* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Monday, April 13, 2015

John 13: Washing Feet

As you may recall, a few passages back in the story, Mary (sister of Lazarus) lavished expensive perfume on Jesus' feet, and the disciples were somewhat irate (one in particular). Now, in the first paragraphs of John 13, Jesus humbles himself and washes the disciples' feet. As is par for the course in all of the gospel narratives, the disciples don't quite get it, at least not at the time.

Yes, we have to decide what to do with the assertion that the devil put something into Judas' heart that made his impending betrayal a foregone conclusion. Actually, the way the gospel of John keeps preparing the reader with dramatic foreshadowing about Judas' betrayal is quite interesting. It's as if the authors recognize that everyone already knows the story, and their job is to help place meaning on the details. They do this from their own perspective, of course, but they can't actually know some of the things they assert. 

Case in point, they can't know that a supernatural influenced Judas in any way. It was part of their worldview that demons and angels were active in the lives of people, primarily because they had no other explanation for some of what they experienced. Disease was mysterious. Epilepsy and depression and schizophrenia were not even meaningful concepts. As with many people today, luck and coincidence seemed less likely reasons for certain turns of events than the idea that supernaturals were influencing reality in one way or another. We are still prone to making up stories about why people do the things they do, and the idea of demonic influence is still a hot topic in our fictions. 

Human behavior has human causes. I don't know that there was an actual Judas, but even in the story, I don't know what was in the mind of the character Judas. I know what the authors of John believed about the situation, but I also know that human behavior is never the result of a supernatural force. Judas' "devil" was his own thoughts and beliefs, his own fears about himself and others. This is influential enough to account for the whole spectrum of human behavior. 

Beliefs are powerful, especially fear-laden beliefs. When we read of Judas' betrayal later in the narrative, it would behoove us to interpret the devil entering his heart as his own fears running rampant and unchecked. Although Judas presumably has the same capacity as anyone else for rational thought and intentional management of his fear, he will choose to let his fear guide his behavior. We know people (and we ourselves may sometimes be those people) who continue to let their fear guide their behavior. If we know what to look for, it's easy to see it when it's happening, just as the Jesus character may have seen the telltale signs of fear in Judas' demeanor.

The Jesus character doesn't react with his own fear about Judas. He doesn't kick Judas out. He doesn't plead with Judas. He doesn't berate and embarrass Judas in front of everyone. He doesn't tell Judas that he's wrong. He doesn't argue with Judas. The Jesus character just continues with his own intentional actions with the barest acknowledgment that he knows what's cooking in Judas' mind. The Jesus character keeps teaching and modeling a way of being, even though he is fairly certain that all of his instruction will be lost on this person who is so wrapped up in his own fear that he can't see anything else. 

Much has been written in Christian circles about the foot washing scene. It's often a highlight of religious services the Thursday before Easter. In some traditions, this day is called "Maundy Thursday," a name derived from the Latin for "mandate" or "command," taken from the statement at John 13:34, "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another." The demonstration of love in washing their feet is only the most recent of many examples of Jesus' love for others. The example set in the story is that love is more powerful than fear -- that in our lives, love-centered behavior is preferable to fear-driven actions.

This is true in our personal relationships as it is true in our professional decisions. If we are driven by fear, we will inevitably act in a way that harms other people and ourselves. If we are principled in our decisions, we are more apt to make decisions with integrity. Saying that love should be at the heart of what we do is not to say that foolish decisions are justifiable if we make those decisions with loving intentions. Wisdom and thoughtfulness are still worthy ideals. We might get side-tracked by a flimsy definition of love as an affectionate emotion. If love is defined as demonstrative concern for another's well-being, however, it becomes clearer that we must be thoughtful in order to contribute meaningfully to actual well-being in someone's life.

The Jesus character in this passage demonstrates concern for the well-being of his closest friends by serving them in a way they don't expect. He takes a vulnerable, humble position with them, and yet he still has his own clear boundaries. When Simon Peter protests, the Exemplar doesn't shift his actions, he gently and firmly explains that he is being thoughtful and intentional in his decision. 

Life is full of stress and anxiety. Even though we may not have a friend and teacher about to be executed, and even though we may not be driven into hiding because our group has attracted unwanted attention from authorities, we have no trouble finding things to be anxious about. When we are humbly thoughtful of how we might be of service to other people, it might shift our perspective away from the focus on anxiety that tends to be our default. The Exemplar in this story is not seeking after his own power or fame or reward. He is committed to a particular way of being because it resonates with his deepest values. He wants his closest friends to get that, to see their own potential for living that level of integrity.

We cannot honestly care only for ourselves. Our actions influence other people. We can't not be connected to others. This being the case, it's worth a little consideration how we will influence others. Our fears will suggest certain courses of action. Our deepest values will suggest a different way of being. We get to choose which we will follow. 

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