Letting Pharaoh go

A Maundy Thursday meditation

by Ken Sehested

Maundy Thursday, a key observance in Christian Holy Week calendar, is often associated with the Gospel of John’s account of the “Last Supper,” when the central plot is not the meal but the shocking narrative of Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples.

The dramatic climax comes when Peter objects to having his feet washed by Jesus—likely because of his notion of reverence: Jesus is to be served (honorifically attended), as is the custom in the every culture of privilege.

Recall for a moment that the Gospels record the disciples’ argument over who among them would be greatest in the coming Kingdom—once at the very table Luke mentions as the final their final meal together. I can only imagine Jesus’ heartbreak that even now, shortly before his final showdown with imperial authorities, his closest friends were still clueless about the counter cultural nature of his mission.

It is indeed an “other” world; but not one evacuated to the high reaches of heaven, but bursting out in the very stuff of history’s creaturely life.

The scholarly debate over whether this final meal was formally a Passover observance is maddeningly complex. There’s no question, however, that this narrative was happening on the cusp of that pivotal Jewish remembrance of the Exodus, that dramatic escape from Egyptian clutches, following by the desert wandering, the Sinai instructions, and the entry into a “promised land.”

The Exodus march was not like a Marti Gras parade, however. The text says that less than two months into the trek, “the whole congregation of the Israelites” began complaining to Moses, even suggesting maybe they should go back to their dependent status in a company-store economy. Life may have been hard in Egyptland, but at least they had enough to eat.

Evidently, God did not take offense at this bickering (Exodus 16:2-3) but instructed Moses to tell them that provisions would be made, both morning and evening—and that these provisions would disclose “the glory of the Lord.”

Then come detailed instructions on the morning gathering of manna. Each household would gather only enough to satisfy its members: Those who gathered much had nothing left over; those who gathered little had enough (16:17-18). The harvesting was aligned with sufficiency: gather too much, the stuff will rot and be worm infested.

Furthermore, the gathering on the sixth day should include enough for the seventh, allowing for a day not just for leisure but weekly reorientation and recommitment to a vision of equity and a rejection of the relentless striving for more, and yet more, that characterizes the impulse of every assertion of “manifest destiny” and imperial modes of empire.

Neither Israel, nor America, can lay claim to being “first.”

The “glory of the Lord” means no more surfeiting: no more restless, never-ending accumulation; no more gorging; no more coveting neighbors. Or as the Book of James would later interrogate: Where do those conflicts and disputes come from? Your cravings! You want and cannot obtain; therefore you commit murder.

Even worse, by “befriending” such behaviors, you become “an enemy of God”! (4:1-4)

God’s “glory” is displayed in neighborliness. God’s “enemies” are those who hoard.

No doubt Jesus had this narrative in mind when, in John’s Gospel, he scandalously breached the logic of what is commonly viewed as power. He, the “master,” assumed the kneeling posture of a washer woman to clean his subordinates’ feet as a symbolic representation of the new pattern of redemptive community.

To be aligned with this alternative community, everything you recognize as to how the world “works” is rejected: No more would the strong take what they can, no more the weak suffer what they must.

From here on, as Hebrew scripture repeatedly affirms, special attention is to be given to the widow, the orphan, the migrant—the most vulnerable and all judged unworthy to be seated at the banquet of plenty.

This assertion is clearly reinforced in Jesus’ utterly incongruous claim that the only road to heaven included compassionate partnering with the hungry, the evacuee, the inadequately clothed, the feverous and frail, the massively incarcerated. That is to say, the debris field in every communized and capitalized culture.

This is Passover’s preface to Sinai’s covenant imperatives. This is the paschal signifier of the sacrifice and posture worthy of God’s glory. Holy Week’s mandatum (mandate) is to align with the posture by whose terms alone will vanquish death’s greatest threat.

The baptismal vows of those on the Way of Jesus center around the ongoing struggle to let Pharaoh go.

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Maundy Thursday, 6 April 2023