In my previous post I mentioned I’m spending Lent meditating on Andrea Mantegna’s astonishing Renaissance painting, The Lamentation of the Christ, also known as The Dead Christ. This week in particular, as I’ve been contemplating it, I find my eyes drawn again and again to Mantegna’s depiction of Jesus’ feet.
When you think about it, not many artists concern themselves with the soles of Christ’s feet. We get lots of pictures of his sandaled feet. And plenty of pictures of his feet anchored to the cross with nails as thick as your thumb.
But not the soles.
Which is odd really. I mean, this is the man who called people to follow him, to walk in his footsteps. You’d think we’d be more familiar with the feet of the one we’re trying to emulate.
Alongside my reflections on this painting, I have been re-reading John’s Gospel. This week, I came to the lengthy conversation Jesus has with his disciples while sharing the Passover feast on the eve of his arrest and trial.
The feast begins with Jesus performing the scandalous duty of washing his disciples’ feet, a necessary and routine practice, but one never undertaken by a teacher or master to his followers.
Peter voices the feelings of all the disciples when he recoils in horror and says, “No, you shall never wash my feet.” He means never, because in an honor-shame culture like Israel, the master never, ever, ever lowers himself beneath his followers.
But Jesus goes on to explain what he’s doing. Washing his followers’ feet isn’t just a much-needed act of pre-meal hygiene. He tells them he is modeling what it looks like for them to follow him: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13:15)
In other words, Follow my lead, guys.
After the meal, Jesus explains further, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (Jn 13:34-35)
He’s basically summarizing his ministry to them: everything you have seen me do — feeding the hungry, healing the sick, welcoming the outcast — do these things. Love one another as I have loved you, even to the point of humbling yourself enough to wash each others’ feet.
Look at the soles of those feet again. Walk where they have walked.
But strangely, twice in the same passage we find Jesus preparing his disciples for what is about to befall him. As Judas departs to betray Jesus to his captors, setting in train a series of events that will eventually lead to his death, Jesus warns them, “Where I am going, you cannot follow” (Jn 13:33, 36).
So which is it? Follow me? Or You cannot follow me?
Well, it’s both. And in fact it’s in the tension between both of these statements that we find something intriguing and important about Christian discipleship. We live in the world between Follow Me and You Cannot Follow Me.
The calling of Christ to follow him is a calling to love others, to fulfil the words of the Old Testament commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” As I meditate on Mantegna’s depiction of Christ’s feet I feel the burden of this calling. To love my neighbor as myself? How far should we take this? Am I to love all the people in my street? In my town? My city? My nation? The world???
This is exactly the question being asked of Jesus by an expert in the law in Luke 10 — if loving my neighbor is part of the way I inherit eternal life, who exactly is my neighbor?
In other words, how many people do I need to love, serve and care for?
In response, Jesus tells the well-known Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the point of which appears to be that your neighbor is anyone who has a need, even if that person is a foreigner, and holds to a different religious outlook, even if it is dangerous for you to help them, even if it is extraordinarily costly to do so.
Who can possibly do that?
But Jesus concludes his story by telling the expert in the law, “Go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37). It’s a command. Love is the hallmark of following Jesus. It will cost you everything. In fact, later in the discourse Jesus has with his disciples in John’s Gospel, he goes so far as to say to them, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13).
YOU CANNOT FOLLOW ME
When you come face to face with the reality of what it means to love as Jesus tells us to, you can’t help but feel overwhelmed, unworthy, incapable.
That’s why I’ve found it so enriching to focus not only on Jesus’ feet this week, but also on the nail scars. They remind me of Jesus’ words to his followers, “Where I am going, you cannot come” (Jn 13:33).
Jesus shows them what love is, calls them to follow him, and then points out the impossibility of them achieving it. Listening in, we realise we cannot love the world this way either.
That’s when Jesus says, Hold my beer.
None of us can love the world to the point of death, so Christ says, you cannot follow me in this. He dies not mainly as an example to inspire the disciples, but as a substitute to save them, to make the way possible for them to love others.
The dried scars on the soles of his feet in Mantegna’s painting remind me I cannot follow him in that work.
IN THE SPACE BETWEEN ‘FOLLOW ME’ AND ‘YOU CANNOT FOLLOW ME’
If you only hear, “Follow me,” you will live with the slavish, unrelenting anxiety of never having loved enough. Like Leo Tolstoy in his later years, you will keep divesting yourself of everything, embracing an asceticism so harsh that those closest to you are forced to suffer along with you. Such people can never be sure they’ve done enough to satisfy the master.
But if you hear only, “You cannot follow me,” you can veer toward the kind of cheap grace that says that Christ’s suffering is enough and I am free from the social, economic and personal implications of his teaching. I cannot love enough, only Christ can, so I’m off the hook.
But true Christian discipleship lands somewhere between these ideas, synthesizing them. Yes, we are called to love others as Christ loved us — humbly, sacrificially, faithfully. But we are to do so safe in the knowledge that it’s not our effort that saves us, or anyone else.
Some years ago, I spent time with a Christian social worker in Phnom Penh. She worked with people in the midst of abject and unimaginable poverty, victims of systemic violence, inheritors of the horrors of genocide. She told heartbreaking stories of helping people afflicted by unrelenting hopelessness.
I naively asked her how she kept going.
“What keeps you doing this work after 20 or more years on the streets?” I enquired, “Is it the small victories, the occasional family you lift out of poverty, or for whom you help break the cycle of violence or addiction?”
She smiled, “I hardly ever see such ‘small victories’. What keeps me loving these people isn’t the progress we’re making, because we rarely see any progress at all. I’m inspired to keep loving them precisely because I know it isn’t all up to me. It is Christ’s work to bring about his kingdom. There’s freedom in knowing that, a kind of freedom that doesn’t release me from my duty, but strengthens me to keep doing it.”
That’s the space between “Follow me” and “You cannot follow me.”