Maundy Thursday: the mother of all mercy

What should Jesus have done about Judas? In a way, Thursday was the final chance. There is a pipeline from here to the tomb. Once Judas has left the table, Jesus knows that his fate is sealed.

Yet earlier in the evening, instead of ordering his disciples to bind Judas in the basement, he kneels at his feet, his robe set aside. And with ironic tenderness, he lifts each of Judas’ feet to wash them clean, and dry them like a mother tending to her willful, wicked child.

One of the great tragedies of Judas is that he does not live to hear Jesus’ words of forgiveness from the cross. Incredible, unimaginable grace. And Judas cannot imagine it, so he returns instead to the very people who cannot forgive him, because they are part and parcel of his crime. Perhaps that is why he goes to them; he cannot forgive himself, so he stays among those who cannot forgive him either.

The great tragedy of Judas is that even after spending all this time with Jesus; even after the broken bread and the bathed feet, he still cannot quite believe in his grace and mercy.

We have a similar problem. We follow Judas’ logic all too often: that the way of the cross, of service and sacrifice; the steadfast loving kindness of God is all very well and good; but that it is hardly good enough. So we take matters into our own hands, betraying the love of Jesus for silver, or for self-satisfaction, or the satisfaction of revenge, of being right.

But Jesus is something else. Faced with his betrayal, he tells Judas, do what you must. But I will continue to do what I must: to live a life to the very end of love without limits, service without salary, mercy without match.

Jesus knew all about Judas. But in his humanity, he was vulnerable to two key weaknesses: hope, and love. In his Incarnation, God had made the almighty vulnerable, choosing love over security and hope over certainty.

We read at yesterday’s Tenebrae service from St Augustine:

On the brow of kings that cross is now placed, the cross which enemies once mocked. Its power is shown in the result. He has conquered the world, not by steel, but by wood. … He stretched out his arms to an unbelieving and rebellious people. … And yet, looking upon them, he said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’

Judas’ error is ours, whenever we consider steel stronger than the wood of the cross. Each time we consider might greater than the mother of all mercy. Whenever we stray from kindness, withholding the water to wash the feet of a stranger, or of a close friend. Each time we stint or skimp on love, instead of pouring it out so that the whole house is filled with its perfume, we follow in the footsteps of Judas, slipping away from the table, turning our backs towards Jesus.

But we do not need to follow Judas to his grave. I have said that the tragedy of Judas is his failure to hear Jesus’ forgiveness, broadcast from the cross. But we have heard it, and every time we take our courage in our hands, to confess our betrayal and the need to be washed by the love of Jesus, he is ready to receive us. We do not need to persist in tragedy, if we can embrace the comedy, the foolish and incredible notion that God loves us so much, that the Son of God would kneel before us and wash our feet.

My God! What love is this,
reaching beneath the gnarled nails
to wash away the blood and sweat
and wrap the cooling, clean feet
in soft linen; what tenderness
takes such a body and lays it,
cool and dry, onto the bare earth?

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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2 Responses to Maundy Thursday: the mother of all mercy

  1. As I “recover” from 45 years of pastoral ministry and try to find my way again, I seem to have an aversion to a lot of Christian spiritual writing. Yours is an exception to that. I am not sure why, but I am grateful that you keep at it.

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