Lectionary Commentaries for April 9, 2009
Commentary on John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Commentary on Exodus 12:1-4 [5-10] 11-14
Charles L. Aaron, Jr.
The church should reclaim the Passover.
We tend to relegate the Passover to Judaism, considering Lent to be its replacement for the church. The Old Testament is part of our scriptures, and Passover is part of our heritage. Reclaiming Passover might help us see our solidarity with Judaism, as well as teach us some things about our faith that we need to hear.
In reality, however, the church does not do a good enough job of recognizing Lent, so the possibility of reclaiming Passover is small.
Nevertheless, much meaning lies in this text from Exodus for Maundy Thursday. The whole book of Exodus has great value for the church, teaching us that our situation has much to do with being held in captivity. God’s grace is freeing as well as forgiving. With our many addictions, and with the economic, political and cultural forces that ceaselessly try to control us, we need to hear of a God whose will is for us to break free, so that we can become God’s treasured possession and a body of priests to the world (Exodus 19:5-6).
The Passover and subsequent exodus are, of course, two of the defining events of God’s relationship with the people in the Old Testament. The God of the Bible calls people to live in freedom. The instruction to eat the Passover meal with staff in hand and loins girded was a call to be ready to move toward freedom.
Both events were accomplished by God through violence and death. We can never fully explain why God’s grace was accomplished by violence, just as we cannot fully explain the cross with its violence.
We can affirm, however, that on Maundy Thursday, when we celebrate Jesus’ commandment to love one another, the cross and the Passover keep all of our talk of love from becoming sentimental. Something about sin is so tenacious that blood has been shed to free us from its clutches. Even if we can only begin to explain that violence and blood, its reality is a sobering thought.
Looking specifically at this text for worship, we see four themes emerge as edifying instruction for the church:
Any one of the themes, or a combination, would make for an effective sermon on Maundy Thursday, or any time during Lent.
The celebration of Passover marks the beginning of months for the community (Exodus 12:2). In other words, this event reorients the community’s understanding of time. The marking of time begins with acknowledgment of God’s claim on them.
Time is one of God’s gifts, but our relationship with time is ambiguous. Time can become an oppressor. Our time is limited, and we have choices to make about our use of time. Our attitude toward time and our stewardship of time are important for the church.
Do we set aside time to feed our faith? Do we use time productively? Do we recognize the wisdom of the church in setting aside the seasons of the year to highlight different aspects of our relationship to God? Do we let seasons such as Lent and Advent slip by us without gaining the blessings that proper use of them would bestow?
The Passover should be celebrated by the “whole congregation of Israel” (Exodus 12:3, 6). Celebration of Passover is part of God’s agenda to form the people of Israel as a community. Freedom from captivity is only the first step. Chapter 16 of Exodus starts the long process of forming Israel into a community of faith.
On a day in which the church hears Jesus’ new commandment that we should love one another, we can proclaim that our faith builds community and community enables us to build faith. Most people in a congregation will affirm that the sense of community has sustained them during various crises. The community should also feed the faith of the members, including a sense of accountability and even occasional confrontation. That is part of living in community.
The community exists also for ministry to the world. In community we have more resources for alleviating suffering and standing up against injustice than we do as individuals.
In celebrating Passover, families that could not participate with only their own resources were encouraged to join together to enable each other to worship rightly (Exodus 12:4). Through cooperation, no family was left out. The ability to worship did not depend on having resources.
We fulfill this understanding of Passover by such means as making our buildings and our worship accessible, by sharing our resources, and by patience with those who are struggling with their faith. We work to enable all people to worship.
The last verse of the passage helps us interpret the celebration itself. The community of Israel was in constant danger of forgetting its identity, its mission, its purpose. Celebrating Passover reminded Israel that God formed the people by the act of freeing them from captivity.
The church claims Passover, Lent, Maundy Thursday and the sacrament of communion as ways to remember its identity and mission. Without God, we would be slaves to sin. Without God, we would not be capable of loving each other. In a world that constantly wants to stamp us with its way of identifying us, scripture and our ceremonies remind us of who we really are and what our mission in the world is.
Commentary on Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
Robert L. Hubbard, Jr.
A single voice speaks here, drawing me into the psalmist’s experience and, in effect, leading me to compare my own with his.
