, Jesus knows what is in their hearts. Their betrayal is, indeed, exposed, but it is not a surprise to God. This is the least “revelatory” aspect of the text.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer marvels that we are continually surprised by sin, though it is as common in us as it is in anyone else.

Perhaps this is why John reserves the better part of this text to showing Jesus’ love—not our sin. What we get is not a “tranche of incriminating e-mails” but Jesus in the flesh, showing us who he is and, by implication, who we are to be for one another. John exerts remarkable narrative control in this text, hewing closely to his primary concern, revealing Jesus, the light that has come into the world.

If denial, betrayal, and crucifixion will dominate chapters 18-19, John deliberately constructs this scene so that we cannot miss it. In these quiet but unmistakable actions, we see Jesus’ physical movements which correspond to his oneness with the God of mercy: Jesus “got up from the table”; “took off his outer robe and tied a towel around himself”; “poured water into a basin” and “wash[ed] the disciples’ feet … and wipe[d] them with the towel that was tied around him” (4b-5).

Instead of exposing their hearts—not Judas’ or even Peter’s—he reveals himself as the one who loved his own to the end, even becoming a servant, knowing full well the mixed motives of his disciples.

Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison throw up a bounty of insights into this text, particularly from a pastoral application of this passage. Bonhoeffer warns against allowing ourselves to fall into contempt for humanity:

Whoever despises another human being will never be able to make anything of him. Nothing of what we despise in another is itself foreign to us … The only fruitful relation to human beings—particularly to the weak among them—is love, that is, the will to enter into and to keep community with them. God did not hold human beings in contempt but became human for their sake.2

In his book, The Racist Mind: Portraits of Neo-Nazis and Klansmen, Raphael S. Ezekiel poses the question of whiteness by trying to understand avowed racists. When the Neo-Nazi asks the question, “Who am I?” he answers the question in terms of race.

Ezekiel asserts that while whites may use more than one way of answering the question of identity (religious, vocational, gender, social class), the mentality of the avowed white racist does “resemble majority white perception by taking ‘race’ … as a biologically meaningful description of reality, and therefore a fundamental way to categorize people.” But white people often don’t see white racism in themselves:

We do not know, the old joke says, who discovered water, but we do know it was not a fish. Just so, in a society in which white folk predominate and are seldom challenged in everyday life, white Americans have little conscious awareness of being white or of what that might mean. Only the challenge or the crisis makes this categorization relevant. The militant white racist movement is composed of people who feel permanently in crisis.3

Perhaps the impending crisis of the betrayal and crucifixion invites preaching that searches congregational identity. John, himself, might come in for criticism given his frequent and negative use of the phrase, “the Jews.”

An African American theologian asked a room of mostly white seminary professors, “Have you thought about what it means to be white? Do your students ask this question of themselves or their congregations?”

From an African American theologian, it was a provocative and, I think, genuine question. Understanding ourselves, perhaps that part of our identity we would deny, is often only brought about by crisis or by love. If we would see Jesus, then we will also see through his eyes—not with contempt, but ultimately, with love. And yet, that love will be near us as well as strange to us.

Ezekiel, who self-describes as a Jew—raised in Texas—says that he sought to “understand” the people he interviewed. “I hate racism … but I have no trouble knowing that the racist is a completely comprehensible human: We went to school together.”4

Could that be part of the spectrum of godly love? And could Holy Week, a time of deep self-examination, also be a time in which pastors, in preaching and prayer, pose these sorts of questions for their congregations? Would provoking this spirit of reflection resemble the effect of Christ’s demonstration in this text?


  1. Commentary first published on this site on April 13, 2017.
  2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 8 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 44-5.
  3. Raphael S. Ezekiel, The Racist Mind: Portraits of Neo Nazis and Klansmen (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), xvii-xviii.
  4. Ezekiel, xx.

First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 12:1-4 [5-10] 11-14

Alphonetta Wines

Sharing fellowship and food represent the best and worst times in our lives.

A meal out or at home, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, a potluck at church or at work can create memories that last forever. Celebrations for weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, graduation, and the like often include some type of shared meal. Commemorative meals help assure that communal memories pass from one generation to another. A repast following a funeral or memorial can ease aching hearts. An inmate’s last meal is a reminder that something has gone severely wrong in society, in someone’s life.

Israel’s bold movement toward freedom and Jesus’ anguished journey toward the cross are associated with a meal. These meals bear witness to the paradox that no matter how horrific, tragedy inherently holds the promise of something new. Both meals commemorate unimaginable pain and suffering. Both signal the beginning of something new. They are turning points in the lives of all who partake. For the original participants in these meals, life would never be the same.

