Lectionary Commentaries for April 13, 2017
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.

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.1

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.2

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.”3

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?


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 8 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 44-5.

Raphael S. Ezekiel, The Racist Mind: Portraits of Neo Nazis and Klansmen (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), xvii-xviii.

Ibid., xx.

First Reading

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

Terence E. Fretheim

This Passover text is appointed for Maundy Thursday each year.1

According to the Synoptic Gospels, it is on Thursday evening that Jesus, in the upper room with his disciples, celebrates Passover and institutes the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:17-29; Mark 14:12-25; Luke 22:7-28). The Gospel of John, however, speaks of the Thursday supper as the day before Passover (13:1; 19:14), linking Jesus’ death on Friday with the Passover sacrifices. In either case, the image of “paschal lamb” for Jesus Christ is appropriate (John 1:29; I Corinthians 5:7-8). 

This Passover text is a part of the larger narrative Exodus 1:1-15:21, a story of liberation from bondage in Egypt. This literary context is important. The story of the ten plagues (beginning at Exodus 7:8) is “interrupted” by Exodus 12:1-28. In Exodus 11:1 God had announced “one more plague” upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians. The reader expects the tenth plague to follow immediately, but it is delayed until Exodus 12:29. Between the announcement and the event, there is an extensive liturgical discussion regarding Passover/Unleavened Bread.

Why this break in the narrative?

Most basically, the story of the tenth plague (12:29) must be read through the liturgical lens provided by Exodus 12:1-28. The effect:  the tenth plague is presented not simply as historical event but also as liturgical event (merged in 12:50-51). The liturgy is set in place before the event occurs and so the event is liturgy, the first celebration of Passover. This means that the liturgical event is as much “act of God” as is the historical event. That is, Passover is not simply a time of commemoration, it has a sacramental character: in and through this particular ritual (often dramatized, see Deuteronomy 16:1-8; Numbers 9:1-14; 28:16-25; Leviticus 23:4-8) God acted and acts in a saving way. As God delivered Israel in ancient times, so also in every celebration of Passover God works salvation for the believing community.

The origins and history of Passover may be in dispute, but its basic significance stands strong. Passover is a means of grace. Exodus 12:11b-14 provides specific language for this understanding.  It is “the Lord’s passover” (12:11) because it centers on what God does. God will “pass over” those houses with blood-smeared entrances, delivering them from the “plague.” While the basic images are God’s salvation from bondage and shielding from death, also to be noted is the response of the community:  they are to prepare for a journey (12:11). This saved community must be ready to go, must be prepared for a trek that will move through difficult terrain (12:11). The Jewish community has stressed these senses of Passover through the centuries:  God brought us out of Egypt! 

Passover is also described as a family ritual (a lamb without blemish killed; blood placed on the doorposts and lintel of the house; lamb eaten hurriedly with unleavened bread and bitter herbs); further details are given in verses 43-49. Notably, special provision is made for considering the questions that children may ask: “what does this mean?” (12:26-27; 13:8-10). Passing on the tradition to the children is essential to the proper keeping of Passover. Hence it has a special place in the ongoing formation of community identity; in view of such a function, Passover was later transformed into a national pilgrimage (Deuteronomy 16:1-8).

Also central to the text is the reference to blood in 12:13; its importance as a “sign” is its linkage to God’s promise (not the sign in and of itself). The blood is a sign of promise “for you” (Israel), not for God. God thereby commits the divine self to pass over the blood-marked houses and deliver its occupants. Israel can rely on God’s being faithful to this promise. The blood is more than a marker (as if any colorful substance would do). It represents a life given and that provides life for Israel. The blood has this power because of the promising word of God. The placement of the blood can also be viewed as a tangible sign of the faith of those living in each household and the faith of the worshiper is not irrelevant to God. At the same time, the blood of the Passover lamb is not said to atone for the sin of the people. Also, no substitutionary language is associated with the blood of the Passover lamb. The theme of salvation is the prominent image for Passover (see Exodus 15:2) rather than the theme of forgiveness. The New Testament linkage of Passover with the Lord’s Supper does include the language of forgiveness beyond what Passover originally signified (see Matthew 26:27-28).

Later celebrations of Passover in Israel influenced the telling of the Exodus story; liturgy has shaped literature. This way of presenting the material gives to the tenth plague a character not unlike a Christmas pageant gives to the birth of Jesus. The result is a somewhat more impressionistic imaging of the actual event than the other nine plagues. This understanding could help readers understand the violence, especially the death of the firstborn as God’s own action. The killing of the firstborn should not be interpreted in a precisely literal way, as if God “shot” each one individually. Its concern is to state that no household remained untouched.  Moreover, the text uses several words to speak of a non-divine agent:  plague (11:1) or blow/plague (12:13) or pestilence (9:15; cf. 9:3) or destroyer (12:23). It is best to think of a pestilence epidemic that kills quickly. 

