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God with a Human Face by John C. Purdy


John C. Purdy is a retired minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), which he served for 26 years as an editor of curriculum resource. He is also the author of Parables at Work (Westminster) and God with a Human Face (Westminster/Knox). God with a Human Face was published by Westminster/John Knox in l993 and is used by permission of the author, who also prepared the text for Religion Online.


Chapter 9: God Loves Beyond Betrayal (John 13:1-11)


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Vachel Lindsay had this vision of the entrance into heaven of General William Booth and his salvation army:

Drabs and vixens in a flash made whole!
Gone was the weasel head, the snout, the jowl!
Sages and sibyls now, and athletes clean,
Rulers of empires, and of forests green!

................................................................

Oh, shout salvation! It was good to see
Kings and princes by the Lamb set free.

...........................................................................

Christ came gently with a robe and crown
For Booth the soldier, while the throng knelt down.
He saw King Jesus. They were face to face,
And he knelt aweeping in that holy place.
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

Listen for echoes of "General William Booth Enters Into Heaven" in the following Gospel narrative:

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water in a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet? "Jesus answered, "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand." Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me. "Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him, "One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you." For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, "Not all of you are clean." (John 13:1-11)

If you ever decide to write a love story, steal your plot from the footwashing: It is the perfect love story - the one by which all others must be measured. Charles Wesley’s hymn says it:

Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven, to earth come down.

In Jesus we see the perfect lover. Jesus knows that he will soon be killed; the Big Wheels, offended by his cleansing of the temple, will not wait long to put in motion arrangements for his removal. The festival of the Passover, when lambs are slaughtered, seems a likely time also for Jesus’ death. Knowing this, he demonstrates to intimate friends the height and depth and breadth of his devotion. While they are having a meal, he gets up from the table and washes their feet. The act is shocking in its simplicity, its sensuality, its spirituality. There can be no mistaking it for anything but a demonstration of the deepest, purest, most unselfish affection. Who else but one who loves you unreservedly will - unbidden and uncoerced - wash your feet?

In an autobiographical novel James McConkey describes the defining moment in the married life of Michael and Terry Warden. Michael has arrived home after three weeks spent at his father’s funeral. As he is recalling for Terry life with father, she sits mending socks.

"He said, 'I think there is a hole in the socks I’m wearing.'
'Take them off, then.'
'They’re dirty.'
'Do you think that matters to me?'
'They ought to be washed first.'
'Oh, Michael Peter Warden! Take them off this minute.'

He liked the way she scoffed at him, as if he were a child. He sat on the floor at her feet to remove his shoes. He handed her the socks, making a pretense of their great filth by holding them by his fingertips and far from his nose. 'Whew!' he said. She tousled his hair, and for an absurd moment he thought he would break into tears. "(The Tree House Confessions, 1979, pp. 79 - 80)

Lest we be tempted by such an incident to limit love to an emotion, let us hear what Simone Weil wrote in her essay "Forms of the Implicit Love of God":

"The Gospel makes no distinction between the love of our neighbor and justice. . . . Justice consists of behaving exactly as though there were equality when one is the stronger in an unequal relationship. . . . He who treats as equals those who are far below him in strength really makes them a gift of the quality of human beings.. . . He reproduces the original generosity of the Creator with regard to them. . . . On God’s part creation is not an act of self-expansion but of restraint and renunciation. . . . God permitted the existence of things distinct from himself and worth infinitely less than himself. By this creative act he denied himself, as Christ has told us to deny ourselves. God denied himself for our sakes in order to give us the possibility of denying ourselves for him. . . . Generosity and compassion are inseparable, and both have their model in God, that is to say, in creation and in the Passion. (Waiting for God, 1951, pp. 139, 143-146)

The love that Jesus showed in washing the disciples’ feet is like the love God showed for us in our creation - an act of renunciation and restraint. This is scandalous, of course. The soul does not want to be face to face with a God who is less than all-powerful. The spectacle of a kneeling God is devastating. No! Let God be seated on a throne, holding all the symbols of power; let us be the ones to kneel. No wonder Peter is horrified when he sees Emmanuel crouching at his feet.

Love as Scandal

Is it accidental that in McConkey’s novel the husband’s middle name is Peter? In the footwashing narrative Peter represents the redeemed - those who in Vachel Lindsay’s poem are "washed in the blood of the Lamb." As Jesus was immersed by John in the waters of the Jordan, so Peter has been thrown into a heavenly river. He sounds like a man who is terrified that he may drown. And no wonder: Cleansing, redeeming, forgiving love is always terrifying. The seventeenth-century poet George Herbert captured all of that in "Love":

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

In the presence of God’s love, who does not feel "guiltie of dust and sinne"? Peter’s protest that he needs a complete bath is his way of saying that he is unworthy of Jesus’ devotion. Surely he had not bargained for this. Peter had hoped to be in the parade, following the spiritual leader; he did not anticipate that his own life would be turned upside down.