Maundy Thursday is the fifth day of Holy Week, a week that recalls the events that lead to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Remembrances often include the gradually extinguishing candles of Tenebrae to note just how dark and somber this night is. In less than 24 hours, Judas will betray Jesus and Jesus will die an unspeakably horrid death on the cross. If Good Friday is a tragic day, so too Maundy Thursday is as a foreboding witness of that awful day.

Centuries earlier, Passover carried the same sense of foreboding. The details of Passover left nothing to chance. Smear homes with blood of the sacrificed animal, roast and eat the meat, burn any leftover meat, be fully dressed and ready to go at twilight. No matter how much they longed for the familiarity of Egypt, there would be no going back. Even if they did go back, the ten plagues would have destroyed the Egypt they once knew. Today’s Passover celebrations include spilling drops of wine to remember that freedom came at the cost of Egyptian life.

I am reminded of the dreadful feeling that came over me that day in which we visited the Door of No Return in Elmina, Ghana. Knowing that this was the place from which millions of Africans were forced onto the cramped spaces of slave ships, likely my ancestors among them, left an unshakable impression that no matter how distressing, generation after generation, this Door, this story must never be forgotten.

So too Passover. So too Maundy Thursday. Both have backstories that call us to remember something we’d rather forget. The narrative of Passover includes 400 years of enslavement. Yet, the story does not stop there. Passover is a reminder that God’s promise of blessing to Abraham was complicated, given that its fulfilment would eventually include not only war to possess the already inhabited Promised Land, but also loss to Assyria and Babylon, exile, return, rebuilding the nation, and more.

The narrative of Maundy Thursday is a reminder of the broken relationship between God and humanity and the price Jesus paid to mend it. Betrayal, false accusations, beatings, conviction though innocent, along with abandonment by humans and by God, Jesus bore it all.

In the midst of the worst days of his life, Jesus was eager to fellowship, to share a meal with the disciples one last time. Even though his heart was heavy, Jesus ministered to the disciples in a way that they would never forget. Though the disciples would not forget, that is not the case today. Since Maundy Thursday is not widely celebrated, it is easy to forget that Jesus instituted the foot washing as an example of servanthood for the disciples to follow. The disciples would have been shocked to see Jesus doing work generally left to household servants. This role reversal, done on behalf of the disciples who argued about who was the greatest, made it plain that following Jesus meant doing for others. With this act of selflessness, Jesus turned conventional roles of leader/follower on its head. His action makes it clear that there is no room for pretense or feelings of superiority or inferiority in the kingdom of God.

The tragedy and the blessing of Passover and Maundy Thursday are like two sides of the same coin: you can’t have the blessing without the tragedy. In the midst of great suffering, both anticipate new beginnings. Passover and Maundy Thursday give birth to two Abrahamic faith communities, Judaism and Christianity, respectively.

As the 40 days of Lent near a close, recalling the story means remembering that both Moses and Jesus spent 40 days and nights alone to prepare them to usher in new eras of God’s grace. God was preparing Moses to receive a new way of life for a community unaccustomed to the responsibilities of freedom. God was preparing Jesus for a ministry whose purpose was to meet the needs of others.

Moses birthed a nation with high ethical standards unlike any that had gone before. Jesus birthed a faith built on love of God, others, and oneself. Partakers of the first Passover received a freedom that they did not fully understand. Partakers of the first Maundy Thursday meal, the Last Supper, eventually would share the message of the gospel with the world.

Any pastor will tell you people are eager to embrace the hope of Easter. They prefer, however, to skip Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Yet, failure to enter the night of Maundy Thursday and the midday darkness of Good Friday likely will lessen the impact of Easter “Sonrise.”

If taken to heart, Lent can bring significant change to our lives. Not just acknowledging the wrong in the world and in ourselves, but birthing and embracing new things. The question of Maundy Thursday, yes of Lent, is twofold: “What new thing is God birthing in you? What are you willing to give up to birth that new thing?” May there be many new things.


Commentary on Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19

Amanda Benckhuysen

At first glance, a psalm of thanksgiving may seem like an ill-suited choice for Maundy Thursday.1

How does the victorious and celebratory tone of thanksgiving fit into our commemoration of those final tender moments of Jesus with his disciples before his death — the last supper together, the identification of Jesus’ betrayer, Jesus washing of the disciples’ feet? For those who know what is coming, Maundy Thursday is a day full of pathos and intimacy with our beloved Savior, not a day for hallelujahs.

