Maundy Thursday, 2019
As we noted on Sunday, at the Last Supper Jesus both washed the feet of the disciples and told them he would be betrayed by one of them. An act of great light versus an act of utter darkness. All twelve of the disciples were commissioned, including Judas, to carry on, and out, Jesus’ work. So what we recognize here is a cosmic conflict between darkness and light that can consume even a disciple!
The medieval paintings of the Last Supper get this story wrong. They tend to show Judas as a very obvious traitor, with his clothes, his face, his money-bag and his body language all telling us that he’s the one. But the eleven others did not know, Judas was simply one of them. Jesus washed his feet, too.
Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m a good person.”? It’s kind of an amazing claim when you think about it. To say “I try to be a good person,” makes more sense. I think of this, well, because consider our scene, the reality is, to the twelve at this particular dinner, they all seem the same, human.
In his classic “Good and Evil” philosopher Martin Buber uses the Psalms to point out the dichotomy between our desire to be good and our envy of the wicked who only seem to prosper. Psalm 73 has the classic projection onto others of the good things the psalmist lacks. Of those who do evil, he says, “For them there are no pains; their bodies are sound and sleek. They do not share in human sorrows; they are not stricken like others.”
But when he comes to the obvious conclusion -- why bother being good--he pulls back, “if I should speak like that, I should betray all my people.” It is as if he considers the abyss, then pulls back because of the inheritance of his faith. The psalmist recognizes that it is a slippery slope to the proverbial dark side that is only resisted with daily, abiding in faith. Like the twelve, each of looks the same, each treated by Jesus the same, yet each a possible betrayer.
We don’t usually come out and say we are good people in contrast to those who are not, but often we think it. And that’s dangerous. History shows us that if enough people begin to define themselves as “good” in contrast to others who are “bad,” those others come to be seen as less than human. Throughout history, genocide has been justified in the eyes of those who perpetrate it on the grounds that it is not real people who are being killed; rather, something evil is being eliminated from the world by those who are good.
The Roman poet Terence wrote: “I am human; I do not think of any human thing as foreign to me.” This, to me, is a fuller appreciation of God’s creation where all humanity is said to be created in the image of God. It is also a better understanding of what is evident in the story, we have the propensity for both good and evil.
Writer Kathleen Norris embodies this when she reads the newspaper: “I feel it is my business, when I read the newspaper account of some horrible crime not to regard my “good” self as completely separate from the “bad” people depicted in the story but to search my own heart for a connection. I try to see if I can understand how it is these people have done what they have done. Not to excuse them, but to draw them closer in order to pray for them and also pray over what it means to be linked with them in a common humanity.”
She continues to say that sometimes murderers do help her recognize that her own anger can feel like murder. Most of us have known a moment, or two, of utter rage, at a situation, a person. We have found ourselves acting or thinking in ways that are the opposite of what we hold to be good. Maybe it is in our secret desire for vengeance against another. Maybe it is the temptation to act in a way that benefits us, even though it hurts others. Maybe it is simply trying to avoid another person who is desperately lonely and troubled.
Still there are those crimes so evil they defy belief. Beautiful April is a month of darkness as well: Oklahoma City, Columbine, Virginia Tech. Places now synonymous with crimes in which basic human trust has been so heinously abused provoke a panicky response in us: we retreat back to the safety of friends and family, those whom we know, who look like us. It is as a child pulling the covers up to keep at bay the monsters under the bed. We hide behind the mask of the self and say, “I’m a good person.”
So it is that Jesus, the equal opportunity foot washer, challenges our masks and pulled up covers by pulling them back, equating the thoughts of our hearts with actual crimes. He makes anger, insult, prejudice and belittling tantamount to murder, and lust equal adultery.
If we are honest with ourselves, we too, as the psalmist, recognize there is a mixture of good and evil in all of us. We will eventually celebrate Christ’s victory over death. Yet from the vantage point of this night, this meal, this denial and this betrayal, it is only after we have walked in the darkness of betrayal and crucifixion.
Holy Week is premised on the assumption that we need always to have in mind that our struggle is with the mighty forces that led to the cross. Whether that force of evil is a cosmic figure, Satan or the Devil, or the accumulation of the evil that roots in the heart of humanity, really does not matter. However you envision this force, we cannot deny its reality, nor our susceptibility to it.
As we move toward the conclusion of Holy Week, gathered around this table -- the same meal that was shared with all twelve disciples, deniers and betrayers and clueless followers alike—perhaps trying to pull up the covers so Jesus cannot not see the dark spots, Christ pulls back the covers to show us a grace that is stronger than our evil, or any evil.