Lectionary Commentaries for April 1, 2021
Maundy Thursday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

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

Alicia D. Myers

The Gospel of John records Jesus’ final night with his disciples in John 13. 

This chapter is often considered the transition point in the Gospel, meaning it is here that Jesus is now really heading toward his “glorification”—that is, the cross, resurrection, and, as John 13:1 tells us, his return to the Father. In John’s language, Jesus’ “hour” has come. Those of us who have been working through the lectionary this Lent, however, should recognize these words from John 12:23 as well. John 13:1 isn’t the first time Jesus acknowledges the arrival of his hour, but it is the first time the narrator tells us of this fact. Moreover, it is in John 13:1 that Jesus’ departure from the world is linked to his return to the Father. In this Gospel, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are part of this singular event: Jesus’ return to the Father. 

In John, Jesus knows his destination, as well as the route that will take him back to his Father. The disciples, however, are still in need of instruction. In fact, John 13 emphasizes the contrast between Jesus’s knowledge and the astounding amount of ignorance around him. Even at this late point in Jesus’ ministry, his disciples repeatedly misunderstand who Jesus is, what he is doing, and where he is going. Jesus uses this episode in John 13 to teach his disciples two key things: 

1) in spite of their ignorance, Jesus knows what is coming, including who it is that will betray him, and 

2) authentic disciples of Jesus imitate his type of love for one another, regardless of their social status or knowledge. 

The disciples require Jesus’ example in order to know what this type of love is. In John 13:1, the narrator describes Jesus’ readiness for his return to the Father this way: “having loved his own in the world, he loved them unto the end” (eis telos, my translation). This last phrase—to the end—is difficult to understand. On the one hand, it easily connects to Jesus’ final call in John 19:30: “It has been finished” (tetelestai). Yet to find its complete fulfillment here misses additional connections in the Gospel that show Jesus’ type of love goes through, but does not end, on the cross. Instead, it is better to understand the phrase eis telos as “unto completion” or “completely.” Jesus’ love is complete, or what 1 John will call perfected love (teleiōtai hē agapē, 1 John 4:12, 17). 

Unlike the Synoptic accounts, Jesus’ last meal with the disciples in John is not the Passover supper. It cannot be, since for John, Jesus will die as the ultimate Passover Lamb on the Day of Preparation (John 19:14). Rather than focusing on the food and drink as symbols of a new covenant, Jesus uses this moment to symbolize his type of love to his disciples by washing their feet and sharing a morsel of his own food with his betrayer (John 13:26-30). Focusing on the foot washing, the symbolic element of Jesus’ actions becomes clear when we look at John’s description. Jesus’ movements should remind readers of his statement in John 10:17 where he says he “lays down” (tithēmi) his life “so that [he] might take it up again” (hina palin labō autēn, see also 1 John 3:16). In John 13:4, Jesus “lays down” (tithēsin) his clothes, washes his disciples’ feet, and then “takes” (elaben) them back again in verse 12. Jesus’ washing thus symbolizes his death and resurrection that he endures on behalf of disciples and the world. At the same time, however, it also shows us that serving one another through the lowering of ourselves is also complete love. Rather than just dying for one another, then, Jesus gives his disciples an example of what it means to love one another by living as well. In fact, this is exactly the message Jesus gives at the end of our lectionary passage in verses 34-35:

I am giving you a new commandment: love one another, just as I loved you so that you might love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you should have love for one another. 

In other words, Jesus came so that he might show us how to love.

Not only is loving with Jesus’ type of love difficult, however; so is receiving that type of love. It is for this reason that Peter recoils at Jesus’ humiliating behavior. Peter did not know what Jesus was doing; he did know that according to his world, a master did not wash his disciples’ feet. Peter cannot bring himself simply to accept Jesus’ action; he needs an explanation first and then wants an extra portion once he hears Jesus’ response: wash my head and my hands too! (verse 9). Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ commitment to die on his behalf in verse 36-38 is similar; Peter doesn’t want to accept it. He knows it is more acceptable for a disciple to die on behalf of a master. Yet, when Peter is given that chance, he denies Jesus and runs away in shame (John 18:12-27). It is through this experience that Peter learns he cannot love like Jesus before he experiences Jesus’ type of love. This is a lesson for all of us as well.

