Lectionary Commentaries for April 18, 2019
Maundy Thursday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

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

Lindsey S. Jodrey

John is famous for its “high Christology.”

Jesus is presented as the Word who was with God in the beginning and is, in fact, God (John 1:1). Jesus repeatedly does things that only God can do, boldly claims “I AM” (John 4:26; 6:20; 8:24, 28, 58; 13:19; 18:5, 6, 8), and explicitly states that whoever has seen him has seen the Father (John 14:9). He even says, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). This certainly tells us as readers something about Jesus’ identity. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus repeatedly refers to his connection with the Father when he is asked about what he does or why he does it.1 His unity with God determines his actions and his mission. In this way, John’s high Christology can show us as readers how we might follow Jesus’ lead in understanding our own identity and mission as well.

Commissioning: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

It is this same Gospel of “elevated Christology” that gives us one of the most vividly humble pictures of Jesus. In the hours before he is arrested and crucified, Jesus takes off his outer garment, takes up the servant’s towel, and washes his disciples’ dirty feet.

Let’s think for a second about how this story works to shape its readers. The Foot Washing scene is vital to the narrative plot, a turning point for Jesus as he heads to his death and for the disciples as they are commissioned for a new role. This story shows the trajectory of the disciples being brought into the unity that Jesus shares with the Father. As Jesus says to Peter: “unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (John 13:8).2

The “sent” language at the conclusion of this story (John 13:16 and 20) reinforces that the action functions as a commissioning. Later in the story, Jesus tells his followers, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21; see also 17:18). While their actions in the world may differ, Jesus’ example shows that the disciples’ work in the world should flow out of their shared mission as “sent ones” of the Father.3 Just as Jesus’ deeds flow from his connection with the one who sent him, so his followers’ deeds should flow from their shared unity with God.

Call: “If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

So, what is the mission to which they are called? The act of foot washing in the ancient world symbolized not only humility but also hospitality.4 In a culture where friends reclined at the table to eat, usually after long and dusty walks, foot washing was an essential step in inviting others to the community feast. The job was a dirty one usually reserved for lowly servants, but it was extremely important. To wash someone’s feet was to recognize them as a welcome guest, to remove any barriers that might keep them from the table. 

This memorable story tells us something about Jesus’ overall mission — to open up unity with God to be shared with the world at large.5 The Prologue (John 1:1-18) revealed that Jesus’ work in the world was to lead the way to God, to show the world the God they had not been able to see, and to reconcile the world back to its original unity with God. Jesus was uniquely equipped for this mission because of his complex and mystical unity with God (1:1, 18).6 The story of the Foot Washing continues the trajectory, inviting the disciples into this unity and empowering them to fulfill God’s mission for the world after Jesus’ death.

Questions to consider

We as readers of the Fourth Gospel are called to embrace our identity in unity with Jesus, to act in ways that extend hospitality, and to invite others in so that the love we share for one another might extend to the world outside. Today as you reflect on this beloved story of Jesus’ humble service, imagine Jesus bringing the basin to your feet.

What stands in the way of my own unity with God?

As I imagine Jesus washing my feet, what falls away?

Be empowered as the ritual of the water and the towel reminds you that you share in the unity with God that gave Jesus his sense of identity and mission.

Who is currently being kept away from our community?

What keeps them away?

Be challenged to take up the tools of hospitality yourself, that you might invite others into a community of mutual love and into participation in the mission to extend God’s tangible love to the world.

How can I tangibly reach out to address barriers and practice radical inclusion?

What are my tools of hospitality?


Notes:

  1. See, for example, John 5:19, 36; see also 3:35; 4:34; 10:18, 32, 37-38; 14:10-11; 17:4. Karl Weyer-Menkhoff, “The Response of Jesus: Ethics in John by Considering Scripture as Work of God,” in Rethinking the Ethics of John, 159–74. Cf., Jan G. van der Watt, “Ethics Of/and the Opponents of Jesus in John’s Gospel,” in Rethinking the Ethics of John, 175–91.
  2. On foot washing as a welcome into God’s household see Mary L. Coloe, “Welcome into the Household of God: The Footwashing in John 13,” CBQ 66 (2004).
  3. Kobus Kok, “As the Father Has Sent Me, I Send You: Towards a Missional-Incarnational Ethos in John 4,” in Moral Language in the New Testament: The Interrelatedness of Language and Ethics in Early Christian Writings, ed. Ruben Zimmermann and Jan G. van der Watt, WUNT 296 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 168–93.
  4. Jo-Ann A. Brant, John, Paideia (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 205–6.
  5. This episode also directs the audience’s attention forward to Jesus’s death, another example of service to the point of extreme sacrifice. R. Alan Culpepper, “The Johannine Hypodeigma: A Reading of John 13,” Semeia 53 (1991): 133–52; Raymond Edward Brown, The Gospel according to John, vol. 2, 2 vols., The Anchor Bible 29A (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970), 2:551.
  6. Definitions of exegeomai from John 1:18 in Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon include “to lead,” “to show the way to,” “to expound,” “to tell at length, relate in full.”

