Lectionary Commentaries for April 21, 2011
Maundy Thursday

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

David Lose

Some verses of Scripture echo throughout the centuries, drawing us again and again into the story and tradition they represent.

On Maundy Thursday, there are two primary traditions that deserve our attention, and each is connected to just such a resonant line of Scripture. The most familiar begins, “While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread….” And the other, “A new commandment I give you.” The first is associated with the synoptic (and Pauline) accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper; the second with John’s account of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.

Although we are in the “year of Matthew,” it is the Johannine tradition from which the lectionary draws readings for both Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, probably assuming the full reading of the Matthean Passion on Palm/Passion Sunday. Because each lectionary connected with Holy Thursday merits attention, however, after taking up the passage from John, I will also offer brief commentary on the story as it appears in Matthew.

John and the New Commandment
John begins the “second half” of his gospel in chapter 13, and for the next five chapters he will prepare his readers for the event and meaning of the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension (which cannot ultimately be separated in John). The meal John describes is not a Passover Meal in that John’s chronology is geared to have Jesus die on the Day of Preparation for the Passover — indeed, at the moment the Passover lambs are sacrificed — rather than on the Passover itself. The night, then, is not about a new Passover meal, but instead is about a new commandment (mandatum is the Latin word for “commandment” from which “Maundy Thursday” derives). This command institutes a new way of relating to others that is grounded in Jesus’ relationship with the disciples and his Father and that which is shaped by the example he sets.

The passage, indeed the whole of the Johannine Passion, is summed up in the very first verse of the “second book”: “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (13:1). Having set the scene — the festival of the Passover — John tells us two important thing. First, Jesus is in control of this situation. The passion in John is no tragedy but rather the fulfillment and climax of the earthly mission of the Divine Revealer. Second, Jesus’ actions and mission are dictated by love (see John 3:16), expressed in one of the most haunting phrases of Scripture: “having loved his own…, he loved them to the end.”

This, then, is the theme of John’s portrayal of the last supper. It is a love (agape) feast in which Jesus exemplifies the sacrificial love he expects from his disciples in his washing of their feet. He sets for them a pattern of service, of humility, of bearing the burdens of another. At the cross he will institute a new Christian family by commanding two persons not related by blood (his mother and the beloved disciple) to care for each and relate as family because of their bond through him. On this night, he commands that those who would be his followers to serve each other for his sake.

But there may be more at stake in this action than simply setting an example. It may be that the salvation prepared by the Father and accomplished by the Son is in fact being played out right before our eyes. Salvation, in John, comes through God’s embrace of a hostile world, and therefore Jesus’ death on the cross is not for one moment considered defeat or tragedy; rather it is the moment of his triumph and glorification. It is not what we — not what anyone! — would expect, that grace is revealed in suffering, that power is displayed through weakness, that glory is disguised in humiliation. And yet the God Jesus comes to reveal shows up exactly where we would least expect God to be in order to redeem God’s beloved creation from the Enemy that has subjected it to slavery and darkness.

For this reason, discipleship is comprised of embracing an “upside down” understanding of God, grace, and salvation, as the disciples must be cleansed (baptized?) by Jesus so that they may also cleanse others. Their stature, it would appear, comes not through displays of power but servitude, a servitude modeled by Jesus. No wonder Peter is dismayed. He does not expect or, truth be told, need or want a Messiah who comes in humiliation. Yet only if he can revise his expectations of God and receive God hidden in humility can he have any part of Jesus.

What, then, of today’s disciples? Can we see the grace of God embodied in the form of the man hanging on a tree? More to the point on this night, can we step into the upside down picture Jesus offers of abundant life, life that is gained not by grabbing but releasing, not by hoarding but by giving, not by ruling but by serving others, just as we have been served by Jesus? The promise of this reading and night is that we are, in fact, those whom Jesus has called and that those who follow his story to the end will be redeemed to new life in this world and the next.

Matthew and the Promise of Forgiveness
Although those attending the Maundy Thursday service may have heard Matthew’s account of the Institution of the Lord’s Supper less than a week earlier on Palm/Passion Sunday, it would have comprised just a few verses of a much lengthier account. For this reason, and because we connect this evening so powerfully to the Lord’s Supper, it may make some sense to opt for Matthew’s account of the Last Supper on this evening (Matthew 26:17-30). If so, one detail in particular stands out.

While Matthew hews closely to the account as he received it from Mark of the Passover Meal Jesus shares with his disciples, Matthew veers in a slightly different direction at one significant point. In contrast to the other three accounts (in Mark, Luke, and 1 Corinthians — the epistle reading on this night), Matthew adds one phrase to Jesus’ words about the significance of this meal. Where the others describe the wine as signifying the “new blood of the convent poured out for all,” Matthew adds “for the forgiveness of sin.”

Interestingly, this exact phrase is precisely what is missing from Matthew’s account of the preaching of John the Baptist. In Mark and Luke, John the Baptist preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. In Matthew, John simply declares, “Repent.” It is as if Matthew, in redacting the tradition he has received, recognizes that Christians seeking forgiveness will not ultimately find it in John or his baptism but rather must come to Jesus. Indeed, come to Jesus as Jesus is made present to us once again in this meal, in order that we might receive the benefits of renewed and restored relationship.

