Lectionary Commentaries for April 17, 2014
Maundy Thursday

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

Melinda Quivik

The pattern for worship on Maundy Thursday is pivotal for understanding the preaching on this day.

Lent ends today, and what begins is the first of the Three Days liturgy that constitutes the bridge between Lent and the Resurrection: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Vigil of Easter. Together they lead us into the core of Christian faith, beginning with a focus on repentance and the servanthood of Jesus.

Because Lent has been a time of repentance and deepening faith through increased prayer, giving, and fasting, the Gathering includes Confession of Sin and Forgiveness, the Word includes the readings and sermon plus foot-washing and intercessory prayer, and following the Meal, the worship space is stripped of the trappings that can be taken away.

The most important statement of this day is the incomprehensible love of God in Christ Jesus. Today the journey into the heart of our faith begins with a bald and uncompromising look at ourselves. In contrast with the example Jesus sets for us (disrobing, kneeling, washing, insisting on his servanthood) we see our own inability to let this happen.

“You will never wash my feet” is an attempt to stay away, keep a distance, insist on my lack of need, assert my strength to carry on without the Great Servant who is the rabbi and shepherd, who stays silent before his accusers and leaves us with his body and blood. The stark look at ourselves, which has been undertaken throughout Lent in prayer and almsgiving and self-denial of all kinds, on this day comes to a head. When we look at ourselves as Peter, with pride splayed out for all to observe, we find ourselves, then, grateful that along with Peter, Christ Jesus teaches us to let our feet be washed.

This servanthood comes through in the reading from John, including: 1) a contrast between two ways in which disciples did not comprehend him (Judas will betray him; Peter does not want Jesus to wash him) and 2) Jesus’ response to these failures to “know” what he knew by washing the disciples feet and leaving them with the command to “love one another.” Jesus’ response to the ignorance and failures of his closest friends is to serve and love them, demonstrating his relationship, as well, with us.

For some churches — Brethren and Mennonites, for example — foot-washing has sacramental power as an action instituted by Jesus. But even for those churches that have not yet embraced foot-washing, this day is the time to begin. It is a vital way to know Jesus.

In a strong sense, foot-washing is a metaphor for Confession of Sin and on this day establishes in personal and unequivocal action the astonishing welcome Jesus offers to we who are, in our failings and deceits, not at all pleasant creatures. The preaching on this day — when Jesus’ example shows us God’s care for one of the least attractive, most avoided, often misshapen parts of the body — is called upon to lift up the great generosity of God’s compassion, for what is repentance if not the uncovering, the exposure, of our unattractive parts? To be blunt, it is as uncomfortable for most of us to bare our feet and let a stranger wash them as it is to speak the truth about our captivity to sin.

We do not know what the Gospel writer’s community needed to hear or how foot-washing was understood among them. Some scholars have suggested that for some early Christian communities, foot-washing might have been an initiatory practice along with baptism or in place of it.1 Perhaps the message we might glean is to remember that, among the many Christian communities following the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, a variety of worship practices was known. We might ask whether foot-washing itself was Jesus’ intent in this story or whether it was meant to serve as a metaphor for the care of others.

However we answer that question, whether the liturgy bypasses or includes foot-washing, the sermon ought to draw a parallel between God’s willingness to hear our sin and forgive us and God’s willingness to hold our feet and wash them. If foot-washing is anything, it is a vibrant picture of our relationship to the one who created us and forgives and leads us day by day.

Our rebellion is the same as Peter’s words: “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” These words are those of someone who is appalled and outraged. (Beware the inflection used in this reading! Peter’s question comes off with differing meanings depending on which words are emphasized. Note how the meaning shifts if the emphasis is on “you” or “feet” or “my” or if the strongest word is “wash.” Reading has theological implications and can signal to the assembly the theme of the sermon.)

Some in the assembly may side with Peter: “You will never wash my feet!” However, I have known faithful church-goers who — once invited to foot-washing while being given license to decline — experienced a desire growing in them to try it … next year. Giving people the opportunity to come forward both to be washed and to wash someone else — even in the simplest, least elaborate way — can be faith-changing.

But even for those who look forward to Maundy Thursday foot-washing each year (I know children who especially love it), the preacher has an opportunity to remind everyone that this discomfort is precisely what Jesus calls us to offer up daily: our discomfort with baring our need and exposing ourselves to the needs of others.

The sermon on this day needs to circle round the themes of repentance (our action) and Jesus’ love (God’s action). We are more apt to leave worship on this day with a clearer understanding of servanthood if we are brought to see ourselves as the disciples whose feet Jesus washes in John’s story and who, like us, are called to yield.


