In that first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, Luke shows
the way St. Paul did his missionary work. Upon arriving in a new town, his
method was first to go to one of the local synagogues and bring the gospel
message to the folks who, by heritage, were most entitled to it, his fellow
Jews. After the readings of that Sabbath from the scrolls of the Law and the
prophets, the leader would ask if the visitor had any message for the congregation.
Did he ever! As Luke tells it regarding Paul’s visit to this synagogue in
the town of Antioch in Pisidia, Paul got up and presented a thumb-nail summary
of the history of the people of Israel—with the surprise ending that the
whole thing had been climaxed by the life, death, and resurrection (!) of
a craftsman from Nazareth—Jesus! That was a turn of events that no one had
expected. There were plenty of expectations about a future anointed servant
of God, but none that matched the kind of Messiah that Jesus turned
out to be.
The words that we hear in the Gospel of John today express an important
aspect of that surprise climax of God’s story with Israel—what Jesus is about
is summarized in the simple and stunning gesture of the Master washing his
“I solemnly assure you, no slave is greater than his master; no messenger
outranks the one who sent him. Once you know all these things, blest will
you be if you put them into practice.” What do such words mean when they come
right after the Master has just acted like a slave by washing their feet?
It means that the disciples (the learners) are called to stoop to the level
of the teacher, who does the work of the servant.
The history of Israel climaxes with the life, death, and resurrection of
Jesus—and Jesus dares to summarize the meaning of that life with the act of
a servant. The consequences are obvious and challenging: our life as Christians
is to be summarized in our own acts of service as well. Whatever we do—as
parents, teachers, children, students, artists, workers, bureaucrats, health
professionals, or whatever—is meant to be a way of serving one another. What
room is there, then, for cynicism, competition or arrogance? None.