Amid the solemn remembrance of these Maundy Thursday events, however, we would do well to make space for thanksgiving. For in the shadow of the cross, on the night before his death, Jesus shared the bread and the cup with his disciples, interpreting his imminent suffering and death not as an end but as a beginning, not as a tragedy but as a victory, not as a time for sorrow but as a time for eucharistia, “thanksgiving.” Among other things, then, today is a time for giving thanks, joining our voices with the psalmist in gratitude for God’s mercy toward us in bringing about our salvation and restoring us to life.

The psalm opens with the genuine and sincere profession, “I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my supplications (Psalm 116:1).” It is the heartfelt response of one who is overcome with God’s mercy toward him, mercy which has fostered in him not just gratitude, but the deeper, more sustained posture of love. The psalmist’s story is now intimately bound up with God’s. He had been in the grip of death (verse 3), his life, by ordinary standards, was finished. But having heard his cry, the Lord saved him and brought him back from the land of the dead (verse 4, 8).

As with all psalms of thanksgiving, the connection here between God’s saving act and the psalmist’s gratitude is significant. The gratitude of the psalmist flows out of the keen awareness of what God has done for him, hearing and answering his cries for help. While the lectionary omits verses 3-11 from our reading today, then, rehearsing the story of his distress and God’s divine intervention on his behalf is central to his confession. It is the awareness that he needed help and that God indeed saved him that cultivates in him a posture of thanksgiving and deepens his love for the Lord.

In the final section of the psalm, verses 12-19, the psalmist vows to offer up public expressions of gratitude in the house of the Lord, so full is his heart with thanksgiving for what God has done. He will lift up the cup of salvation, call on the name of the Lord, and offer up a sacrifice of thanksgiving (Leviticus 7:11-15) so that everyone will know what God has done and join the psalmist in giving God praise. The expression “cup of salvation” in verse 13 is found only here and its meaning is unclear. It may refer to a drink offering that often accompanied temple sacrifices (Numbers 15:8-10; 28) or it may be a figurative expression for drinking in the benefits and blessings of God’s salvation.

Read in the context of the passion of Christ, the psalmist’s “cup of salvation” calls to mind another cup, the cup that is poured out for us as the new covenant in Jesus’ blood (Luke 22:21). Here, at an annual Passover meal with his disciples, while remembering and rehearsing God’s mighty act in delivering Israel from slavery in Egypt, Jesus lifts up the cup and proclaims that in him, God is bringing about something new, a new redemptive work for all people.

While ours is not a political liberation like the Exodus nor a healing from sickness like the psalmist, both of these images are helpful metaphors for understanding what Christ has done for us. Sin is like a brutal taskmaster, controlling our wills and enslaving us to the selfish and evil inclinations of our own hearts. Who can deny that we do what we do not want to do and what we do not want to do, we do. Often we act in ways that damage relationships, dehumanize ourselves, and destroy shalom. Similarly, sin is like an untreated sickness that poisons our life as individuals and as communities. It robs people of the life of blessing and human flourishing that God intended for them and leads to death.

Lifting the cup, Jesus announces that the reign of sin is over. In him, there is forgiveness for sin, freedom from guilt, and a new covenant whereby we are restored to new life as God’s kingdom people. In Christ, the old has passed away; the new has come. Redemption and restoration are ours as all are now invited to drink in the benefits and blessings of the cup poured out, Jesus blood shed for us.

The significance of Psalm 116 for Maundy Thursday, then, is that it invites us to remember and rehearse how we too have been “delivered from death” by the death of our Lord and Savior and cultivates in us a posture of thanksgiving and praise for all God’s goodness to us. For on this night, as is the case whenever we celebrate the Lord’s supper, Christ holds out to us the cup that is poured out as a new covenant in his blood, inviting us to drink in the benefits and blessings of his sacrifice, to say with grateful hearts yes to God, yes to salvation, yes to dying to sin, and yes to our new life as God’s kingdom people in Jesus Christ.

On Maundy Thursday, then, in the shadow of cross, let us profess with the psalmist, we love you Lord, for you have heard our voice and our cry for mercy. You have delivered us from death, our eyes from tears, our feet from stumbling. Praise the Lord!