First Reading

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

Sara Koenig

“You don’t remember what you don’t remember.”1

This statement may be a truism, but it also points to larger questions: what do we remember? Why, and even how can we remember certain things? In this lectionary text, God gives commandments to Moses, Aaron, and Israel so that they can remember and celebrate the Passover.

The commandments begin with instructions about time, identifying that the current month will henceforth signify the beginning of the year for the Israelites.2 This chronological commandment has important social and theological implications: when the Israelites are no longer slaves, they will be able to take control of their time in ways they could not have done previously. The new year also signifies the start of a new way of life, when God will have redeemed the people from Egypt.

Timing becomes even more specific when the Israelites are commanded to take a lamb or a young goat on the 10th day of the month, the day in the month to celebrate Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:29), and the day to inaugurate the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:9).

Each household is to take a lamb, but if there are not enough members in a family to consume the animal, they are to share with neighbors. (Apparently, one lamb can feed approximately forty people.) These are communal commandments, addressed “all the congregation of Israel” (Exodus 12:3), and when they share meals with one another, they will strengthen ties with their family and their neighbors.

Verses 5-10 are not included in the lectionary text, with their disturbing specifics about slaughtering an animal and painting its blood on the frame of the house. For those today who mostly encounter meat wrapped up in butcher paper or in Styrofoam trays, these details may seem too primal and violent. In particular, the command to keep the animal for four days before killing it seems to heighten the closeness the people may have felt with the animal.

In its historical context, sacrificing animals may have been another way for the Israelites to separate themselves from the Egyptians (see Exodus 8:22), as the Egyptians venerated certain gods in the forms of animals. Separation, then, would not only be evident in the Israelites’ practices, but also in how they understood their God.

In addition to the gruesome details about killing and blood, verses 5-10 contain what seems to be a bizarre biblical recipe for preparing lamb: don’t boil it, be certain to season it with bitter herbs, serve the meat with a side of unleavened bread. But these verses, too, have to do with remembering. They give very specific instructions about how to kill and prepare the animal, how to eat it, what to do with its blood. Thanks to God’s commandments, there is no mystery about how to commemorate this event.

The clarity of instructions continues in the next verses, which are included in the lectionary. Verse 11 explains how the Israelites are to eat their meat, with sandals on, loins girded, and a staff in hand: ready to move. Therefore, this first meal was not to be simply an end in and of itself. The meal was not the event, but rather the beginning of a new way of living and being.

Verse 11 ends with the declaration: “it is the LORD’s Passover.” The word pesa? gets repeated in verse 13 in a first-person verb often translated, “I will pass over you.” Certainly, the meaning of the word is connected with God’s action of passing over the houses with the blood on the door. The word also has two other traditional meanings: “to have compassion,” and “to protect.” Amidst the death of all firstborn, and the judgments against Egypt’s gods (Exodus 12:12), the LORD will have compassion on, and protect the Israelites.

The final verse in the pericope establishes an annual festival of remembrance, “throughout your generations … forever” (Exodus 12:14). God’s redemption of God’s people, made final in severe actions of judgment against their oppressors, is an experience that must not be forgotten. It must be remembered, because it reminds God’s people who they are, and who is their God. It can be remembered with commemorative practices, detailed in the subsequent verses in the chapter (Exodus 12:15-20).

The Passover and the Exodus can also be remembered because God commands the Israelites to do so. Jewish tradition identifies Exodus 12:2 as the first commandment God gave to the new nation of Israel, even before they were redeemed from slavery in Egypt.

The name of this day in the church calendar, Maundy Thursday, derives from the Latin translation of John 13:34, included in the gospel reading for today. Jesus gives his disciples a “new commandment” — a mandatum novum — that they love one another as Jesus has loved them.

These commandments in Exodus 12 and John 13 are of a whole. On this day preceding Good Friday, we do well to remember God’s costly acts of love on behalf of God’s people. For, as we remember, we are shaped and formed by our commemoration.


Notes:

  1. Reggie Joiner and Kristen Ivy, Don’t Miss It: Parent Every Week Like it Counts. (Cumming, GA: Orange) 2016, 46.
  2. By the time of the Mishnah at the beginning of the second century, the Jewish new year was celebrated not in the spring, but in the fall when the harvest would begin. Passover occurs in the Jewish month of Nisan, which corresponds with March-April, but Rosh Hashanah — literally, “the head of the year” — happens in Tishrei, the seventh month of the Jewish lunar calendar.