Martin Connell, “Nisi Pedes, Except for the Feet: Foot-washing in the Community of John’s Gospel,” Worship 70, no. 6 (Nov 1996): 517-531. Connell pays special attention to the various versions of 13:10.

First Reading

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

Roger Nam

On Maundy Thursday, we come to the Exodus account of the Passover.

An initial reading of the instructions for Passover in Exodus 12 displays several terms familiar to Christian communities of faith: lamb, blood, Passover, firstborn, judgments, etc.

Because of the gift of our New Testament, all of these words are wonderfully replete with theological meaning. But I ask you, Working Preacher, as you study this text, to set aside the lens of Pauline Christology. Instead, I invite you to examine the text from the perspective of a typical household in ancient Israel.

Long after the exodus event, these Passover instructions continued to circulate to many generations in ancient Israel. The Passover quickly became a sacred text to the Israelites. A public reading of “Torah” compels both Josiah (2 Kings 22:8) and Ezra (Nehemiah 8:2-3) to lead their communities in new and bold ways.

Undoubtedly, the specific instructions for Passover were a crucial component of Israelite life. Just like our Christmas and Easter traditions, every Israelite would have a collection of memories of their experienced Passover traditions, occurring on the tenth day of the first month of the Hebrew year.

God commanded the Israelites to take a one year-old lamb without blemish. I suspect the lamb without blemish would have been identifiable as Passover-suitable from its birth. If this was the case, then the remembrance of the Passover festival was not restricted to the tenth of the first month, but rather hints that the Passover infiltrated the seemingly mundane life of raising the lamb.

For the entire year leading to the Passover, every feeding and every aspect of care allowed the family member the opportunity to remember that this lamb may be preserved for the Passover. In many ways, the Passover was to be remembered throughout the year, merely culminating in the Passover celebration.

The condition in verse four is powerful, “If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one.” This simple accommodation widens the worshipping community to those who have economic hardship. The act of sharing the lamb with smaller families (such as a family of one?) enacts the cycle receiving and dispensing of grace to share in their remembrance. I wonder on the implicit morality demonstrated to the young children of Israel, as they saw households joined in this celebration.

The meal is unique. In partaking of the lamb, no leftovers are allowed. The instructions give an urgency to the meal, eating while ready to go. Of course, most parents know that children often cannot be convinced of any necessary urgency in meals. I wonder how the children would respond to such commands, as well as the accompanying explanation of the patriarchs or matriarchs of the household recounting the frenetic activity of the families during the Exodus narrative.

Verse twelve declares that the punishment of God on the nation of Egypt, an incredibly rich, powerful, and long lasting dynasty, would be swift thereby revealing the judgment of God. But verse thirteen states that the blood of the lamb will save the household. According to Torah, blood is life and consequently blood is redemptive of life (Leviticus 17:11-14). The agrarian-minded Israelites readily understood blood as the very core component of the living.

Interestingly, Exodus 12:13 gives us the theological detail, “The blood is a sign for you,” referring to the people of Israel. The blood is not for God to identify the houses, for God already knows the divine promise for protection and its application. But by using the blood as a sign, the people can know and see this reminder that God will deliver his promise.

Now, look at the passage again, this time with the understanding of the theology of the New Testament. Remember, the earliest Christian community was a Jewish community. They were a people steeped in tradition and ritual, and they understood the gravity of the Passover, as presented here as well as in Leviticus 23. By the providence of the genetics, the lamb was likely identified from birth as a Passover lamb, nourished and raised for the special day of remembrance for a community. The lamb was to be shared across normal economic lines, thus bringing the nourishment of the meal and the protective powers of the blood to identify and protect a unified community.

And this activity was to be carried out every year, from the tenth day of the first month in order that all generations may share in the joy of the Lord, the forgiveness of sins, and miraculous deliverance from the blood of the lamb. In this sense, the Passover was not a singular event in the course of a year, but the culmination of a year’s worth of continual activity in raising this lamb and remembering the deliverance of God during a people’s time of need. For the New Testament community, this Jewish Passover provides the theological foundation for understanding the Lord’s Supper; for by the blood of the lamb, we are delivered from Egypt.

Soli Deo gloria.


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

James Limburg

Why is it called “Maundy Thursday?”

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.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Brian Peterson

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

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

It isn’t as though the pericope, as it stands, offers meager material. There is plenty here to ponder and proclaim. One good place to begin is with the wording of verse 23. How should we understand and translate, both in Bibles and in liturgy, the verb (paradideto) that describes what happened to Jesus on that night?1 The story we get when we translate the verb as “betrayed,” as in most English Bible translations and most versions of the liturgy, is that this night is primarily about human treachery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


1 See Brian Peterson, “What Happened on ‘The Night’? Judas, God, and the Importance of Liturgical Ambiguity.” Pro Ecclesia 20 (2011): 363-383.