Lectionary Commentaries for March 24, 2016
Maundy Thursday

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

Cláudio Carvalhaes

Here we are in the midst of Holy Week, the most dramatic time of the Christian faith.

In one week we go from glory to Glory with everything else in between. The variety of celebrations in our churches goes from a highly staged drama throughout the week to an absolute dismissal or carelessness about these liturgical dates. I grew up in Brazil not observing Ash Wednesday, or Maundy Thursday, or even Holy Friday. We went from Christmas straight to Easter. Everything else in between was deemed Roman Catholic, thus it had to be denied.

It was my adviser, the Episcopalian priest Jaci C. Maraschin, who taught me the richness of liturgy and the importance of this week. He used to take me to wonderful services during the week with fantastic worship, and I started to love it. Walking around the block on Palm Sunday, Tenebrae Service perhaps on Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Saturday of Alleluia, and Easter Sunday became one of the most regular liturgical seasons for me. One week to go from self-enclosed rituals to world changing events, from reflecting only on myself to reflecting on God and back to myself. It is an intense week of self-discovery.

This week has its own pace, filled with distinct feelings. To reenact these feelings is a fantastic experience for the faithful. The glory and joy of Palm Sunday quickly turns into lamenting at Wednesday’s Tenebrae, the sadness and anxieties of Maundy Thursday, the hopelessness of Good Friday, the Alleluias of Saturday, and the Gloria of Easter Sunday.

But today we are at Maundy Thursday. There is something strange about today. Our Jesus is saying and doing strange things, declaring that he is going places nobody can go. At the same time, we see the disciples learning about a potent symbol of the Christian faith: the towel. In the early Christian days, when people were invited to a meal, after walking through dirty roads, they were greeted by somebody at the door with a towel, a basin, and water to wash the feet and the hands of the guests. The person at the door was a fundamental part of the meal even though this person never participated in the meal. Usually a nameless slave was the one who made meals possible, exactly like our societies today where the poor, the undocumented, the marginalized are the ones who harvest our food, who clean our houses, who do all of the hidden services of our society so we can have the things that make our lives happen.

When Jesus wraps his waist with a towel, he shocks his disciples. Peter can’t understand it because Jesus was mirroring the work of an insignificant slave. He says something like this: “Are you kidding my Lord, are you going to wash my feet? No way! This is way too embarrassing. You cannot do that, this is the work of slaves, of servers, of those who we don’t care and are supposed to keep our hierarchical class system functioning.” But Jesus insists and says: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Perhaps saying: “unless you take the position of those at the bottom of society, you cannot see me, claim you know me or do what this mission is all about.” And Peter, in his usual exaggerated way says: “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” You gotta love Peter! It is either/or but in all ways, fullness is required! A towel, a basin and water: markers of the mission of the church. Nothing more, nothing less.

After that perhaps embarrassing moment, with Jesus touching the disciples’ feet, they all go back to the table and Jesus asks them if they knew what that was all about. He says that they are right to call him Teacher and Lord but nothing would matter if they didn’t do exactly the same thing to others. “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” Many of us have forgotten this blessing. There is an ordinance (a sacrament?) right there for all of us to follow! But we found a way around it and turned it into Jesus best practices, Jesus’ cute little gesture, another important moment of Jesus niceness.

Beyond that we can’t take it. We can barely even wash the feet of our people in our worship services much less do it in real life. Pope Francis washed the feet of people in prison on Maundy Thursday, people from various faith traditions! Imagine this: our churches actually hearing the gospel and going out to wash the feet of the homeless of our cities, the feet of the native, of the undocumented, of the incarcerated. Oh there would be a lot of black feet to kiss that is for sure! Surely we can’t stand that. We’d rather stay with either a bloody Jesus image or an empty cross so we can use it as a shield against our confortable self-enclosed life styles, our nice detachment from the bottom of society and against God’s wrath.

Maundy Thursday/Holy Thursday holds a mandatum, i.e., the commandment of Jesus Christ to go wash somebody’s feet. We are talking about a commandment not a choice. The washing of feet has the potential to revamp the structures of class society, turning upside down the location of the value of one’s humanity! The washing of feet is the caring of somebody’s body, the materiality of someone’s Spirit, the flesh of someone’s life who dreams, desires, hopes and lives. As we obey the commandment to touch someone else, the washing means to care for the fullness of someone’s life. The other gospel narrates the foot washing as part of the Lord’s Supper. Thus at every Eucharistic table, there must be a basin with baptismal waters! Take (feet, bread, and wine), wash, bless, eat! Or take (feet, bread, and wine), eat, bless, wash! All the senses felt, perceived, honored! God fully there! Restoring people’s humanity and honor! Somebody fully cared, attended, and society fully transformed! Because it is only after the washing of the feet that Good Friday and Easter Sunday will make sense. Get prepared for real Christianity: all you need is a towel, a basin and some water (better if not privatized). Go and serve!