As we prepare for Good Friday, we too join Jesus at his table. We need to receive the type of love he gives us with the washing of feet and dying on a cross. We also need to see that these actions are not the “end” of his love, but rather examples of the unending type of complete or perfect love he gives. It is this love that enables us to love one another. Rather than needing to know all that Jesus knows, Jesus instead challenges us to admit our ignorance and lower our guard to receive his love. In so doing, we open ourselves to learn and to live a life of discipleship that mirrors his love.


First Reading

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

Justin Michael Reed

The Passover story in Exodus 12 is a story of a new beginning. 

Of course there are other beginnings in the Bible such as creation (Genesis 1), new life after the flood (Genesis 8), or God’s promises to Abraham (Genesis 12). But this chapter stands out as the place where Yhwh tells Moses and Aaron that the event and circumstances that they are about to go through will be remembered for generations to come as a perpetual beginning celebrated every year in ritual and story (Exodus 12:1-2, 24-27).

The power of telling a story—especially a story of beginnings—can bind people together with a sense of identity, self-determination, and purpose. In the Bible, Pharaoh is the first person to shape their ethnic narrative by calling the Israelites “a people” (ʾam in Hebrew) distinct from Egyptians, inherently threatening, and deserving of severe oppression including slavery and genocide (Exodus 1:8-11, 16, 22).

In contrast to Pharaoh’s narrative of what makes an Israelite, readers arrive at a new beginning story in Exodus 12. Here Yhwh calls forward a different story to distinguish these people—or as God calls them for the first time “the whole congregation of Israel” (Exodus 12:3). They are “the congregation of Israel,” whose identity will be shaped by their relationship with their God. And every year, from this time onward, will begin with the memory of the moment when that relationship was inaugurated by God liberating them from slavery.

In their ancient context, the power of telling and re-telling this story was a way for the Israelites to differentiate themselves from their close neighbors in Egypt. People groups tend to establish their ethnic identity by contrast with those whom they are closest to in other regards. Israelites lived just north of this African kingdom and their cultural memory includes Egyptian names (Moses, Aaron, Phinehas, and so on) and Egyptian practices like circumcision. But the impact of recounting this story goes far beyond its utility for ancient people drawing a line between “us” and “them.”

This story of God creating freedom for the Israelites has been inspirational for people across time. In the Hebrew Bible itself, writers continually harken back to God’s liberating work in Exodus as admonition against unfaithfulness or a reason for confidence that God will save them again (see also Psalms 77:1-15; 78:51-52; 105:36-38; Isaiah 11:10-16; Jeremiah 16:14-15; 32:20-21; Amos 9:7). Over millennia, our Jewish siblings have celebrated the Passover Seder as both a stable root in which to ground their sense of identity and also a malleable ceremony with the potential to speak to the diverse experiences of the entire Jewish diaspora. The Jewish writers of our synoptic Gospels narrate “The Last Supper” as a Passover meal with a new liturgy that expresses the significance of Jesus’ death (Matthew 26:17-29; Mark 14:12-25; Luke 22:1-23). And oppressed people of diverse backgrounds continue to affirm that this story speaks of God’s character as a liberator.

Our desire to recognize God as the liberator in this text should not silence all the difficult questions that God’s violence raises.

Does the firstborn of all Egyptians deserve death for the enslavement of the Israelites? One answer by scholars is to point out a theology in our Bible that the lives of all firstborn (or possibly other children) are owed to God. Legal texts like Exodus 13:1 and 22:29-30 and narratives like Genesis 22, Exodus 4:24-26, and Judges 11 seem to treat this morbid expectation as normal. Even prophetic texts that adamantly reject the idea that God wants child sacrifice (like Jeremiah 7:30-31, 19:5-6, and Ezekiel 20:25-26) simultaneously demonstrate that some Israelites did think God legitimately desires such human sacrifices.1 Other scholars emphasize that the God of the biblical text in Exodus is not primarily concerned with justice as much as partisan support for the particular people who (not by coincidence) wrote this story.2 Such scholarly explanations might make sense of the ancient world that produced our Bible, but they are unlikely to assuage our discomfort with the ethics of divine violence in this text.