Love has a much different effect on Judas, son of Simon Iscariot. He has determined to betray Jesus to his killers. Who knows what motivates Judas? In The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese pictures Judas as betraying Jesus out of friendship; Judas is ordered by Jesus to hand him over to the authorities, that through the crucifixion the kingdom might come. However, the comment of Jesus, "You are not all clean," leads to the more likely supposition that guilt and shame, projected outward upon Jesus, lead Judas to his betrayal.

All that is not so important as the reality Judas represents: True love on the part of one will tempt the other to betrayal. The great romantic tales testify that this is so - Othello and Desdemona, Pinkerton and Butterfly, Tristan and Isolde, Arthur and Guinevere. There is something about human beings that leads them to betray love:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

-- Oscar Wilde, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol")

Sexual Love and Betrayal

Two of our most perceptive portrayers of sexual love are John Updike and Woody Allen. In Updike’s "Rabbit" novels, Harry Angstrom - an Everyman - betrays every woman who loves him. He cheats on his wife; he deserts his pregnant mistress; he beds his daughter-in-law; and his longtime lover is forsaken in her dying hours. A flower-child dies in a fire at Harry’s house while he is away bedding another man’s wife. Both sexual love and betrayal are as natural to Harry as eating and defecating; he acquires, trades, and discards sexual partners as casually as his father-in-law deals in used cars. Updike wants us to believe that natural man is not capable of keeping the marriage vow "forsaking all others, keep thee only unto her, so long as you both shall live."

Woody Allen’s view of love is less banal, though not much more hopeful. His 1986 film, Hannah and Her Sisters, shows two years in the lives of three sisters. Hannah was once married to Mickey Sachs, but divorced him after bearing twins conceived by sperm donated by Mickey’s business partner. Her second husband, Elliot, has a year-long affair with Hannah’s unmarried sister, Lee. He cannot finally break with Hannah, and Lee falls in love with one of her college professors, although she admits to herself, "I feel like I’m betraying Elliot." The third sister, Holly, is edged out in a contest for the affections of a married man by her business partner. She ends up marrying Mickey Sachs. All three women in various ways replicate the experiences of their parents - a show business couple who enjoy wounding each other with accusations of various affairs. Allen’s thesis appears to be that infidelity, because it is inevitable, is forgivable.

It seems to be the fate of modern men and women to experience love as a transaction, where one may expect both profits and losses. C. Day-Lewis describes it:

"'You are nice' - and she touched his arm with a fleeting
Impulsive gesture: the arm that had held her close
And naked a year ago. She was not cheating,
But it falsified their balance of profit and loss.
Her gesture saluted a magnanimity shown
When he asked if she was happy with her new
Lover. That cool touch scalded him to the bone:
The ingenuous words made all words ring untrue.
Their love had never been one of creditor-debtor;
But he felt that her hand, reaching to him across
The year he had spent in failing to forget her
And all they’d shared, simply wrote off a loss."

("A Loss," from Requiem for the Living, 1964)

What of the Devil?

But all this is all too familiar. In our culture love and betrayal go hand in hand. Where there is one, we expect the other. In the narrative of the footwashing, Judas is no surprise. Where there is love, of course there is disloyalty and even hatred. What else would we expect in a love story but eventual betrayal? Besides, do we not betray God’s love every day of our lives?

But what are we to make of the story’s reference to the devil? The Gospel says: "The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him." Ah, the devil is the great opportunist. Remember how the story of Jesus’ temptation ended? The devil "departed from him until an opportune time." Now that time has come. The devil has been granted his agent in the person of Judas, who is not clean, who is capable of betrayal. The devil knows that where there is great love, mischief also lurks. He comes like a vulture to a downed animal.

We think we are so smart. We laugh at the devil as we do at scarecrows. Who could be frightened by such a thing? And then in our innocence we put our trust in either the purity or the necessity of our passions. And time and again we put ourselves in positions where the opportunity for betrayal is too much for us.

