In a few minutes we will be reenacting something Jesus modeled for us – by washing feet. Much of its meaning is lost to us moderns who find Jesus’ action foreign. So, the challenge for us is to translate that message for our time.
The shock of Jesus’ action was that only slaves or servants washed feet. Yet, Jesus their master and Lord not only abandoned his social status with his disciples but He also endured the repulsive aspects of this action because, besides dirt, animal dung had a way of sticking to the feet of people. So practically speaking, washing feet created a much more pleasant environment for a meal.
Jesus washed the feet of his disciples as a model of service and love. In doing so, He lowered Himself to the status of a slave showing us what love means. This love was not a feeling but an active and costly self-giving, a lesson He repeated by pouring out His cleansing blood for us. If that's what love meant for Jesus, then as his followers that is what it means for us. He told us, "I have given you a model to follow."
So, for our experience today we need to ask, what are our unpleasant tasks or dirt we need to deal with before our Paschal Meal? Our penitential rite serves to remove the sinful dung of our lives, but there are many other challenging issues to contend with as we relate to one another.
Peter’s response to Jesus raised one of them. He was not going to submit to Jesus’ activity. In his eyes, this humiliating gesture seemed to him to be an inversion of his values that regulated his relationship to Jesus. Peter disapproved of the equality that Jesus wanted to create. In other words, Peter was not ready to share Jesus’ dynamic of love, which is demonstrated in reciprocal service. In doing so he ran the risk of losing his relationship to Jesus.
We all can relate to Peter on that score. We have strong convictions and make them a priority whether they be about ‘Religion and politics’ or ‘marital morality’ or ‘any other issue’ that we challenge the Church on. Jesus told Peter, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet….” Jesus is promoting a value that says love toward others demands acceptance and hospitality in ongoing service.
I see implications to Peter’s response being maintained in us through another perspective, that of domination. And I wonder if those same dynamics have kept people from serving because of the controlling domination of those who serve, like Peter attempted to do. International speaker and sales trainer Grant Cardone says, “If you can’t dominate don’t compete.” If we put that in the context of ‘serving’ it can give us some evidence of why people may be reluctant to serve.
Service is an act of mercy, not a means for self-aggrandizement or for acquiring power - like Obamacare imposes on the Sister of the Poor. Why doesn’t our Supreme Court know we need more foot washers?
The great people of Jesus’ Kingdom are those who serve others and consider themselves the least entitled. They don’t lord their authority over others or want a prestigious title to draw attention to themselves. To acknowledge Jesus as Lord does not lead to domination through service but to a selfless freedom to serve.
A British Medical Journal researched why people desired euthanasia and came to this conclusion: "Participants in their study desired euthanasia or assisted suicide because of disintegration and a loss of community, which combined to create a perception of a loss of self." They saw that their feet were filthy, but no one came by to wash them, and so they conclude that they were not worth washing, and they lost hope and death looked like an attractive solution to their perceived worthlessness. They need someone to wash their feet, to remind them that they still matter. The antidote ‘to our culture of death’ is Christ-like love and Jesus invites us to dispense it, by washing the feet of others.
“As I have done, so you also must do.” Jesus stoops down from the height of his divinity to serve us. He elevates us into divine communion, so that we too can descend and reach out to others. We are to go out to those in chronic poverty, reach out to battered women, the handicapped, the dying, the unborn, and those many nobodies in the eyes of the world. Our society treats them as nothing. So we must become like them, and live for others. Jesus ordered his whole life towards the service of others. So must we.
In last Sunday’s gospel, the events of a sick man who lived in Bethany ignited Jewish leaders to kill Jesus. Bethany means “house of the afflicted.” John’s intent in writing this account is not just about Lazarus but about us all afflicted ones. Lazarus means, "God helps." John saw this story as summarizing all gospel stories.
It begins in need. Lazarus is seriously ill and dies. "God remembers" and Jesus is a concrete sign that God does not forget us humans by coming to our tombs. We suffer many afflictions in our "houses of the affliction." We are Lazarus in our tombs and God has not forgotten us.
Lazarus isn’t the only one suffering dire circumstances. His loving sisters and concerned friends had come to comfort them. But all their support didn’t keep Lazarus from death. This universal "man" needed help in a world where death takes total control over us. We are on board with St. John as we join him to discover whether "God helps."
His sisters were frustrated with Jesus. Why did he delay and let Lazarus die! Yet, Jesus said, "This illness is not to end in death...." Jesus has power over death and will reveal the "glory of God." God is not a God of death but a God of life. That’s our hope when we live in "a house of the afflicted!" where those we love diminish. Faith in Jesus does not guarantee an easy solution, a cessation of all problems. In fact, things may even get worse. And like the sisters of Lazarus we might ask, "Where is Jesus when you need him!?" Because of Jesus we have the life of God in us, helping us through the losses that afflict us. Death and sin do not have the last word even though it holds us in a seemingly unbreakable grip! Jesus comes to our tombs revealing that God has the word of life! In that word we discover the "glory of God” Who calls us each by name, "come out!"
That call comes to us in our community’s needs, “the house of the afflicted.” The human situation is not beyond the hope of Jesus’ healing words to "Come out." Then He tells those nearby, "Untie him and let him go." At our Eucharist his word helps us, forgives our sins, and then sends us on mission to take His words and deeds to raise others to life. We now are given a new life to live and become Christ’s instruments for the life of our world. Jesus continues to come among us to raise up disciples to develop the potential of all human beings.