Lectionary Commentaries for March 29, 2018
Commentary on John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Timothy J. Sandoval
Commentary on Exodus 12:1-4 [5-10] 11-14
The Israelites’ escape from Egypt is a well-known story.
Commentaries on the book of Exodus often place the exodus story within the literary unity of Exodus 12:1-15:21. The headings given to this section frequently vary from “Out of Egypt” and “Escape from Egypt” to “Escape from Pharaoh,” in reference to the Israelites’ escape from oppression at the hands of Pharaoh in Egypt. While each of these headings correctly infers breaking free from Pharaoh’s control, it also suggests the freedom to become a new people with a new God. This literary unity is not only about the departure from Egypt, but also the Passover, God’s act of setting Israel free.
“Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land”
God commissioned Moses and Aaron to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt. However, there are two competing narratives concerning the nature of Israel’s departure from Egypt. On one hand is the version made popular by the Negro spiritual “Go Down Moses.” In this account, God tells Moses that God has seen the oppression of the Israelites and commands Moses to go to Pharaoh to say, “bring my people, the Israelites out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:10; 6:10 New Revised Standard Version).
On the other hand, God tells Moses to approach the king of Egypt and say that the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has requested that they be released to go on a three-day journey in the wilderness to sacrifice to their deity (Exodus 3:18; 9:13; see also 4:21-23). The two different accounts for the purpose and length of the people’s departure from Egypt, coupled with the change in title for Egypt’s ruler and the names for God’s people, suggest a composite nature of the narrative.
“When Israel was in Egypt land”
Pharaoh denies Moses and Aaron’s request to let the Israelites go. God uses Pharaoh’s obstinacy to cause a number of plagues to befall Pharaoh and the Egyptians as a show of God’s power. Exodus 12:1 interrupts the execution of the final plague, the death of the firstborn in Egypt (Exodus 11:4-5) until Exodus 12:29-36, to introduce the instructions for the Passover feast. God commands Moses and Aaron to tell the people to prepare for the Passover, (Hebrew pesach), the conclusion of which will signal an end their oppression at the hand of Pharaoh.
However, before they can go free the Israelites must negotiate a space of liminality — the not yet; the betwixt and between. Liminality is the space that ritual participants occupy, where they no longer hold the status of their former selves in their community, but they have not yet crossed the threshold into the status of their new selves. In Exodus 12:1-14 the rite of passage begins with the Israelites’ status as slaves to Pharaoh (their old identity), advances to a period of preparation for the next stage (liminality), and concludes with crossing over into a new status as the people of God (their new identity). However, they are still in the land of Egypt on the verge of departure, so freedom is still only a future hope. The occasion is fraught with danger and uncertainty, but also possibility.
God commands Moses and Aaron to instruct the people regarding the preparations for the Passover (Exodus 12:1-4) and the future celebration of the festival (Exodus 12:14 [15-20]). First, the Passover will commence with the institution of a new calendar: “This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you” (Exodus 12:2). Each month in the Jewish calendar is marked by the new moon. The word month (chodesh) in Hebrew is literally “new moon.”
Next, God tells them that on the tenth of the month each family is to take a lamb or kid goat large enough to feed an entire household. However, if the household is too small to consume an entire lamb, then it is to join its nearest neighbor to consume the meat together (12:3–4). Nothing shall be wasted. Although the partaking of the lamb occurs in each household, it has a larger communal aspect as the entire congregation of Israel takes part.
“Let my people go”
On the fourteenth day of the month the people are to gird their loins, put their sandals on their feet, and take their staff in their hands, for they are to eat the meat hurriedly (Exodus 12:11). The expression to “gird one’s loins” likely sounds foreign to modern ears. However, children’s picture Bibles often portray ancient Israelites in flowing, ankle-length tunics with a waistband or belt. Underneath they wore a girdle or loin-covering, a cloth to cover the sexual organs. The length of the tunics didn’t allow for quick movement or strenuous labor. Therefore, they would take the bottom of the tunic and tuck it between their legs like a pair of shorts, tying the extra fabric around the waist in a knot or tucking it into the waist belt. By girding their loins, they would be prepared to leave in haste.
God explains that the meal is the Passover of the Lord because God would pass over the land of Egypt on the night of the fifteenth day of the month, striking down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human and animal, whose house did not have the blood of the slaughtered animal on its door frame (Exodus 12:7, 12). The blood was a sign to the people of God’s deliverance of Israel, not for God to recognize which house to spare from judgment.
