When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
Read John 13:31-35
When you hear the word ‘prodigal’ you probably think of The Parable of the Prodigal Son, the story about the young man who went off and wasted his inheritance on reckless, extravagant living before coming back to his father – rather sheepishly – and confessing what a fool he had been.
Well, that story could just as easily have been titled “The Parable of the Prodigal Father,” the story of the dad who willingly gave this son an early inheritance, the dad who every day kept a watchful eye on the horizon in anticipation of this son’s return, and when he sees his wayward son approaching from a distance this dad runs to him, embraces him, gives him a new robe, puts the family ring on his finger, and throws a party – kills the fatted calf – to celebrate the return of this son. That is a dad who knows nothing of tough love. Rather this dad’s love is a reckless, wasteful, prodigal.
It’s a kind of love that has certainly upset this kid’s older brother who wonders why his dad is so quick to forgive, quick to restore, quick to welcome. This dad doesn’t even make his kindness and generosity conditional upon any promise or any evidence of remorse (and we never really know if the returning son was remorseful or merely hungry). And of course the older brother is jealous as well, jealous of the way Dad is lavishing attention on this sinful son of his. If I were the dad I probably would expect an apology or an explanation, a promise that he would change his ways. And I probably wouldn’t spring for a “welcome home” party. I doubt there are many parents who would run anywhere to welcome such a son back into the family. Instead we’d stand quietly with crossed arms expecting words of contrition. But this Prodigal Father has no expectations; he simply rejoices at the return of the son who was “dead,” but is now alive, who was lost and is now found.
But that’s the kind of behavior that Jesus prescribes to his disciples in today’s lesson. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” And when he says “by this” what he means is by the kind of love that he has just demonstrated, which is washing his disciples feet, which is what he does in the verses that precede today’s scripture lesson.
“By THIS everyone will know that you are my disciples; if you wash each other’s feet!”
A pastor once told me that when someone approached him about serving the church in a leadership position, he would have that person clean the bathrooms of the church for a full year before taking on any other leadership position: He figured that if a person is serious about serving Jesus Christ, he should start by “washing feet,” by serving Christ in the most humbling way. Washing someone’s feet is like cleaning someone’s bathroom. That’s what being a servant of God entails.
Because there is no time for pride when you’re serving God. You can’t say, “That kind of work is beneath me,” because that implies that you’re above it, which kinda implies that you’re above the people who do that kind of work, and Jesus, by stripping down to a towel and washing his disciples’ feet, tells us that there is nothing that is below us.
And service is sometimes rather nasty and dirty. The same pastor who had potential leaders clean the bathrooms for a years was not above such work; he told me that it’s his custom on long airline trips – and he is from South Korea – that on those long flights he would, during the middle of the flight, clean the bathroom in the airplane (and if you’ve ever been on a long flight you know just how nasty an airplane’s bathroom can get). That is what Christians are called to do; that is prodigal love.
It’s the kind of love that makes you get your hands dirty – or requires rubber gloves. But it’s also the kind of love that accompanies a deep sense of joy, knowing that you have brought someone else joy…or relief…or comfort. You know that your love doesn’t need to be reciprocated or even appreciated, because it just flows naturally from your heart, like that living water that Jesus spoke about. It’s the kind of love that gets so totally wrapped up in the ones we are serving that we lose all sense of status, all our concern for what others might think, and even concern for our own life.
And it’s the kind of love that Jesus teaches his disciples, through example, as he prepares to go to that place where we cannot come. I think John’s gospel more than the other three gospels presents a Jesus who has thought long and hard about what his followers should do after he’s gone where they will see him no more. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
That verse can be easily misconstrued, right? I mean, Jesus isn’t telling us to love our enemies – he does that in Matthew’s gospel. But you have to remember, the original John community probably didn’t have Matthew’s gospel. So we have to see Jesus’ words – “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” – not simple as a chummy chummy, good-to-see-you-pal kind of love; this is foot-washing love, bathroom-cleaning love. I’ll admit that the Jesus of John’s gospel is a bit aloof when you first encounter him – making a fuss about turning water into wine, talking about being born again and drinking living water – drinking blood! – being one with the Father – and that whole “glorified” diatribe at the beginning of today’s reading. I bet he sounds like some pastors you’ve heard.
I know that the Jesus in John’s gospel is not the physician that he is in Matthew, Mark, or Luke where he spends full days seeing patients and travels across lakes to free souls of demons. Jesus performs a meager seven miracles that John calls ‘signs’ and only four of those were “healings.”
But in John’s gospel, Jesus is teacher extraordinaire. The seven signs that we’ve been talking about over the past month tell us that Jesus is extraordinaire. And the simple fact that he refers to these miracles as signs tells us that these great acts have a deeper meaning, which is mostly to convince the world that Jesus is the Son of God, the One to whom Moses and the prophets pointed.
And though Jesus speaks more in John’s gospel than he does in any of the other gospels, his actions speak far louder than his words. His actions are lessons that teach us a way of understanding. And Jesus’ first action upon completing his last sign (resurrecting Lazarus) is to teach his disciples the most valuable lesson he could teach them, with his hands, doing the kind of work that was usually reserved for a slave, most often a woman slave. Yet Jesus wasn’t a slave; no one ordered him wash anyone’s feet. Jesus does it voluntarily. That’s weird. That’s extravagant. That’s prodigal love.
If we didn’t know the context of today’s story we might interpret it to mean we can love whoever we like, like our mother or father, son or daughter. But foot-washing love, even if reserved for those nearest and dearest to us, is not an easy love to express. I don’t know many relationships within families that embody that kind of humbling, extravagant, ‘wasteful’ love.
And Jesus, having a limited time left before he goes where we can’t come, knows how to prioritize his message: most important lessons first. See me strip down to a towel, like a woman slave, and this is how you must behave toward one another.
You know, John has spent the first half of his book presenting us with proof-beyond-a-doubt that Jesus is the Son of God, the one of whom Moses and the prophets spoke. We have seen these amazing signs that express the power of God, and we’d be tempted to place Jesus on a pedestal and bow down and worship him; we’d be tempted to wash his feet. But rather than remaining high on that pedestal where we are tempted to place him above us, Jesus comes down, strips down, and gets his hands dirty, serving us, loving us, with a prodigal love is so foreign to our world, so foreign to our nature.
So as we vision about the future of our church, we must ensure that, in whatever ministries we conduct, in whatever mission we undertake, we must do whatever we do with a prodigal love, serving in ways that humble us as we serve “the least of these.” And may God be glorified in all that we do.