Washing feet and continual conversion

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 20:20ffThe 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.

Have this mind in you

The second chapter of Philippians is a mountain peak of Christian thought, describing the almost incomprehensible humility of Jesus in becoming human – and urging us to have that same humility.  Can St. Paul really be serious?  Sure, Jesus is my example in all things, yet how can I even hope to imitate the super-human humility of Jesus?  I can’t even imagine imitating Mary, much less the very Son of God she bore.

Let’s look in detail at Philippians 2

Here is a link to the whole second chapter of Philippians.

Since the context is the humility of Jesus, here is a post I wrote a few days ago that I hope will illuminate what Jesus’ humility is.

The first few verses of Philippians 2 are St. Paul’s detailed instructions in how a Christian can imitate the humility of Jesus.

If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing.  Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others.  Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus.   Philippians 2:1-5


If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy

St. Paul doesn’t say “if” in the sense of maybe-so-maybe-not.  He says “if” in the sense that when you examine your experience as a Christian, you do find these things present.  He reminds us that these are, in fact, the things that we receive both from God and from Christian fellowship in Christ.  If these things are present (encouragement and comfort and working in partnership with God and the fruit of Christian love), then there is no doubt we are in the Church and thus in Christ.

These become our motive to greater perfections, including the humility he is about to bring up in the passage.

complete my joy

Paul speaks as the spiritual leader of these people.  He is an apostle.  He teaches with authority.  He was the founder of the Church in Philippi and suffered deeply and physically for these people and for Jesus.  It is no small thing that the Philippians “complete his joy”.  Yet, this urging by Paul goes deeper – it fits in perfectly with the instructions he is about to give, instructions that help to define two things.  First, what he urges defines what it means to be “church”.  Second, it’s a definition of what it means to be humble.

by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing

I know a priest whose constant theme is to warn against what he calls “rampant individualism” both in society and in the Church.  Part of what he means is the attitude that no one can tell me what to think, I don’t need to fit in with anybody unless it suits me to do so – the attitude that somehow it is noble and strong always to chart one’s course independent of the thinking of others.

But that’s not how Christians do things.  According to Paul in this passage, unity and cohesion and agreement are highly important aspects of Christianity.  “I did it my way” has no place in the Church.

If you think about it, there’s a simple reason Paul has to be right.  Our goal as Christians is to imitate Jesus.  If we each come to resemble Jesus – if we try to make his motives our own, as well as his behavior – then it has to be that we will be of the “same mind” and the “same love”.  How could two people imitate Jesus and not end up similar to each other?

It is the essence of Christian humility to bow before Jesus, wanting nothing more than to obey and imitate him.  This is how we play our part in making the Church “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic”.  To be a good Christian, I must consciously refuse to insist on my way of thinking as the best way.  How do I do that?  How do I understand what it means to imitate and obey Jesus?  I do it by studying and obeying God’s word and the Sacred Tradition, by knowing the Church’s magisterial teaching and honoring it with my assent and my behavior.  This doesn’t mean I am a robot – it means I am a brother or sister of Jesus doing my best to bring Christ to the world around me.

Know what they call that?  Humility.

Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others.

Here’s the part about humility.  The post I put up earlier this week, and cited above, argues that what Paul describes here as always doing and being for others and for God is humility.  This is how Jesus lived his life, never varying from this wonderful focus on other people and on God the Father.

Jesus says to us “it is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher” (Matthew 10:25).  So do you want to know when you have done and been and thought “enough” for God?  It is when you imitate Jesus.  And Paul is telling us to imitate Jesus in the way we conduct ourselves in Church.  We must always be looking out for the other person, not for ourselves.  We must never cause trouble or dissension in the Church, unless somehow there is evil within the Church.  And even if we do find evil to oppose within the Church, our motive must continue to be the benefit of other people and the glory of God.

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus.

The “same attitude” Paul refers to is humility.  Paul goes on in the next six verses in the chapter to describe how God the Son lived his humility in ever-increasing degrees – how that humility played its crucial role in our salvation – and how that humility in the end resulted in an unimaginable degree of glory conferred on the god-man Jesus Christ.  He was glorified because of his humility.