Moreover, as with the other plagues, the emphasis on “all” portrays how devastating the event was for Egypt. And why the firstborn? The firstborn are thought to belong to God (see 13:1-2). Moreover, the language of Exodus 1:22 and 4:22-23 reminds readers that Pharaoh’s action against Israel’s male children amounted to genocide; so the tenth plague, though not as serious, is understood in a “what goes around, comes around” sense. Finally, God executes judgment on “all the gods of Egypt.” This language reflects an Egyptian understanding that the Pharaoh was divine and God makes a key point: “You shall have no other gods before me.”  

1. Commentary first published on this site on April 21, 2011.


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

Mark Throntveit

Psalm 116 is a thanksgiving psalm.1

These hymns were sung by those whose earlier lament, or prayer for help in time of trouble, had been answered. Laments frequently conclude with promises to return to the temple in order to tell the worshiping community what God had done and encourage them to join the psalmist in praise of God’s goodness. These testimonies, for that is what they are, are often recognized by their characteristic past tense verbs.

Since the lament or prayer for help takes place at the time of the psalmist’s distress, the verbs employed are in the present tense: “In my distress I cry to the Lord, that he may answer me: ‘Deliver me, O Lord’” (Psalm 120:1, 2a). But, since the thanksgiving psalm narrates what God had done in response to the psalmist’s prayer for help, the verbs are couched in the past: “O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you healed me” (Psalm 30:2).

This general scholarly consensus on the genre Psalm 116, however, has not resulted in a clear formulation of its structure, despite such structural markers as refrains: “call on the name of the Lord” (verses 4, 13, 17), and “I will pay my vows to the Lord, in the presence of all his people” (verses 14, 18); and the repetition of key vocabulary: “death” (verses 3, 8, 15), “save/salvation” (verses 6, 13), “return” and “bounty” (verses 7, 12), and the emphatic use of “I” (verses 10, 11, 16 [twice]). Verses 10-11, 14, 15, and 16 appear to be misplaced and interrupt the flow of the psalm. For this reason, Claus Westermann, following the lead of the venerable Hermann Gunkel, has made the intriguing suggestion that these verses should be rearranged to yield the following, more typical reconstruction:

  • Introductory Summary recalling an earlier lament verses 14, 1, 2
  • Narrative of Deliverance verses 3, 10, 11, 4, 16, 8, 9
  • Testimony to God’s Goodness verses 15, 5, 6, 7
  • Promise/Vow of Praise verses 12, 13, 17, 192

All the parts make sense in this reconstruction, but one wonders how it ever became so confused (I sense an elusive concentric arrangement, as yet undiscovered!).

Be that as it may, our passage, verses 1-2, 12-19 functions quite well as it stands; in fact, the LXX presents verses 10-19 (essentially the promise/vow) as a separate psalm entirely (Psalm 115). This intensely personal psalm (35 first person references!) begins with a loving expression of gratitude for God’s grace and answered prayer (verses 1-2) and then jumps to a vow or promise in which the psalmist wonders, “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?” (verse 12).

It is important to realize that the psalmist does not think it possible to actually repay God in some reciprocal, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours kind of way. Rather, the psalmist, overcome by the grace bestowed upon him, is concerned about the relationship he shares with God and now seeks an appropriate response.

That response serves as the tie-in for Maundy Thursday. If God’s grace cannot be bought, then the temple sacrifice gives nothing to God but recognizes God’s gifts to us and allows us to participate ritually, symbolically, even sacramentally in the relationship God has forged. Judaism has celebrated their relationship with God for millennia with this psalm as part of the Hillel Psalms sung during Passover. Four cups of wine are consumed for the four verbs of redemption in Exodus 6:6-7 descriptive of God’s activity. According to the Midrash:

These are four expressions of redemption: I will bring you out—I will deliver you—I will redeem you and I will take you. These correspond to the four decrees, which Pharaoh issued regarding them. The Sages accordingly ordained four cups to be drunk on the eve of Passover to correspond with these four expressions, in order to fulfill the verse: I will lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord (Psalm 116:13).3

Thus, the psalm functions as thanksgiving for the deliverance Israel experienced at Passover.

Closer to home, these sentiments have been transferred to Christian worship, especially on Maundy Thursday where the institution of the Lord’s Supper is commemorated. In 1 Corinthians 10:16 Paul referred to the chalice as “the cup of blessing that we bless,” an idiom usually connected with Passover and the four cups of redemption discussed above. This led to a Christological re-reading of Psalm 116 that morphed Passover into Communion that encourages us to hear this psalm as a thanksgiving for the atoning work of Jesus on the cross. As James Luther Mays concludes,

The psalm becomes the voice of Jesus and the congregation, the one providing the cup and sacrifice, the other united by them with him in his death and resurrection.4


1. Commentary first published on this site on March 28, 2013.

2. C. Westermann, The Living Psalms (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 196-97.

3. Midrash Rabbah Exodus VI. 4, Soncinio Edition.

4. J. L. Mays, Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 372.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Carla Works

The Corinthians failed to practice the Lord’s Supper correctly.

Though this failure was detrimental to the edification of First Church Corinth, it is fortunate for us, since 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 is the only place where Paul discusses the Eucharist. It seems that the Corinthians were partaking the bread and the cup regularly, but their behavior at the table caused the apostle to question whether what they were doing could rightly be called the “Lord’s Supper.” Although their words may have recalled the night of Jesus’ death, their actions were preaching a different story.

