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"The Basins"

So often we fail to serve others, but Jesus serves us instead.

            We are gathered for the special time some Christian churches call Holy Thursday and others call Maundy Thursday. “Maundy” is a word that sounds strange, doesn’t it? It comes from the Latin mandatum, which means “command.” It’s related to our English word, “mandate.” Today is literally “Commandment Thursday.”

            But which commandment? The most striking thing about the Last Supper, to the church in earlier centuries, was the commandment Jesus gave at that meal: “... a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”1 From that last meal, after he had issued this commandment, Jesus went forth to the cross. There he showed his disciples what loving one another truly means.

            But before he did that, he washed their feet. It was a simple action, an ordinary action in that day and age — yet one they found highly disturbing because it symbolized a new style of loving: a way that comes with basin and towel in hand, bowing humbly before another person.

            The basin of foot washing is not the only basin in the story of Jesus’ Passion. There is another. A short time later, Roman soldiers hauled Jesus before the governor, Pontius Pilate. Pilate, too, took a basin. Not to wash Jesus’ feet, but to wash his own hands.

            These two basins are worthy of our reflection — because again and again in this life we’re forced to choose between them. Do we, most often, choose the basin of humble discipleship? Or do we choose the basin of denial of responsibility — our responsibility to love and care for one another?

            Before we’re too quick to pat ourselves on the back, we need to take a closer look at the foot washing. It was a revolutionary experience for the disciples.

            Here’s why. The Last Supper was a banquet. At a banquet in Jesus’ day, it was the custom for guests to wear special robes, gleaming white. Before leaving home, they carefully washed themselves, so as to be clean in body as well as spirit. There was a problem, though: in a land of dirt roads, it was impossible to keep your feet clean. So when guests arrived at a banquet, they would have their feet washed, usually by a servant.

            But Jesus and his disciples had no servants. According to tradition, the task of washing the others’ feet should then fall to the most junior among them. But you know how the disciples were — always arguing among themselves. Luke tells us that even at the Last Supper they were disputing as to “which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.”2 No one wanted to take the servant’s role.

            So Jesus, their rabbi and leader, quietly takes up the basin and towel and becomes their servant. Jesus — the one among them who has every right to have his own feet washed by the others — gives up that right.

            We live in a society that’s very concerned, even preoccupied, with rights. Our nation’s constitution includes a “Bill of Rights.” Our Declaration of Independence talks of “unalienable rights ... to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We have a proud tradition of democracy in our country, but it’s not without its dark side.

            It’s often said that we Americans are the most “litigious” people in the world. That means we like to litigate — to take one another to court, to claim our rights. Something like two-thirds of all the lawyers in the world practice in the United States. Yes, we’re a big country, but not so big as to justify that statistic. There’s something more at work, here, than population. It’s that we Americans are quick to sue each other. It’s like we’re all flying that “Don’t Tread on Me” flag in our hearts. The moment we sense another person treading on our rights, off we go to the court.

            At the Last Supper, Jesus completely renounced his rights. He took the lowliest role in the place, as he took up the basin.

            We aren’t very good at taking up that basin of humble discipleship, are we? Selfishness comes so easily to us. Someone has compared our self-love to a man who looks down the road at a line of telephone poles and concludes that the pole closest to him is the largest. Our happiness looms so much larger in our hearts than our neighbor’s happiness, even though God created us as equal in our capacity for happiness as a row of telephone poles are equal in height.

            So often in our lives, we choose not the basin of foot washing — of care and concern for neighbors. We choose the other basin — the basin of Pilate.3

            Remember the details of that story. The chief priests and the scribes of Israel wanted Jesus out of the way. He was a blasphemer, as they saw it, claiming things for himself that by right belong only to God. Yet the religious authorities were not permitted to pronounce the death penalty. Only the Roman governor could do that.

            Pontius Pilate, governor of the province of Judea, couldn’t care less about blasphemy. Blasphemy was a religious offense, and he’d learned through years of government service that mucking around with people’s religion only creates problems. He’d made it a principle to leave religious law to the religious authorities.

            Realizing that Pilate would not do their work for them, the Sanhedrin trumped up some civil charges — political sedition, refusing to bow to the emperor, inciting people to tax evasion — and they brought Jesus to Pilate on those charges.

            Pilate knew the charges were nonsense. He’d seen plenty of political revolutionaries in his day, and the man before him didn’t have that look about him. He looked more like a country rabbi who’d gotten on the wrong side of the religious hierarchy.

            But Pilate had to consider his own position. Yes, he was the military governor of an occupied territory, but even with the soldiers on his side, he had to watch his step. Pilate was no friend of the Jewish authorities, but at the end of the day he knew he had to live with them.

            Pilate knew that if he stepped over that line, riots and bloodshed could follow. And for him, that could mean a speedy recall to Rome, to explain why he’d let such a thing happen. It could put an end to his career.

            Pilate realized the Sanhedrin had him. They knew and he knew it was politically unwise to intercede. Too bad for the country rabbi.

            Yet, even as the governor let matters run their course, he couldn’t resist thumbing his nose at the Sanhedrin. Pilate was aware of an obscure portion of the Jewish law that described what to do if a dead man was found outside a village, murdered by thieves. In such an instance, the village elders are obliged to publicly wash their hands, declaring by their act that their village is innocent of the man’s blood. (That law is found in the 21st chapter of Deuteronomy). So Pilate called for a basin and washed his hands, saying to the mob outside his window, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.”

            This was a slap in the face to the crowd. The hated Roman governor was using their own law to call them murderers! And so the crowd shouted back, “We take responsibility for this man’s blood — for he is guilty!”

            Jesus never had a chance. The Sanhedrin and Pilate were like two millstones, with Jesus caught between them. He was crushed without a word.

            Pilate’s basin was a travesty of forgiveness and justice. Compared to Jesus’ basin of foot washing, it was a twisted, tragic imitation. But we must be honest with ourselves; is that not the basin we sometimes choose in our lives?

            But there is hope. There’s a hopeful note in the story of the foot washing we haven’t yet considered, a bit of Easter breaking through.

            Peter looked down in surprise to see his Lord and master washing his feet! Jesus had just turned the whole pecking order of the disciples on its head.

            Peter didn’t like that. It made him uncomfortable. He objected, “You will never wash my feet!”

            Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

            There’s so much more to this story of the foot washing than simply a moral example, a choice between discipleship and selfishness. Jesus knew that, left to ourselves, we’re more likely to choose the basin of selfishness. But our Lord doesn’t come to us with judgment and condemnation. In his gentle and loving way, he comes with a basin and towel in hand, saying to us, as he did to Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

            The task for us, this Holy Week, is to allow Jesus to wash our feet. That’s difficult. To allow him to do that is to admit that we need washing, to admit that we are sinners, helpless to break out of that endless, deadly cycle of claiming our rights-of-way in this world. To let him wash us is to admit we are unworthy.

            Yet there’s no other way of coming to this table, to receive this sacred meal. We must be cleansed for the feast — and there’s no way we’re going to do that for ourselves. We have not chosen Jesus’ basin, but no matter. He brings it to us himself, and he kneels before us so we may be raised to the highest place at the feast.

            In the face of humble, self-giving love like that, there’s nothing to do but accept his invitation and come to this feast, rejoicing in the power of his forgiveness. We are washed. We are accepted. We are forgiven. We are his. Come: join the feast!


1 John 13:34.

2 Luke 22:24.

3 The account of Pilate's basin is found in Matthew 27:11-26. Some of the quotes from that passage are paraphrased here.



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