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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Rising from the Dead 2: You will never wash my feet

2. "You will never wash my feet."

I guess I've spilled a lot of ink, as have others, on John's version of just what "Do this in memory of me" means. What caught me ear this year though was Peter's line, repeated in our song during the foot washing, and, strangely, addressed in a throwaway line between the rite and the intercessions by our pastor, a line that could have been an entire homily. (I don't remember the line, I only remember that the way I received it stuck with me.) The idea was this: Peter was appalled by Jesus's action, but not so much by the fact that Jesus washed his feet, but that, as a disciple, he was going to have to do so as well. He saw that in the action, before Jesus had said anything to them.

We had just finished working through some of the ideas in Crossan's book How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Is God Violent? An Exploration from Genesis to Revelation, and I had cross referenced some of the ideas there with two other books. One was Derek Flood's Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did (are these titles too much, or what?) and books by Bernard Brandon Scott and Borg/Crossan on St. Paul and his metamorphosis-though-literary-assimilation from a radical disciple of Jesus to an apologist for accommodation to the Roman empire. The book about Paul, in short, make the case for Paul the Jewish Christian, and for distinguishing between the actual letters and letters edited or written under his name by others. They note the sharp distinctions between the radical Christian equality in Paul's texts that proclaim that in Christ there is "no Jew or Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, (Gal. 3:28)" and then in other (assumedly not Pauline) places make clear distinctions in all cases. That's all by way of background, because I want to focus on "neither slave nor free," and bring in the Letter to Philemon here, along with the words of Galatians quoted above.

So in the Last Supper story in the gospel of St. John, "Jesus took a towel," stripped, and washed the disciples' feet. We say this over and over again. We act in out in our Holy Thursday liturgy, and pick liturgical nits about who is qualified to get their feet washed by the slave. But we don't really deal with the reality being expressed here. The master, the one who has led the trek from Galilee to Jerusalem over the months and years of his ministry, the healer, the spell-binding story teller and teacher, the paterfamilias at the table of the disciples, does something so radical that, in our much more egalitarian society, we cannot imagine. The one at the top of the honor system among their peers, the one whom every apostle and disciple, apparently, right up to his death and even afterward, thought to be the promised Messiah who would deliver Judea and Galilee from Roman occupation, literally takes the social position of a slave, removes his outer garments, and washes the feet of (at least) the twelve. This stomach-churning reversal must have blind-sided them. The unfiltered Peter, in John's account, can only blurt out, "You will never wash my feet."


This event is not mentioned in any of the synoptics, nor is it mentioned in any of the Pauline or universal letters. However, Bruce Chilton in Authenticating the Activities of Jesus (Brill Academic, Boston, Leiden 2002) cites a "criterion of coherence" with several strains of "greatest/least" and "servant/master" sayings in the synoptics, and with Pauline themes like the hymn in Philippians 2 about the kenosis of Christ. Chilton (and others) see Jesus, and later, the church, as symbolically taking on and ultimately subverting the class distinction that is slavery. Jews were allowed to have slaves, but recall that their foundational experience, whether you start from the captivity and work backward or Egypt and work forward, is one of slavery, and so within the ethical memory of the nation there is an antipathy to slavery, the same one from which the sabbath proscription on work arose.

Along with the Galatians assertion of "in Christ, there is neither slave nor free," we have the happy little letter to Philemon to which to look for insight as well. In that letter, Paul exhorts a friend, one of his own, to manumit the slave Onesimus, and perhaps to let him (Paul) keep him as an assistant. The whole story is only understood, we don't have all the details. But Onesimus apparently did something legal, i.e. go to his master's friend, Paul, to plea with his master for his freedom. While with Paul, Onesimus was converted to Christianity, which put everybody in a bind. So Paul is attempting to persuade (not bully or guilt-trip) his friend into freeing Onesimus as a brother in Christ, thus being able to keep an assistant and save the former slave from punishment, even death.

This is all to say that slaves were a very low form of humanity in these times, lower than servants (The Greek word doulos translates both "slave" and "servant" as well as other meanings in a complicated, often subjective, process.) Servants were trusted household employees, in some cases, almost members of the family; slaves, not so. No Jewish slave would be allowed to wash feet (see footnote to John 13:5 in NABRE.) And in the household narrative of the Last Supper, there were tasks servants would do as part of the meal preparation and service as well as guest hospitality, but the work of washing feet was solely the work of slaves. Paul's famous use of a pre-existing Christian hymn in Philippians uses the word doulos to describe Jesus taking "the form of a slave." Indeed, John sees the humiliation of Jesus in the washing of the feet as a sign pointing both to his humiliating death and to his "descent" from divinity to "pitch his tent among us." Thus there is that "criterion of coherence" that resonates with us who try to imitate the master, and who hear his word from other gospel accounts that "whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of all," and "the greatest among you must be your servant."

So imagine Peter, getting his feet washed, but having grown up in a world with slaves, and servants, and masters, and probably having some commerce with all. Imagine Peter, in Jesus's inner circle, having given up his fishing business in Galilee and putting his hopes on this itinerant rabbi, who might be the Messiah who would overthrow Rome: what might be in it for him? I'm sure there was danger in the air: maybe Jesus arranged with Judas for the meeting with the Sanhedrin, willing to lay down his life rather than risk a riot during the holiday, who knows? Certainly the parabolic entry into Jerusalem amid the crowd ahead of Passover, and the little dust-up in the Temple would have put the disciples on edge; the secret arrangements for the upper room read like a Cold War setup for an encounter among spies. And now, in that context, at a meal on or near passover, Jesus the master washes their feet, acting for all the world like a slave. Peter has signed on as a disciple, and if the stories are to be believed, had blustered his faithfulness with the best of them. Now the master is acting like a slave. He doesn't even have to verbalize the conclusion, which they all would have seen as he did it:
So when he had washed their feet [and] put his garments back on and reclined at table again, he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you?
You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am.
If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.
I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.i
Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him.
If the Master does it, the disciple does it. Peter's horror isn't about the humiliation of Jesus: it's about the humiliation of Peter, who has a few more lessons to learn before the end of the narrative. The difficulty of Peter's conversion will be attested throughout Acts of the Apostles, especially when he waffles on the question of circumcision in the inclusion of Gentiles at the Council of Jerusalem. But these lessons serve him well, as he learns to serve at the feet of the master, the Lord who serves as a slave.

Summary: Resurrection is the transformation of our past, a "new song," because God is creating, "doing something new." The risen world in Christ is utterly egalitarian, no male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free.

The two books about the radical (i.e. "original, real") St. Paul:

The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge by Bernard Brandon Scott

The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church's Conservative Icon, by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan