Lectionary Commentaries for April 2, 2015
Maundy Thursday

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

Audrey West

His hour had come…. He loved them to the end.… You do not know now … but later you will understand.1

Poets speak of circles of time, rivers of time, or the time before time. Physicists understand time as a construct that keeps everything from happening at once. Storytellers get to arrange time, sometimes condensing and sometimes expanding it, so that it conveys their stories’ most important truths. The disciples, though, have no such luxury.

Like most of us in our day-to-day existence, they are constrained by time’s linearity, living each moment as it occurs, one event after another. Unlike us, however, they lack the advantage of knowing the end of this particular story before it happens. While we experience Maundy Thursday from the perspective of both sides of the cross — in our liturgical calendar Good Friday has not yet happened, even though we always live in the reality of Easter — the disciples must make sense of events only as they unfold.

So, when Jesus washes their feet and wipes them with a towel, it is understandable if the disciples do not quite get the point.

Washing usually takes place before the meal, not in the middle of it. Masters usually have their feet washed by their servants, or teachers by their students, not the other way around. And, since this is not a Passover meal2, the disciples might not have expected an extended period of teaching or remembrance as typically happens on that occasion. Events are not unfolding in a way that makes sense to them. No wonder Peter blurts out, “You will never wash my feet!” (John 13:8).

However, just as one prepares for an upcoming meal by washing the hands, so Jesus prepares his disciples for what lies ahead of them by washing their feet. As John narrates the episode, subsequent events give meaning to present realities. Jesus knows what is coming (and we know, too, having had 2000 years to reflect on the matter), and he wants his followers to be ready: (1) Jesus will die (and live); (2) the disciples will live (and die).

Jesus will die (and live)

Several verbal threads tie this passage to Jesus’ death:

  • “His hour had come…” (13:1). Up to this point in the Gospel, the hour has not yet come (2:4; 7:30; 8:20), but it persistently beckons from the future, drawing the present forward to its climax. We learn that “the hour” will be a time of death (16:2) and a time of glory (17:1), encompassed within that kairos moment when Jesus is “lifted up from the earth” (a reference to both the crucifixion and the resurrection), drawing all people to himself (12:32).
  • “…to depart from this world and go to the Father” (13:1). The verb translated as “depart” is metalambano.
  • “He loved them to the end” (13:1). This same night, according to John’s narrative, Jesus will teach his disciples that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (15:13). For this reason the Father loves him, “because I lay down my life in order to take it up again… I have power to lay it down and I have power to take it up again.” (10:17-18). The verbs translated “lay down” and “take up” are the same verbs that refer, respectively, to Jesus “taking off” and “putting on” his robe (13:4, 12).
  • Further, Jesus’ robe (imation = garment; 13:4, 12) is an object of special interest at the time of the crucifixion (19:2, 5, 23, 24). Might his robe symbolize something crucial about his identity and mission?
  • “He loved them to the end” (telos; 13:1). When he is ready to die, Jesus proclaims, “it is finished” (19:30; John uses the cognate verb, teleo¯). This is the end, both in the sense of the final act and in the sense of the ultimate purpose, and its meaning is love.
  • At another dinner, only a few days before, Mary washes Jesus’ feet with perfume and wipes them with her hair (12:1-3; cf. 11:2, where the narrator references the event ahead of time, connecting it to the raising of Lazarus). When Judas complains, Jesus speaks about the necessity of his own burial (12:7). His words linger in the background here. Just as Mary prepared Jesus for his upcoming death, he now prepares his disciples for their upcoming life.

The Disciples will live (and die)

Jesus states explicitly that his actions on this night are an example for the disciples. “You also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (13:15). If washing feet is the particular example, the wider principle quickly becomes clear: “Just as I have loved you, so also should you love one another,” (13:34).

It is on account of love that Jesus’ washes his disciples’ feet, and it is on account of Jesus that his followers will be able to live into that love with one another — whether or not they fully understand or are able to see the outcome.

It may be useful for the preacher to consider what, exactly, is Jesus calling his followers to do? To display an attitude of humble service, such as Jesus has demonstrated by washing the disciples’ feet? To treat one another in such a way that love is more important than life itself? To have one’s own life and the life of a congregation or community modeled after the life of Jesus? To treat one another with love even if it is difficult, or it runs counter to prevailing norms, or if we cannot see the outcome, or even if doing so does not entirely make sense? 

Whether we wash in it or drink from it, the water that Jesus offers is living water, given freely to his followers in his life and through his death. The inclusio that frames today’s pericope is a reminder that the ultimate source and final purpose of this water of life is love: he loved them to the end (13:1) so that we might love one another (13:34).

