Friday, March 29, 2013

Service, Love and Honor

The scripture referred to is John 13:1-17.

John's Gospel is the odd man out when it comes to so many events in Jesus' life. It mentions John the Baptist  but not Jesus' baptism. It tells us Jesus cleansed the temple but puts this event at the beginning of his ministry, not the end the way the other gospels do. It mentions the last supper Jesus shared with his disciples but not the words "This is my body"  and "This is my blood." Scholars attribute this to a radically different tradition but I think there is a simpler explanation.

I once read a book called The Unknown Hitler.  It was written by a German historian who had penned a biography of Rudolph Hess, the enigmatic man who was once Hitler's designated successor. In doing the research, the historian picked up a lot of information about Hitler that he had not seen in any of the biographies of the Fuhrer. So he published this small book and explained that it was not a full biography of Adolph Hitler but a supplement to the others, shedding light on and emphasizing certain aspects of the man that the others missed. I think John's Gospel does the same thing for Jesus. He skips the stuff the other gospels had already covered and instead concentrates on the events and sayings that they didn't have. I was gratified when New Testament scholar Dr. Minka Sprague not only showed interest in my theory but had me repeat it to my colleagues at a clergy conference.

John is not only notable for what he leaves out but for the things that appear only in his gospel. Only John tells of Jesus' first miracle: changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana. Only John tells us that immediately after Jesus fed the 5000, the people wanted to make him king. Only John tells us of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. And only John tells us about Jesus washing his disciples' feet.

People did not wear shoes in those days. And their sandals did not protect their feet from the dust and mud of the dirt roads. And remember, there weren't gutters and sewers. People threw garbage and worse in the streets. So it was traditional to take off one's sandals before entering a house. And before guests entered a rich man's house, a slave would wash their feet. Jesus is not only doing an unpleasant chore but the task of a slave.

Luke tells us that the disciples were talking about which of them was the greatest. To us, this sounds unseemly for these holy men but we have the benefit of hindsight. Look at it from their point of view. They had been worried about going to Jerusalem. Jesus was talking about dying. But when he entered the city on a colt, the people greeted him with palms and hosannas. "Hosanna" is Hebrew for "Save now!" It was the ancient equivalent of the British cheer "God save the king!" After such a display of Jesus' popularity, the disciples were probably starting to relax. Maybe Jesus was going to turn out to be the kind of Messiah everyone wanted. Certainly, they felt safer than before. Thanks in large part to Jesus' raising of Lazarus, the people are behind him. And if he is to be King of Judea, someone would have to be his right hand man. We know James and John asked to sit on the right and the left of Jesus' throne. And this made the other disciples jealous. So perhaps in response to this, Jesus deliberately displays the humility they lack.

Peter is so ashamed that he won't let Jesus wash his feet. Only when Jesus tells kim he can't be a part of him, does Peter relent. But he then goes overboard. He asks Jesus to wash his head and hands as well. Peter still doesn't get it. His request smacks of inverted pride. He trying to be humbler than thou! But Jesus tells him that since he's already bathed for the festival, only his feet need attention.

When Jesus finishes, he explains why he acted this way. He is setting an example. It's an example of a new kind of leadership: servanthood. The only leaders people knew then were those who ruled by force of arms. Julius Caesar transformed the Roman Republic into an empire by seizing power. There was no separation between military and civil power. And once in power, leadership was maintained by the ruthless exercise of that same power. One did not claw one's way to the top to serve but to be served.

Jesus turns the normal order of things upside down. The one who wants to be leader must be servant to all. Leadership is not exercised for the benefit of the leader but for the benefit of his followers. This is a radically different definition of leadership...for then and for now.

We might not think that this is unusual because we call our leaders civil servants. Yet even though they supposedly work for us, those who rise particularly high often live better than we do. Nor is corruption unknown. Servant leadership is still more of a concept than a reality in this world.

The one way in which our leaders do try to serve us is by giving us what we want--more services and lower taxes, total freedom and total security, free trade and protectionism! Well, they promise to at any rate. But for Jesus, servant leadership doesn't mean giving people everything they want but everything they need. Peter, for instance, either wanted Jesus not to wash his feet or to wash his head and hands also. Jesus says, "No. All you need is your feet washed." The servant-leader is not a slave to the desires of his followers.

In a way, it's like being a parent. If an an alien from a world that reproduced in a totally different way came to this world and observed a parent care for a toddler, it might think the adult was the child's slave. After all, she cleans, dresses, feeds and entertains the child. So it might be puzzled when she takes sharp objects away from the child, though he throws a tantrum; or when she refuses to give him dessert before he eats his vegetables; or when she plays judge whenever the toddler and his sister fight over a toy. The parent is serving the child but she is serving his best interests. She doesn't automatically give in to him. Why? Because she loves him.

We do have a curious omission in this footwashing story. John doesn't draw attention to it but Jesus must have washed the feet of Judas. We know that Jesus has worked out who his betrayer will be. And yet he washes the man' dirty feet. Would you? Would you do a demeaning chore for a person you knew was going to sell you out? Why did Jesus? Because the proper motivation for service, like parenthood, is love.

John opens this chapter by telling us that Jesus loved his disciples to the end. It doesn't say he loved all of them but Judas. Jesus told us to love our enemies. He even loved a friend who was going to stab him in the back. And perhaps he was doing more than just modeling humility. Perhaps he was trying to win Judas back.  Because not only does he wash his feet (How could Judas betray such a gentle man?) he makes Judas the guest of honor.

How do we know this? The typical way at that time for people to eat the Passover meal was reclining around a U-shaped arrangement of tables. Servants would work within the U, and could therefore distribute or clear away dishes without reaching over or between the diners. Those eating would recline on couches around the outside of the U. Their heads were near the table with their feet radiating away from the table like the leaves of fan palms. The diners reclined on their left elbows so they could eat with their right hands. (To see some pictures of this, click here.)

Jesus was the host and so he would sit on the right arm of the U (from his perspective), not in the center as Da Vinci puts him in his famous painting of the last supper. Jesus doesn't sit at the very tip of the U's arm but one seat in. That allows someone to sit on either side of the host. We know that Peter was at one end of the table because Jesus washes his feet last. But he can't be at the same end of the table as Jesus because we know John and Judas were near Jesus. John, reclining on his left arm, must lean back against Jesus' chest to ask him a question, the Bible says. So John is at the very end of the arm and has a clear view of Peter directly across from him on the other end of the U. When Jesus announces that one of them will betray him, we are told that Peter motions John to ask Jesus who it is. Jesus says it is the person to whom he gives the bread after he dips it into the stew. He gives it to Judas. So Judas must have been on the other side of Jesus and thus in the position of honor.

And in addition, it was an honor for the host to give you a piece of food. Judas would have known this. So Jesus washes his feet and makes him guest of honor at their Passover feast. He gives him a sop, a great honor. Jesus is telling Judas how much he loves him--and the man still goes and betrays him.

That is the risk of love. Love is perhaps the riskiest thing that we do. We offer our love to someone and there is always the chance that they will reject it. Or, accepting it, will go on to misuse or abuse our love. It would seem safer not to love. But without love, we wither and die. That's the paradox of life.

God offers us his love through Jesus. He offers to clean up our sins. He offers us a place at his table in his heavenly kingdom. He offers us his body torn for us and his blood spilled for us. All he asks in return is that we love him and those he created in his image, even if they're our enemies. As we approach his table this evening, let us each ask ourselves, "Have I been faithful? Have I been loving? Have I acted worthy of the great honor God has shown me? Or do I need to be washed by him before I can take my place beside him?"

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