The Work of a Slave

When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, he stressed the importance of what he was doing. Likewise, when he passed the bread and the wine, he stressed the importance of what he was doing. Both acts were to be remembered and done in memory of Jesus. And both are to this day, although the footwashing is not anywhere near as common as the eating and drinking of the bread and wine.

What is it about the footwashing that has put it into a very low second place? Logistics may have something to do with it but a look at its meaning, the sign that Jesus is giving us, probably has a lot more to do with our not even talking about it all that much. In the Greco-Roman world, it was slaves who washed the feet of their masters and their masters’ guests. That Jesus would do the work of a slave must have been shocking at the time and still is, if we consider the implication that imitating Jesus’ act is not confined to literally washing the feet of others but entails acting as a slave to others. Fundamentally, being a slave means to be in the hands of another person. If we are supposed to put ourselves into the hands of others like this, what does this say about trying to enslave another human being? Jesus himself was about to put himself into the hands of others with the result that he would be crucified. If the disciples still remembered the anointing of the feet of Jesus by Mary of Bethany six days ago, that too would have added to their discomfort. This discomfort extends to the parallel versions of this story

The woman ( or women) in the Gospel stories poured out her very substance (the expense of the perfume or oil) in devotion to Jesus. Likewise, Jesus poured out his very self to his disciples in washing their feet just as he was about to pour out his life for all people to put an end to the violence that includes the enslaving of other people. In those Gospel stories, the women were commended as examples of discipleship. If Jesus thought these women were such good examples, it makes sense that Jesus was humble enough to learn from them and do for his disciples what the women had done for him. There is no indication in any variant of the story that the disciples were reconciled to what the women had done. Did Peter take umbrage at Jesus for washing his feet because he associated it with the women as much as he associated it with slavery?

With the bread and wine, Jesus again poured himself into the two elements just as he poured out his life on the cross. So it is that the footwashing and the Eucharist both mean the same thing. We have put up with the Eucharist more than the footwashing because we have been able to sidestep this meaning by arguing about the metaphysics of Jesus’ presence. But the real presence of Jesus is his pouring himself into the hands of others and through them, the hands of his heavenly Abba. Paul knew this very well but we also conveniently forget that the context of his recalling the Last Supper is to upbraid the Corinthians for violating its meaning through denigrating the weaker and poorer members of the assembly.

Jesus rebuked Peter for refusing to have his feet washed, warning him that he would have no share in him. (Jn. 13: 8) This warning converts Peter so powerfully that he goes overboard and asks to be washed all over. He has allowed Jesus to be a slave to him so that he could be a slave to Jesus and all people. This conversion did not prevent him from denying Jesus three times but it allowed him to hear the cock crow and then to affirm his love to the Resurrected Jesus three times. This is what both the footwashing and the Eucharist are all about.

The First Supper

AndrewWashingFeet - CopyBy the time Jesus gathered with his disciples for what is called “the last supper,” not only had the social tensions in Jerusalem reached a point where all parties agreed that Jesus must be put to death, but the tensions among Jesus’ disciples had formed against him as well. The disciples’ fighting over who was the greatest, their incomprehension of his predictions that he would be put to death and their collective disapproval of the woman who anointed Jesus with oil all led to this point. In their current collective frame of mind and heart, there was a real possibility that all of them would either join the crowd in crying for crucifixion, or would band together after his death as a tightknit rebellious group united by resentment over the death of their leader, thus thwarting the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to proclaim. Jesus had one last chance to do something that would keep his life and intentions alive for his disciples. He did two things.

The first thing Jesus did was wash the feet of his disciples. The act was so simple that anybody could do it, even a child. If the disciples follow this simple command, they will not have time to harbor resentment over their master’s death and plot vengeance for the deed. Instead, this simple act that embodies love and concern for others will cause that love and concern to grow within their hearts and drive out resentment and a desire for revenge. If more and more people imitate each other in imitating Jesus in this action, then the entire social order of the day will crumble around the communal life that emerges through this simple action.

The second thing Jesus did was tell them to eat bread that was his body and drink wine that was his blood in remembrance of him. Jesus was not just telling the disciples that he was about to die for them. That would be comprehensible, if unsettling. Rather, Jesus was telling them that his very life was being given to them. Jesus was not giving himself as a corpse in the hope that the world might become a better place if enough people felt bad about killing him. Jesus was giving himself as a living being. Only when Jesus disciples broke bread and passed the cup of wine in memory of Jesus would they begin to realize the extent to which the living Jesus was giving them his life, life that he possessed in abundance in spite of the fact that he had been nailed to a cross and left to hang there until dead.

This is why Jesus was hosting the first supper of a new beginning for us all.

For comments on Passover see Eucharist (1)