This Thursday at Mass, the priest washes the feet of parishioners. It is a ritual humility imitating what Jesus did for his disciples and it can be quite moving. No telling how many sermons I have heard saying that the disciples did not understand what Jesus was doing. No disrespect, but I really believe that’s pretty much backwards – it seems to me, the disciples understood perfectly what Jesus was doing and they were horrified. It messed up all their plans.
First, a little background on Palm Sunday
On Palm Sunday, just before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the mother of James and John comes to Jesus and asks that her sons be made #2 and #3 in Jesus’ kingdom. This is so wrong! First of all, good grief – they send their mother? And then second – haven’t they even been listening? What in the ministry of Jesus could possibly have given them the impression that Jesus was in the business of giving worldly rank to his disciples? It’s Palm Sunday and these disciples are not exactly on the same page as Jesus.
So anyway, their mother asks and Jesus says “no”. It’s in Matthew 20:20ff. The other ten disciples hear about it and they get mad because James and John are trying to gain advantage secretly. So Jesus has to explain to everybody that it’s not about having rule over each other – that the kingdom of God is about being a servant to everybody else, not about being a big shot.
Then that same day they enter Jerusalem with the hosanna’s and the palms and the people praising Jesus… and it’s not all that hard to imagine that the disciples get their hopes for worldly power built up. After all, everybody seems to love Jesus. He is in the capital city and tens of thousands of people are there for Passover and they are praising Jesus. Maybe Jesus will really take over this time, like the disciples think he should. And maybe their hopes and plans for prominence will really happen… The disciples are not right to think this way, but it is understandable.
Jump forward to Thursday night
Then four days after these disciples have been throwing elbows to get power when Jesus is made king, Jesus gets up during the Last Supper, takes off some of his clothes and starts washing the disciples’ feet. This is shocking behavior. Peter (surprise!) gives voice to what they must have all been thinking. “Never shall you wash my feet!” Everybody knows the rest of the story, how Jesus does wash their feet – then he tells them that if he, the Lord and teacher, wash their feet, then they ought to do the same thing for each other. It’s all in John 13:1ff.
It seems almost a sure thing to me. Of course, they understood what he taught them. Who could possibly miss the point of the role-reversal that Jesus plays when he washes their feet?
They understood, but they didn’t like it, the teaching didn’t “set well” with them. These disciples still want to see Jesus sitting on a proper king’s throne and they want to enjoy the advantages of being his best friends. Washing feet is not part of the plan. These guys hope to take over. How else do we understand their utter confusion and panic when everything blows up and Jesus is arrested and tried and crucified?
If I’m right about the disciples’ reaction, then it’s a lot like what we still do
These disciples knew what Jesus wanted them to understand that night. And they knew how it would look if they actually did what he taught them. After all, they have been with him through most of his ministry, they would know how to imitate him. If I’m right about their reaction to the foot washing, then there are things that still have not changed their character, things they still don’t want to actually put into practice, even though they understand these things.
Isn’t it the same with me, and maybe with you?
Here’s a personal example. This is real. Not all that long ago, there was a person who opposed a ministry of mine with obstacles and behind-the-back maneuvers and petty slights and indignities. Who played one-upsmanship games from within this ministry and did all this in plain view. Drove me up the wall!!
Now Jesus had already told me what to do in this case, told me in no uncertain terms. He told me to pray for this person. To make sure that everything I did in his regard was for his benefit. Jesus told me never to return evil for evil to this person. Here’s the humiliating part – it took me almost a year before I started doing and acting like Jesus told me. And when I finally called my refusal “sin” and finally decided that Jesus really means for me to do what he says, it was as hard as anything to bend my will to his.
Why? Because I had plans for this ministry (just like his disciples had plans when they entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday) and my plans sure didn’t include all this petty opposition. Because if I did what Jesus told me to do, I would not have the satisfaction of “winning”. Because my ego was hurt. Because I wanted to be a Christian without having to suffer. Because when Jesus says “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and still you do not do the things I tell you” – well, I wanted that to apply to other people, not to me.
But eventually I did what Jesus said.
And eventually, after Jesus was resurrected, the disciples also began to exercise a humble ministry in imitation of Jesus washing their feet. They played a critical role to change the world forever when they started doing things Jesus’ way. Perhaps the same thing could happen for me, too.
Sometimes, I don’t want to do things Jesus’ way because I have plans that don’t “fit” with his instructions.
It is a continual conversion to the will of God when I allow Jesus’ way to rule my life.
Mary had plans, too, but she laid them aside for God. Look what that got us.