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.

Giving Everything and More

The meal at Bethany served by Martha seems to be an ordinary meal but in reality it is extraordinary. To begin with, John explicitly says that it is six days before Passover. This puts the meal in the context of the most solemn festival of the Jewish year. For another thing, Lazarus, the man Jesus raised from the dead, is present. The imminent offering of the paschal lamb and resurrection are both brought together. Even more extraordinary is the extravagant anointing of Jesus’ feet with precious perfume by Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha. Jesus interprets Mary’s action as a preparation for his burial, which he seems to expect is imminent, thus tying his death with the both the Passover and Resurrection. Judas’s protest over this “waste” shows that the hostility against Jesus has reached the inner circle of his disciples.

All four Gospels have a story of a woman who pours expensive ointment or perfume over Jesus, but the differences are striking. Matthew and Mark are very close parallels. Just before the Passover and Jesus’ Passion, an unnamed woman enters the house of Simon the Leper, who lives in Bethany, pours the ointment and dries Jesus’ feet with her hair. The disciples as a group protest the “waste.” This is much the same story as in John except the host is different. (Mt. 26: 6–13), Mk. 14: 3–9) Luke tells the same story except that it is placed much earlier in his Gospel and is not connected to the Passover and the Passion. (Lk. 7: 36–50) That the anonymous woman is called “a sinner” adds a sharp edge to the story. The host is Simon and he is identified as a Pharisee. He grumbles that Jesus should have known the woman was a sinner and elicits a famous parable on sin and repentance. The woman in Matthew and Mark, like the sinful woman in Luke, is so froward with Jesus that she too is considered a loose women if not a sinner. Mary of Bethany in John is more respectable and is a hostess rather than an intruder, which gives the story a very different feel from the other three, but this respectability makes the gesture all the more shocking. Respectable women don’t act this way.

It is intellectually interesting to piece together the symbolism in John and the relationships between the four versions of the story. If we let all of this seep deeply into us, it can be quite spiritually stimulating. But what really connects the women in all four versions is the extravagance of the woman which is warmly commended by Jesus. Even if we are shocked by these women (or woman), we should be even more shocked at ourselves over how little we care about Jesus. Are we like Simon the Pharisee who invited Jesus to his table but showed no affection? Are we like the apostles who complained about the waste? To this day, we tend to look down on this woman, thinking the worst of her, when Jesus would have us look up to her as an example of apostolic zeal. It is worth noting that in Luke Mary of Bethany is the one who sits at the feet of Jesus listening to this teaching while Martha (as in John) serves the meal. Here, Mary of Bethany shows her ardor but in a more contemplative way.

Isaiah proclaims God’s promise to “give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.” In this generosity, God is pouring Godself out as extravagantly as the women with the ointments, and surely God does need see this extravagance as“wasteful.” (Is. 43: 19–21) When Paul writes to the Philippians that he is pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus,” his words gush out like ointment flowing out of control. (Phil. 3: 12–14) Bob Dylan expresses this gush in his song “Pressing on” which repeats these words over and over with greater and greater intensity that becomes overwhelming.

The women and Paul return the overflowing love of God back to God while the rest of us sit back and grumble at the unseemliness of it all. Do we not realize that the women who let their hair down and gush out their love for Jesus will also gush out that same commitment to Jesus who is present in the poor? Meanwhile, the complaining disciples, and especially Judas, don’t really mean to help the poor or anybody else. More importantly, do we not realize that on the Cross, Jesus’ blood will pour forth as did the ointment poured over him? It isn’t that all of us have to be as emotional as these women and Paul, but we do need to be as deeply committed to Jesus so as approach the deep commitment Jesus shows to us. We should take to heart Leonard Bernstein’s directions to a choir and orchestra: “Give me everything you’ve got, and then a crescendo.”

A Scandalous Woman as Extravagant as Jesus

churchDistanceBlossoms - CopyThe synoptic Gospels interlace Jesus’ disciples’ infighting as to who is the greatest with Jesus’ predictions that he will be handed over to the authorities to be crucified. The disciples consistently fail to understand or accept what Jesus is saying to them. Interestingly, the disciples suddenly come to an agreement when a woman enters the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany and pours an enormous amount of costly oil over Jesus. It is telling that it is a corporate condemnation of a marginal person that has united the disciples. To their chagrin, Jesus defends the woman, saying that she has prepared him for burial, precisely the destiny Jesus is facing and the disciples are denying. It is quite possible, however, that for Judas Iscariot, Jesus’ defense of the woman was the last straw. In both Gospels, Judas’ fateful interview with the chief priests follows immediately.

Curiously, Luke has a version of the same story that is detached from the passion narrative. That this woman had a bad name in the town suggests uneasiness with this woman and her extravagant actions. That she shamelessly washes Jesus’ feet with her tears doesn’t help matters. If the disciples were there, one wonders if they agreed with Simon in thinking that Jesus should have known that the woman was a sinner and therefore unworthy of offering such an extravagant gift.

John has a similar, but different account of the anointing of Jesus. The woman is Mary of Bethany and, far from being an intruder into somebody else’s house, she is herself the hostess along with her sister Martha. As in the Lucan story, Mary wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair. This time the gesture is all the more suggestive of things to come as John places the incident just before the Last Supper when Jesus of washes the feet of his disciples. This time, Judas alone objects to the waste. John goes on to say that Judas was upset, not because he cared for the poor, but because he wanted more money in the common treasury for him to steal. The question is: if the disciples unanimously censured the woman as they unanimously opposed Jesus’ predictions of his death, was Judas really the only betrayer? Chances are, Judas was saying out loud what the other disciples were thinking.

The parable of the Prodigal Father tells of the extravagant love of our heavenly father. Isaiah 43 proclaims God’s extravagant gesture of bringing God’s people through a desert overflowing with water. In Philippians, Paul insists that the cross and resurrection are so extravagant that all of his human qualifications are reduced to rubbish. Mary of Bethany shows the same extravagance, an extravagance that makes us uncomfortable to this day. This is the extravagance that embraces the cross and Jesus’ resurrected life and leads to truly caring about the poor and raising them up into a life of generosity for everyone.