If we imitate Jesus in the matter of humility, doing the best we can to obey and love (they are the same thing), then we also will inherit from this same Jesus a degree of glory beyond our imagining.

Ironic, isn’t it?  God rewards humility with glory.  Thanks be to God!

Nothing that has cursed mankind shall exist any longer; the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be within the city. His servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name will be upon their foreheads. Night shall be no more; they have no more need for either lamplight or sunlight, for the Lord God will shed his light upon them and they shall reign as kings for timeless ages.   Revelation 22:3-5

Imitate Jesus in humility in all things, but especially within the Church.

Always act with the benefit of others and of God as your motive.

Humble yourself and you will reign for timeless ages.  That’s a promise.

Is Jesus humble?

CS Lewis observed an odd thing about the reaction people have to Jesus.  Even people who do not have faith in Jesus almost always believe that Jesus is humble, yet Jesus says seemingly outrageous things like “he who loves mother or father more than me, is not worthy of me” and “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me”.  If a guy at the office said something like that, I sure would not jump to the conclusion he is humble! 

So what’s going on?  Is Jesus humble?

How can anyone who thinks he should be more important to me than my mother be humble? 

This post will list 11 characteristics that seem to me to answer that riddle.  I put them in the deadly-boring bullet point format just to keep the post from being a mile long.  Every point is directly from the Gospels.

  • Jesus was poor, despite the fact he had extraordinary powers.  He had everything it takes to have plenty of money.  How many brilliant, charismatic people who have the ability to perform miracles can you think of who choose to be poor?  I can think of only one.  One time, a fellow came to Jesus and offered to be his disciple.  Before accepting him as a disciple, Jesus told the man that he was himself homeless.  He said birds have nests and foxes have holes, but Jesus says he has nowhere to lay his head.  Luke 9:58
  • Jesus never retaliates.  Even though he knows he is the salvation of the world and that what he says is the standard by which souls will be judged, literally.  Yet when people oppose him, he does not strike out.  In Luke 9:51-56 two of his most prominent disciples ask him to destroy some people with fire because they rejected Jesus – instead, Jesus rebukes the disciples. 
  • He points people away from himself and toward the Father, even at the same time he claims to be the only access to the Father.  It’s odd.  He says things like “the Father and I are one” in John 10 (they try to kill him for saying this) and “no one comes to the Father except through me” in John 14, while at the same time he says other things like “Why do you call me good?  No one is good except God alone” in Luke 18.  Somehow the overall impression is that Jesus directs seekers to God the Father, even as he calls them to be his disciple.
  • He is willing to suffer.  Obviously dying on a Roman cross is the ultimate example of this willingness, but it’s there in smaller things, too.  The authorities are trying to kill him (Matthew 12:14), people chase him out of town because he scares them (Luke 8:37), his own friends in his hometown tried to kill him (Luke 4:28-30), he fasts willingly for 40 days before he begins his preaching ministry.  There is suffering in these things, suffering accepted willingly for other people.
  • The demands Jesus puts on people never serve Jesus in a selfish way.  Jesus puts demands only on people who would find the Father, only on those who would enter the kingdom of God.  These demands are on people who first come to him, not on people he singles out himself.  Even the ones who eventually form the 12 apostles seem to be those who first sought him.  Look at John 1:35ff and at what I posted a few days ago.  The demands of Jesus lead to the Father. 
  • When he rebukes people (which he is quite willing to do when it’s called for), the rebuke is because of some offense given to the Father or to other people.  It’s not because of personal disrespect done to Jesus.  Matthew 23 opens with blistering rebukes to prominent Jewish figures, but not one of these rebukes is for something they did to Jesus.
  • When people reject him, it breaks his heart for their sake, not for his own.  In that same Matthew 23 passage, he tears into the hypocrites, then he expresses the great sorrow of his soul.  His regret is that those same people would not let him heal and comfort them.   “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her!  How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling.”  A proud man would rail.  Jesus mourns.
  • Jesus shows no sinful pride in dealing with friends.  Jesus has to jump Peter’s case several times and can get rough with him.  He even calls him “Satan” in Matthew 16:23 (whoa!), yet it isn’t personal.  He directs Peter’s attention to God and to the will of God.
  • Here’s one I can’t quite put my finger on, but I’m sure it’s right.  Jesus does all these miracles and yet I never get the impression he wants to call attention to himself.  Occasionally he instructs people not to tell anyone about the miracle, but even when he doesn’t do that, the distinct impression is that each miracle is for the sake of other people, not for the sake of Jesus himself.  He never comes off as a show-off.  For that matter, when Satan is tempting Jesus in the wilderness before he begins his public preaching, the first thing Satan tries to get Jesus to do is perform a miracle for his own personal appetite (to avoid starvation) and Jesus refuses.  The miracles are for other people, not Jesus, and that’s humble.
  • John 6 is another one I can’t quite figure out, but I still know it has humility all over it.  This is the passage where Jesus says outrageous things about eating his body and drinking his blood – says these things repeatedly and as the chapter goes on, he says them with increasing confrontation and even with graphic emphasis – he must have seemed insane to the people who heard him, since pretty much everybody abandoned him after this.  Yet… even in this strangest of passages so centered on physical aspects of Jesus, he is concerned only with the benefit of the people who are listening to him.  Even when he talks about himself, he is talking about the benefit of other people and that is remarkable.  He wants to provide these people (and us) with protection from our greatest enemy, death.
  • I end with a quote.  John 5:30.  I do not seek my own will, but the will of him who sent me.”