This night, then, not only introduces to the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, but indeed the whole Passion and is therefore worthy of remembrance and proclamation as we listen to, wait, and watch for the promised deliverance of the nations that Jesus’ death and resurrection are about to accomplish.

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.

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.”  


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.

Preaching Possibilities
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.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Sandra Hack Polaski

Perhaps one of the very few texts more familiar than this past Sunday’s Christ-hymn from Philippians is this one, rehearsed in Christian congregations whenever Holy Communion is celebrated.

Here, again, Paul passes on a piece of tradition already formed in the nascent church, almost certainly echoing words that are already set: “he took, he gave thanks (Greek eucharisteo, from which we have the English word ‘Eucharist’), he broke;” “this is my body;” and “do this in remembrance of me.” These “words of institution” are required in many denominations in order for Communion to be valid, and present by longstanding tradition (nearly as inviolable!) in most others.

Beyond the use of these words, though, perhaps no practice of the church is so widely debated as the celebration of Holy Communion. (Or should we call it Eucharist? or the Lord’s Supper? or the Mass? or the Divine Liturgy?) Who is the proper celebrant? Is the bread leavened or unleavened? Wine or unfermented juice? How should the congregation receive the elements? When should children begin receiving Holy Communion? How often should the ritual be celebrated? Is the table open to all believers, or restricted to those in a particular Christian tradition or even to members of the local congregation? And beyond these and other questions of practice lies a host of theological debates concerning the manner and effect of Christ’s presence in the meal. It is tempting to lapse into cynicism here; the one celebration that is supposed to unite all members of Christ’s family has, instead, served to divide us again and again.

The words of our hymns, liturgies, and statements of faith and practice notwithstanding, most of us rarely experience Holy Communion in the way we experience a meal. There is certainly not enough to eat and drink to satisfy hunger. The bland tastelessness of the Communion wafer used in some traditions is often a theme of ecclesiastical jokes. Maundy Thursday, though, provides us with an opportunity to ground our ritual once again in its origin in the meal of fellowship Jesus shared with his disciples.

Being primarily liturgical, this particular text tells us very little about that meal. We have fuller accounts in the Gospels, although only the Synoptics repeat the tradition referenced here, while the Gospel of John tells the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet without mentioning a command to the disciples to eat bread and drink wine in memory of him. Like the shepherds and the wise men at the Christmas stable, however, we unite the traditions in our celebration of Maundy Thursday, so that the humble servant of all is also the Christ whom we remember in the ritual meal.

On this occasion, then, it is appropriate to explore what the epistle text does not tell us explicitly, the context of the narrated event. The very brevity of the text suggests the intimacy of a simple shared meal. No emphasis is placed on the feasting; we only know that they ate because there is “after supper.” Nor do we have any real sense of what was on the table, past the simple bread and wine. We do not have the Passover setting narrated in the gospels. Nothing suggests that the food itself is the primary focus. Rather, the sense is that an ordinary meal, necessary for the nourishment of the body, becomes a locus of fellowship between Jesus and his disciples.

Note that the text does not say that where there is fellowship, there must be an absence of conflict. Paul’s recital of the tradition begins ominously, “On the night he was betrayed…”, and Paul uses the tradition in his letter is to address conflict in the church, conflict arising from their common meal. In our efforts to be “nice” to each other, or “tolerant” of other views, we too often pretend that conflict does not exist, and so fail to deal with tensions that can come to permeate everything that we do. True Christian fellowship does not ignore the presence of conflict, but seeks creatively to confront it and transform it into mutual respect and understanding.

Jesus takes a loaf of bread, pronounces a blessing over it, and distributes it to the disciples with strange words about the bread being his body and an admonition to “remember.” The disciples eat (presumably–although the text doesn’t mention it!), taking their Lord’s body into their own. Then comes the cup, with similar odd pronouncements that the wine is Jesus’ blood and that they are to “remember.”

It is difficult to say whether the last verse of the text (verse 26), about proclaiming the Lord’s death with every rehearsal of the ritual meal, is part of the tradition that Paul repeats or his own commentary on the tradition. It emphasizes the oddness of the story as a narrative: the disciples presumably do not know that they are “proclaim[ing] the Lord’s death” the night before it happens, but already Jesus speaks as if it is already completed: “Do this in remembrance of me.” When we not only celebrate the meal as a ritual, but also re-enact its setting in the Passion narrative, as we often do on Maundy Thursday, we put ourselves in that same strange place with the disciples. We pause for a moment in anticipation of what we already know. Jesus will be crucified, he will die, and he will be raised by the power of God. But for a short time we linger on the other side of those events, and ponder what it means to have fellowship with Christ and with one another.

We pause to remember, as Jesus commanded us. But what is it that we remember? How to celebrate the ritual properly? All the words of the creeds we recite? Whether we have bought enough bread, prepared the wine according to our congregation’s usual practice, and set up everything so that (hopefully) no one will complain about the service?

On this evening, most clearly of all the church year, we remember that we are part of a story. It is the story of Jesus’ life, and in particular his Passion, his crucifixion and glorious resurrection, re-enacted in our lives during the events of the week. But we also remember that we as Christians exist in fellowship with Christ and with one another. In holy imagination, we sit around a single table and receive nourishment from Jesus himself. We look into one another’s faces and see joy and pain, worry and anticipation. And together we tell the story that unites us, beyond all our differences of faith and practice: we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.