Another approach to this question involves reflection on the contemporary implications of God killing all Egyptian firstborns. Exodus 12 can be read as indicting everyone with some modicum of privilege (whether sitting on a throne or in a dungeon) in a society that fails to overturn ethnic oppression (see Exodus 11:5; 12:29). Or this narrative of liberation can be read as emphasizing the massive sacrifice that the powerful must make to balance the scales of justice. Hopefully, this line of thinking generates introspection that stimulates radical transformation.

Thinking about the divine violence in this chapter can also lead to deep reflection on humanizing those suffering people who are grouped together as villains in the story. Remember, it was an Egyptian woman—the daughter of Pharaoh himself—who had pity on the baby Moses when she heard his crying (Exodus 2:6). Knowing that the baby was a Hebrew and that her father had decreed his slaughter (Exodus 1:22), this Egyptian woman decided to choose mercy and life in direct defiance against the power of the throne. Now her father is long dead (Exodus 4:19). Is this Egyptian daughter who saved and mothered Moses among the firstborns God kills on the night of Passover? Or is she another voice in the “loud cry in Egypt” as she laments the death of her sibling or her niece or one of her children whom she raised with Moses (Exodus 12:30)?

As much as Exodus 12 is a story of freedom from slavery, it is also a story about death. Exodus 12:26-27 enjoins the Israelites to use the Passover as a teaching moment, a way to enculturate inquisitive children. While we teach children (and adults) to strive for and celebrate God the liberator, I believe that contemplating difficult questions from this story also generates thoughtful and compassionate Christians.

Notes

  1. Heath D. Dewrell, Child Sacrifice in Ancient Israel (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbraus, 2017); Jon Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).
  2. Jon Levenson, “Liberation Theology and the Exodus,” in Jews, Christians, and the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures, ed. Alice Ogden Bellis and Kaminsky, Joel S. (Atlanta: SBL, 2000), 215–30.

 


Psalm

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

Rolf Jacobson

The psalm text appointed for Maundy Thursday worship contains some of the most-loved and lovely phrases in the Psalter. These include, “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.”

Yet it is one of these lovely phrases that is also one of the most confusing, difficult to unravel phrases in the Psalter. Namely, the strange-yet-comforting phrase, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.”

And the psalm also presents readers with one of the basic challenges of the life of faith: “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?” (verse 12).

I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice

Psalm 116 is one of the most recognizable songs of thanksgiving. The song of thanksgiving—which is also called the “new song” in the Psalter—is a song-offering presented in worship after some life-saving experience of God’s grace.

Sometimes simple is better than complex; sometimes less is more. That’s the case with the start of Psalm 116. The psalm begins with simple elegance:

I love the Lord, because he has heard
      My voice and my supplications.

It is as straightforward as that. As the writer of 1 John says, we love because God has loved us (see 1 John 4:7-12). The psalmist loves God because of a direct experience of God’s love. The psalmist uses a lovely image to describe this experience: “He inclined his ear to me.” We do not use the verb “incline” often in daily parlance, but the image is familiar—of a mother leaning in close to hear the voice of her child, or a father turning his head in order to hear a softly spoken request better. The psalmist then adds, “I will call upon him as long as I live”—literally in Hebrew, “in my days I will cry out.”

In the verses that follow (116:3-11), the psalmist reports about the near-death experience from which he was rescued (“the snares of death encompassed me”) and the prayer he offered in the midst of his trouble (“I called on the name of the Lord: ‘O Lord, I pray, save my life!’”). The psalmist then fleshes out some of the details of his distress. These verses are omitted in the lectionary, but provide the necessary context for understanding what follows.

What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?

The psalm reading continues with verses 12-19.

The psalmist then asks one of the basic questions of the life of faith—“What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?” The choice of the word “bounty” is odd—it feels a little old school. The Hebrew word here is the same as in Psalm 103:3: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits.” We might more readily translate here, “What shall I give back to the Lord for all of the benefits I’ve received?” Philip Melancthon once said that to know Christ is to know his benefits—his free gifts.

