Many of us have heard the phrase “practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.” This phrase is credited to Anne Herbert who wrote it on a placemat in Sausalito, California in 1982 in an attempt to provide intentional reflection on the very opposite of the phrase popular at the time that lamented, "Random acts of violence and senseless acts of cruelty.”
Anne's phrase has become quite popular and has sparked a desire within many to do something completely out of the normal routine for someone they’ve never met. Maybe you’ve been the recipient of one of these random acts of kindness: someone paid for your coffee at Starbucks, or you arrived at the drive up window to find that the person in the car in front of you paid for your meal. My nephew says that one of the best birthdays he had was going to Costco (where they sell hotdogs for $1.50) and giving the clerk at the hotdog counter $150, telling him to use the money for people coming through the line until it ran out. Jonathan sat over in the corner and watched people light up in smiles and laughter when they found out their meal had been paid for in full.
The definition of random act of kindness is: “an inconsistent action designed to offer kindness towards the outside world.” An inconsistent action, designed to offer kindness. I think that is exactly what Jesus is guilty of when he washes the disciples feet on Maundy Thursday.
Jesus and the disciples are settled in for the evening meal on the night before the eve of Passover. I imagine that after all of the excitement of the previous days—the raising of Lazarus from the dead and Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem to shouts of Hosanna—they were ready for an evening of a familiar, routine meal. One with no surprises or lurking danger. They would simply eat together.
But, no. As is coming to be expected with Jesus, the unexpected happens. The disciples are fundamentally surprised. The writer of John says, “And during supper (in the middle of the meal) Jesus gets up from the table, takes off his outer robe, ties an towel around himself, pours water into a basin and begins to wash the disciples' feet.”
This action is unexpected on so many levels.
This was an act of hospitality that, traditionally, happened when one first entered the house. One’s feet would be cleansed from the dirt and dust accumulated from the day of walking and traveling. This action would certainly happen before the meal, not during it.
This action was a task almost exclusively performed by a slave or a servant. The servant would draw the water, wash the feet, and then dispose of the water. A servant could never refuse to render this service no matter how old he or she might be. Those whose feet were washed by another were considered the social superiors of the one washing the feet. And, again, the action was never performed in the middle of a meal.
But Jesus unexpectedly gets up, takes off his outer robe, ties a towel around himself, pours water and begins to wash the disciples’ feet. Peter, of course, objects precisely because of the reasons listed above: you aren’t a servant, Jesus; we aren’t your superiors; and, he was probably thinking, and we are in the middle of the meal!
When Jesus is finished with this humble task he asks them, “Do you know what I have done to you? I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.” Serve others with humility. Engage in inconsistent actions designed to show kindness to others.
The same evening, Jesus also says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Engage in inconsistent actions designed to show love to others.
I think it is significant that Jesus performed this unexpected, random act of love for the disciples in the middle of the meal. Because the Christian life is lived in the midst of The Meal. We remember how Jesus took the bread and the cup and told us to “do this”—to eat the bread and drink from the cup—in remembrance of him. We live in the perpetual remembrance and celebration of that meal, that Last Supper. So, as we go about our daily lives, we are to remember and live the example he set for us by engaging in inconsistent actions designed to show love to others.
The Maundy Thursday charge to show love to others is a theme that will carry throughout Holy Week and into Easter Sunday, as Christ will embody an ultimate form of love by dying so that we might experience new life. Let us consider the ways that we, as Jesus' disciples, will follow his example of interrupting the routine, the traditional, the familiar with inconsistent actions designed to show love to others.
And why should we do this? Because, Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”