First Reading

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

William Yarchin

In the story of the Exodus out of Egypt, this lesson is key.

It marks the place in the story where God begins to act decisively. Even though God has already brought nine plagues upon Egypt, nothing has changed for the Israelites to this point: they are still in Egypt, in bondage. According to the immediately preceding chapter 11, God directed Moses to tell the Israelites to get ready. The next visitation upon Egypt, God said, will be different from all the previous plagues, because this time the result will be freedom from Pharaoh and departure from Egypt.

The importance of this turning point is underscored by a detail in the lesson we usually skip over: God says that this month in which the Passover deliverance event takes place, from now on, is to be the beginning of the calendar year for the Israelites.

In the Abrahamic faiths, chronological reckoning begins from what is considered the decisive point in history after which nothing remains the same. In Christendom, calendar-reckoning begins with the birth of Christ; in the Islamic world it begins with the Hijra, Muhammed’s flight from Mecca to Medina; in Judaism it begins here, at the deliverance out of Egypt. In all three cases, chronological reckoning began at that point where God was perceived to begin creating a community of redemption.

In the case of Moses and the Israelites, our lesson spotlights that moment when God began to shape the Israelites into a community by an act of redemption. In the preceding chapters God had spoken through Moses against the enslavement of the Israelites under the political regime of Egypt.

Now, this decisive act of deliverance will testify to the God of Israel as the supreme divine power active in this world, because this is the only God who acts on behalf of the enslaved and the oppressed. None of the gods of Egypt can prevent this from happening (“on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments”). They were divine sponsors of the oppression, yet they are powerless before the true God.

Note: according to our lesson, it is not merely God’s action against the Egyptian system of oppression that forms the community of Israel. In addition to experiencing God’s redemption, Israel becomes the people of God also by remembering it, by memorializing it.

God tells Moses here to instruct the Israelites to mark the beginning of their history as the people of God by coming together in communion over a memorial meal (verse 14 — “it is a zikkaron,” memorial). Why a zikkaron “throughout your generations”? It is not as though the Israelites who themselves experienced this deliverance would have any trouble remembering it.

Rather, a memorial ritual is for the sake of later generations who were not there to personally experience the transformation from slavery to freedom, from death to life. Hundreds, even thousands of years later, the ritual actions and the recited words bring the ritual celebrants back to that moment of deliverance. That moment long ago when we were slaves in the land of Egypt, and the Lord delivered us with a mighty hand. In that ritual remembrance, time and space dissolve just for a moment. All God’s people are united in the memory of what God did on behalf of everyone against the gods of slavery and oppression.

The Gospel record conspicuously associates the death of Jesus with this Passover memorial. In the New Covenant way of memorializing, the death of Jesus is woven into the memory of divine action bringing deliverance. And, like in Egypt, we exist in this world as the people of God not solely by virtue of the death of Jesus, but also in our remembering of it.

Like the Jewish Passover, the ritual words and actions of Christian Eucharist bring celebrants, even thousands of years later, back through space and time to that moment where God acted on behalf of our redemption from death. That’s why, in reporting what Jesus told his disciples, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19), the Gospel record uses a Greek word in the same semantic field as the Septuagint translation of Exodus 12.

Thanks to the power of that zikkaron, the atoning death of Jesus is for us no mere doctrine. Face-to-face with his tortured body and his shed blood, the reality of our own personal mortality is united with his, and we can be set free from our enslavement to the fear of death. But this deliverance remains real to us only as we are faithful to remember it together, as our lesson instructs.


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

Amanda Benckhuysen

At first glance, a psalm of thanksgiving may seem like an ill-suited choice for Maundy Thursday.

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!

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Richard Carlson

Many preachers will immediately recognize this text in terms of its liturgical use.

This text serves as the basis for the words of institution in the Eucharistic liturgy of many denominations. To understand Paul’s inclusion of this early Christian tradition here, it is important to focus beyond just these four verses. Consideration should also be given to what is going on within the Corinthian church causing Paul to write these words to them and to how these verses relate to Paul’s broader theology regarding Christ’s death.

Throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul is dealing with fractured communal unity caused by the attitudes and actions of various groups within the Corinthian congregation. The letter’s overarching theme involves his appeal that there not be schisms among the Corinthians, but that they be continuously united in the same attitude and the same resolve (1 Corinthians 1:10). When it comes to celebrating the Lord’s Supper, however, that is clearly not the case. In fact, Paul goes so far to say that they are not eating the Lord’s Supper when they come together (1 Corinthians 11:20).

So what is the Corinthians’ problem? Essentially, the social realities and patterns of first century Greco-Roman interactions are being played in the Corinthians’ worship life. Unlike other first century, social associations, this church was not socially homogenous. Instead, there were members from across the social spectrum: well to do, slaves, manual laborers, women, and men (see Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 1:16,26-28; 7:20-24; 11:3-9). Unfortunately, people did not check these significant social differences at the door when they all came together for worship. On the one hand, the gathering of the whole church coming together would have been in the house of a wealthy member. On the other hand, not all were gathering at the same time. Those on the higher end of the social spectrum were able to arrive earlier while those on the lower end (slaves and manual labors) could only arrive after their responsibilities were fulfilled. Upon arriving, the so-called “haves” would have been seated in the host’s dining area which typically could accommodate about nine people in a reclining position. As was the social norm, they would have been served the better food and wine because they were on the same social level as their host. Later, when the so-called “have nots” arrived, they would have had to occupy other open space in the patron’s house such as the atrium, and either they ate leftovers or nothing at all (1 Corinthians 11:21-22,33-34). Because the unity of the community (which is integral to the reality of the Lord’s Supper) is severely fractured by such social observances, Paul feels the need to chastise the “haves” among the Corinthians (see 11:17, 22, 27-30).

To reunite this fractured community, Paul returns them to the true meaning and reality of the Lord’s Supper. In the previous chapter, Paul highlighted how the cup involves participation in the blood of Christ, and the bread involves participation in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16). By this he means that in the supper we experience anew the salvific reality of Christ’s death for us (also recalling what he had said about Christ’s death in 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:8; 5:6-8; 6:19-20; 8:11-12). Beginning in 1 Corinthians 11:23 he holds up the foundational tradition of this sacred meal which he first received and which he had handed to the Corinthians. When he says that he received it from the Lord (11:23a), he is not referring to a mystical vision he experienced. Rather he means that this tradition’s origin is rooted in Jesus’ own words and actions.

Unfortunately, almost all of our biblical translation and our subsequent liturgical traditions make a grave error in rendering Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:23b. The common wording is “on the night in which he was betrayed.” This wording puts the meal’s initial focus on Judas’ treachery. The issue at hand involves the Greek word paradidomi which is best translated as “hand over” rather than “betray”. This word forms the bedrock of Christian tradition regarding Jesus’ death. It is used over fifty times in the gospels in association with Jesus’ passion. It is the exact same word which denotes the parallel actions of Judas, the religious authorities, and Pilate. Its use in Jesus’ passion is rooted in its use in Isaiah 53:6,12. Paul uses this same word in relationship to Jesus’ death in Romans 4:25; 8:32; Galatians 2:20. Thus its meaning in 1 Corinthians 11:23 does not refer to Judas’ betrayal. Rather it refers to God’s plan in which Jesus was handed over to die for us and Jesus’ faithfulness to this plan. Hence 11:23b should be read as “on the night in which he was handed over” so that the initial Eucharistic focus is not on Judas’ treachery but on God’s plan to enact salvation for us through Jesus’ death.

While parallel traditions are evident in the last supper scenes of the synoptic gospels (see Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20), Paul’s rendering is the only one in which remembrance is linked to both the bread and the cup. Rooted in his Judaic background, Paul is stressing remembrance as much more than our memory activity. Remembrance includes both our recollection of God’s past saving work for God’s people and the realization that we participate in that past saving work of God. So in the Lord’s Supper we are not just recalling how Jesus died for us. Through this sacred meal we are also participating anew in the Christ’s death for us. This is parallel to Paul’s understanding of baptism as our inclusion into Christ’s death so that we were co-crucified with Christ (see Romans 6:3-8; Galatians 2:20-21).

While 1 Corinthians 11:26 was probably not part of the original tradition Paul received, it does seal Paul’s instructions on the Lord’s Supper. For Paul the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is both participation in Christ’s death and proclamation of Christ’s death. This proclamation was the foundation of the Corinthian community in the first place (recalling 2:1-5). Hence their oneness established through the proclamation of Christ’s death is to be manifested in their celebration of the meal through which the many are the one body who died for them (10:17). Thus for Paul to discern the body through participating in this meal involves discerning both the body of Christ via the bread AND the unity that all members share as the one body of Christ via the proclamation of Christ’s death.