Offered by MCC member and Deacon Dan Rippy.
Two things really stand out for me from this passage: (1) the humility of Jesus, and (2) his awareness – his advance knowledge – that he is effectively walking into betrayal.
The washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus occurs prior to the Last Supper. The disciples are quite stunned to see Jesus take to washing their feet. At this time, the washing of feet is a common thing for those entering a house before a communal meal, having traversed hot, dusty roads, and sitting at relatively low tables. But it is a task generally performed by the lowliest of servants, certainly not by people of higher standing. Which is precisely why the disciples are so surprised to see Jesus doing it. This whole scene underscores Jesus’ humility and his mission to serve – as opposed to being served. It is a notable act of humility for the disciples, one that foreshadows Jesus’ ultimate act of humility, service, and sacrifice – his death upon the cross.
Humility: It feels like we could do with a bit more of it in today’s world. “Leaders are more powerful when they’re humble, new research shows.” This is the title of a Washington Post article from December 2016.
Humility is a powerful concept, but it seems that it can be frequently misunderstood. According to the Post article, “Dictionaries often describe humility as low self-esteem, self-degradation and meekness. In a 2016 College of Charleston survey, 56% of 5th and 6th graders said that the humble are embarrassed, sad, lonely or shy. When adults are asked to recount an experience of humility, they often tell a story about a time when they were publicly humiliated.”
So no, being humble is not the same thing as being humiliated. In fact, humble folks seem less likely to become humiliated. The Post article continues: “The most humble rarely describe themselves as humble (that seems arrogant to them), but studies have shown that they aren’t embarrassed, humiliated or ashamed. No, they’re secure in their identity and higher in well-being. The humble are doing just (fine), thank you very much.”
The article continues… “True humility, scientists have learned, is when someone has an accurate assessment of both his strengths and weaknesses, and he sees all this in the context of the larger whole. (She’s) a part of something far greater than she. He knows he isn’t the center of the universe. And she’s both grounded and liberated by this knowledge. Recognizing his abilities, he asks how he can contribute. Recognizing his (or her) flaws, (a humble person) asks how he (or she) can grow.”
Fortunately for us, with strengths and weaknesses, we need not look very hard to find examples of humility that inspire. Three figures came to my mind in thinking about humility, about walking into the proverbial dragon’s teeth – a crucible of sacrifice resulting in death, and a life devoted to serving a higher purpose than one’s self.
Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth president of the United States, needs little introduction. But his humility in ways large and small is the reminder I sought.
Lincoln said the following: “We have forgotten the gracious hand which has preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and have vainly imagined in the deceitfulness of our hearts that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving Grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.”
“I was born and have ever remained in the most humble walks of life.”
“I have no wealthy or popular relations to recommend me.”
It seems that Lincoln never forgot his humble beginnings on the then rural frontier in a log cabin in Sinking Springs, Kentucky or his boyhood cabin in Knob Creek, ten miles away.
Martin Luther King also needs little introduction. In terms of how he wished to be remembered on the occasion of his funeral, King said the following: “I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others… to love somebody… to be right on the war question. to feed the hungry… to clothe those who were naked… to visit those who were in prison… to love and serve humanity.
Benazir Bhutto, Prime Minister of Pakistan from 1988 to 1990 and then from 1993 to 1996, was the first woman to head a democratic government in a Muslim majority nation. She founded and led the centre-left Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) from the early 1980s until her assassination in 2007. Born into a wealthy family in a nation well acquainted with violence, Bhutto was a polarizing figure who some said accomplished little in office, and who was accused of embezzling money from the country she led. So clearly, like Lincoln and King, and indeed, like all of us, Bhutto was also human, fallible, and imperfect. And yet her vision was one of humility.
For some years due to conflict she lived in self-imposed exile from Pakistan. And here is what she said she learned: “ Adversity has tempered my character. My husband was in jail in Pakistan for 8 years without a conviction and I had to bring up small children as single parent in exile besides looking after my ailing mother. Scores of members of my party were killed. We paid a heavy price for democracy. This experience has strengthened my commitment for building a tolerant society which respects human rights, allows a free media, has a transparent and corruption free government which tackles the social and economic issues of the people, brings peace internally by undermining the forces of extremism and builds peace regionally.” Her being born a child of privilege, if anything, served to show her that not everyone was so fortunate; indeed, her vision for her country was for everyone.
None of these figures came to use from Hollywood central casting. They were all imperfect, and as they each set out on their respective journeys, just like Jesus, they were unremarkable. It was only over time that their visions, their actions, and their deeds made their purpose evident. And we came to realize that their visions were infinitely greater than themselves.
For all three of these figures, it seems, they all knew they were stepping willingly into a crucible of time and place and circumstance, and they had decided, and indeed, determined, to make the world a better place, no matter the cost, even if the cost was their own lives.
Apparently on the morning before his assassination, members of Lincoln’s cabinet recalled the president telling them he had dreamt of sailing across an unknown body of water at great speed. It was recounted that he had recounted having had this same dream on previous occasions, before “nearly every great and important event of the War.” While this is not exactly a prediction of his own death, Lincoln was acutely aware of the costs the war has exacted from the nation.
Lincoln’s assassination, which happened on Good Friday, April 14, 1865 – Lincoln would die early in the morning of the next day – earned him a place in American mythology at that time. According to Harold Holzer, a Lincoln scholar, on Easter Sunday in 1865, pastors across the land devoted their sermons to the memory of a man who had “sacrificed on the altar of freedom and died for the nation’s sins,” Holzer said.
Lincoln’s own death exemplified what he honored in the Gettysburg address when he said “We have come to dedicate a portion of (this battlefield) as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that the nation might live.”
Martin Luther King arrived at a place of seeming equanimity about his fate. In his famous “mountaintop” speech in 1968, the last he gave before his assassination, King said: “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop … And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
Regarding Benazir Bhutto, a film maker being interviewed about making the movie of the story of Bhutto’s life remarked: ”She was drawn to a responsibility in no uncertain terms — whether that was chosen for her, or by her, or not. She felt she had to live and die (for her goal) and she was true to it. To me, that kind of courage and that unstoppable determination is what defined her life.”
Hopefully when we go about our lives to pursue a vision, a mission, a purpose, we won’t feel that we have to pay the price of assassination to make our aspirations real. But if we can remain humble and remember that higher purpose of service, and of leaving the world better off than when we found it, and paying it forward, even in the face of challenging or seemingly overwhelming circumstances, then like Jesus, Lincoln, King, and Bhutto, we succeed. And if we can do this one day at a time, then we can speak across time to others and inspire those who will come after us, in the same way that those who came before us speak to us now. Because it seems the world is always in need of one more willing, humble, and fallible servant.