Note: Maundy Thursday is named for "The Maundy," which is what medieval English monks called the Footwashing they did on Thursday of Holy Week. The word "maundy" derives from the Latin word mandatum, for "commandment," as they repeated in Latin the text from John's Gospel, "a new commandment (mandatum novum) give I unto you, that ye love one another."
This week’s edition of the New Yorker has a column by Hendrik Herzberg on sex and politics and Eliot Spitzer, which disappointed me. Herzberg repeats the charge that America, compared to Europe, is overly concerned with the private sex lives of our politicians. He describes Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinski as "trivial." He quotes the distinguished Professor Martha Nussbaum, that to accuse Spitzer of betraying the public trust is "laughable."
Well, I agree that Clinton should not have been impeached, but I do wish he had resigned. We would expect the same of any preacher who did that with an intern. And it was right for Spitzer to resign. The underlying issue in both cases, I think, is not the sex, or the sex and the money, in Spitzer’s case. Sex and money are both expressions of the real issue, which is power.
We gave those people power. We put them in power when we elect them. We entrust them with more power than the rest of us, we want them to have power for our common good. We do the same thing with our generals and admirals, with our police chiefs and our building inspectors, we give them power over us. Power is not evil in itself, it’s only partly true that power corrupts, to leave it that power corrupts is to excuse the human heart, it is the human heart in its sinfulness that makes power corrupt. Jesus had power, he had lots of power, and he is not corrupt.
Classical literature tell us that power is drawn to hubris and to arrogance. In Latin terms, the terms of virtue, we can point to Spitzer’s arrogance. In Greek terms, the terms of drama, we can point to his hubris. For Spitzer it was a tragedy because it brought him down. For Clinton, the buffoonery of the congress made it not so much a comedy as a farce, and we the people got the worst of it. The whole nation has been besmirched. Can we turn to the literature of the gospels?
If we see virtue and comedy and tragedy more comprehensively in terms of love, the love of God for us and for the world, can we see a kind of power that is both holy and righteous?
Yes, on the cross, which we bring closer to ourselves in the Supper. There is also a secondary way, in the footwashing, which is why we are trying it tonight.
Not only because it’s in the Bible, and it’s a symbol that is rich and physical and not a little discomforting, not only because it’s regularly practiced by monastics and Mennonites and those Amish people who stunned us by how they responded to the death of their daughters in that school, but also because our vision of power needs to be refreshed. Jesus does that by framing power within servanthood and humility.
To wash the feet is servant’s work. Jesus shows us that he will give us power for our servanthood. But this America, we don’t have servants here. This is a democracy, with liberty and equality. This servanthood is not about status, it’s about self-giving. And you cannot voluntarily wash someone else’s feet unless you are quite free.
And to receive the footwashing is even more humbling than to do it. "Don’t look so closely at my feet. My nails, my crooked toes. And to have you touch my feet, that gets a little close." That vulnerability, that potential for humiliation, to go through with it means some freedom from your self-consciousness and fear, and that takes power. Tonight we celebrate the kind of power that Jesus demonstrates within the frame of servanthood and humility. In him we see that this is not powerlessness, but rather the power of selflessness, which overcomes the world.
Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.