My parishioners are familiar with me saying: “The lectionary is nice, but…” I have always enjoyed having some calendar of scripture readings. I am far too indecisive to be left picking out lessons each week, and I am glad for the challenge to preach on texts I might not otherwise consider. So, the lectionary is nice, but…
One of the flaws of the Revised Common Lectionary, as used in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, is its excising of texts. The Psalms are an easy place to see it. Glance at a hymnal and its list of propers, and you will see Psalms chopped up like a fruit salad. Here and there, verses are left out, mostly imprecations against the Psalmist’s enemies. Psalm 17 is used three times in the lectionary, but never verses 10–14: “Arise, O Lord! Confront him, subdue him!” Psalm 31 is used four times, but not verses 6–8: “I hate those who pay regard to worthless idols.” Psalm 72 appears twice, but not verses 8–9, where the king’s enemies lick the dust. The lectionary has a clear distaste for violence, although it leaves one to wonder how effective its paring of texts is. The curses in the Psalms’ prayers of imprecation do have a point. Instead of resolving matters ourselves, violence come what may, we leave the matter to God by praying for deliverance from our enemies.
The absence of the Psalms’ curses from the lectionary may be due to nothing more than the old embarrassment over the Bible’s honest depiction of sin. What kind of holy book tells of patriarchs passing off their wives as their sisters or uses a prophet marrying a prostitute as an object lesson for God’s faithfulness? Actually, the greatest embarrassment for many Christians is not that the Bible is populated by sinners, but that the Bible tells of a God who continues to deal with them. Marcion is alive and well, and he has been given a place on the lectionary committee.
One of the lectionary’s most interesting excisions comes on Maundy Thursday. Maundy comes from the old Latin mandatum, arising from Christ’s giving of a new mandate, a new commandment. On this night, we hear from John 13 about Christ washing his disciples’ feet, leaving them an example and a new commandment: “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” It is a stirring moment in the Gospels, when Christ, on the eve of his death, performs an act of tender service for his followers. His humble act challenges the church in her care for others in need. The text as presented by the lectionary, however, leaves out some crucial details. Older lectionaries, appointed John 13:1–15. Others—including the Revised Common Lectionary—add some combination of verses 16 and 17 and/or verses 31–35. In every case, verses 18–30 are left out, as well as verses 36–38.
What happens in those missing verses? In verses 18–30, Jesus speaks of Judas’s betrayal, and in verses 36–38, he predicts Peter’s denial. It is easy to see why lectionaries skip those verses. They are unsightly details in an otherwise uplifting event. The Revised Common Lectionary does assign verses 18–32 for the Wednesday of Holy Week, but it is a day seldom observed in congregations. More to the point, the story of the foot-washing itself is not heard alongside the sad details of the betrayal and denial.
These absent verses raise challenges about human potential. Without these verses, it looks as if Jesus had given his disciples a nice example to follow, the washing of feet, and left it at that. He tells them to love one another, and who could object? If you stop right there, it is a perfect depiction of the way we would all like the world to operate, and it seems within our grasp to accomplish it, as graspable as my neighbor’s feet. It would appear that humans have the potential to create communities where people all care for another and everyone gets along. People loving each other: shouldn’t our world look more like that? Shouldn’t our church? Well, yes, they should, but they don’t. Our world and our church are inhabited by sinners, and sinners aren’t so good at following their Lord’s commands.
This incident of Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet is not about human potential, nor is it an ideal vision of what the church could be. Rather, these verses speak honestly about what Jesus asks of his followers in the midst of sin, and more importantly, they tell us how deeply Jesus loves his followers, serving them in their most shameful moments.
We must hear of the foot-washing alongside the accounts of Peter and Judas, because Christ issues his new commandment against a backdrop of injury and broken promises. Foot-washing is not simply the way Christians ought to behave. Foot-washing is the way Christians treat one another, precisely when their fellow believers don’t behave.
I have heard numerous accounts from people who stay away from church because of incidents that happened years or even decades ago. The incidents involve someone who was injured by a hurtful word or interaction with a fellow church member, and the stories conclude with some observation along the lines of “The church is supposed to follow God’s commands; it’s supposed to be a loving place.” The implication is that a person is excused from church participation because fellow Christians are not holding up their end of the bargain.
The full story of the foot-washing, however, would suggest that fellow Christians are indeed holding up their end of the bargain—in their betrayals of one another. Betrayal is the very context in which Christ issues his new commandment. Indeed, this is why he speaks of love as a command, a mandatum, not as an observation of the way things already are. Within the church, love is not a given. Sin is a given, and Christ commands love for people who have hurt us. Furthermore, the love he shows is not a warm regard from afar. It would be easy to convince myself that I love someone who has hurt me if my love were merely a feeling. I can conjure up good thoughts and well-wishing, even for an enemy, without getting too close. The love Christ exemplifies, however, is close, as close as a hand grabbing a foot. It will not settle for keeping a peaceful distance. It demands my renewed interaction with people who have sinned against me.
One of the most interesting omissions from this story is in the Revised Common Lectionary’s splicing of verses 17 and 31. If you look at the appointed reading, you see that it jumps from verse 17 to 31b, meaning that it leaves off the first half of verse 31: “When he had gone out, Jesus said…” That is an introduction to the rest of the verse in which he announces, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” The interesting part about the deletion is that it shifts the focus of Jesus’ glory. With the deletion, we hear of the foot-washing, and then Jesus saying, “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them,” followed by, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified.” The way the lectionary has it, Jesus is glorified in giving an example of service and in his disciples following that example.
That is not how John 13 operates. In its entirety, verse 31 tells us the moment when Jesus announces his glorification: “When he had gone out.” When who had gone out? When Judas had gone out. Jesus’ betrayer leaves the room, on his way to the authorities to bring about Jesus’ demise, and it is at that moment when Jesus says that he has been glorified. Jesus, and his Father in him, receives glory, not when he is passing along commandments to his followers, but when he is being attacked by them. He can certainly wear Moses’ hat, and he spends much of his ministry doing so, but lawgiver is not his true office. His true office is being betrayed. His true ministry is being crucified.
It is a strange logic. When sinners turn against Jesus, that is his best moment. That is when God receives glory, not when people show off their virtues and demonstrate their obedience, but when sinners reveal their ugly sins. “Those who are well have no need of a physician,” Jesus said, “but those who are sick.” When we see how great our sickness is, then we might give thanks for the superlative doctor who cured it.
What a delightful thought! When hearing complaints about the behavior of fellow church members, we could respond: “Finally, Jesus is getting the praise he desires! If he died for someone like that, then he must be quite a Savior! And if he died for someone like that, then you and I can hope, too.”
Maundy Thursday is a good name, but perhaps we could try a new one: Betrayal Thursday, or if we need a Latin word, Tradere Thursday. In this betrayal, and in all our betrayals, Jesus is glorified as our Redeemer.
Paul Koch is pastor of Wannaska Lutheran Parish in rural northwestern Minnesota.