Lectionary Commentaries for March 28, 2013
Maundy Thursday

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

Susan Hylen

Maundy Thursday is a time for reflection on Jesus’ love and human resistance to it.

The name “Maundy” comes from the first Latin word of John 13:34, mandatum (commandment): “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another” (NRSV). Thus, Jesus’ command to love, tied to the example of the foot washing, lies at the heart of this day.

The narrator of the foot washing begins the story with a somewhat lengthy recollection of Jesus’ coming death. Jesus’ crucifixion is tied in John to Passover, and the marking of the festival’s approach (13:1) is like a ticking clock whose alarm the reader knows is about to go off (cf. John 11:55; 12:1). John couples the approach of Passover with another declaration that Jesus’ hour has arrived (13:1; cf. 12:23) and that Judas is about to betray him (13:2; cf. 12:4). The reader knows well the events that are set to begin shortly. Although Jesus’ long farewell speech to his disciples intervenes, and the betrayal of Jesus does not occur in the story until chapter 18, the proximity of those events shapes all of the words and actions of the passage.

Throughout the passion narrative, John takes care to assert Jesus’ knowledge of and control over the events of his death. The events are shaped not only by the arrival of Jesus’ hour, but also by his foreknowledge that the moment has arrived: “Jesus knew that his hour had come” (verse 1). Similarly, the foot washing is prefaced by Jesus’ knowledge “that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God” (verse 3). The events that follow are framed by Jesus’ understanding of what is happening and his intentional action to lead and teach his disciples in light of what they will experience.

The passage also claims that Jesus’ actions are intentionally shaped as acts of love meant as examples to be followed. The preface of verse 1 frames the foot washing as an action defined by love: “having loved his own who were in the world he loved them to the end” (13:1). The phrase “to the end” can also be translated “to the utmost,” suggesting Jesus’ final and definitive act of love. Jesus goes on to explicitly state that the foot washing is an example for disciples to follow. “You also should do as I have done to you” (verse 15). As the closing verses (31b-35) remind us, such actions display the disciple’s love.

Not all people readily accept Jesus’ love, including the disciples closest to him. Peter’s responses show the difficulties humans may encounter. His first words seem simply incredulous, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” (verse 6). It is possible that Peter’s words imply that the roles should be reversed. Peter, of lower status than his teacher, should instead serve Jesus by washing his feet. It is also possible that Peter is simply confused by Jesus’ act and trying to understand what it means. Either way, the phrasing suggests Peter’s resistance. Jesus’ act is socially inappropriate or incomprehensible, and Peter means to dissuade him of such foolishness.

Peter is undaunted by Jesus’ reassurance that all will become clear in the future (verse 7). Now his resistance becomes blatant: “You will never wash my feet.” (verse 8). Again, Peter’s refusal of Jesus’ generous act points to the absurdity in Roman culture of a person of Jesus’ relative status undertaking the task and demeanor of a slave.

Peter resists Jesus’ act of love. John does not tell us why Peter refuses Jesus and thus leaves room for our own reasons to enter in. Perhaps Peter is embarrassed by his master’s lowly form. Perhaps he cannot stand the reminder of the grace offered to him in Christ and his need for it. Perhaps Peter’s ties to social convention prevent his recognition of the gift. He sees a role reversal that can only be a joke. It is interesting to note that he is not critical that Jesus offers others such a sign of love, until Jesus offers the same gift to Peter himself.

Whatever Peter’s reasoning, Jesus responds with a demand: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (verse 8). Sharing in Jesus involves being served by him, even in so lowly and intimate a form as foot washing. Like the branch that is pruned or cleansed in order to abide in the vine and bear fruit (John 15:2-4), Jesus’ disciples must be washed by him.

Now Peter changes tactics. He no longer rejects Jesus’ washing, but demands a more thorough version: “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” (verse 9). At this point, Peter may recognize the depth of his own uncleanness. If Jesus is offering cleansing, he wants a complete bath. Yet Jesus deflects this request as well, suggesting that Peter has “washed” and is “entirely clean” (verse 10). Jesus’ foot washing does not represent an overall purification of his disciples, but is an act of love and service Jesus performs for them.

Jesus commands his disciples to “love one another” in this way (13:34). The lectionary selection skips verses 18-31a, which focus on Judas’s betrayal of Jesus. As such, verses 31b-35 focus the reader’s attention on the foot washing as an example of Christian love. When Jesus says “just as I have loved you” (13:34), the reader sees the foot washing as the antecedent of these words. And while this is undoubtedly so, the removal of verses 18-30 can lead us to forget John’s inclusion of Judas and his betrayal as part of the foot washing story.