What are those benefits? Psalm 103:2-6 offers a representative list: forgiveness of sins, healing from diseases, rescue from death, steadfast love and mercy, “good things” in life, the constant renewal of spirit, justice for the oppressed. Other passages add on: the fruit of the spirit, the whole armor of God, the whole range of spiritual gifts, and the promise of eternal life.

The question: What shall we return to the Lord for all of the benefits we have received?

The answer: A song of thanksgiving.

One of the standard elements of the Hebrew “prayer for help” or “lament” psalm is the promise or vow to praise God. For example, in Psalm 13 (a classic prayer for help), the psalmist vows that once God has answered the prayer, “I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me” (13:6). We can assume that the singer of Psalm 116 made a similar vow, because he says, “I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people” (116:14). Having cried out to the Lord and having experienced gracious rescue, the psalmist now fulfills the vow with a song.

The purpose of the song is to fulfill the previous vow by praising God and telling others what God has done. The theological point is that the thank you note that God wants is not an expensive offering, but simply to tell others what God has done for you. As the singer of Psalm 50 says, God does not delight in or demand whole burnt offerings. What God desires is that “my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance” (Psalm 51:14). The singer of Psalm 40 goes so far as to say that if we do not tell others what God has done for us, we hide God’s saving help in our hearts and withhold God’s steadfast love from others (Psalm 40:9-10).

To praise, bear witness to God. Give God away to the neighbor.

The cup of salvation and the death of God’s saints

Two verses in the psalmist’s song of thanksgiving merit special attention.

The first is: “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (verse 13).

Christians, of course, draw a connection between this verse and the sacrament of Holy Communion, which Jesus instituted on Maundy Thursday. To connect the “cup of salvation” with the institution of the Lord’s Supper is valid; as it says in 1 Corinthians, Christ said, “‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:25-26).

But if we remain in the Old Testament context for a moment, the “cup of salvation” more likely refers to a celebration meal that a rescued person might throw in thanksgiving for his or her deliverance. Deuteronomy 14 describes such a meal in the context of harvest, but this law likely sets the pattern for a celebratory meal offered in response to an experience of God’s redemption. Notice that the law specifically says that the poor and the priesthood must be invited:

Go to the place that the LORD your God will choose; spend the money for whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your household rejoicing together. As for the Levites resident in your towns, do not neglect them … because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake (Deuteronomy 14:25-29).

Allow me to offer a personal note by way of illustration. Forty years ago—a biblical number—I was diagnosed with bone cancer in my legs as a teenager. The doctors amputated my legs and cut the cancer out of my lungs, where it had spread. And in the process they saved my life. Every ten years, my family and a couple of close friends gather for a celebratory meal. We lift up the cup of salvation and bless the name of the Lord.

But there is one more key verse to explore: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.” Christians often comfort each other with this verse when a loved one dies. I remember sharing this verse with a friend when his mother died.

But what could such a phrase mean? God finds death precious? Of course not. A similar phrase in Psalm 72 offers context:

For he delivers the needy when they call,
                    the poor and those who have no helper.
        He has pity on the weak and the needy,

                       and saves the lives of the needy.

         From oppression and violence he redeems their life;

                     and precious is their blood in his sight (Psalm 72:12-14).

One thing that the phrase means is that death is not a sign that God has abandoned someone. Neither is a near-death experience a sign that God has turned against someone.

We humans like to reason backward from our suffering to God’s judgment. A friend’s mother was dying of a horrible disease and asked him, “What have I done to deserve this from God?”

The answer: Nothing. You are precious in God’s sight even as you die and even as you suffer. Your blood, your life, your suffering are precious to God.

It is fitting that Psalm 116 is read or sung on Maundy Thursday as we prepare to remember Christ’s death on an imperial Roman cross. And to remember that even as Christ died, “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.”

God’s power to redeem extends even beyond death.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Jennifer T. Kaalund

Relay races are instructive for life. In a 4×100 relay race, each runner plays a particular role.

