Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Spirituality of Washing Feet

"Practice Compassion"

There is a sign at the cash register at our local convenience store encouraging customers to purchase a winning "lottery ticket” by offering the following advice: "Hey! Somebody’s got to win - it might as well be YOU!"  

Whenever I see this sign I think to myself that this one simple phrase may indeed be a perfect icon of how many if not most of us in this culture live our lives everyday. We all want to be winners, big winners, and since everybody can’t win, it might as well be me that gets the prize.

Competing to be a big winner goes on for most of our lives – always working at climbing the proverbial ladder of success, calling attention to our own importance, crushing an opponent who might get in the way of our own personal advancement: somebody’s got to win, it might as well be ME.

Today is “Holy Thursday” on the Christian calendar and the events remembered on this day serve as a vivid and clear illustration of just exactly how counter-cultural the teachings of Jesus (and the teaching of most spiritual paths) are to the way so many people live their lives in today’s society.

Most people who are even vaguely familiar with what happened on this day before Jesus died will probably conjure up images of “The Last Supper," the time when Jesus assembled his disciples for a final meal on the night before he was crucified, telling them to remember him by eating bread and drinking wine in his name. But, there was another event that took place during this Last Supper that, to me, is extremely significant because it is emblematic of the very core of everything Jesus did and taught while he was on earth.

During this final meal, Jesus got up from the table and “washed the feet” of his disciples. While this may seem somewhat odd and unusual to us in our own times, in those days, “washing feet” before a meal was actually pretty commonplace. People didn’t wear shoes and feet would get dirty and dusty in the desert sand, so “washing feet” was a way of cleaning up for dinner. The thing that made what Jesus did so unusual is that “washing feet” was something a servant or a slave would normally do for a master. Here Jesus turns it all upside down.

Jesus is the master who becomes the servant as he washes his disciples’ feet. More than that he tells his disciples (actually he commands them) and he commands any who would follow in his way over the generations to come that this is how they must live their lives: washing each others’ feet, caring for each other’s welfare.

Jesus kneeling in humble service and his bold mandate that his followers do the same serves in stark opposition to the ethic of today’s popular culture, an ethic that says: somebody’s got to win, it might as well be me.

While many today may think that living a life of humble service is a wimpy thing to do (only losers act that way), the truth is that living a life of compassion in service to others is what makes us the real winners in this life. In fact, the wisdom of almost every spiritual tradition on the planet teaches that we find true happiness when we make other people happy, we find our own good when we work for the common good, we are only winners when everybody wins in life.

I am reminded of something The Dalai Lama taught:

If you want others to be happy practice compassion
If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

On this Holy Thursday I reflect upon that image of Jesus washing the feet of those who were supposedly inferior to him. By doing so he lifted them up to a place of equal dignity at the table of life. I want to follow in that way and you certainly don’t need to be a Christian to want to do this also.

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