The foot washing scene moves immediately to several chapters of theological monologue. In some respects, these passages express a sort of theological framework for the community of the authors. In other respects, these passages seem to be intended as encouragement to people who are being persecuted. The obvious intention is for the reader to identify with the disciples in the story, as a recipient of the promises, directives, and encouragement of the Jesus character. We will continue to explore these writings from the perspective that the Jesus character is intended as an exemplar with whom the reader could identity. The concluding paragraphs of John 13 include some plot devices that make this a little more challenging, however, so we'll see what use we can make of it.
First, Jesus finishes washing the feet of his disciples and proclaims that someone among them will betray him. He seems disturbed by this, according to the text, and he and Simon Peter engage in a little subterfuge, working out a secret sign to reveal the betrayer. Of course, the readers already know the tale, but this singles Peter out as someone special -- someone in the inner circle. We've already explored how the metaphor of Satan entering Judas represents him being driven his own fearful thoughts and beliefs. It's odd that Peter doesn't stand up and accuse Judas, given the implication of the secret message exchange with Jesus, but for whatever reason, he doesn't let the cat out of the bag to the other disciples.
This is probably just as well, since by the end of the chapter, Jesus will make the unsettling prediction that Peter will also soon betray their friendship. It's important to remember that the gospels that made it into the Bible are stories with a narrative structure, and stories need some elements to keep the plot moving forward. Probably, we could comment that every relationship will have moments in which one party throws the other under the bus, valuing personal pride or apparent safety over loyalty or devotion. People are complicated, so relationships are bound to be complicated. It's what the authors have Jesus say in between the announcement of Judas' betrayal and the forecasting of Peter's betrayal that actually provides a meaningful framework for complicated relationships.
Here, the authors put forth a "new commandment": Love one another. There are obviously old commandments. Most simply, we could view the "ten commandments" as the old covenant that the Israelites perceived as their responsibility to uphold. There are a lot of other laws and commandments in Hebrew Scripture that are proclaimed as divinely authoritative, but some of these laws are clearly peculiar to an ancient culture. By contrast, the "thou shalt nots" of the ten commandments are generally moral and ethical admonitions that most people can agree with. Don't kill people. Don't steal things. Don't commit adultery. Don't lie. We quickly invent exceptions, of course, but we generally agree with the ethical premises.
The exceptions are where we get into trouble, though. Many times, we make exceptions to moral and ethical principles because we are afraid of something. "I'm afraid I'll get into big trouble, so I'll just tell a little lie." "We're afraid that our loved ones aren't safe, so it's alright if we kill someone else's loved ones to prevent them from hurting us." "I'm afraid that I'm not lovable, so I'll indulge in someone else's affection, even though I know it's wrong to betray the trust of my partner." Our exceptions, whether we realize it or not, are steeped in fear about ourselves or other people, and when we come up with enough exceptions, the ethical principles have little value.
Even when people consider their ethical principles to be commandments from God, they orchestrate clever arrays of exceptions. Then, they orchestrate convoluted processes by which their exceptions can be excused. People wind up with complicated patterns of exoneration behavior (going to church, doing some kind of social work, praying for forgiveness, etc.) in order to make up for equally complicated integrity gaps. "I hold this ethical principle, except in the following 219 special circumstances."
Many believers are even sketchy with regard to the old commandments to honor God and keep the sabbath holy. They define God as a supernatural who agrees with their perspective. They define keeping the sabbath holy as going to church, or watching it on television, or at least praying for their team before they sit down in the bleachers at the stadium. And these principles were already squishy two thousand years ago. This is not really a commentary on current society. The Jewish religious leaders had to invent a convoluted set of laws to put boundaries on just how far one could reasonably go to skirt the ethical principles.
Some will say that the old commandments are still in place, and this is true to the extent that we all agree on many of the ethical principles. To put a Humanist spin on the whole array: We are better off honoring our own authentic selves than trying to live up to some externally defined standard of success or worthiness. We are better off when we set aside time for rest and introspection. We are better off when we are impeccable with our word. We are better off when we consider the loving advice of our elders, even when we wind up disagreeing with that advice and heading in a different direction. We are better off when we are committed to finding non-violent solutions. We are better off when we are honest, when we honor the trust of our relationships, when we recognize our own abundance. We are better off when we manage our own anxiety about not measuring up and we relax into living with integrity and intention. And we are better off when we let other people express their own authentic selves without believing that we need to convince them, compete with them, correct them, or condemn them.
The authors, through the character of Jesus, are trying to simplify all of that. They are attempting to simplify the convoluted guidelines that define the laws that clarify the ethical principles. Perhaps they are even hoping to stem the potential for excuses and complex patterns of behavior to make the excuses palatable. Love one another. Act in ways that reflect genuine regard for one another's well-being. Ask yourself before you say or do what you are about to say or do, "Will this demonstrate love?" If the answer is Yes, go right ahead. If the answer is No, reconsider your decisions.
Who is one another, then? Did the authors mean just the disciples sitting in the room with Jesus? Probably not. They are writing these words to a community of people generations after the events of the narrative were supposed to have happened. Does one another just apply to members of the same community, then? So, show love to people who believe the same things you do, but you aren't obligated to demonstrate love toward anyone else? This is certainly the way some people seem to interpret it. This seems like another clever way of making excuses for claiming an ethical or moral position and still getting to treat people however you want to.
The point of having a "new commandment" is to establish a guiding principle for the community that is in some way superior to the previous principle(s) by which the community made decisions. Meaning, the authors are suggesting that if people "love one another," there won't be any need for rules about avoiding specific behaviors. People who love one another don't kill each other. People who love one another don't lie about each other. People who love one another don't steal from each other. They don't let their fear provoke them into doing harm or taking things personally. If "love one another" is taken seriously, without leaving room for excuses when love is inconvenient or uncomfortable, you don't need a long catalog of rules or an itemized list of what to avoid.
It isn't always clear what the most loving action would be in certain situations. There is certainly room for discussion about how to create the greatest good for the greatest number of people. That's rarely our motivation, though. Our motivation is more often, How can I seem loving at the least cost to my own sense of safety and comfort? This new commandment the authors are suggesting to their community takes a lot of thought and lot of work. It requires people to be very intentional in the way they treat people. It isn't weak or easy, and most people simply don't buy it.
Love people. How many excuses just popped into your head? Who do you think you don't have to love? What problems can't be addressed by love? What are you unwilling to give up when it comes to loving other people?
Part of our problem is a flimsy definition of love. We might reasonably define love as demonstrable concern for another's well-being. There is an element of compassionate connection in the word perhaps, but there is nothing about love that requires permissiveness, or giving up one's own authentic self for the sake of someone else's comfort. Love, as a foundational value, directs us toward actions that align with the guiding principle that every person has inherent worth and dignity. Love as a principle holds us accountable in a very different way from a checklist of avoided misdeeds.
Love one another. Respect other people's boundaries, and be clear about your own boundaries.
Love one another. Do what is within your means to contribute to the well being of people around you without being judgmental or condescending.
Love one another. Care for yourself well enough that you will be able to offer your best to others.
Love one another. Take responsibility for only what you are responsible for, and let other people be responsible for their own feelings, beliefs, and decisions.
Love one another. Listen compassionately without trying to fix people.
Love one another. Seriously. Get to the heart of what that means, and make your life about that. This is no small adjustment or simple task. This is a lifelong commitment to a deep value that permeates every relationship.
Love one another. When it starts to settle in that this is not a platitude, but that this is the very core of what it means to be fully human, you'll be on the right track.