In the teaching business, we often talk about moving from modeling a certain skill or behavior to the student mastering that skill or behavior. The continuum is supposed to progress from “I Do, You Watch” to “I Do, You Help” to “You Do, I Help” to finally the point of student mastery, “You Do, I Watch”.
As the story of Holy Thursday clearly demonstrates, Jesus has clearly read up on his pedagogy.
(Pedagogy. The study of the process of teaching. Look it up.)
Among the many titles and descriptions applied to Christ, perhaps none is so spot-on as “Rabbi”- teacher. When you consider that large portions of the Gospels are taken up with “parables” and “sermons”, the point is hard to miss– Jesus is here to teach and among the varieties of strategies he uses is one of the most powerful– example or “modeling behavior” as we say in the education racket. On Holy Thursday night before the Last Supper, he comes right out and says that “I have given you a model to follow” as he washes the feet of the disciples. You want to serve God, you want to do what’s right in God’s eyes in this world? Here it is– do what I’m doing and you’ve got it down.
The story Christ’s washing of the feet, like so much scripture, of course has greater meaning beyond the literal. It’s not the actual act of washing the feet of others that’s essential to understand, but what that act represents. Washing the feet of arriving guests was a common custom in Middle East about 2000 years ago, but it was something only the lowliest and basest of slaves in the household would do. The heads of the household, the masters, the powerful, would never dream of doing anything so unglamourous and downright degrading. That’s why the disciples, especially Peter, are so scandalized. Powerful leaders don’t wash the feet of others and by the time of the Last Supper, the disciples are fully persuaded that they are in the presence of the most powerful leader there is– the Messiah, the Son of God, the Master…the Rabbi.
It was shocking then. It would be just as shocking in our world now.
In the ancient world, the people in charge got to be in charge by trampling those around them. You built your power base on those you enslaved, and the more people you had enslaved, the more people you could command to do exactly what you told them to do, the greater that power base was. The Roman emperor had for all intents and purposes enslaved the known world. Military leaders, religious leaders, landowners, had fewer in their thrall, but still had other human beings who (both in their eyes and in the eyes of those who served them) existed to cater to their every whim. You weren’t elected to such positions of power. You didn’t need to be particularly worthy of them through your capability or your character. All you needed to be was the bigger bully or the son of the bigger bully. The bigger the stick you or your family had, the more people you had to serve you and the fewer people you had to serve. No one questioned the rightness of it. That was simply the way the world worked. There were conquerors and the conquered. The conquered served the conquerors. The strong ruled the weak and that was considered fitting and proper. The strong were the leaders and leaders were to be served by those they ruled over, not the other way around.
Thinking of it in those ways, it sounds barbaric, savage…and familiar.
The powerful are still thought to have every right to their power and in many cases are still thought to have the right to do whatever they want with it. Nowadays they at least have to justify their power at least ostensbily by earning their money and their position (the implication being that those who aren’t as successful materially are just lazy and/or untalented; ridiculous, but that’s another story for another blog), but all justifying ends there. The wealthy can make and keep every last penny they can get their mitts on. They can buy multiple homes, multiple cars, whole islands. They can have dozens of cooks, nannies, personal shoppers, maids, and assistants at their beck and call. Few consider any of this unjust. People can do what they want with their own money and do what they want with the people in their employ. No one who is rich enough to get out of it is expected to take out the garbage, change his child’s diaper, or do her own grocery shopping. My God, we have people to do that sort of thing. What’s the point of making truckloads of money if not to get yourself people willing to do all that unpleasantness– and let’s be honest here, people who are more “socially fitted” to do it? It’s my money and I can do what I want with it. If I want to hire an army of my people to attend to my every need, I’m entitled. It’s my right. The cash I command makes it my right. My money can make people do whatever I want.
The powerful lead. Those without power serve. It was how Christ’s world worked and in many ways it’s how our world works.
And then as now, Christ, through the events of the Easter Triduum, stands that paradigm on its head.
With Christ, the leader exists to serve, not to be served. From the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday to Golgotha on Good Friday, Christ says to us “I am the Son of God, Christ the King. You don’t get to be more powerful than I am. And I , Son of God and Christ the King will serve others through the most menial of tasks. I will endure death by slow torture to show the world that this is what God is prepared to do to show his love for the world. The powerful, the leaders of this world aren’t supposed to that. If you want to follow God’s way, that is exactly what you are supposed to do: the dirty work, the hard work, the work that requires sacrifice and that serves others, especially those are the most easily dismissed and forgotten. You don’t look for others to command. You seek out others and try to help them. This is my example. Now it’s your turn. I do, now you do.
How different so many of us would be if we did do! If only we could see what is perceived as “low” or “menial” as Christ sees it! Imagine if the mother being spit up on 3 in the morning (wife, I’m looking in your direction here), if the illegal immigrant logging his sixteenth consecutive hour behind the wheel of his taxi trying mile by mile to make things better for his children in this new land than they were ever going to be in the old one, if the school custodian wiping up some poor kindergartner’s vomit could realize that what they are doing is Christ-like. It’s exhausting, it’s thankless, it’s downright miserable…and Jesus knows just exactly what it’s like to do it.
Imagine if our leaders saw being powerful as a call to serve rather than to be served. The legislator who remembers the poor during budget debates. The foreman who sees the migrant workers in the lettuce fields he supervises as parents trying to provide for their families and not a means to a quota. The bishop who puts the safety and sanctity of the children of his diocese above his personal status or embarrassment for his office. It might make you unpopular, it might get you fired…in short, it may bring you suffering. And Jesus knows just exactly what it’s like to suffer and sacrifice, knows it frankly than better any of us ever could. Power requires serving others, especially those in the greatest need. Those in greatest need are all of us. There to serve, station after bitter station of the Cross, was the Son of God.
What is hopeful to consider that while we’re still not quite all the way at the “you do, I watch” end of the continuum, we don’t really have to imagine all the examples from the last two paragraphs. They really happen. People really do serve. People really do miserable unglamourous work for the good of others. People do really endure all kinds of suffering so that others might suffer less. Not everyone, but enough to keep us coming back, Easter Sunday after Easter Sunday, for thousands of years now, telling the story of the Triduum in our own flawed way to anyone who will listen. Year after year, March or April after March or April, the example is there for us. Suffering fo rothers, sacrificing for others, and “lowly” work for others makes the world better and brings us closer to God as nothing else ever could. Jesus, Christ the King, the Son of God, the Rabbi Himself embraced all of it. We’re not meant to just look at everything from washing feet to choking out His last breath bleeding and beaten at Calvary with wonder, admiration, and gratitude. That’s a nice start, but only a start, only “I Do, You Watch”.
Here’s continuing to hope and to pray and at our best even to work fot the day when we all reach “You Do, I Watch.
Happy Easter everyone.