Love in action (part 2)

I read a lot of comic books as a kid, so today I’m a big fan of superhero movies. Sometimes the studios get it right (e.g., this year’s Spider Man: Homecoming — well, mostly), and sometimes they get it wrong (e.g., last year’s Batman v. Superman).

It’s taken nearly 40 years to get from Lynda Carter’s campy, tongue-in-cheek television incarnation of Wonder Woman to this summer’s blockbuster big screen origin story. Happily, they got it right. Gal Gadot gives a nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of an idealistic and enormously powerful woman naive to the selfishness and evil of the human race. She doesn’t set out to be a superhero; she becomes one by following her compassionate instincts. (One hopes that the upcoming Justice League won’t turn her back into the cardboard figure she was in Batman v. Superman.)

But if I may be allowed a theological quibble… At the end of the film, in a voiceover narration, Wonder Woman declares the moral lesson she’s learned from her adventures: “Only love can save the world.” It’s a fine sentiment, and one with which I would wholeheartedly agree. But I’m not so keen on how that principle is actually embodied in the film. The pain of lost love makes her angry and powerful enough to obliterate her enemy, who happens to be the God of War. That’s how love saves the world: with superior violence.

Darth Vader would have been pleased.

In other words, it’s one thing to preach love, but it’s another to live it out.

In the first part of this post we saw how John, as he introduces the story of the Last Supper, emphasizes the matchless love of Jesus for his disciples. Jesus knows that he must soon go to the cross in the ultimate demonstration of that love (e.g., John 15:13), and that the disciples won’t understand it when it happens. Thus, in love, Jesus takes the position of a lowly servant and washes his disciples’ feet.

Peter, typically the most outspoken of the lot, objects. One imagines that the disciples at times take some pride in their choice to follow Jesus, somewhat like putting all their money on the horse that’s clearly favored to win. Seeing Jesus on his knees violates not only their sense of propriety — teachers don’t wash the feet of their disciples! — but also their sense of power and prominence. So Peter draws back in horror: No way, Jesus. No way are you washing my feet.

“I know you don’t understand what I’m doing,” Jesus replies patiently, “but you will later” — probably referring to the insight Peter and the others will have after they’ve received the Holy Spirit. But precisely because Peter doesn’t yet understand, he still objects. Jesus then adds, “If I don’t wash you, Peter, you can’t have a place with me.”

Peter promptly does an impassioned flip-flop. “Then wash all of me!” he blurts out. I would guess that Peter still hasn’t absorbed the lesson of love as humble service; his response may mean something like, “Whatever you’ve got for me, Jesus, I want a double portion!” And yet, even if that’s so, it’s hard to fault the enthusiasm.

I imagine Jesus smiling as he responds, “No, Peter. A person who’s taken a bath only needs to have his feet washed.” Some commentators see deeper theological meaning behind Jesus’ words: Once you’ve been cleansed of sin through the redemption provided by the cross, you only need to purify yourself from daily contact with the world. 

Perhaps. But I read this as Jesus merely stating the obvious, in order to gently take back the direction of the conversation. After all, as we’ll see in the next post, he still has a lesson to teach them about love in action.

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