Serving Imagination on Holy Thursday

He Qi, Washing Disciple’s Feet
He Qi, Washing Disciple’s Feet

In The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene tells the story of the “whisky priest,” a minister whose brokenness is evident to many of the other characters, and perhaps most especially to himself.  A revolution has stripped the church of its external trappings, exposing the whisky priest’s sins, and, as the book continues, also his grace.  Throughout the novel, the priest becomes holy as he grows in his ability to see the image of God in others:

“When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity—that was a quality God’s image carried with it.  When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate.  Hatred was a failure of the imagination” (1).

Greene’s use of “image” and “imagination” in these lines is not coincidental.  If by being made in the image of God we have the capacity to see the world through God’s eyes, then a failure to image God is not a fault of the one who is hated, but rather of the one who hates.  When I hate, I cannot imagine the world as God does because I do not perceive others through God’s loving gaze.  In doing so, I deny that the person I despise is made in God’s image, and darken the image of God within myself:  my divine imagination fails.

In Holy Thursday’s gospel, Jesus teaches us to imagine ourselves and others anew through the image of God.  How?  By standing with the ones who are hated.  When he washes the disciples’ feet, Jesus places himself in the posture of a servant, and of a particular sort.  While offering guests the opportunity to wash their own feet was a common form of hospitality in Jesus’ culture, some scripture scholars believe washing the feet of others would have been beneath the dignity of a Jewish servant.  Further, Jesus’ attire (v. 5) and his use of the word doulos (v. 16) are clues that by washing others’ feet Jesus is acting as a slave.  Moreover, Leviticus put limitations on Jewish people owning other Jews as slaves; to act as a slave in a Jewish context suggests Jesus has assumed the religious status of a gentile (Lev. 25: 39-45).

By kneeling at the disciples’ feet, Jesus stands for those who are by definition “outside” of the community, who are brought “inside” for the sake of utility rather than dignity.  This is the context for Peter’s initial, vehement refusal to have his feet washed.  The Jesus we have met through John’s gospel names himself “I am,” claiming God’s identity as his own (John 8:58, cf. Exodus 3:14).  As he washes the disciples’ feet, Jesus radically corrects their spiritual imagination:  they are compelled to look upon the divine image in a gentile slave, one of the despised “others.”

Following the foot washing, Jesus asks “Do you realize what I have done for you?” (v.12). Like all eager students, I rush to answer, “Yes, teacher!  I get it!”  Yet perhaps in thinking too generally I fall short of the teacher’s intent.  What Jesus has done is service—but what kind?  Washing the feet of those who are already invited inside qualifies as service, but it doesn’t capture the depths of Jesus’ action.  In John’s gospel, Jesus serves more radically by compelling me to see God’s image in the other.  God’s image is refashioned in me as I learn to see others with love rather than with hate.

Jesus indicates “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (v. 15).   I believe we live out Christ’s model of service by standing in solidarity with the despised ones, insisting to all that we are each made in the divine image and that hatred is a failure of the imagination.


(1)  Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (New York:  Penguin Books, 1991), 131.