A popular film of 1988 was Dangerous Liaisons, which was based on a 1782 French novel. The movie presents us with two of the most contemptible persons ever to appear on the screen: a wealthy widow named Merteuil and her former lover, Count Valmont. Valmont confides in Merteuil his plan to seduce a virtuous married woman; Merteuil promises him a night in her bed if he can produce written proof of his conquest. He succeeds, but his virtuous victim dies of a broken heart. Valmont, who has broken his own rules and fallen in love with her, then allows himself to be killed in a duel. Merteuil in turn is ostracized by the outraged aristocracy.

The beautiful eighteenth-century costumes and setting seduce us into viewing these affairs with a kind of horrified detachment, as though we were watching a "Nature" film on PBS showing the praying mantis being devoured by his mate in the act of copulation. And then we are struck with this thought: This dreadful story is about us. We treat sexual love as a game, where one risks winning and losing, but in which one certainly cannot be destroyed. It is we who are constantly betrayed by "dust and sinne." Oh, the devil would give a great deal if we could be persuaded that only rich, idle, unprincipled aristocrats in pre-revolutionary France played so carelessly at love. That would provide him with another very opportune time.

However fascinated as we may be by Devil the Opportunist, Judas the Betrayer, and Peter the Clean, the central figure in the footwashing is Jesus the Lover. All else serves only to frame and highlight Jesus’ act. It is pure and perfect love in action. The one who had demonstrated the power to stop the waves, to multiply the loaves, to unbind the paralytic, stoops to wash the feet of his friends. If a black slave were forced to wash her master’s feet, we would consider it the depths of degradation. Jesus does it as a volunteer. Not only his robe is laid aside, but with it any pretensions to royalty. His love will not be that of a king for deserving subjects, but that of a friend who washes one’s soiled and aching feet.

Dare we risk that overused word "vulnerability"? Like any lover Jesus makes himself vulnerable to rejection, scorn, misunderstanding, disbelief. This is what God does also in making us in God’s image: God takes a lover’s gamble, an incalculable risk. Betrayal is not inevitable, but it is possible. Love creates an opportune time for the Tempter. Yet God, like Jesus, loves beyond betrayal. God brushes aside the risk, even as Jesus laid aside his clothing and wrapped himself with a towel.

Should We Wash Feet?

The question comes to mind, of course: If Emmanuel washed the disciples’ feet, should we wash one another’s feet? Has Jesus given us a symbol? In our services of worship should we institute footwashing? No. The act is unrepeatable. We may commit ourselves to the kind and quality of love that is represented by the footwashing. But if the thing is done as a symbol, then it loses its nature as an act of love. It is something else - a beautiful gesture, perhaps, but not love.

True love is never a gesture. That is one of the problems we have with loving one another. We substitute gifts for affection, gestures for words, words for gestures, jewels for kindness, manners for passion. We are forever playing games of love - whether that be love of man for woman, love of son for father, or love of rich for poor.

Every attempt to make of the footwashing a pious gesture plays into the hands of the devil. The devil would like nothing better than for us to think love is some kind of game, in which there are proper gestures, words and moves - all of which can be substituted for direct, physical, unmistakable deeds of caring.

Jean Sulivan was a French priest who was permitted by his bishop to leave parish work for a career as a writer. He wrote mostly novels, because he wanted people to get past the abstractions of religion to the lived experience of faith. In his spiritual journal he wrote: "The fundamental insight of the Bible . . . is that the invisible can speak only by means of the perceptible. There is no concept that will suffice for harvests turned golden, lilies of the field, the lost drachma, the wounded man on the road to Jericho" (Morning Light: The Spiritual Journal of Jean Sulivan, 1988, p. 18). So whatever we make of the footwashing, let us not make out of it a liturgical act. Then Jesus is betrayed one more time.

No, let it be remembered that when his death was near and he was with his beloved friends, Jesus wanted to demonstrate his devotion in an unmistakable way. So he got up from supper and washed their feet. According to the Gospel story, he did this in full knowledge of who he was and where he was going. It is a revelatory deed, not a mysterious gesture. The love of God for humans was never made so plain, so direct, so personal.

Earlier in this chapter, we quoted "Love" by George Herbert. Simone Weil, from the time she was an adolescent until her death, suffered from excruciating migraine headaches. One of her methods for coping with pain was to concentrate her mind on poetry. She once wrote to a friend about Herbert’s poem:

"Often, at the culminating point of a violent headache, I make myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that, as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me. . . . [In] this sudden possession of me by Christ, neither my senses nor my imagination had any part; I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face. (Waiting for God, pp. 68 - 69)

How do you cope with that feeling of betrayal that pain and sickness bring? Might it help to concentrate all your imagination upon the story of Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet?

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