Psalm

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

Joel LeMon

Psalm 116 begins with a confession of love and ends with a call for praise.

Only selected verses from the psalm appear in the lectionary for this Maundy Thursday. Yet any exposition of Psalm 116 should include the entire text. It contains a full account of what it means to trust God through challenging circumstances. As the liturgical calendar moves through the final days of Jesus’s ministry prior to his death, it is particularly important to keep in mind the psalmist’s reflections about the experience of suffering, doubt, and hope.

Throughout this text, the psalmist speaks to a number of audiences. In the main, she addresses her community. But during the middle of the psalm, and especially at the end, she talks directly to God (verses 8, 16-19). And at one point, she even talks to her own soul (verse 7).

Despite these multiple addressees, the psalm can be divided into two main parts. The first part relates a thanksgiving of God’s saving activity (verses 1-11). This testimony to God’s faithfulness gives way to the second part (verses 12-19), which focuses on the vows that the psalmist will fulfill in response to God’s work.

A testimonial

The opening lines of the psalm suggest that the psalmist loves God because God hears her when she calls YHWH’s name (verses 1-4); “I love the Lord because he has heard my voice and my supplication.” According to the logic of the psalm, God’s character and power require that if God hears her, then God will surely act. Thus, the psalmist can confess her love at the outset not explicitly for what God has done, but simply for the fact that God hears her in the midst of her trouble.

The psalm also provides vivid detail about the psalmist’s trouble. The psalmist felt “the snares of death,” “the pangs of Sheol,” “distress and anguish” (verse 3). She has been “brought low” (verse 6) to the brink of death (verse 8). As she recalls those difficult times, she quotes herself, “I am greatly afflicted” (verse 10). She adds that she used to say: “everyone is a liar” (verse 11). It is worth remembering at this point that according to ancient forensic practice, testimony alone could be enough to bring about a death sentence. Lies would have had devastating consequences. Perhaps she is indicting her whole community because she has so suffered so much from false accusations.

In addition to reporting her past complaints, the psalmist recalls a petition, how she called on “the name of the LORD” (verse 4). To call the deity by name — saying “O YHWH, I pray, save my life” — is to bring two incompatible realities into contact with one another: God’s power and the psalmist’s suffering (verse 4). She is calling the deity to attend, to hear about how things have gone so wrong. God’s reputation cannot sustain such a disordered situation to endure. If YHWH hears one calling YHWH by name, then there will be a resolution.

Indeed, the psalm suggests that calling on the name of YHWH has worked. The psalmist could hardly get one foot in front of another, stumbling and blinded by tears (verse 8). Yet now she is now walking before God (verse 9) “in the land of the living.” God’s response to the psalmist has brought about restoration, new life in the midst of death.

A vow of praise

There is a well-established liturgical pattern in the Psalms, that is, in response to God’s gracious acts, the psalmists make vows to praise God and offer sacrifices of thanksgiving. The second part of the psalm (verses12-19) takes up the topic of vows, detailing what the psalmist can do in response to God. The psalmist has experienced God’s power and is eager to acknowledge it, to give something back to the one who has given her so much (verse 12). This “returning” praise to God acknowledges the gratitude one feels to God. Moreover, it provides a witness to others about the power of God, who is able to bring someone back from the brink of death (verse 3).

Within these vows of praise, the psalmist offers a maxim about how God views the death of God’s people. The NRSV translates verse 15 this way: “Precious (Hebrew: yaqar) in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.” The translation of yaqar largely preserves the wording of the King James Version of 1611. However, over 400 years the English word “precious” has undergone significant semantic drift. To be clear, the context does not suggest that God takes delight in the death of the faithful, like one would delight in a “precious” stone or a “precious” child. “Precious” in this context suggests a costliness to God. God takes death or the threat of death seriously. And the psalmist’s suffering up to the point of death was grievous to God.

Salvation from the threat of death came to the psalmist after she called on the name of God (verse 4). In the latter verses of the psalm, she calls on the name of God twice more, but in the gratitude for God’s acts (verses 13, 17). YHWH’s name is on her lips as she lifts up “the cup of salvation.” (verse 13), a libation in thanksgiving for what God had done.

Of course, in the context of the Christian liturgy, “the cup of salvation” is associated with the Lord’s Supper, the sacrament we celebrate on Maundy Thursday. In the Christian appropriation of this phrase, the ritual of a libation of thanksgiving in the temple receives new significance through the life and death of Jesus. In the original context of the psalm and in the Christian sacraments, the “cup of salvation” marks the gracious work of God in the world. God has done it in the past, and is doing in now. Like the Psalmist and our Lord Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, we assume a posture of gratitude for what God has done, and how God’s mercy and grace transforms death into life (verses 3-4, 8-9).


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Bryan J. Whitfield

Writing to the Corinthians in the sixth decade of the first century, Paul provides the first written account we have of Jesus’ last evening with his disciples.

