The scriptures referred to are John 13:1-17,31-35.
You may have heard about the firing of Jeremy Clarkson, one of the hosts of the British car show, Top Gear. I've only caught bits of the show but I knew he had gotten in trouble before for making blunt and politically incorrect statements. I figured he'd done it again but was even more offensive this time out. But, no, he was sacked for cursing at a producer of his show for 20 minutes and then punching him. The reason for his violent rage? After a day of filming on location, he didn't like the soup and cold meat platter he was offered. He wanted a steak, despite the fact that the chef at the hotel they were staying had gone home for the day. What he thought the producer should do about that I haven't discovered.
In his autobiography, talk show host Phil Donahue wrote of how insidious becoming a celebrity can be. After his Dayton, Ohio show went national and became the first daytime talk show, ostensibly aimed at women, that tackled serious and controversial issues, it became wildly popular in the 1970s and 80s. And as Donahue was increasingly recognized in public, he noticed that he was offered perks. His restaurant reservations and plane tickets were upgraded once those in charge realized who had made them. And it gets very easy to start expecting special treatment when you are rich and famous and in charge of something popular.
We see this, sadly, in religion. Creflo Dollar, promoter of the prosperity gospel, wants his followers to get him a $65 million airplane. Other TV evangelists have displayed extravagant lifestyles that contrast strongly with that of Jesus of Nazareth who had no place to lay his head. And it's really hard to imagine any of the modern batch of TV preachers stripping off their thousand dollar suits and doing something as menial as Christ does on the first Maundy Thursday.
Science Fiction author Phillip Jose Farmer once wrote that the first thing that would strike a time traveler going to earth's past would be the smell. People didn't bathe much if at all, weren't particularly hygienic about the disposal of human waste, and often kept their animals in their home. Streets were filthy and so in Jesus' day when guests arrived, it was the job of the lowliest slave in the household to remove their sandals and wash their feet. It was a nasty duty. So imagine the shock of the disciples when Jesus stripped off his outer garment, wrapped a towel around his waist and began to wash and dry the feet of his students. It would be akin to having the Pope plunge a toilet you clogged. You would be appalled.
Now usually when we talk about Jesus washing the disciples' dirty feet we talk about his humility. And certainly that's part of it. But that's not the main point he's making. He says in verse 15 of our gospel, “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” But I don't think Jesus was saying, “I want you to make a big show of your humility.” That's a humblebrag, a contradictory way of showing you are humble. Rather I think Jesus was building to a slightly different point. And he stated it in the same form. In verse 34 Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (Emphasis mine) Put the two verses together and you see the parallels. “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you....Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Jesus is not so much saying “Be humble like me” (at least not here) so much as he is saying, “Be loving like me.”
How is doing the most repulsive task of a slave a show of love? Ever seen a mother wipe the runny nose of her child? Or a woman brush dirt off the back of her husband's shirt? When you love someone, you care about their cleanliness and appearance. Parents clean the butts of their infants, something they would not do to a stranger. And children will often reciprocate when their parents get too infirm to clean themselves. It is amazing what you will do for someone when you love them.
We have a tendency when thinking of Christian love to spiritualize it to such an extent that it ceases to resemble real love. It becomes thinking good thoughts about people we may or may not actually have made an effort to get to know rather than doing good and helpful things for them. Because getting involved with people is messy. Just as the disciples' feet got dirty by moving through the streets of Jerusalem, we all pick up less than savory stuff as we journey through life. People are messy. And love means dealing with that mess.
The primary way that Jesus dealt with the messes we make of our lives is through the cross. But his actions on this night mean we should also deal with the everyday messes in the lives of those we love. Of course we naturally do this with our children and our families. But Jesus is dealing here with his students, the people he is mentoring. Now I don't think Jesus is saying “Insert yourself in the drama of those you work with” but “Do what is necessary to help the people around you when their lives are messy. And do it out of Christian love.”
Notice, too, that what is unexpected about the situation is not the action itself, it's the person doing it. Normally a slave should have done it. I don't know if the family whose upper room they were using didn't have a slave, or were bad hosts. I like to think that the slave walked in, all ready to clean feet, with the bucket and towel and Jesus saw him and relieved him of them, seeing a good opportunity to make a point. So, too, we should look for opportunities to serve people in Christ's name doing stuff that ought to be done.
My colleague, Fr. Mark Sims, was supposed to appear in court for doing what ought to be done. He is one of 3 clergy who were arrested for feeding the homeless in Ft. Lauderdale. It seems that the city, along with 33 others in the country, have passed ordinances that make life even more difficult than it is for the homeless in the hopes that they will move on. The council has made feeding the homeless almost impossible outside of a very well-appointed shelter or a restaurant. Mark was supposed to appear in court Monday but someone probably thought that jailing a priest during Holy Week for feeding the homeless would just garner the city another round of terrible press. So it was postponed. But Mark and his partners in this mission are just doing what Jesus said to do in Matthew 25: feeding Jesus by feeding the least of his siblings.
What's really interesting is Jesus' interaction with Peter. At first the outspoken fisherman wants nothing to do with Jesus washing his feet. Jesus in effect says to him, “But this is what I do—I serve people. If you don't let me do that, you really aren't a part of me and my mission.” At a recent reception at another church in the Keys, a man tripped and fell headlong into the refreshment table. Quicker than anyone else could react, all 3 off-duty nurses at the event were there were at his side. It doesn't matter than one of us was retired and another was no longer actively nursing; we reacted because we are nurses. If someone needs first aid we are on it like white on rice. It's what we do and what we are. The same is true for Christians. If someone is in need, we should be on it like red on a Holy Week stole. It's what we do and what we are.
Once Peter realizes that he must let Jesus wash his feet, he goes in the opposite direction. “Wash the rest of me!” he says. But Jesus says, “You don't need a bath; just a footwashing.” Jesus is concentrating on what is needed at the moment. He is not setting up a footwashing business, much less a spa; he is doing the task at hand. So Jesus is not saying to us, “Do psychotherapy on your troubled neighbor or coworker,” but “Listen to their troubles. ” He's not saying, “Become this homeless guy's social worker,” but “Feed him.” He's not saying, “Solve all the world's problems,” but “Love and serve your neighbor, right here, right now.”
Of course, you may feel called into a more organized ministry, to start one or to join an existing one. You can always refer the troubled person to therapy if you realize that what they need is beyond your abilities or resources. But the main thing is to do what is necessary when it needs to be done. The Red Cross knows that the first and hardest step in first aid is just getting people to do something. Folks tend to wait until someone else acts. If just one person goes to the rescue of somebody, other people will also respond. Jesus knew that. So he set us an example...of humility, yes, but mostly of love. If we are his followers, we need to do likewise. We need to be ready to get our hands dirty, and do the messy job of loving one another.