While the story of the two independent traditions of the plagues and the Passover function to separate the Israelites as God’s people from the Egyptians and other peoples in the land, many may find the violence done to the non-Israelites hard to accept. Nevertheless, Passover is a festival celebrated by the Jewish people in remembrance of God’s deliverance of their ancestors from bondage in Egypt, a past event with ongoing future significance.
Commentary on Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
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.
Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Sharon H. Ringe
Today’s epistle lection is probably read in Christian worship more often than any other biblical text.1
It appears as the “Words of Institution” each time Holy Communion is celebrated. It is incorporated (with some variations) in the accounts of the Last Supper in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. As such, it becomes part of the language of the liturgy and is usually not treated as a biblical text for study and preaching. What can these four simple verses possibly add to our understanding of God’s will for our churches and for our lives?
Reading these verses in their context in 1 Corinthians discloses their eloquence. They are part of a list of issues related to worship about which Paul felt called to instruct these fledgling communities. The Corinthian believers are trying to figure out what it means to be followers of Jesus Christ in their particular cultural context.
In a setting where multiple gods and religious practices are assumed, their new faith requires exclusive devotion to the one God. Where the various mystery religions reinforce Greek philosophical concepts like the dualism of body and spirit, they have accepted a narrative of salvation built around Jewish monism. Where religion is understood to involve spiritual matters and the denial of physical life, this religion that claims them is lived out in their life as a community and in their ethical practices. In a city where competition for status and privilege governs social relationships, Paul is trying to help them understand and practice a religion in which the embodiment of love is called the highest of the “spiritual gifts.” Clearly much more is at stake in these words about the elements of their shared meal than simply getting the language of worship right!
The immediate context of these verses begins at 11:17 with some specific points about which Paul is displeased. He writes of “factions” and “divisions” among them, such that when they gather “it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper,” because “each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk” (11:20-21). Such bad manners (at least) and such unchristian behavior, we think!
Not at all, according to the customs of first century Corinth. Formal meals in Corinth were usually class-specific. Rarely would people of different social status eat together. The exceptions to this rule in which people of different economic classes would meet together–gatherings of trade guilds and burial societies, for example — transferred the class segregation to the meal itself. Social peers of the host would be entertained in an inner room and served the most elegant meal. People of less status would dine in outer rooms or the courtyard on less costly food, on down to the servants who would not eat at all, but only serve the others. At the end of the evening, all would be invited to join in the rituals of the organization.
From what we have been able to learn about the life of the early house churches in Corinth, their gatherings also began with such a meal that followed the usual social customs. In the case of the house churches, the final ritual would involve the sharing of bread and wine, accompanied and explained by the words of institution.
What was accepted Corinthian practice for the meal itself, however, was not acceptable according to Paul. His reason was found in those words explaining the elements of the supper. Where community practice underlined social divisions, the Words of Institution declared a “new covenant” (11: 25) uniting the church into a single body, just like the one loaf that is broken and shared among them. When the members of the Corinthian church allowed community norms to infect their time together, the supper was not a meal that “re-membered” Christ in the body of the community united in the ritual. It was a private dinner. Paul does not seek to reform the social practice of Corinth, but to distinguish it clearly from the “Lord’s supper.”
In the intimate setting of the house-churches of Corinth, the inequities that resulted from business-as-usual — some people going home hungry and others drunk–would have been obvious to all. When we celebrate that supper today, though, in congregations that are often racially and economically homogeneous, and where the meal has been reduced to the symbolic piece of bread and sip of wine or juice mentioned in the Words of Institution, the radical power of those words is not evident.
Though we now know the church as a global institution that includes members from every conceivable geographical and social situation, we tend not to see that global diversity as a factor of our taking communion. Although it is true that in the global church, some people are starving while others are over-fed, we reassure ourselves that this truth cannot be attributed to the elements of the common meal. The two are compartmentalized into different parts of our religious reality.
But what would happen if we contextualized our commemorations of Jesus’ last supper in the reality of the global food crisis, instead of seeing it as a solely religious ritual? After all, one of the difficult lessons Paul was trying to convey to the spiritually-minded Corinthians was that their actions “in the flesh” were the arena in which their faith and spirituality were expressed. Could that suggest that Paul’s harsh warnings about the dangers of eating the bread or drinking the cup “in an unworthy manner” (11:27-32) might warn us also about the perils of continuing with our beautiful and powerful celebrations of communion, without making programs to address local and world hunger equally central in our church’s life?
