By Fr Robert Barron
Christianity is a revolutionary religion. It turns everything upside down, reversing the values and expectations of a sinful world. Throughout his life and ministry, Jesus tried to inaugurate people into this new world that he called the Kingdom of God.
The nature of this Kingdom became especially apparent as Jesus gathered with his disciples in the upper room, a place of heightened awareness. There he did something extraordinary.
Jesus took off his outer garments, tied a towel around his waist, poured water in a basin, and washed the feet of his disciples. He performed an act that was so humble, so lowly, that it was considered beneath the dignity even of a slave.
We catch the novelty and shock of it in Peter’s response: “Master, are you going to wash my feet?” This is just too much for him; it is such a violation of the world that he had come to accept, a world in which masters were masters, slaves were slaves, where the dignified and important were waited upon while the lowly did the serving. In that world there was a clear demarcation between up and down, worthy and unworthy, clean and unclean.
Jesus is putting his followers through a sort of initiation rite. Unless they pass this test, unless they begin to see the world in a new way, they will not get into the Kingdom. And this is why Jesus says to Peter, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.”
In the vision of the old world, one’s life comes to its high point at a moment of honor, praise, glory, or recognition, at a moment when one’s distinction and superiority over others is most evident. The old world is predicated on the great divisions between master and slave, superior and subordinate, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, included and excluded. Most of our energy goes into maintaining these distinctions, or trying to get from one side to the other, or keeping certain people on the far side of the divide.
But in the vision of the Kingdom of God, the climactic moment comes when one is the lowliest servant of the other: yes, even despised, reviled, spat upon, and handed over to death. It is only when we have passed through this startling initiation that we are ready for the full manifestation of the Kingdom.
“You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master’ and rightly so,” Jesus says, “for indeed I am. If I therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.”