Judas’s presence at the supper means that the example Jesus sets is not simply one of service to an elite group of believers. Jesus has washed Judas’s feet, and therefore has included him among those he loved “to the utmost.” Similarly, the love of disciples for “one another” might be understood to include even those others we might prefer to forget.

First Reading

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

Ralph W. Klein

Passover in the Old Testament is at the heart of the Exodus experience.

The Pharaoh who did not know Joseph (Exodus 1:8) stubbornly refused the demands of Moses and Aaron to “let my people go.” The tenth and climactic plague, the slaughter of the firstborn, finally forced Pharaoh’s hand. The threatened Egyptian firstborn represent all classes, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on the throne to the firstborn of the female slave, not to mention the firstborn of all the livestock (11:5).

At midnight the tenth plague struck, involving all the firstborn, including even the firstborn of the prisoners (12:29). The Pharaoh went into crisis mode and told Moses and Aaron to leave at once and he adds an unusual parting request: Go, worship Yahweh, and bring a blessing on me too (12:31-32). The narrator does not pause to give all the gory details of the plague, but remembers instead one central purpose of all subsequent Israelite worship — to get a blessing for Pharaoh, heretofore their biggest enemy. So Israel is to pray for its enemies, just as Jesus would later say, “Love your enemies, and do good to those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27, 35).

Passover Explained
Right in the midst of these dramatic actions in Exodus, the narrator pauses and gives instructions for the observance of Passover in Exodus 12:1-13, followed by instructions for the feast of Unleavened Bread (12:14-20). Scholars wrestle with the complicated background of these festivals, but one thing is clear in our pericope: Israel’s escape from the tenth plague was no accident. Every spring from now on, in the first month on the fourteenth day of the month, each household is to set aside a kid (either a lamb or a young goat), butcher it, roast it, and eat it — more or less on the fly: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, staff in hand, eaten with haste (12:11). Who wants to stay in Egypt when freedom is just across the Reed Sea?

But it is the blood of that lamb that makes the difference. It is to be smeared on the two doorposts and the lintel of the doorway as a sign (12:7). The blood serves as a sign first of all for the Israelites, but more importantly a sign for Yahweh, who will see the blood and pass over each Israelite house. The rainbow in Genesis 9:14-15 is such a double sign too. First, it is a reminder to God of his everlasting covenant with Noah and all his heirs, just in case they might think that God has forgotten them. But of course it is not only God who sees that rainbow; we also see its seven colors and remind ourselves that God never forgets us. There is no threat for Israelites in that tenth plague. The blood of the lamb means life for them.

The Passover according to Exodus 12:48-49 was an inclusive festival. While no uncircumcised male could participate, resident aliens were welcome at the feast once they were circumcised. There is one admission ticket for native Israelites and resident aliens alike.

Passover and Lord’s Supper
Passover, of course, remains a central ritual in Judaism to this day, but Christians remember that in the Synoptic Gospels at least it was at a Passover celebration that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. This meal too means liberation for all who partake, freedom from sin, freedom from the world, and freedom from all demonic powers.

As the Lord’s Supper, it is open to all whom the Lord invited, all the baptized, who remember that Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. The blood of the one who hosts this banquet means that God will pass over the sins of all the communicants. As often as we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. The infinite One meets us in these finite elements: bread and wine/grape juice.

At the Old Testament Passover, the narrator said: When your children ask you what you mean by this observance, just tell them that we are remembering the night when Yahweh passed over all the Israelite houses (Exodus 12:26-27). That’s when we became God’s liberated people. And so at our Christian Eucharist, Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, we tell each other, especially our children, just why we celebrate this little banquet so frequently. It is not blood on our doorposts, but the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Jesus that says, “You are free!” It’s so real you can taste it.

All the baptized are welcome here — every age, every class, every gender, every sexual orientation, every race, sinners included. In fact, sinners — long-time-member sinners or new-to-the-faith sinners — are invited to be first in line. As we feast at this table, we hunger for those who have hurt us, who speak ill of us, or who even hate us. Can our healing of ourselves at this table lead us to pray that God would bring health to all of our enemies as well?

Our Eucharists catch us on the fly, between Saturday and Monday, or in this week between Passion/Palm Sunday and Easter. Our stay at the table is short term, just as Jesus stayed in the grave short term. We are soon on our way back into our daily life where we live out our freedom, for others.


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

Mark Throntveit

Psalm 116 is a thanksgiving psalm.

These hymns were sung by those whose earlier lament, or prayer for help in time of trouble, had been answered. Laments frequently conclude with promises to return to the temple in order to tell the worshiping community what God had done and encourage them to join the psalmist in praise of God’s goodness. These testimonies, for that is what they are, are often recognized by their characteristic past tense verbs.