1 Commentary first published on this site on March 24, 2016.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Brian Peterson

This text is probably among the most familiar passages from the Pauline letters.1

Not only is it reflected in the Eucharistic liturgy, these verses are also included in the lectionary for Maundy Thursday every year. However, the lectionary’s focus on these few verses, excised from their context within 1 Corinthians, means that we don’t hear Paul’s point about how this supper should shape the life and character of the church. For a more full and fresh hearing of this text, the preacher may need to expand the narrow limits of the pericope to include all of 11:17-34.

It isn’t as though the pericope, as it stands, offers meager material. There is plenty here to ponder and proclaim. One good place to begin is with the wording of verse 23. How should we understand and translate, both in Bibles and in liturgy, the verb (paradideto) that describes what happened to Jesus on that night?2 The story we get when we translate the verb as “betrayed,” as in most English Bible translations and most versions of the liturgy, is that this night is primarily about human treachery.

The story being told would shift significantly if we understood this word according to its less sinister meaning, “handed over” (as New American Bible, and as Paul used the same verb earlier in verse 23). Though the Gospels use this verb to describe Judas’ action, Paul never does so. Paul does, however, speak about how God “handed over” Jesus for our trespasses (Romans 4:25 & 8:32), and how Jesus “handed over” himself for us (Galatians 2:20).

If all we hear in verse 23 is “betrayed,” then we have removed God from the story and handed it over to the machinations of human sin precisely where Paul intends to proclaim God’s redeeming grace. The church, all the way back to Paul and the tradition he received, has declared that this is not only a story of human betrayal, but is the story of God’s “new covenant” (25).

To hear only the story of Judas in the paradideto of verse 23 would allow no room for the gracious “for you” of verse 24. The cross is centrally an event of God’s love and mercy, and Paul’s attention is focused on God’s action rather than on human betrayal. It was on that night, as one ancient version of the Eucharistic liturgy says, that Jesus was “handed over to a death he freely accepted.”

Since in the Supper we share in the body and blood of this Lord (10:16), Paul insists that the life of the church will be shaped accordingly. We will find, by God’s grace, that for the sake of the world we too are called to be handed over in service, in pursuit of justice, and in costly love for our enemies. We will find that the church too is called and sent in order to be poured out rather than to acquire, that we are sent to be broken for the sake of others rather than kept somewhere safe and unbothered. We will find that we too are called to stop “humiliating those who have nothing” (22) and to stand with them, or to sit and eat with them.

We become what we receive and consume: the body of Christ for the sake of the world. The story of the Supper is the story of God’s grace at work, beyond any human betrayal. It is God’s love “handing over” Jesus on the cross, and then into our hands and our mouths, and then through us into the world.

A second phrase that merits attention is Jesus’ own description of what the church does as “in remembrance” (24-25). Denominations have divided over the meaning of that phrase, and there is mystery here that we will not resolve in a short essay or in a sermon. However, one might remember that in the biblical tradition such remembering is never simply an act of mental recollection.

Rather, remembering means to have life and actions reshaped. When God remembered Noah in the ark or Israel in exile, the result was mercy and salvation. To “remember” God in Old Testament language is to repent and obey. For Paul to “remember the poor” in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:10) was not only to recall that they exist; rather, they became a life-changing concern. That this meal is done “for the remembrance” of Jesus is not just so we don’t forget the past. We not only meet our brothers and sisters at the meal; we also meet Christ (10:16), and our lives are given new focus by that reality.

It is that difference which the Corinthian church was denying every time they gathered together (11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34), because they focused on their own advancement even at the Supper (20-22). Though the self-promotional use of meals would have been socially expected, Paul says that it is a contradiction of the Supper and its Lord.

Paul’s solution to this distorted ecclesial life is not only to proclaim to them once again the narrative of the Supper, but also to call the Corinthian church to discernment. They are to “discern the body” (29). Paul makes his meaning clearer in verse 31 where he uses the same word: we are to “discern ourselves” (not, as NRSV, “judge ourselves”).

Paul’s concern is not (or at least not primarily) about the proper understanding of the sacramental presence of Jesus in the bread and wine, but about the recognition of the body of Christ in our brothers and sisters. To properly discern the body at the table means that we cannot come while leaving others uninvited and unwelcomed, or without mourning their absence. We cannot leave the table and be content to leave anyone hungry. To discern the body in the Supper will send us into the world with new eyes and new hearts, to encounter Christ there.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Apr. 17, 2014.
  2. See Brian Peterson, “What Happened on ‘The Night’? Judas, God, and the Importance of Liturgical Ambiguity.” Pro Ecclesia 20 (2011): 363-383.