Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship Maundy Thursday foot washing service, 2014
I’ve been watching a lot of House of Cards this week. I love this show, but I also find it depressing, almost more so because — while it is a glossy, dramatized, Hollywood version of political game playing — it feels, at times, all too accurate a portrayal of the evil human creatures are capable of inflicting on one another. A recurring theme in the show is money versus power. There’s overlap, of course — those with power invariably have money, their own or someone else’s, that helped them get where they are, and those with money can leverage it to gain additional power.
But Francis Underwood, the main character, is very clear about which he wants: power. “Money,” he says, “is the Mc-mansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.” He manipulates, betrays, even kills, whoever he needs to in order to gain further influence. And why? Because he can. Throughout the series other characters get caught up in his game, pawns on his chess board, convinced that if they hand over this or that favor — if they throw someone else under the bus just this once — they’ll get what they want. Francis will deliver. Francis is a powerful man. They even believe they’re doing what they want, rather than what Francis wants them to want.
The picture of American politics painted by House of Cards is exaggerated, but what makes it successful storytelling is that there’s just enough truth in it for me to suspend disbelief for a little while. Power and manipulation seem par for the course in the American empire; or, to put it more diplomatically, influence, clout, leadership.
This is what I imagine Jesus walking into: our world of struggle with or for power, for influence, or even for mere stability — as well as our expectations for what a leader is, what a leader does.
In the gospel we read that before the Passover festival, Jesus knows his time is running short. He knows Judas will betray him, as he sits in this room with his followers, whom he loves.
And his response to betrayal is to wrap a towel around his waist, and wash their feet.
How easy it is to resonate with Simon Peter, who refuses at first to let Jesus wash him! This is not the job of a Rabbi — not the job they imagine for their leader, their teacher — Simon Peter knows his place, knows who Jesus is — or he thinks he does.
“Never,” he says, when Jesus tries to wash his feet.
Jesus doesn’t exactly argue with him, but simply says, “Unless I wash your feet, you have no share with me.” If there is one thing Simon Peter knows he wants, it’s that: to be with his teacher, and so he goes to the other extreme. In that case, wash me head to toe.
I imagine Jesus laughing at his exuberance. No, no, that isn’t needed. One who has bathed doesn’t need to bath again. You are already clean. Why is that so hard to believe, I wonder? You are clean.
It’s easy to relate to Simon Peter, perhaps because it’s also easy to relate to Judas. It is hard to grasp that we do in fact share with Jesus, because many of us are often so aware of our failings. Of the cruelty, selfishness and betrayal we are are capable of. We are far from faultless. We imagine we need to be washed head to toe as well.
Instead, Jesus simply invites the disciples to join him. He says, “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.” Forget trying to clean yourself up; come by my side and serve one another.
This image of Jesus with the disciples resonates with a story a friend of mine tells about his young daughter saying to him that the most important word in the world is with. Because we’re always with, she says — we’re with someone else, with the world, with ourselves. We can’t be not with. And so, she concludes, we should probably try to make a really good with.
What is the story of Jesus’ life — and ultimately his death — if not a story of God choosing to be with? When he washes their feet, Jesus enacts this with — before his departure, before the coming silence of death, of holy Saturday — and tells us to go and be with one another, too. Being with one another, in the community Jesus seems to be calling us to, means serving together — washing one another’s feet.
Being with one another is not easy. Some of us are not particularly good at it — at least, I know I am not. Personally, for many years of my life I balked at foot washing services. Too messy and awkward. I’d have to let people touch my less-than-perfect feet. My funny toes, chipped nails. All of which feels like an apt metaphor for letting people into my less-than-perfect life.
Our houses of cards are flimsy, even when they appear strong and insurmountable. Sooner or later a breeze — or a hurricane — will come along and blow things over, and who are we left with, then? Who gets to see inside the house? In the wreckage? Who will I let wash my feet? At whose feet will I kneel with a towel tied around my waist, inviting them to share their perfectly imperfect toes and calloused heels? Who will learn to love, like Jesus, in the wreckage, even to death, to the very end?
Meghan Florian received her Master of Theological Studies from Duke Divinity School in 2009. She is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte, and works in the Center for Theological Writing at Duke. In addition, she is the Communications Coordinator for the Resource Center for Women & Ministry in the South, a nonprofit organization in Durham, N.C. She is a member of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship. She blogs at femmonite.com.