Since the lament or prayer for help takes place at the time of the psalmist’s distress, the verbs employed are in the present tense: “In my distress I cry to the Lord, that he may answer me: ‘Deliver me, O Lord’” (Psalm 120:1, 2a). But, since the thanksgiving psalm narrates what God had done in response to the psalmist’s prayer for help, the verbs are couched in the past: “O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you healed me” (Psalm 30:2).

This general scholarly consensus on the genre Psalm 116, however, has not resulted in a clear formulation of its structure, despite such structural markers as refrains: “call on the name of the Lord” (verses 4, 13, 17), and “I will pay my vows to the Lord, in the presence of all his people” (verses 14, 18); and the repetition of key vocabulary: “death” (verses 3, 8, 15), “save/salvation” (verses 6, 13), “return” and “bounty” (verses 7, 12), and the emphatic use of “I” (verses 10, 11, 16 [twice]). Verses 10-11, 14, 15, and 16 appear to be misplaced and interrupt the flow of the psalm. For this reason, Claus Westermann, following the lead of the venerable Hermann Gunkel, has made the intriguing suggestion that these verses should be rearranged to yield the following, more typical reconstruction:

  • Introductory Summary recalling an earlier lament verses 14, 1, 2
  • Narrative of Deliverance verses 3, 10, 11, 4, 16, 8, 9
  • Testimony to God’s Goodness verses 15, 5, 6, 7
  • Promise/Vow of Praise verses 12, 13, 17, 191

All the parts make sense in this reconstruction, but one wonders how it ever became so confused (I sense an elusive concentric arrangement, as yet undiscovered!).

Be that as it may, our passage, verses 1-2, 12-19 functions quite well as it stands; in fact, the LXX presents verses 10-19 (essentially the promise/vow) as a separate psalm entirely (Psalm 115). This intensely personal psalm (35 first person references!) begins with a loving expression of gratitude for God’s grace and answered prayer (verses 1-2) and then jumps to a vow or promise in which the psalmist wonders, “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?” (verse 12).

It is important to realize that the psalmist does not think it possible to actually repay God in some reciprocal, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours kind of way. Rather, the psalmist, overcome by the grace bestowed upon him, is concerned about the relationship he shares with God and now seeks an appropriate response.

That response serves as the tie-in for Maundy Thursday. If God’s grace cannot be bought, then the temple sacrifice gives nothing to God but recognizes God’s gifts to us and allows us to participate ritually, symbolically, even sacramentally in the relationship God has forged. Judaism has celebrated their relationship with God for millennia with this psalm as part of the Hillel Psalms sung during Passover. Four cups of wine are consumed for the four verbs of redemption in Exodus 6:6-7 descriptive of God’s activity. According to the Midrash:

These are four expressions of redemption: I will bring you out—I will deliver you—I will redeem you and I will take you. These correspond to the four decrees, which Pharaoh issued regarding them. The Sages accordingly ordained four cups to be drunk on the eve of Passover to correspond with these four expressions, in order to fulfill the verse: I will lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord (Psalm 116:13).2

Thus, the psalm functions as thanksgiving for the deliverance Israel experienced at Passover.

Closer to home, these sentiments have been transferred to Christian worship, especially on Maundy Thursday where the institution of the Lord’s Supper is commemorated. In 1 Corinthians 10:16 Paul referred to the chalice as “the cup of blessing that we bless,” an idiom usually connected with Passover and the four cups of redemption discussed above. This led to a Christological re-reading of Psalm 116 that morphed Passover into Communion that encourages us to hear this psalm as a thanksgiving for the atoning work of Jesus on the cross. As James Luther Mays concludes,

The psalm becomes the voice of Jesus and the congregation, the one providing the cup and sacrifice, the other united by them with him in his death and resurrection.3

1C. Westermann, The Living Psalms (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 196-97.

2Midrash Rabbah Exodus VI. 4, Soncinio Edition.

3J. L. Mays, Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 372.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Carla Works

The Corinthians failed to practice the Lord’s Supper correctly.1

Though this failure was detrimental to the edification of First Church Corinth, it is fortunate for us, since 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 is the only place where Paul discusses the Eucharist. It seems that the Corinthians were partaking the bread and the cup regularly, but their behavior at the table caused the apostle to question whether what they were doing could rightly be called the “Lord’s Supper.” Although their words may have recalled the night of Jesus’ death, their actions were preaching a different story.

Immediately prior to verses 23-26, Paul reveals that the Corinthians’ table etiquette was not even recognizable as the Lord’s Table. In verse 17-22, the reader learns that some have plenty of food and drink while others have little. Some are drunk before their brothers and sisters even arrive. Clearly, some of the Corinthians are more affluent than others. They can afford more food and, because they do not have to work all day, can begin fellowship earlier. These folks, Paul says, have homes in which they could eat and drink before coming to the assembly.

