Jesus, the towel, and us

“The night before Jesus was betrayed, he took the bread. . .” We have probably heard that every time we take communion, but what about, “The night before Jesus was betrayed, Jesus took a towel. . .”? Why is that towel not as much a symbol of Christianity as the cross or the communion elements?

Jesus always surprises because he refuses to act like the rest of us. Before the feast of the Passover, when he knew he would be seized, tried, and executed illegally, he remained calm. He knew that Judas would betray him, but he remained loving. He chose an especially dramatic way to demonstrate  his love. He washed his disciples’ feet.

The disciples acknowledged Jesus as their leader and master, but among themselves, they behaved full of self-importance and desired nothing more than to be acknowledged as great and significant. What impels anyone to do that? Nothing but insecurity.

Jesus took off his outer garments. He removed everything that defined his surface appearance, everything by which anyone could and judge and divide one person from another.

Today, if we see one man wearing bib overalls, another a suit, and another cut-off shorts and a tee-shirt, do we not immediately make assumptions about them? We may not all make the same assumptions, but we make them none-the-less.

Now suppose these same men all go to the gym and come out of the locker room in indistinguishable gym attire. Unless we recognize them from before, we can no longer assume the same kinds of distinctions.

So here’s Jesus, stripping down as much as he dared. He knew and was secure in his true identity. He had nothing to prove to anyone. In that security and confidence, he had the freedom to choose service over making an impression. He took the towel and filled a basin with water.

The insecure disciples found that very troubling. Here was their acknowledged master acting like a common servant. Here was the man with the highest position among them acting less than the lowest.

Had they even noticed the towel and the water basin when they entered the room? Scripture never records that they had servants! If they saw it, did it mean anything to them?

But when Jesus took it up, it upset their entire notion of propriety, based as it was on the  notion that some in society are inherently inferior to others. That, it turns out, was the whole point.

Peter still tried to set the agenda. First he refused to have Jesus wash his feet at all. Then he said, all right, then wash the rest of me, too.

How much of our own communication with Jesus–our prayer life–likewise results from trying to maintain control? From responding with utter incomprehension of his ways? From attempting to look and feel good to the self-concept that Jesus wants to destroy?

In my own insecurity, I am not worthy to hammer this point home, but isn’t it obvious? Jesus wants us to follow his example, not Peter’s.


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