A New Mandate

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April 17, 2014

A New Mandate

Passage: John 13:1-16, 21-35

Maundy Thursday Tenebrae Service

“So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”


“I am giving you a new mandate,” says Jesus to his disciples on the night before he died, “I am giving you a new mandate–that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you should love one another. By this they shall know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.”Maundy’ is a funny word, isn’t it? It’s somewhat unusual in the English language; there are no close phonetic cousins to the word ‘Maundy.’ We’re not entirely sure where it comes from, but most linguists guess that it is an Anglicized derivative of the Latin word mandatum, which needs little translation. Mandatum is ‘command,’ or ‘mandate.’ I don’t know how they got ‘Maundy’ out of ‘mandate’; it seems like it should be Mandy Thursday; but Maundy is probably a slight corruption, or a small mistake in Translation. So for a long time, it’s been Maundy, not Mandy, Thursday.

He’d said this just after he’d inexplicably washed their feet. There is no Last Supper in the Gospel of John; foot-washing takes its place, and that’s why foot-washing has become a quasi-sacrament in the Christian Church. Like those words “This do in remembrance of me” from the Eucharist, this new mandate has the blunt force of the divine imperative voice. This is not an interrogative; this is not an indicative; this is an imperative: Do this!

This is how it all went down. First, as John tells us, he’d taken off his outer robes. Now, don’t let this get lost on you; there were no inner robes. Fruit of the Loom hadn’t been invented yet, and Michael Jordan hadn’t yet gotten around to pushing Hanes T-Shirts without the annoying tags. Now, I don’t know much about table etiquette in first-century Palestine, but this can’t have been standard operating procedure. Oh, I know they take their clothes off for dinner in some sophisticated dining establishments; there’s an elegant steak house in Manhattan called the Strip House; get it? New York Strip and New York Strippers, beef and burlesque.

Still, this can’t have been what the disciples were precisely expecting. Can you feel the whole room tense up in a moment of entirely unnecessary stress? Then, thankfully, he ties a towel around his waist. Good news; men hate being around other naked men. Then he washes the disciples’s feet. Then he dries them off with the towel tied around his waist. Oh man, does he have to do that? Peter thinks not. “You’ll never wash my feet, Lord,” he says. But Jesus insists and Peter capitulates.

Then he asks them, “Are servants greater than their master?” It’s a question that confronts us, too, isn’t it? Can you answer the way he wants you to?

A while back I read this lovely little novel by Jonathan Rosen called Joy Comes in the Morning, about an associate rabbi at a large and prominent Temple in Manhattan. Her name is Deborah Green, and she is a vivid protagonist. Senior Rabbi Zwieback suggests, “in his oblique, gentle, and thoroughly infuriating fashion, that her skirts were perhaps a little too short for a rabbinic role model, but Deborah does not wish to be one of those desexed rabbis with close-cropped Yentl-the-Yeshiva-boy haircuts and frumpy clothes.”[1]

The senior rabbi doesn’t give her much to do, except all the weddings and funerals he doesn’t want to be bothered with, so she spends a lot of time at the hospital. Most of us are somewhat uncomfortable around hospitals, which remind one of the book’s characters of the lunchroom in his junior high school, because it smells like mediocre food and despair, when a bad moment lasts forever and leaving is not an option.[2]

But Deborah is at home there. She plays with a little Indian boy with a brain tumor. “Most of the adults brought only their tragic awareness into the rooms of these hairless, radiated, chemical-fed children. Deborah [however] had a great capacity for play that allowed her not to forget they were dying, but to remember they were still alive.”[3]

One day Deborah is walking down Broadway on the Upper West Side and she sees an old man coming toward her. He has a copper beard and wears a seersucker suit and running shoes, which probably don’t go with the suit, but you see it all the time on the West Side elderly. The problem is that his running shoes are untied. He stands there swaying over his untied shoes. He seems incapable of bending over far enough to get to them or even of deciding which shoe he should tie first.

Without asking for permission, the rabbi kneels down and ties them both. “The humble gesture floods her with joy. It is the joy of kneeling down, erasing herself in an act of kindness. She feels astonishingly alive at that instant, as if she had been created for just such a purpose.”[4]

It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The rabbi kneeling down at the feet of another, erasing himself, herself, in an act of kindness. Maybe she had been created for just such a purpose. Maybe we all are.

[1]Adapted slightly from Jonathan Rosen, Joy Comes in the Morning (New York: Farrer Straus & Giroux, 2004), p. 39.

[2]Adapted slightly from Rosen, p. 44.

[3]Rosen, p. 40.

[4]Slightly adapted from Rosen, p. 9.