“After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:12-17) (see the rest of this reading)
Maundy Thursday celebrates the last supper of Jesus with his disciples, and particularly his action of washing their feet. This is the Biblical introduction of the “servant leader” paradigm. That phrase doesn’t surprise us today; we hear “servant leader” used frequently, but that frequency can limit our understanding of this passage. Jesus is doing something radical here. To be a servant in the first century meant to be of a lower degree of humanity. Whether because of gender (I wrote a whole paper in college about how Jesus is behaving here as a woman), nationality, race, or religion, in ancient Israel you were a servant because you were seen as less than fully human, less than a Jewish man. That Jesus has stooped down to behave like a servant radically controverts the expectations of his disciples and would anyone in his society. Leaders were the most highly elevated. They were carried around on human shoulders and wrapped in purple cloth. They didn’t bend down to wash someone’s feet. Jesus radically transgresses the barriers between him and those who are valued less and tells his followers that this is true leadership.
The Maundy part of this Thursday comes from the Latin mandatum, command. Jesus commands his followers to behave like him in this radical way (he has to repeat and rephrase this command a couple of times to make sure it sinks in). Whether we transgress physical boundaries like those between us and our sisters and brothers in Tijuana, or societal boundaries like those that tell us how we should look or how we should behave towards those who are different from us; we are called to radically transgress the boundaries and structures of our society in order that we might serve one another. This mandatum comes in the shadow of the great commandment of John’s Gospel: “Love One Another.” We are to love one another by breaking down the walls that separate us from those our society considers less, and in doing so we will follow the lead of the great servant leader.
Published by Mike Angell
The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.
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