We may not recognize, in the moment, how it all fits together, but the promise is sure: “later you will understand.” (13:7; cf. 16:4). 


1 This commentary was first published on the site on April 9, 2009.

2 Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, in which the Last Supper is a Passover meal, in the Gospel of John this meal takes place on the preceding day.  Jesus will be crucified at about the same time that the lambs are sacrificed in the Temple in preparation for the Passover meal.

First Reading

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

Ralph W. Klein

Passover in the Old Testament is at the heart of the Exodus experience.1

The Pharaoh who did not know Joseph (Exodus 1:8) stubbornly refused the demands of Moses and Aaron to “let my people go.” The tenth and climactic plague, the slaughter of the firstborn, finally forced Pharaoh’s hand. The threatened Egyptian firstborn represent all classes, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on the throne to the firstborn of the female slave, not to mention the firstborn of all the livestock (11:5).

At midnight the tenth plague struck, involving all the firstborn, including even the firstborn of the prisoners (12:29). The Pharaoh went into crisis mode and told Moses and Aaron to leave at once and he adds an unusual parting request: Go, worship Yahweh, and bring a blessing on me too (12:31-32). The narrator does not pause to give all the gory details of the plague, but remembers instead one central purpose of all subsequent Israelite worship — to get a blessing for Pharaoh, heretofore their biggest enemy. So Israel is to pray for its enemies, just as Jesus would later say, “Love your enemies, and do good to those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27, 35).

Passover Explained
Right in the midst of these dramatic actions in Exodus, the narrator pauses and gives instructions for the observance of Passover in Exodus 12:1-13, followed by instructions for the feast of Unleavened Bread (12:14-20). Scholars wrestle with the complicated background of these festivals, but one thing is clear in our pericope: Israel’s escape from the tenth plague was no accident. Every spring from now on, in the first month on the fourteenth day of the month, each household is to set aside a kid (either a lamb or a young goat), butcher it, roast it, and eat it — more or less on the fly: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, staff in hand, eaten with haste (12:11). Who wants to stay in Egypt when freedom is just across the Reed Sea?

But it is the blood of that lamb that makes the difference. It is to be smeared on the two doorposts and the lintel of the doorway as a sign (12:7). The blood serves as a sign first of all for the Israelites, but more importantly a sign for Yahweh, who will see the blood and pass over each Israelite house. The rainbow in Genesis 9:14-15 is such a double sign too. First, it is a reminder to God of his everlasting covenant with Noah and all his heirs, just in case they might think that God has forgotten them. But of course it is not only God who sees that rainbow; we also see its seven colors and remind ourselves that God never forgets us. There is no threat for Israelites in that tenth plague. The blood of the lamb means life for them.

The Passover according to Exodus 12:48-49 was an inclusive festival. While no uncircumcised male could participate, resident aliens were welcome at the feast once they were circumcised. There is one admission ticket for native Israelites and resident aliens alike.

Passover and Lord’s Supper
Passover, of course, remains a central ritual in Judaism to this day, but Christians remember that in the Synoptic Gospels at least it was at a Passover celebration that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. This meal too means liberation for all who partake, freedom from sin, freedom from the world, and freedom from all demonic powers.

As the Lord’s Supper, it is open to all whom the Lord invited, all the baptized, who remember that Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. The blood of the one who hosts this banquet means that God will pass over the sins of all the communicants. As often as we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. The infinite One meets us in these finite elements: bread and wine/grape juice.

At the Old Testament Passover, the narrator said: When your children ask you what you mean by this observance, just tell them that we are remembering the night when Yahweh passed over all the Israelite houses (Exodus 12:26-27). That’s when we became God’s liberated people. And so at our Christian Eucharist, Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, we tell each other, especially our children, just why we celebrate this little banquet so frequently. It is not blood on our doorposts, but the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Jesus that says, “You are free!” It’s so real you can taste it.

All the baptized are welcome here — every age, every class, every gender, every sexual orientation, every race, sinners included. In fact, sinners — long-time-member sinners or new-to-the-faith sinners — are invited to be first in line. As we feast at this table, we hunger for those who have hurt us, who speak ill of us, or who even hate us. Can our healing of ourselves at this table lead us to pray that God would bring health to all of our enemies as well?

Our Eucharists catch us on the fly, between Saturday and Monday, or in this week between Passion/Palm Sunday and Easter. Our stay at the table is short term, just as Jesus stayed in the grave short term. We are soon on our way back into our daily life where we live out our freedom, for others.


This commentary was first published on this site on March 28, 2013.


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

James Limburg

Why is it called “Maundy Thursday?”1

That was my question as I began looking at these texts for the Thursday of Holy Week. You’d think I would know the answer to that question, having attended Lutheran Maundy Thursday services all my life and having taught religion and biblical languages at a college and at various seminaries.

But I didn’t know. It was of some comfort to me to learn that my wife, a smart, lifelong Lutheran and in fact the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, didn’t know the answer to the question either!

And now, thanks to some investigation and BibleGateway.com giving easy access to the Latin Vulgate translation, I have found the answer. It’s right there in the Latin translation of John 13:34, one of the texts for the day: Mandatum novum do vobis … With a silent word of thanks to a high school Latin teacher, the answer to the question became crystal clear: “a new commandment (mandatum) I give you … ” “Maundy” is derived from mandatum, Latin for “commandment.” And the text goes on, “that you love one another.”

Certainly the preacher on this occasion will read and tell the story of these “upper room discourses” of Jesus, as told in the John 13 text. At the heart of these discourses is this new commandment (mandatum novum), which advises the disciples to love one another and adds, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

The preacher will also point out that 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 contains the familiar “words of institution” that are recited each time communion is celebrated. There is “something new” in this text, also. Using language familiar from Old Testament covenant making, Jesus says that he is making a “new covenant” with those present on that occasion.

Two texts for Maundy Thursday remain, each setting of the Eucharist in the context of the celebration of the Passover, that is, looking back at something old. Exodus 12 tells the story of the first Passover and provides directives for enacting and remembering it (“take a lamb … ” and “I will pass over you … ”). Now to the psalm for the celebration of Passover — and for Maundy Thursday — Psalm 116.

Psalm 116 is sung or read each year at Passover celebrations in Jewish homes to this day. The psalm is part of the collection running from 113-118 called the “Egyptian Hallel” (Egyptian praise), centering on the story of the deliverance from Egypt. Note the movement of these psalms: Psalm 113 is a model example of hymn of praise. Psalm 114 is the centerpiece of the collection, reporting the events of the Exodus, “When Israel went out from Egypt … ” As the central act of God’s saving activity, the Exodus is to the Old Testament what the Cross-Resurrection is to the New Testament. Psalm 115 then celebrates this deliverance with a call to praise. Psalm 114 thus tells the story of the nation’s deliverance from bondage and is followed by words of praise (Psalm 115:1,18). Psalm 116 now tells the story of an individual’s deliverance “ … he saved me” (verse 6) and again is followed by words of praise, in Psalm 117.

This Passover psalm also plays a part in the yearly biblical readings of Christian churches, appearing in all three ABC lectionary readings as a text for Maundy Thursday. The Psalm begins with a member of the congregation giving a testimony. In the presence of the gathered people (verses 18-19) this person tells about an answer to prayer.

An aside: in the congregation to which I belong we pray for those who are sick or mourning or otherwise in need of prayer, Sunday by Sunday. But as far as I can remember, I’ve not heard anyone stand up and say, “I know you’ve been praying for me. Now let me tell you how your prayers have been answered.” As Lutherans, it seems to me, we ordinarily leave the giving of such testimonies to our sisters and brothers in the Baptist congregation down the street.

Here the one giving testimony says, in effect, “The Lord has answered my prayer, and I’m going to keep calling on the Lord for the rest of my life!” (verses 1-2 paraphrased)

The one speaking does not give the specifics of the situation out of which he was rescued. It was what we would call a near-death experience (verse 3). As a friend of mine who has survived a brush with death because of cancer said to me recently, “I have stared death in the face!” My friend, like the psalmist, had prayed, “O Lord, I pray, save my life!” (verse 4). And now he stood there before me, very much alive!

Upon reflection, the writer tells what he has learned about God from his experiences. Here are some generalizing statements: the Lord is gracious, righteous and merciful, and watches over ordinary people. Then the psalmist summarizes: “When I was brought low, [the Lord] saved me” (verse 6).

With verse 8, the speaker addresses God directly and in verses 9-10 resolves to continue the walk of faith. Verse 11 is puzzling: does it mean that some in the congregation were not supportive of this individual during the time of trouble?

This last segment fulfills the promise to pray and praise the Lord as it was made in verse 2. Mention of the “cup of salvation” fits well with Passover rituals as well as with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, especially on Maundy Thursday. The Eucharist is an individualization of the good news of salvation for each participant; verse 15 is an affirmation of the worth of each individual. Finally, the one praying resolves to take up a life of service. Then a final Hallelujah (“praise the Lord”) brings the psalm to a close.


This commentary was first published on this site on April 17, 2014.

Second Reading

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.