We’ve all heard the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Even Jesus gets in on the golden rule a little bit, saying it summarized the meaning of the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets.
It’s a fine rule, especially for children. And for grown-ups who insist on acting like children. But there is one self-serving flaw in the golden rule: we get to be our own standard of what is right and what is wrong.
And we love that. It feeds into our self-deception perfectly, confirming that other people are not as wise, gracious, kind, and caring as we are. If only they saw the light.
In the Gospels Jesus has a habit of building on the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets. He says several times things like, “you have heard it said, do x, but I tell you, do y.” In every case y becomes something harder to pull off than x ever was. The golden rule is no different.
On this day of holy week, Maundy Thursday, Jesus gave his disciples a mandate (where we get the word Maundy from) to “love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34b-35).
Like Jesus always does he replaces us with himself at the center of our lives. No longer can we be the lowly standard by which we treat everyone else. We have a new standard. We have Jesus.
Before giving this new mandate, Jesus showed the kind of love he meant by interrupting the evening meal to tie an apron around his waist and take a bowl of water to wash everyone’s feet.
In Israel in the first century it was common for people to have their feet washed upon entering someone’s home, especially for a meal. Children or servants would often do it. But the two people who would never do such a thing were the master of the house or his guest of honor.
And yet here we have Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. It went over the way you think it did.
Peter had none of it at first, but Jesus scolded him and told him to accept it. After he was finished with everybody’s feet, Jesus says, “‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ He asked them. ‘You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:12b-17).
We all say we want blessings. Until we’re handed an apron and bowl.
We all say we want to receive blessings. Until someone asks us to take off our shoes.
I’m not one of those Christians who elevates footwashing to a sacrament, although we might dismiss them too easily, given Jesus’ words above. However, his new command is not to wash, but to love. And his example of love was service—grimy, humble, taken-for-granted service. In Jesus' day footwashing was a poignant example. I wonder what example he might’ve chosen in our times.
Whatever that service might look like today, we’re often worse at receiving such love than we are at giving it to others. It’s the golden rule at work once again. “I wouldn’t want someone handling my disgusting feet, so I don’t have to touch theirs.” As much as Jesus tries to replace us as the center of our lives, we respond by pushing him right back out the door—apron and bowl in hand.
Jesus says that it is by our exchange of giving and receiving grimy, humble love that “everyone will know that you are my disciples.” We will stand out as his people if we treat each other better than we deserve, so get rid of the golden rule and get your apron on.