Especially on Maundy Thursday, when the community’s sharing in the bread and wine initiates the passion narrative that will enfold us through the remainder of Holy Week, this supper manifests the Lord’s life and presence in a hurting and hungry world.
This commentary was first published on the site on April 1, 2010.
“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (Isaiah 52:7).1
Not all feet are as beautiful as those of the messenger of good tidings whom Isaiah extols! We have all seen a few and know it to be true. Feet can be smelly, dirty, gnarled — as were surely most of the disciples’ feet that Jesus washed on that first Maundy Thursday that John 13 recounts.
Surprised by Jesus
Many of us know the story well and perhaps for that reason have become somewhat immune to the audacious character of Jesus’ actions. We don’t recognize fully the astounding fact that the “Son of God,” one of John’s preferred descriptions of Jesus, should deign to wash the feet of his very human disciples, and not vice versa. Indeed, as John 13:3 makes clear, Jesus is fully aware of his status and authority. He knows that “the Father had given all things into his hands.” Nonetheless, the master, the leader of a small band of disciples, takes on the role of a servant. He rises from the table, removes his outer robe, ties a towel around himself, draws water, and washes and dries the feet of his followers.
Much doctrine might be derived from the passage. In Jesus’ actions and Peter’s protests are surely signs of baptism as well as symbols of his death and the salvation he offers, the implications of which preachers can explore, of course. Yet just as important to proclaim on Maundy Thursday is the central Christian virtue of humble service and love to others.
A curious question
After the foot washing, Jesus returns to the table and asks his followers a remarkable question: “Do you know what I have done to you?” (John 13:12). On one level the answer to the question is obvious. The disciples surely know what Jesus had done. He had washed their feet. The Teacher, as Jesus calls himself in verse 13, is of course, seeking a further lesson. He has not merely washed their feet but has offered an example of how his followers are to live together. As Jesus says in verse 15, the disciples should do to one another as I have done to you.
Yet there is likely still more in Jesus’ question. It was not, after all, “Do you understand what I just did?” Or, “Do you understand the lesson I was trying to teach you?”. No. It was, “Do you know what I have done to you?” What has Jesus done? One answer is that in his concrete actions upon the very bodies of his followers — their dirty, smelly, gnarly feet — Jesus has inaugurated the central role that the virtue of humble, self-giving love and service ought to have in the communities that will gather around his name after he has been crucified and raised to God. He has not just taught them something with words. The example he gave them was no clever anecdote. Rather through the generous, humble actions of his real body on their real bodies he did something to them.
A new constitution
Through his actions Jesus constitutes the disciples as a community, his community. The humble, loving service that foot washing embodies forms a kind of community constitution — a fundamental principle and precedent — for Christians. This is also evident from Jesus’ words later in John 13. The followers of Jesus, we read in verses 34-35, are to “…love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This is no mere counsel, no simple recommendation or hope that the disciples will live this way. Rather, like the laws given to Moses at Sinai, which in a very real way formed the constitution of God’s people in the Old Testament, Jesus says his words are a new commandment!
Do we know what Jesus has done to us? This is a profound question that preachers of John 13 might explore with their congregations. It has to do with the character of our communities and the nature of the virtues by which we live.
Jesus’ constitution of the Christian community around self-giving, humble love and service is, today, a remarkable counter cultural moral vision. With this vision we are a long way from the leadership strategies of the corporate world designed to enhance productivity and the status of the “effective leader” who knows how to manage others and, when necessary, step over them. We are even further away from the self-interestedness of capitalist economic ideology and the blustery quests for power, advantage, and domination so well-known from the realm of politics chronicled in the headlines we read every day. The way of following Jesus is different.
Seeing beautiful feet
“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (Isaiah 52:7)
We might think that the beauty of the proclamation of good news, peace, salvation, and the divine reign of Isaiah’s messenger is so magnificent, that it radiates through and over the herald, poetically renewing in beauty his entire countenance, including his feet. On Maundy Thursday Jesus teaches us the way to see the beauty of the dirty, smelly, gnarled feet of our sisters and brothers is through humble, loving service to one another. It is by washing them.
1. This same commentary can be read in Spanish here.