Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

Mark’s Passion Narrative – Foot Washing

But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

Mark 10 (31)

These next two posts require that we stretch a bit to relate them to Mark. In fact they are more about what is not found in Mark than what is found there.

The Gospel of John’s timeline is quiet different than the Synoptics and the two really can not be merged without doing violence to the basic narratives. As John tells the story, Jesus doesn’t celebrate Passover with his disciples because he has already been crucified. Theologically, John is going to make the point that Jesus is the Lamb of God and so Jesus is slaughtered on the day (that is in the afternoon) before Passover which is by custom when thousands of lambs are slaughtered to be eaten that evening in family celebrations of a liberating God.

John’s gospel is not clear about how long Jesus hangs on the cross, for in this year Passover is also the Day of Preparation where all work is completed prior to the Sabbath which begins on Friday night at sunset. Most likely, for John, Jesus hung on the cross overnight and his body was taken down on Friday morning. John tells us that Joseph of Arimathea helped by Nicodemus asked permission to deal with the body. At the beginning of our Gospel, Nicodemus first showed up at night, today, he shows up in broad daylight. They take the body down and prepare it according to Jewish customs of the day. They place it in a freshly dug tomb in a garden next to Golgotha that they apparently commandeer for the moment because the Sabbath is just about to start.

Now in John’s gospel, there is an allusion to bread and wine found in the 6th chapter. Much like Nicodemus who gets caught in the absurd consequences of a literal interpretation of being born again (or from above), the crowd this time asks about how they can eat Jesus’ flesh! I’ll leave the discussion of the Eucharist for another day. But again there is no ritualized Passover supper in John.

What we do find, and we do not find it in the synoptic traditions, is an evening meal that Jesus interrupts to make a point. John’s gospel has no real parables, simply a set of “signs” that are followed by long Hellenistic discourses. The signs generally represent episodes where what is expected is turned upside down. Jesus turns water to wine, really good wine, at the wedding in Cana. One of the guests points out how this is backwards, i.e. a host usually serves the best wine first and then when folks are drunk, the cheaper wine doesn’t taste so bad.

Jesus turns things upside down when he first speaks to the woman in Samaria and then asks her for a drink of water.

So here is the text from John 13 (3-17)

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” 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.

At this evening meal on Wednesday night, i.e. the fourth day of the week, Jesus gets up from the table and performs a sign. He takes off his robe and he wraps a slave’s apron around his waist and proceeds to wash the feet of those gathered for supper. John gives clues that suggest this happens at the house of Lazarus. I will come back in a couple of weeks and share why I think this is true, but let it suffice to say that there is no upper room in John’s narrative.

I get a little bit confused as well, because one would think that everybody had already had their feet washed by a household servant when they got home that day, certainly before the meal had started. I promise to do some research on that question and will get back to you.

Most of us Americans find this custom awkward and a bit embarrassing. I am grateful that Mike posted some thoughts on the subject of foot washing. But most of us aren’t really excited about this gesture. I attended one church where this was a voluntary custom before the Maundy Thursday service. Many of us can testify to these sorts of experiences being very powerful. However, I would guess though that in our culture we might do well to have this story acted out at the beginning of the Thursday night service as a short liturgical drama if we want to recover the narrative and its message.

Now, in the 70s I lived in cultures where when one came into the house, you would take off your shoes, sandals, flip flops, etc leaving them outside the house. The custom in the North Pacific, where we lived and worked, probably showed some respect but also was practical in that one would not track in dirt – kind of like leaving one’s snow boots in the utility room. In Chinese culture, outdoor shoes are replaced with indoor slippers which I take to be a gesture of hospitality. I am reminded that the great I Am told Moses to take off his shoes in front of the burning bush as this was holy ground.

Frankly, I am not clear about foot washing. I would simply remind you that Peter’s offense at Jesus washing his feet had nothing to do with whether having someone touch your feet is awkward, it wasn’t it happened regularly in his day. What offended Peter had to do with the fact that Jesus his teacher, his Lord took on the role of a servant.

Talk about signs that turn customary religious notions upside down!

I am reminded of the scene from the movie, Gandhi, where in a meeting between Muslim, Hindu and British leaders, Gandhi takes a tray with servings of tea from the houseboy and proceeds to play his role by serving those sitting around the room.

While Mark’s gospel narrative includes no similar story, Jesus is perpetually frustrated by his disciples’ lust after status. But at the same time, in Mark, clearly in the Kingdom which is very much at hand, the first will be last and the last shall be first.

Grace and Peace,

John

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