Immediately prior to verses 23-26, Paul reveals that the Corinthians’ table etiquette was not even recognizable as the Lord’s Table. In verse 17-22, the reader learns that some have plenty of food and drink while others have little. Some are drunk before their brothers and sisters even arrive. Clearly, some of the Corinthians are more affluent than others. They can afford more food and, because they do not have to work all day, can begin fellowship earlier. These folks, Paul says, have homes in which they could eat and drink before coming to the assembly.

It appears from the apostle’s description of their “table” that some of the Corinthians are allowing their social distinctions to dictate their behavior to one another rather allowing Christ’s behavior to be their guide.

Paul has dire admonition for the Corinthians’ table practice. In 11:17, the apostle claims that their Lord’s Supper celebration is actually doing more harm than good to the community. Paul accuses the sated and drunk of despising God’s church and shaming those who have nothing (11:22).

Before we are too critical of these wealthy believers, though, we should remember that they are behaving according to acceptable social norms. It was expected that those who had more money and power would display their wealth by consuming more food (and better food at that) and by enjoying certain benefits of their status, like gathering for fellowship with those of their same social class. In fact, to maintain one’s status in the upper echelon required displaying wealth and catering to others with whom an alliance could secure honor for one’s household.

The Corinthian believers who have the means to get drunk, to eat their fill, and to live in their own homes are behaving no differently than anyone else in their same social position. And that is the problem.

They have joined a community in which the scandal of the cross has reconfigured the social barriers between slave and free, advantaged and disadvantaged. They profess faith in a Lord, who, though having status equal to God, chose to serve all — even those who have nothing. At the communion table, they have been called to remember the Lord’s actions by doing likewise.

In verses 23-26, Paul counters the Corinthians’ behavior by reminding them of the story enacted at the Lord’s Table. This story, Paul warns, is not something that he has concocted, but rather a tradition that he has received “from the Lord” (11:23).

It is significant that this tradition begins not with the prayer and the breaking of the bread, but a step earlier in the story. Most English translations of verse 23 depict the setting of the story as follows: “on the night when he was betrayed he took bread.” The verb rendered here as “betrayed” is paradidomi. The verb simply means to hand over or to pass on, as it does in 11:2 with the passing on of traditions. Because the verb can also be used in the context of being handed over to the authorities, it can connote being arrested. The common English translation of this text recalls the night when Judas handed Jesus over, thus, betraying him.

Paul uses the term paradidomi in reference to Jesus’ death elsewhere. According to Romans 4:25, Jesus was “handed over for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Furthermore, the apostle claims that God did not spare his own Son but gave him up (paradidomi) for us all (Romans 8:32). In Romans, it is clear that God is the one who is giving Jesus over to death.

In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Richard Hays links Paul’s use of the term paradidomi to Isaiah.1 In the Greek version called the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX), Isaiah 53:6 LXX reads, “and the Lord gave him up for our sins.” Likewise Isaiah 53:12b LXX, “and he bore the sins of many, and on account of their iniquities he was handed over.” Paul’s language, according to Hays, deliberately echoes God’s actions toward the suffering servant.

Beginning the story in 1 Corinthians 11:23 with this language should not serve as a reminder that Jesus was handed over by Judas — a tradition that Paul does not cite elsewhere — but as a reminder that Jesus was handed over by God for our sins. To echo Paul’s language in Romans, a better interpretation of this opening phrase might be, “on the night on which God handed Jesus over for our sins.”2 God is an active character in this cosmic drama. The same God who called this motley crew to be a church is the God who did not spare his own Son (Romans 8:32).

Apparently, the Corinthians have believed that Christ died for their sins (15:1-2). There is every reason to believe that they are also recalling the words of 11:23-25 when they partake the bread and the cup in the midst of their fellowship meal together. Their behavior, which has reinforced society’s social distinctions in the body of Christ, has demonstrated that the believers are not modeling their actions on the obedience of Jesus, who was obedient unto death (cf. Philippians 2:1-11).

Jesus’ words include the phrase, “Do this in remembrance of me.” “Do this.” Remembering Jesus rightly demands a willingness to relinquish one’s high status to stand in solidarity with those who have nothing.

Rather than reinforcing social distinctions, following Jesus debunks them. Any celebration of the Lord’s Supper that fails to exemplify the scandalous message of the cross is not the Lord’s Table at all.

Finally, Paul reminds the audience in verse 26 that their actions at the table are an act of proclamation. The act of all coming to the table — without social class or other distinctions — is a scandalous act. The witness of the Lord’s Table is a tableau of what the cross makes possible. The church is called to this proclamation “until he comes.”

As the church today collectively remembers the death of Jesus, we should also examine our table practices and ask ourselves whether what we are practicing is indeed the Lord’s Table — a table where all are welcomed and our fellowship proclaims the scandalous message of God’s grace.


1 Richard B. Hays, 1 Corinthians (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997).

2 Ibid.