Lectionary Commentaries for April 1, 2010
Maundy Thursday

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

Craig R. Koester

John’s account of the last supper begins with Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.

The action is simple, yet its significance is revolutionary. Using the most ordinary means, Jesus conveys the most extraordinary love and commands his disciples to do the same.

First, note that Jesus is the one who performs the action in 13:1-10. He is the doer, who acts on behalf of his disciples. In the ancient world, people commonly washed their own feet. When guests arrived at someone’s home, feet covered with dust from the road, a good host would offer them a basin of water. The host would not do the washing, but would provide the water so that the guests could wash their own feet. In some cases the host would have a slave wash the feet of the guests. But it was understood that no free person would stoop to wash the feet of another free person. Hospitality meant offering water and perhaps the services of a slave. It did not mean doing the washing.

For a free person to wash someone else’s feet meant that he or she was assuming the position of a slave. The only reason someone would do this voluntarily was to show complete devotion to another person. This is what Jesus does here. He assumes the role of a slave to show the depth of his love for his disciples (13:1). Jesus does not act out of weakness, but out of strength. John tells us that Jesus has come from God and is going to God, and that God has put all things into Jesus’ hands. Yet the one who has all things in his hands now uses his hands to wash feet. His power comes to expression in self-giving love (13:3-5).

What is more, the devil is present and active in the scene, putting betrayal into the heart of Judas (13:2). Yet here the love of Jesus remains unwavering. Jesus does not meet evil on Satan’s terms but on God’s terms–for in the face of betrayal he apparently washes the feet of all the disciples, including those of Judas. The love that Jesus shows here cannot be equated with a feeling of affection. It is the form that divine power takes in the face of sin and evil.

Peter’s sputtering objection to the footwashing is completely understandable. No self-respecting disciple could allow a teacher to act this way toward his pupils (13:6). Yet Jesus insists that he must act in this way, because if anyone is to be in relationship with him, it will come as a gift–the scandalous gift of divine love (13:8). Peter cannot comprehend this now, but his denial of Jesus later that evening will make clear that if his relationship with Jesus is to have a future, it will have to come as a gift of love from the crucified and risen Jesus.

Second, Jesus tells the disciples that what he has done is not only a gift, but an example. As he has washed their feet, they are to wash one another’s feet (13:12-17). Note that this command is not given at beginning of the chapter. Jesus refrains from commanding them to show love to others until after they have received love from him. By washing the feet of others, they are called to share the love they have received from Christ.

At this point a preacher will find it all too easy to reduce the implications of the footwashing to a generic summons to “be helpful.” The jaw-dropping act of love that Jesus performs by washing feet can all too quickly become a moral platitude. Yet one has to wonder whether it was really necessary for Jesus to take the part of a slave at the last supper, and then to suffer the kind of execution that the Romans used for slaves and rebels, if he was simply out to encourage a little more civic-mindedness.

The directive to wash one another’s feet is a call to share the kind of love that startles and surprises. It is a call for love to show up when no one might expect it. God put all things into Jesus’ hands, and Jesus did the unexpected by stooping down and using his hands to wash feet. The followers of Jesus, too, have been entrusted with abilities and opportunities. The example of foot washing is a call to do what is needed, not merely expected, a call to translate love into service that might even catch someone off guard.

Third, Jesus’ commands in John’s gospel are community-building. Jesus tells his disciples to wash one another’s feet as he washed feet, then says that they are to love one another as he loved them (13:14, 34). Note that in both commands there is a sense of mutuality. People wash and love “one another.” The mutuality recognizes that Jesus’ followers need to continue receiving love from others even as they continue giving love to others. No one is self-sustaining. Empowerment for service comes as love is both given and received in the communities to which Jesus’ followers belong.

The danger, of course, is that community can become overly comfortable and ingrown. But recall that Jesus washed the feet of Judas who betrayed him and Peter who denied him. The call to wash one another and to love one another builds community even as it confronts the failings of its members. It is also clear that community is not an end in itself. It is a form of witness to the world. People bear witness to the love of Christ by their words and by forming communities in which the love of Christ is shared. In John’s gospel, love is not an abstraction but the action that brings people into relationship with Christ and with each other. The world comes to “know” the love of Christ as his love takes shape in communities, where people serve and are served (13:35).

First Reading

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

Mark Throntveit

Maundy Thursday is the Thursday of Holy Week.

This day, recognized as a major liturgical celebration since the fourth century, commemorates John 13 where Jesus washed the feet of the disciples (verses 4-5) and gave them a new commandment (mandatum in Latin, hence Maundy Thursday) to “love one another” (verse 34).

So what does this have to do with the assigned Old Testament reading from Exodus 12, a ritual text from the Priestly Writer that institutes the Jewish festival of Passover/Unleavened Bread? It is a tortuous path!