It appears from the apostle’s description of their “table” that some of the Corinthians are allowing their social distinctions to dictate their behavior to one another rather allowing Christ’s behavior to be their guide.

Paul has dire admonition for the Corinthians’ table practice. In 11:17, the apostle claims that their Lord’s Supper celebration is actually doing more harm than good to the community. Paul accuses the sated and drunk of despising God’s church and shaming those who have nothing (11:22).

Before we are too critical of these wealthy believers, though, we should remember that they are behaving according to acceptable social norms. It was expected that those who had more money and power would display their wealth by consuming more food (and better food at that) and by enjoying certain benefits of their status, like gathering for fellowship with those of their same social class. In fact, to maintain one’s status in the upper echelon required displaying wealth and catering to others with whom an alliance could secure honor for one’s household.

The Corinthian believers who have the means to get drunk, to eat their fill, and to live in their own homes are behaving no differently than anyone else in their same social position. And that is the problem.

They have joined a community in which the scandal of the cross has reconfigured the social barriers between slave and free, advantaged and disadvantaged. They profess faith in a Lord, who, though having status equal to God, chose to serve all — even those who have nothing. At the communion table, they have been called to remember the Lord’s actions by doing likewise.

In verses 23-26, Paul counters the Corinthians’ behavior by reminding them of the story enacted at the Lord’s Table. This story, Paul warns, is not something that he has concocted, but rather a tradition that he has received “from the Lord” (11:23).

It is significant that this tradition begins not with the prayer and the breaking of the bread, but a step earlier in the story. Most English translations of verse 23 depict the setting of the story as follows: “on the night when he was betrayed he took bread.” The verb rendered here as “betrayed” is paradidomi. The verb simply means to hand over or to pass on, as it does in 11:2 with the passing on of traditions. Because the verb can also be used in the context of being handed over to the authorities, it can connote being arrested. The common English translation of this text recalls the night when Judas handed Jesus over, thus, betraying him.

Paul uses the term paradidomi in reference to Jesus’ death elsewhere. According to Romans 4:25, Jesus was “handed over for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Furthermore, the apostle claims that God did not spare his own Son but gave him up (paradidomi) for us all (Romans 8:32). In Romans, it is clear that God is the one who is giving Jesus over to death.

In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Richard Hays links Paul’s use of the term paradidomi to Isaiah.2 In the Greek version called the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX), Isaiah 53:6 LXX reads, “and the Lord gave him up for our sins.” Likewise Isaiah 53:12b LXX, “and he bore the sins of many, and on account of their iniquities he was handed over.” Paul’s language, according to Hays, deliberately echoes God’s actions toward the suffering servant.

Beginning the story in 1 Corinthians 11:23 with this language should not serve as a reminder that Jesus was handed over by Judas — a tradition that Paul does not cite elsewhere — but as a reminder that Jesus was handed over by God for our sins. To echo Paul’s language in Romans, a better interpretation of this opening phrase might be, “on the night on which God handed Jesus over for our sins.”3 God is an active character in this cosmic drama. The same God who called this motley crew to be a church is the God who did not spare his own Son (Romans 8:32).

Apparently, the Corinthians have believed that Christ died for their sins (15:1-2). There is every reason to believe that they are also recalling the words of 11:23-25 when they partake the bread and the cup in the midst of their fellowship meal together. Their behavior, which has reinforced society’s social distinctions in the body of Christ, has demonstrated that the believers are not modeling their actions on the obedience of Jesus, who was obedient unto death (cf. Philippians 2:1-11).

Jesus’ words include the phrase, “Do this in remembrance of me.” “Do this.” Remembering Jesus rightly demands a willingness to relinquish one’s high status to stand in solidarity with those who have nothing.

Rather than reinforcing social distinctions, following Jesus debunks them. Any celebration of the Lord’s Supper that fails to exemplify the scandalous message of the cross is not the Lord’s Table at all.

Finally, Paul reminds the audience in verse 26 that their actions at the table are an act of proclamation. The act of all coming to the table — without social class or other distinctions — is a scandalous act. The witness of the Lord’s Table is a tableau of what the cross makes possible. The church is called to this proclamation “until he comes.”

As the church today collectively remembers the death of Jesus, we should also examine our table practices and ask ourselves whether what we are practicing is indeed the Lord’s Table — a table where all are welcomed and our fellowship proclaims the scandalous message of God’s grace.


1 This commentary was first published on this site on March 28, 2013.

2 Richard B. Hays, 1 Corinthians (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997).

3 Ibid.