The Mandate

February 18th, 2012

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

The prophets may have called them “beautiful,” at least when they belonged to those who brought good news to others. On the whole, however, most of us would agree that when it comes to the parts of the body that are usually not thought of as all that lovely, our feet are pretty high up on the list. We hear of folks having great legs, or beautiful hair, or stunning eyes; but when have we ever heard of someone being attracted to another person because he or she had neat feet? There are no “People’s Choice Pedicures” or “Hollywood Hang Ten Awards,” for instance. Because indeed, most feet are not only funny looking, they are also crooked, ugly, and sometimes even smelly. They’re practical, to be sure, but appealing? Hardly! So just imagine dealing with not just your own feet, but with somebody else’s. Think about how you would like to wash that person’s feet—to peel off the mud and dirt that was caked onto their heels, and maybe even between their toes!

It’s not very inviting, is it? So it’s understandable why that particular job—the task of washing feet always fell to the lowest servant of a household, to the “last hired, first fired” person with no seniority. Only someone really desperate for work would quite literally stoop to take that job. All of which is what makes this little incident in today’s text so completely unheard of and even radically arresting. On his last night on this Earth, that’s exactly what Jesus did. He got up during the meal, took off his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around his waist, and then got down on his knees to begin to wash the feet of his disciples. It was so unexpected, so unheard of, so “un-Lord-like,” that when Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter crossed his arms and said rather emphatically, “You will never wash my feet.” Because in Peter’s mind, washing feet was clearly not the kind of thing that a man like Jesus ought to be doing.

But Jesus took on the servant’s role anyway. He got down and he got dirty, doing the task that rightfully belonged not to a king or lord, or even to a rabbi, but to one at the very bottom of that societal totem pole. So why did he do it? Verse 3 makes it patently clear, for instance, that Jesus was far from uncertain about his own status or identity; he knew “that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God.” Rather, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet not because he had to, but because, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” That’s a hard task indeed for many of us. We can put up with folks for a while, even if they start to be finicky. But loving someone “to the end”? That’s a different matter. When we don’t get any affirmation from our relationship with someone, or when the other person is perhaps even spiteful toward us, it’s tempting indeed to just give up on him or her. We could understand it if Jesus, who “knew that his hour had come to depart from this world,” had been just a little preoccupied on that evening with what was about to happen to him. He didn’t really have time to put up with the petty squabbles of his disciples, who were still arguing about who was going to sit in the places of honor when it came time for the meal. Who would have blamed Jesus, had he told all of those disciples to just “be silent and sit down”?

But he didn’t. Instead, without fanfare, Jesus simply got up and took the servant’s role and washed their feet. Because, to put it in the simplest of terms, Jesus wanted those determined-to-be-dense disciples to understand that real love and real faith, and especially real leadership, means one thing and one thing only: it means servanthood. Just as he had told them earlier, now he showed them: “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). Maybe that’s what we ought to remember about Jesus the most, as well. Even two thousand years later, nothing really has changed about what real love is, and how Jesus calls us to manifest it to others. Indeed, if you want to follow Jesus, the simple truth is that the line starts at the rear. Jesus said that “a new commandment I give you: that you love one another.” And that novum mandatum is the expression from where the term “Maundy Thursday” comes. If we want to know just what following Christ means, the mandate makes it clear: it means being willing to serve others, even if not just their feet but their whole manner of being makes them genuine stinkers. Indeed, to paraphrase the old saying about having to “kiss a lot of frogs before you can get a prince,” we may have to wash a lot of feet as well before we can really understand the astounding love of our king. Because it is by this that everyone will know that we are truly Christ’s disciples. Indeed, people will recognize that we are sincere in this whole faith business only if we actually love one another. So are we keeping Christ’s mandate to truly love those around us?

To be sure, feet may not be very glamorous. But they can say a lot about who is here to be served and who has come to serve. What’s more, as the prophet of old once told us, they can even be beautiful if they belong to those who bring good news.

“If you know these things,” Jesus thus said, “you are blessed if you do them.”

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