The voice here:
- is upbeat and hopeful, not remorsefully agonizing over sin
- tells a personal story of rescue in answer to his prayer
- tells the story publicly to other worshipers (and God [verses 16-17]), perhaps at the temple (see verses 18-19)
- moves from a declaration of love for God (verses 1-2), through a moving report about the rescue experience (verses 3-11), to a series of thankful promises (verses 12-15, 18-19)
In short, the psalm has two topics: why the Psalmist loves God, and how he plans to show gratitude. Really? Psalm 116 for Maundy Thursday?
When I first read Psalm 116, I couldn’t quite connect it with Maundy Thursday. I wondered, “What were those people who organized the lectionary thinking?”
But, after further reflection, these topics strike me as being right on target for the occasion. Remember: this is the evening we remember both Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet and his command (Latin, mandatum, hence the English “Maundy”) to love one another. “Love” is the psalmist’s first word, and he commands himself (verses 12-19) to respond to the love of God he’d seen in action.
Two questions arise for me. First, why should I obey Jesus’ command? And second, how shall I carry it out? But with Jesus’ teaching in the background, Psalm 116 provides the answers, appropriately fitting the context of Maundy Thursday.
Now, About Love…
Today, the word “love” has a thousand meanings. I may say that I love my wife, I love enchiladas, I love baseball, I love my job, etc.
Obviously, I don’t love my wife in the same way (and to the same degree) as I do enchiladas, baseball, or my job! In contrast to these varied understandings of “love” today, “love” for the psalmist combines a commitment to enrich an ongoing relationship and a warm feeling of deep affection for the other person (in this case, God).
The psalmist’s love derives from his experience with Yahweh. But what really grabs me in his report is the warm, relational picture the psalmist’s words paint. God has:
- “heard my voice” (verse 1)
- “and my cry for mercy” (or “favor”; verse 4 quotes the simple, wrenching cry, “LORD, save me!”)
- “inclined his ear” (verse 2; alternately, “bends down” in the New Living Translation)
Verse 3 pictures the psalmist terrified in the vise-grip of death — like a swimmer trapped in seaweed, overpowered by a furious undertow.
I’ve experienced undertow and thick seaweed; it’s absolutely horrifying. Once, in the deep end of a summer camp swimming pool, I thought I was drowning. It’s an unforgettable, terrifying moment. My mouth was full of water, my cry for help muffled. “This is it,” I thought.
My experience leads me to imagine the psalmist fatigued from the struggle, his “cry for mercy” a weak, desperate, panicked shout, “LORD, save me!”
The question, of course: Is anybody listening? Crying (“yelling” better captures the Hebrew qara) is futile if no one hears it.
That’s what’s so astounding about God: he “heard my voice.” He must have been listening, his attention undistracted by other things. And, wow! He “inclined his ear.” Imagine what that assumes. God is above the psalmist, as if God were taller or sitting higher than the floundering voice yelling “Help!” And God, as it were, “bends his ear down” to make sure he hears every word.
The words plant a tender, loving image in my mind: an adult bending down, her ear next to the mouth of a small child, to catch clearly its faint, inarticulate whispers.
In that pool long ago, I suddenly felt a strong arm out of nowhere lift me to the surface. And so did the psalmist.
Time to Pay Up!
Without blinking, the psalmist knows that he, so to speak, “owes God a big one” (verse 12). His “Thank you very much!” list includes:
- Raising a celebratory “toast” and shouting something in God’s honor for everyone to hear (verses 13, 18-19)
- Public repayment of vows made to God
- Giving a public sacrifice as thanks (verse 17)
Granted, it’s humanly impossible to “repay” God fully. The bill for rescue is incalculable. As I see it, however, the “big one” should be something God really likes, and it should be something sacrificial.
As I finish pondering Psalm 116, I imagine three blank sheets of paper before me. Written across the top, a few words begin a statement that I am to complete in the space below. The three statements begin with
- “I love the LORD because…”
- “I owe God ‘a big one’ for…”
- “And to show my thanks, I’m going to…”
On the first sheet, I list what about God makes me love him (his love, generosity, forgiveness, healing, and sacrifice on the cross).
On the second sheet, I write down specific moments when, like the psalmist, God bailed me out of big jams.
Together, these two sheets remind me why I should obey Jesus’ command (my first question).
On the third sheet, I tick off my own short list of things I’ll do this week to live out my thanks. It’s my “Thanks-living” menu. This sheet answers my second question.
Now I am ready to face tomorrow — and three days from now.
Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
A friend of mine in seminary told me about one Sunday in his church when they read from the second chapter of Ruth.
In the middle of the reading were the words, “The Lord be with you” (Ruth 2:4). The congregation, trained as they were in liturgical language, immediately interrupted the reading with the unison, “And also with you.” They had only ever heard the words, “The Lord be with you,” as a liturgical call that demanded a response, which they provided.
The epistle lesson for Maundy Thursday, the “words of institution” for the Eucharist, contains words that people hear whenever the Eucharist is served. So, it may surprise them that these words actually come from a New Testament text! The words were well known even in Paul’s day. His introduction, “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,” (1 Corinthians 11:23) are oral tradition words.
Paul had learned these words from Christians before him (who had received them ultimately from the Lord) and was in turn passing them on to the Corinthians. If you compare this passage with the passages detailing the Last Supper in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20), you will see that the Synoptic evangelists also received the same tradition Paul had.
What gets missed in this lectionary reading is the literary context in which these words appear. In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, Paul criticizes the Corinthians for problems associated with their practice of the Lord’s Supper. The Corinthians, it seems, were allowing the divisions that characterized their culture to shape the way they celebrated their common meal. Paul was not happy about it.
Greco-Roman culture was socially stratified, meaning that the population was divided into social levels or strata. Status is always relative: my high status only has meaning when juxtaposed to your low status (or the other way around). People in the Greco-Roman world always knew their status relative to others in the social pecking order. Locating themselves on the relative-status continuum was as natural as breathing.
Virtually all social interaction was shaped by this hierarchy of status. The church at Corinth had members of relatively high status, with the power and wealth that went along with such position, as well as people of relatively low status. This mixing of social strata then posed challenges for the Christians at Corinth.
Relative status in the Greco-Roman world showed itself in ways that might shock modern sensibilities. For instance, if a host had guests for dinner, it was common for guests of high status to be served more and better food and drink than others, and for guests of lower status to be served less food and drink of poorer quality. Differences in status resulted in (many would have said “necessitated”) differences in treatment. While not everyone was happy with these differences, most accepted them as a part of how the world worked.
Social stratification was so taken for granted that it shaped the practice of celebrating the Lord’s Supper at Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 11:17-22, Paul takes the Corinthians to task for what was happening when they met for the Lord’s Supper. The Corinthians observed the Eucharist in conjunction with a common meal, and at that meal social divisions were visible in a way that Paul believed compromised the Gospel. “For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk” (1 Corinthians 11:21).
Different sorts of people (i.e., people of higher or lower status) received different amounts and qualities of food and drink at these common meals. Unless Paul is exaggerating (and he may have been for effect), some people had so much wine that they were drunk, while others had to be content with so little food that they remained hungry.
While this way of behaving might have been “normal” in the culture of Corinth, for Paul it is unacceptable, especially since the Lord’s Supper was intended to demonstrate the unity of the church in the mutual dependence on the grace of God shown in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Paul’s response to this situation was not to abolish social stratification. That task would have been impossible and ultimately out of the control of the Christians at Corinth. Rather, he instructs the Corinthians to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a way that doesn’t marginalize (Paul uses the word “humiliate” 1 Corinthians 11:22) the poor among them. Paul argues that it’s better to eat at home before coming to the common meal than to humiliate the poorer members of the community by eating your fill in front of them.
Instead of turning the Lord’s Supper into an occasion to exhibit social distinctions, the Corinthians needed to be reminded of what the Eucharist is for: remembering Jesus and proclaiming his death until he comes. They ought to partake in the Lord’s Supper in a way that demonstrates their unity rather than their divisions.
Maundy Thursday derives its name from a word in the Latin version of a verse from the Gospel reading for today, John 13:34; “A new commandment (mandatum) I give to you, that you love one another.” This “new commandment” comes at the end of a narrative about Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet; itself a lovely story about how Jesus put himself at the same level (or below) as his disciples.
Whatever else Maundy Thursday is for, it is meant to remind us of our common dependence on God and of our common task of remembering Jesus’ work on our behalf. Distinctions among us, where some of us are deemed to be better or more important than others, are not appropriate to the people of God.
The last verse of today’s passage is cast in the second person plural, emphasizing what we do together when we celebrate the Eucharist: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).
His hour had come… He loved them to the end… You do not know now… but later you will understand.
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 meal1, 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:
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).
1Unlike 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.