 These 11 points center in on the answer to CS Lewis’s point and my question

So how can people think Jesus is humble?  They believe Jesus is humble because everything he does, he does for other people, never for himself.  Read the list again and you’ll get the point.  Jesus knows he is the Son of God and the Savior of the world and the Lamb of God and the centerpiece of God’s entire history with humanity.  He knows this, he never denies this.  Yet what he says and does is not about him.  It is about the Father and about the people around him.  When he gets mad, it’s about the people who have been hurt or the Father who has been disrespected.  Miracles?  They are for mercy and faith-building in other people and to bring glory to the Father.  His sermons?  Even when they are about Jesus himself, his purpose is to serve other people.

 Jesus is the perfect embodiment of love for the Father and love for neighbor.  And that makes him humble at exactly the same time he is God.

 It awes me and moves me to understand that the being who created the universe is willing to humble himself, to humiliate himself, because he wants so much to benefit me.

 And humility is not limited only to what Jesus does.  Humility is part of the very nature of Jesus, it is part of his being, not just his behavior.

 I wish I were humble

I have spent the last two Lents and the last two Advents trying to understand what humility is.  I spent a lot of time trying to engender humility in myself.  I haven’t been casual about this.  I have to a considerable extent during these times set aside my regular prayer and study, all in an attempt to cure a serious fault in me and replace it with humility.  Maybe after two years, I’m making some progress.

 I think this eleven-item explanation of Lewis’s point about Jesus seeming humble, I think this has helped me understand what humility is.  Humility is doing (even existing) for the sake of other people and for God.  If deeds of humility draw attention to me (and sometimes they will), then I must use whatever virtue and strength I have to turn the attention to God or to the person I tried to benefit.  When a thought comes to me that (1) I could do this-or-that in order (2) that people will notice and think better of me, then I must shun that thought, must even undertake the good deed in secret as a discipline on my motives.  When I look for practical ways to live the Gospel, I must not look only at public ways.     When I thank God for the chance to do some corporal act of mercy or spiritual act of mercy, my thanks should be entirely for whatever glory was given to God or benefit received by my neighbor.

Jesus always tried to obey the Father and benefit other people.

Even when the attention was on him, it was because Jesus was obeying God or benefitting other people.

This is humility.  I can do it, too, I can live it with God’s help and my resolution.

What kind of reason is that?

Hip hop and rap are mostly about dominance, not weakness.  Video games are about almost nothing else.  Trash talk in sports is the same thing — dominance.  Look a bit below the surface, just a bit, and a great deal of the political discussion (especially as it relates to foreign policy) is about dominance.  Bullying in schools.  Social struggles and international economics – ditto.

Then Jesus pops up and says we should be attracted to him because he is meek and lowly.  Because?  How’s he going to sell something like that?  When Jesus gives what sounds like a weird reason for becoming a Christian (honestly what sounds like a non-reason), there must be something going on.

Jesus says  follow me because I’m weak?  Is that what he means?

As a matter of fact, yes, that does seem to be what he means.  Not weak in the sense of being afraid or unable to endure, but weak in the sense of not dominating other people.  Weak in the sense of even turning the other cheek if someone slaps you.

He says this in Matthew 11.  Jesus has been healing people left and right, yet these folks in Galilee will not accept his message to repent.  It’s clear to everyone that Jesus is powerful, that he works miracles and teaches them in a new way.  Everybody thinks it’s great to be healed and all that, but they will not accept Jesus’ message to change their life.  The text implies he is angry with these stubborn people, but still he invites them to come to him in these gorgeous words:

Come to me all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you shall find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.


The message didn’t sell very well back then and it still doesn’t.  Jesus says a person should follow him because he is gentle and humble in heart.  And here’s what I think is most interesting – this is a guy with powers that are unparalleled in the universe.  He can stop a storm with a word.  Demons obey him.  If a crowd is short on food or on wine, he can simply make some out of nothing.  Sick?  He can cure it.  Dead?  He can fix that, too.  If ever there was a man who could have dominated if he wanted to, it was Jesus!

Yet rather than brag about these powers, and then put a big smackdown on his enemies, what Jesus does is stress his humility and his meekness.  “Come to me… for I am gentle and humble in heart.”

It’s not just some line with him, either.  Jesus definitely pays a price to live humbly.  In Gethsemane, he allows the authorities to arrest him.  Then he lets the Romans and Temple authorities shuffle him from one sham trial to another.  Then he lets them torture him.  Finally, he allows them to kill him in a horrible way.  He could have stopped this anytime he wanted to.  He has super-hero powers anytime he wants to use them.  But he refuses to use these powers even though he deserves none of this because there is love in what he does, and mercy.  It is his purpose to save us and somehow in a way known only to God all this torment allowed him to atone for our sins.  But in addition to the love, there is also humility in this.

So what’s the “because” Jesus is talking about?

The power of humility lies in two things.

First, by being humble I allow you to be yourself.  I allow you to come to me as you are.  The humble person does not impose himself on others, he does not limit another person’s options by choosing to enforce his own will.  Humility never is an aggressor in relations, never violates the rights or dignity of the other person.  If you and I are somehow in relation to each other, my humility gives you choices even if those choices cost me something.

Jesus’ humility doesn’t mean he will not change us.  After all, in the passage above from Matthew 11 he says that we will wear his yoke (which he says is easy) and we will carry his burden (which he says is light).  He will change us, alright.  He will change us into women and men who have learned to love the way he loves.  We will learn to love with humility, without dominance.  We will learn the thing that drew us to him in the first place and drew us as we were.

The second power of humility lies in groups of people and derives directly from this freedom it creates for the other person – when humility belongs to a number of people who are in relation to each other, then community can form between those people that is not based on authority or dominance, but is based on free association.  Humility allows love to form between all the members of a group, because no one coerces another.  To be sure, humility does not create love by itself, but it is the necessary ground within which love develops between the members of a group.

And now the shocking irony…

Jesus is the person most deserving of love ever to live.  Plus, he possesses the wisdom of God and the power of God because he is God.  Plus, he owns us because he made us.  For that matter, we continue to exist for no other reason than that Jesus wills it to be so.  Yet his love for us is so great and our dignity as humans is so significant that Jesus refuses to dominate us.  He comes to us gently and humbly, so that he may draw us and we may come to him freely.  His humility gives me power, power to begin my journey with him even when I am weak and then to become a child of God by loving God with everything in my being.  His humility draws me as I am when I first encounter Jesus, it does not place demands I cannot meet.  And this in turn lets God begin to mold me into the person I was meant to be.  Then as I and others like me become like Jesus in this matter of humility, we are empowered to love each other precisely by the humility which God grows in each of us.  Now church can form and can mature in the ground of the humility grown by Jesus in each of us.

Jesus takes us as we are.  That’s humble.

As we become more like Jesus, we become humble.

And when we become humble like Jesus, we have power to love each other.  That’s church.