A reflection by Janine Goodwin, M.A., M.S. Ed.
One day a few years ago, when I was working as a substitute teacher, I was talking to a middle school boy during a break at the end of a special education class. I forget how the conversation began, but I remember we were talking about possible ways to deal with a conflict. I suggested there might be a way everyone could get what they needed. The memory becomes painfully clear after that. His young face went rigid with anger.
In a voice of complete certainty, he said, “No. My dad told me: You can either win or lose. You either give orders, or obey.”
“You really believe there’s nothing else?” I asked.
“That’s all there is,” he said, and I thought I saw despair in his eyes, somewhere behind his scorn at my crazy question.
The bell rang. He grabbed his books and walked on to his next class, bumping shoulders with a buddy and grinning, a boy doing his best in a school system not designed for his needs.
I thought of the famous line Milton gives to Satan in Paradise Lost:
“Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” I did not see the boy as being like Satan, but I felt he was living in a hell he had inherited from his father. It is a hell in which many of us grew up. It is the hell of the eternal power struggle, where no real love can live. In that place, anyone’s gain must be someone else’s loss, and everyone, no matter what their relationship might be, was in competition with everyone else for the one prize: control.
This kind of thinking makes perfect sense, if you accept its premises:
first, that there is only a limited amount of power available; second, that power is always and only power over others, the power of control; and third, that it is good to have the power to control others.
Fortunately, the perfect love that Jesus shows us doesn’t make perfect sense by those premises. Jesus, in this gospel passage, has a whole different set of premises. Those premises are that God’s love is infinite; that we can make a life of mutual service in community rather than trying to defeat or control each other; and that God does not control us, but gives us the freedom to choose, even when we make choices that are evil.
In feminist terms, God is not interested in the power of control, power-over, but in the power of creativity, power-to.
In the beginning of the chapter from which this week’s Gospel is taken, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, taking on a task so humble that Jewish law of the time declared that it could not be required of a Jewish slave.
Only a Gentile slave could be forced to wash the feet of others. Jesus washes his followers’ feet over the objections of Peter, a disciple with some interesting control issues: Peter is always trying to tell Jesus what to do and how to be. After washing the disciples’ feet and telling them to love each other, Jesus predicts his own betrayal; instead of destroying Judas, he offers him a morsel of food, a generous and intimate gesture that reminds us of the Eucharist. Then Satan enters Judas. Some people of faith and even some ancient documents claim that God forced Judas’s choice, but to me, the entire meaning of this passage says otherwise.
Jesus lays down power-over at every point in this chapter. The Jesus who washes his disciples’ feet is not a puppetmaster, but one who offers love even to one whom he knows is planning to betray him. I believe Judas has made a free choice to betray Jesus. When evil enters Judas, it is by invitation, through one choice influenced by a lifetime of choices. Jesus may know and accept his choice, may even tell him to go ahead, but Jesus does not force that choice. Jesus is not in a conspiracy with Judas, either; by this point in his ministry, there are plenty of people who want to kill him, and there is no need to engineer his own death. Jesus lets the world act, but does not force it to act. He sees what is coming, and chooses not to exert control over it.
Jesus dies because people who believe in control see him getting out of control. They see him calling for mercy where they want vengeance, and calling for justice when the powers that be would rather demand compliance with their own unjust systems. Jesus is crucified by our need to control God; he dies because he will not choose to control or to be controlled.
Jesus dies for power-to, and he is sentenced and executed by power-over.
He could take the morsel and decided to stay, could have confess and change his mind.
When Judas has accepted a gift of love, chosen evil, and left, Jesus turns to his disciples. He does not talk of power-over, of being a victim of the power of others, or even of winning in the end. He talks of God’s glory, in words that also hold the meaning of truth revealed. Jesus will be lifted up upon the cross so that God’s glory can be known. The glory of God has nothing to do with competition or power struggles, and everything to do with love. The response Jesus wants to God’s paradoxical glory is love. The disciples are to love one another as he has loved them. They are to exemplify the power he has given them, a power that is not about control but is about healing, about the immense creativity of the parables, about the divine justice and mercy which are so unlike our vengeful and cowardly ways of dealing with each other. The power of God is power-to, not power-over. It is about the freedom to love, not the urge to control.
Peter misses the point entirely. He drops the command to love one another and the promise that God’s glory will be revealed even in the crucifixion, and goes back to the words, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” He cannot accept a No from Jesus, and he tries to start an argument. “Where are you going?” he asks. Jesus repeats that Peter cannot follow him--yet. Peter insists that he will come with Jesus. Can you hear the power struggle? It is an echo of his argument with Jesus over the footwashing, when he first tells Jesus not to wash his feet, then tells him to wash his hands and head as well. Peter is always trying to control Jesus. Despite his loyalty and his love of Jesus, he is still playing the power games where one wins and one loses, and he wants to be the one who wins, even when he tries to make Jesus the other player. Now he pleads with Jesus to let him follow, not later, but now, saying, “I will lay down my life for you.”
Jesus knows his people. He does not play the game, but confronts Peter with Peter’s inability to keep his own grandiose promises. His response is not, “Because I said so,” but, “Will you lay down your life for me? Before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.” Once again, I believe that Peter is not forced to deny Jesus, but Jesus knows him and knows how he will act; knows he will be unable to stay away from the turmoil resulting from Judas’s betrayal, but will also be unable, in the end, to risk death for Jesus before he has seen the proof of the Resurrection.
In reading this passage, I used to see Judas as irredeemably evil and Peter as misguided but basically good. The longer I study it, the less I feel inclined to make that simple opposition. Yes, Judas chooses evil and does evil. The spirit of evil enters him by his choice, yet he stays human, and that means he could repent if he chose. Peter does not make an open choice for evil, but he is making dangerous choices against faith, choices that could break his relationship with Jesus if he persists: he tries to control Jesus, and then denies him. What, then, is the difference between Judas and Peter?
I think it is this: Judas leaves the table, and Peter stays. Judas removes himself from Jesus and the other disciples: Peter, for all his wrongheaded attempts to get Jesus to do things his way, for all his failures, stays at the table and stays as close to Jesus as he can. He repents of his denial as soon as he comes to himself, and even though he wavers, he stays part of the community of faith. In the end, Peter chooses to accept the news of the Resurrection when Mary Magdalene preaches it. He gives up his attempts to tell Jesus how to run things, and finally listens when Jesus says, “Do you love me? Feed my sheep.” Judas never appears again in this Gospel. He chooses not to be part of the new thing God is doing. In twelve-step terms, Peter obeys the saying many people hear at twelve-step meetings:
“Keep coming back! It works if you work it!” I can only hope that the student I met one day when I was substituting has found some community where he can learn to keep coming back and discover that there is more to relationships between people than control.
The Resurrection tells us that power-to transcended the power struggle and brought new life into the world. Jesus waits to give power-to to us, our families, our churches, our workplaces, if we are ready to refuse the forces of power-over. The risks of confronting power-over are great. Many people have lost families when they confronted abuse, been pushed out of churches when they called for change, lost their jobs when they blew the whistle or just suggested a more humane way to do things. Many have been killed when they confronted tyrants. Yet they have brought the power of the Resurrection into the world by their actions. When we give up the struggle for power over others, when we give up the habit of telling God how to run the world, when we turn to each other with our limited ability to care and cope and our very partial understanding of what God asks of us, we are serving the reign of God, and the crucified and resurrected Jesus is glorified. Thanks be to God.