His description, like the similar Synoptic accounts (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:15-20), shows how deeply this memory shaped the early church. Paul sketches the details with economy of language, conveying the essence of the meal in spare words. His language is already shorn of extra details, marked in parallel clauses, almost poetic in its rhythm and cadence.

These words come to Paul from the tradition the church has handed down. Now he hands them on faithfully to others (1 Corinthians 11:23). He does so in the service of his larger argument, trying to bring unity to a young congregation whose divisions fracture even their common worship.

The Corinthians’ shared meal has become a time for gathering but not a time for true fellowship or partnership. During the meal, richer members feast while poorer members go without. The wealthy, who have more leisure, do not wait on others to arrive from work (1 Corinthians 11:33). They eat their private meals in a shared space and reinforce the class system of their wider society. This arrangement humiliates the poor whose scant portions reveal their poverty (1 Corinthians 11:21-22).

As a result, Paul condemns the congregation’s division and lack of equal concern for all who gather for the meal (1 Corinthians 11:17, 22). He instructs them to eat and drink private meals in their own homes (1 Corinthians 11:22).

Then Paul reminds them of the origin of their shared meal, providing more correction. The supper’s purpose is to remember Jesus. It is not a time for lavish display or ostentation. It is not a time to display wealth or position. Instead this meal is a time to reflect on what Jesus has done in giving his life for others. It is a time, Paul later explains, for self-examination (10:28). The Corinthians are to discern the body (10:29) — both Christ’s corporeal body and the corporate body of believers — so they can overcome division and re-member the body of Christ to which they belong.

As he begins his account, Paul reports that he “delivers” or “hands on” this tradition about the night on which Jesus was “handed over” or “delivered up.” Our modern English versions often obscure the echo of the word in Paul’s introduction. The NRSV, for example, uses “handed on” and “betrayed” (1 Corinthians 11:23), associating Paul’s language with Judas’s betrayal. While “handing over” may recall that event, Paul elsewhere stresses that God, acting for the world’s salvation, hands Jesus over (Romans 4:25; 8:32), echoing the language of Isaiah (53:6, 12b).1

Paul then narrates the actions of Jesus in parallel scenes. First, Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and broke it (1 Corinthians 11:24). In the Synoptic tradition, the meal Jesus shares with his disciples is Passover, so the bread would have been unleavened, remembering the haste with which the Israelites left Egypt’s oppression (Exodus 12: 39). Secondly, after dinner, Jesus took the cup and shared it with them (1 Corinthians 11:25).

After both the bread and the cup, Jesus instructs his disciples: “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24, 25). In the context of the Passover meal whose participants remember God’s deliverance from slavery (Exodus 12:14), Jesus now calls his disciples to see a new act of God’s deliverance, one they experience in Jesus’ death.

The disciples are to observe this memorial repeatedly. They are to keep on breaking the bread and sharing the cup. Each time they do so, they remember Jesus, whose gifts resound with and echo God’s gifts of freedom and deliverance in the Exodus. They remember Jesus’ giving of his own body and blood for them and in their place. This gift fashions a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34), freeing them and creating a people bound to God and to each other.

This gift calls the Corinthians to look beyond the narrow confines of the present, to look back to the saving acts of God in the exodus and in Christ’s self-offering. Following Christ’s example, they are to look beyond self-interest to offer life for others. But the Corinthians are also to look forward in hope, as they proclaim the Lord’s death “until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). Their worship thus contains a future dimension, as it also proclaims Christ’s ultimate victory.2

How might preachers shape a sermon on this text? These reflections suggest at least three possible paths.

  1. A sermon might examine the meal within the framework of Israel’s history of the Exodus and the Passover as the context in which Jesus and his disciples shared their meal. The ancient ritual grounds Christian observance and the new covenant Jesus establishes. Such a sermon would work carefully with both the first reading (Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14) and the second reading for Maundy Thursday.
  2. A sermon might focus on the broader context of the meal within the story of Jesus, stressing the offering of Jesus’ life as the source of salvation and life, God’s gift of radical grace that establishes a covenant that grounds our relationship with God and with each other.
  3. A sermon might reflect on Paul’s own use of the tradition as a pastoral word for the divided church in Corinth as a model for addressing our own divided congregations and churches. Such a sermon would focus on the significance of the Supper as a sign of Christian unity, exploring ways that our memory of Christ’s body and blood re-members us for fellowship and mission. Sharing this meal refashions us as a people whose lives are shaped, not by our own desires for prestige and power, but by the self-giving love of Christ who feeds and nurtures us, making us whole again.

Notes:

  1. Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; Louisville: John Knox, 1997), 198.
  2. Carl Holladay, The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians (The Living Word Commentary; Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1979), 150.