Let Me Help You?
When you ask people what passages in Scripture are “difficult” for them, it quickly becomes clear that what’s judged problematic for one person is not at all difficult for another. That may be the case with this week’s choice, the washing of the disciples’ feet passage in John’s Gospel. There is one line in that passage that is curious and at least needs unpacking, if not “solving.” The line is: “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me” (John 13:7).
Why would Jesus say that? It was already apparent that he was turning the concept of leadership on its head—stating that the master should be the servant and giving these leaders the role of servanthood as their responsibility. He was quoted in Luke as saying: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called Benefactors. But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant…I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:25-27).
So why did he say that to Peter? He had already made his point that the leader in the new community has to be willing to get his hands dirty and smell the foul smells of dirty feet and wash the grime away . Was Jesus’ reply about NOT letting Peter keep him in the “master” role (because that would indicate that Peter didn’t “get” the essential structure of Jesus’ Way)? Or was it something more?
Receiving help, allowing yourself to be taken care of, ministered to—is not always easy, especially for those of us who have never accepted charity, who always decline offers to help. We don’t like to be put in the position of NEEDING anything. We don’t like to feel indebted. It hurts our egos to feel we can no longer take care of ourselves or accomplish what we used to. We like to be in control.
And so I wonder if Jesus is making the point to Peter, who would deny him three times and run away like they all did, except for John and his Mother and her friends, with this gesture and these words that implied: “Peter, you don’t yet know the depth of your cowardice and fear in the face of violence and evil. And you have to let me help you, to let me heal you, to let me bring you back from that betrayal so you will not despair. I want you to continue to be my follower and to lead others to follow me.”
The counter-intuitive relationship here goes something like this: We have been taught that we need to acknowledge our sin, repent of it, and then give it up, fix it, refrain from that addiction or bad behavior. We need to make up for it, offer restitution, like Zaccheus running at the mouth: “If I have defrauded anyone, I am paying it back fourfold.”
But this passage falls into the world view that suggests that our stance must be to let God USE our sins and addictions for God’s own purposes. We let him heal us from within so that we can move forward on his way. We don’t fall into the trap that we can do it all—that all we need is a little knowledge, a pinch of motivation, and some time to do it ourselves (i.e. to save ourselves).
There is a difficult passage after this, of course, when Jesus says he does not speak of all of you because he knows the ones he had chosen (Jn. 13:18), but that’s for next time. For now, anyone who has relapsed, who has tried and failed a hundred times, who feels trapped, who can’t find the will nor the motivation to WANT to be healed, the thought that opening oneself to God’s work, to let Him/Her USE your problem, sin, addiction to heal you and carry you forward into His/Her arms can be quite consoling, and good news indeed. But does it mean that we don’t have to do anything? That we can wallow in the mud?
Well, there is the need to take off one’s sandals and offer one’s feet. There is the letting Him/Her do it. There is the not wanting to wallow in the mud because some part of us knows it is NOT a good place to be. There is the desire to be transformed when we know transformation is possible. What do you think?