Fr. George Smiga
March 28, 2013
In the reading that we have just heard from the Gospel of John, we are told that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet on the night before he died. Moreover, Jesus tells us that he has done this action as a model for us. So the question is: what is Jesus asking us to model? What is there in the washing of his disciples’ feet that we are meant to follow? There are a variety of ways to answer this question.
Foot-washing is, of course, a role of service. So, one meaning for foot-washing is as an example of how we should serve one another. You can’t argue with that. Yet before the foot-washing, the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus loved his disciples and now he was going to love them till the end. His action of foot-washing, therefore, was an act of love. Taken from this perspective, what he was modeling is that we should follow his command and love one another as he has loved us.
These are both good ways of interpreting the foot-washing. But there is another possibility that comes from centering on Jesus’ words: “You call me Master and Teacher.” If we look at these words, then we have to ask ourselves, “What does it mean when a teacher washes the feet of his disciples or when a master washes the feet of his servants?” Here foot washing is more than love and service. It is inversion. It is overturning our expectations. It is messing with the structures of our world.
You see, the way that the world works is to always push us upward. Things should be bigger and better. We want more money, more influence, more friends, more opportunities. We live for that promotion, for that compliment, for that success. The world calls us to be greater. So what happens when someone who is greater chooses to go down? What happens when someone who is the master chooses to serve?
Well, what happens first is surprise and confusion. But then eventually there is freedom and power. When the master chooses to wash the feet of his servants, that action is a challenge to all the established power and privilege in our world. When someone has something as their right, as their prerogative, and chooses to set that prerogative aside, it creates a freedom to think in a new way. One can begin to imagine a world that is not based on a hierarchy, a hierarchy that says some people are valuable and others are not. One can feel free to imagine a kind of service where those who have do not simply choose to give charity to poor people but, in fact, see those who are poor as brothers and sisters.
When privilege is set aside, when the master washes the feet of his servants, then there is freedom and power to see the world anew, to live in a new way. We have certainly seen that kind of freedom and power in the early steps that Pope Francis is making in his ministry—his choice not to wear the red Prada slippers of the Pope but the work shoes of a pastor, his choice not to live in the Papal Palace but in the hotel where the pilgrims stay, his choice on this Holy Thursday not to wash the feet of priests in their carefully pressed surplices in the splendor of St. Peter’s but of young men and women who are inmates in a Roman prison.
When privilege and prerogative are set aside they create freedom and power to see the world in a new way. And such action is not limited just to Jesus and the Pope. All of us in our lives have prerogatives and power. All of us have some things that are rightly ours, privileges that we can claim as our own. What would happen if we decided to set some of those prerogatives aside? What would happen if we said to our sister, “I know it is not my turn to wash dishes tonight, but I know you are having a hard day. I’ll do them for you”? What would happen if we said to someone at work, “This isn’t my job, but I’ll be willing to give you a hand”? What would happen if we say to our spouse, “I know that I have the right to expect understanding and support from you, but I am not going to press that tonight, because you just don’t have the energy to give it”?
Each time we set aside something that is rightfully ours, each time we make the decision to go down rather than to go up, we shake the structures of the world as it is and open new possibilities. Clearly, Jesus is aiming at something more than cleaning his disciples’ feet. He is giving us a gesture that releases a new kind of power, the power to turn things upside down, the power to set people free, the power to build the Kingdom of God.
And of course, if this is what Jesus has done, this now is also what we must do.