Though strategies will differ depending on the strength and composition (kinds of runners) on the team, typically, the first runner sets the pace. The baton is held in the right hand and passed off into the next runner’s left hand. The zone of exchange is the place where two runners meet, and the baton is passed. The second runner is usually a sprinter. While the third runner is often the slowest runner of the four, it is important to note that this runner is still competitive. The fourth runner, or the anchor leg, is likely the fastest. While each runner runs a different portion of the race, they all run the same distance. Their individual success is connected to the team’s success.

Like the body of Christ, each runner plays a unique but significant role for the team.

Like a relay runner, Paul is handing on to the Corinthian assembly what he has received as tradition. In 1 Corinthians 11:2, Paul states: “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you.” Paul’s praise is followed shortly by his observation in verse 17. “Now, in the following instructions, I do not commend you because when you come together, it is not for the better but for, the worse.” The assembly of Jesus’s followers in Corinth is portrayed as a church with lots of problems.

The overwhelming message that Paul conveys in this letter is the promotion of unity. Paul writes to remind them that when they come together as a church and eat the Lord’s supper, it should not be like eating at home or like eating at a banquet. These verses serve as a reminder of what this tradition is and what it means.

Paul begins the story by taking the community back to a particular place and time—on the night; the Lord Jesus was being betrayed. In this brief utterance, Paul provides an essential detail for recalling the last few days of Jesus’ earthly ministry. This statement does more than set the stage of the ritual. It provides us with the important context of the meal.

While we know the story, that Paul’s retelling begins with the act of betrayal is noteworthy. Betrayal is more than deception. One has to be close to you in order to betray you. It is an intimate act, and it represents one of many ruptures in the text. There is a fracture in the community when they come together for a meal, and some go home hungry while others go home full and drunk. There is a rupture in the community when we are more concerned about what we wear (veiling our heads), but we show no concern for the conditions of our lives and our hearts. In some way, Paul is revealing how the Corinthians are betraying one another. Betrayal is revelatory; it unveils a division that we did not know previously existed.

However, betrayal is not the definitive moment of that evening. For on that night, Jesus was gathered with friends and followers. He gave thanks for a loaf of bread and broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” While the sacramental significance of this text should be noted, it is also important to consider that here Paul is simply describing a tradition of gathering together for a meal to remember Jesus. Knowing what he is about to face and perhaps reminiscing on his time spent with those who have gathered, Jesus looks around and simply asks them to remember him. Eating together is another intimate act; it is the sharing of space and nourishment; it is also the sharing of ourselves with others in the most basic way. The table is a designated zone of exchange where this ritual is being established. This is often a place where we share stories, passing on what we have been given.

After the meal, Jesus takes a cup and again once asks them to remember him. Re-membering is an interruption, the act of putting the pieces back together again. It is an act of recollection and reconciliation. It is an opportunity to repair the breaks and the fissures, the divisions that have been created. Remembrance is knitting together the past with the present. Memory has a way of smoothing over the rough places. Jesus’ crucified body and shed blood remind us of the harsh and brutal realities of the consequences of his anti-imperial work. He did not want us to forget.

Jesus is doing more than passing the baton; he is establishing a new covenant. The agreement is that his followers will continue the work that he has begun. What is the work? It is the work of cultivating peace; it is the work of moving the world toward justice; it is the work of loving our neighbors and ourselves. The work will be difficult. They would need to remember him. We need to remember him, to remember the covenant. For as often as we come together and eat the bread and drink the wine, we proclaim the Lord’s death. It is not his life or resurrection but his death that we affirm.

What is a proclamation? It is an explicit or official declaration or announcement of something important. The significance of Jesus’ death must be remembered. Each time we proclaim the death of our Lord, we enter a zone of exchange; we have an opportunity for self-examination as well as an opportunity to share the gospel. How will we pass on what has been handed to us?

Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday commemorates this meal, this last supper. This day reminds us that before Jesus was betrayed, he ate dinner with his followers and friends. The last supper with Jesus was the beginning of a new table fellowship for his followers. Death and memory are necessary companions. Establishing one’s legacy necessitates a recalling, a re-membering, a re-collection.

This day invites us to consider: How do we re-member the body of Christ? How will we put together such a wounded and broken people, individually and collectively? How do we remember Jesus?