Passover may be seen as a fusion of two festivals in which the early inhabitants of the Levant (Israel-Palestine) welcomed the spring in different ways:

  • Shepherds. As the month of lambing began in the flock the shepherds would celebrate the flock’s fertility by sacrificing a lamb, smearing its blood on their tent flaps, and dancing a hopping, skipping, limping (pesach) dance.
  • Farmers. To prepare for the spring harvest of barley and wheat the farmers would clear out all the old “sour dough” (chametz) they used to leaven their bread.

Thus, even before the existence of Israel as a people there were two spring festivals, the shepherds’ festival of “Passover” and the farmers’ festival of “Unleavened Bread.” In Exodus 12:1-20, which describes the birth of Israel as a “congregation” (verse 3, the first appearance of this word in the Bible) both these early festivals are brought together. That they have been so joined is evident in the parallel nature of their structure:

Intro: Yahweh speaks to Moses and Aaron (verse 1)

A Time Frame: The first month (verse 2)

           B Sign: Shepherds’ Passover (verses 3-11)
                 C Significance: Yahweh will kill the firstborn
                          (verse 12)
                      D Reason: Israel spared by blood of
                               passover lamb (verse 13)

           B’ Sign: Farmers’ Unleavened Bread
                     (verses 14-17a)
                 C’ Significance: Yahweh delivered Israel
                           (verse 17bα)
                       D’ Reason: Israel to observe this day
                                 (verse 17bβ)

A’ Time Frame: The first month (verses 18-20)

The shepherd’s festival was the first to be transformed in the exile as a result of the Priestly Writer’s placing allusions to it within the Exodus story. The first nine plagues are arranged as a unit that provides Yahweh’s answer to Pharaoh’s arrogant question, “Who is Yahweh that I should obey him by letting Israel go?” (Exodus 5:2). Thus, the first nine plagues demonstrate Yahweh’s power over Pharaoh, “For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth. But this is why I have let you live: to show you my power” (Exodus 9:15-16).

This arrangement has the effect of isolating the tenth plague for the purpose of liberation. God didn’t fail to accomplish Israel’s release in the first nine plagues only to be successful in the tenth, resulting in a paltry 10% efficiency rating; God was 100% successful in the only plague that was designed to liberate the people!

The story now connects the birth of children and the birth of Israel with the birth of the new year in the spring. In the altered festival the sacrifice of a lamb in spring was reinterpreted as a ransom for the continued life of the first-born since in the tenth plague all first-born sons are destroyed. Only those Israelites who slaughter a lamb and smear its blood are “passed over” (pesach) by God as he executes judgment on Egypt. The crucial moment in the long process of shaping the festival comes in the merging of separate feelings about new birth in three areas of life: the flock, human families, and Israel as a political entity.

The farmers’ festival of Unleavened Bread was joined to the shepherds’ festival of Passover in the Priestly Writer’s exilic situation in verses 14-20. Here, the basis for the connection had nothing to do with clearing out the old leaven in preparation for the new barley harvest. The unleavened bread has come to symbolize the haste with which Israel had to depart Egypt, there was no time to let bread rise.

By the time of Jesus, Passover/Unleavened Bread had become one festival celebrating the Spring Equinox (the re-birth of the Sun), the springtime lambing of the flock and harvest of barley, the life of newborn children, the redemption of those children, and the birth of Israel as a people.

The synoptic gospels set Passover as the backdrop for Jesus’ passion, even staging the Last Supper with its inauguration of the Lord’s Supper as a Passover meal. The use of artos (bread) rather than azuma (unleavened bread), no symbolic foods such as bitter herbs or roasted lamb, as well as the absence of children and families (it looks more like “boys’ night out”!) leads this interpreter to favor Saint John’s appropriation of the passover imagery. John sees Jesus as the passover lamb who dies at the same time those other passover lambs are being slaughtered on the 14th of Nisan, that is, “on the day of preparation for the Passover” (Exodus 12:6; John 19:14, 31). Only John tells us Jesus’ legs were not broken, “None of his bones shall be broken,” so that scripture might be fulfilled (John 19:36). This is a reference to the Passover lamb requirements (Exodus 12:46).

John thus brings the Bible’s progression of the killing of lambs for the redemption of people to a close:
Cain and Abel: one lamb for one person (Genesis 4:4)
Passover: one lamb for one family (Exodus 12:3)
Day of Atonement: one lamb for one people (Leviticus 16:20-22)
John’s Gospel: Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

Truly, Jesus is, as John depicts and Paul declares “our passover lamb” (1 Corinthians 5:7-8).


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

Sharon H. Ringe

Today’s epistle lection is probably read in Christian worship more often than any other biblical text.

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.