Have you noticed how often, when you are trying to collect your thoughts and think about one thing, another thought keeps creeping into the mind, getting in the way, refusing to be dismissed? That happened to me the other week when I was thinking about what I should talk about today. I couldn’t get the dish-washer out of my mind. Our dish-washer had broken down at the time. That might not sound much of a disaster to you, who may not own one, but to us, or rather to me, it was a calamity.
Like so many modern appliances, once you get used to them, their absence becomes a matter of dreadful concern. Shameful as it might sound, I was taken aback at the prospect of having regularly to wash up by hand once more. It was like losing the car whilst it went to the garage for servicing and having to go on the bus!
You see, since childhood, I have had an aversion to washing up. As in many other households, my sister and I were expected to take our share, or as we thought at the time, more than our share, of the washing up. We tried all the usual ploys to avoid this; getting absorbed in a book; pretending to do homework; trying to sneak out to play; attempting to start diversionary conversations; all the time-hallowed tactics that children engage in, but with indifferent success. More often than not, we were rumbled.
Then, the excuses having failed, my sister and I would argue over whose turn it was to wash, and whose to dry. If you washed you finished first, unless there were a lot of pans. On the other hand, if you dried, you had the cutlery and crockery to put away as well. Were the dishes greasy, or only lightly dusted with crumbs? There were no pans after tea, but a stack of them after dinner. Those were just two of many things to be considered before opting for one task or the other.
Then there was the question of whether clearing the table was part of the job of the washer-up or of the drier-up, and who did it yesterday. But I don’t need to go on. You no doubt have heard it all before.
Having to wash up then has left its scars. So twenty years or more ago, when a modest insurance policy came to fruition, the decision on what to do with the money was straight-forward. Among a long list of other priorities, one easily topped the rest, and the dish-washer was purchased. The original purchase has been replaced. Like cars and washing machines, dish-washers wear out in time. The present one is not very old. Nevertheless, on that particular week it had ceased to function. The man had to be sent for. But there would be a day or two’s delay to obtain a part. There inevitably is. So back to memories of childhood – to hand washing and drying.
Unlike the time of childhood, I find that I have now a conscience. I am not sure where it came from, put it is very inconvenient. I feel bound to take over a part of the duties. No longer can I immerse myself in a book and pretend not to notice. The inner conflict is too great for comfort. So I find myself constrained not only to wash, but to wipe, and put away as well.
You may ask, as I asked myself, why washing up is to be avoided. The shameful thought entered my mind that it is really women’s work. Men are more suited to the thinking roles in life. Or if manual tasks are inevitable, men select those which use machinery, or involve constructing things. The menial, humdrum tasks of life are for others. Filling and emptying a dish-washer is all right, because that is machinery. But messing about with hands in water, or drying with a cloth is hardly a job for we men.
My sympathies lie with the man who prayed, “Lord, give me any job and I will do it. But I would prefer that you find me a job as an adviser, if there is one going.” Offering advice to others, or thinking is the man’s role in life.
It is said one thought leads on to another. And so it was that the broken dish-water has led me to beliefs on roles or positions in society. How the deep prejudices are not only profoundly anti-social, but at odds with Christian conduct as well. What a lot of the world’s ills can be traced to individual convictions of self-importance and superiority.
When we assert, whether publicly, privately, or in the secrecy of our minds, our own importance in the scheme of things, we are also expressing a conviction about the inferiority of another. “What were you disputing among yourselves as we came along?” Jesus asked his disciples, as he knelt and washed their feet. He knew full well the answer, having over-heard the arguments. They had quarrelled over, as you recall, the relative importance of one disciple as compared to the other. Who should sit on the right hand, and who on the left. Who was the most valued of the disciples, they wrangled. Play-ground arguments are not restricted to childhood.
Down the ages up to the present time, status, recognition, the position at the table, the dignity to be accorded the office, have loomed large in the affairs of men and women. Enemies have been made, friendships broken, certainly wars fought, because of slights, real or imagined, which have pricked self-importance.
And the response Jesus made to the disputing disciples was to state an uncomfortable truth. If you want to be first and win the esteem of society, then start at the back of the queue, for it is not for oneself to make judgement of individual value, but for others. The true master is one prepared to be the servant of all. Therefore, Jesus knelt and washed their feet. They were silenced and shamed.
It is not invariably the spoken thought that is the most corrosive, though spoken words can be hurtful, shameful and revealing. It is that which lies within the recesses of our minds. The canker within may destroy the whole body.
“What else can you expect from a foreigner?” is maybe the thought. Rape, pillage and riot in a central African state? Terrible. But perhaps we unconsciously note that none of the victims are British, and turn over to the TV or sports page. At another time maybe comes a self-revealing thought.
The underprivileged don’t mind doing the menial jobs of life, we muse, but you can’t expect him, or her, let alone me, to do that. We who are privileged are above that. The Samaritan passing along the road could have noted the victim lying there was only a Jew. But he didn’t. He saw a human being of another race, of equal value to himself, but having a greater need. Status, or race, were irrelevant. Suffering applied equally to all.
Nazism flourished fortified by a philosophy that Aryan race is superior to the Jewish Race; apartheid was about a falsehood that white is always superior to black; minorities are suppressed throughout the world because the majority are convinced that they are superior to the group within their midst. So power becomes oppression. The rights of others are not to be allowed to compromise the comfort of the powerful.
It is no doubt true that many who start on the road to arguing the case for superiority, whether consciously or unconsciously, don’t foresee, or even wish for, the inevitable end. I can believe that many Germans who were initially attracted by Nazism, did not contemplate the horrendous death camps like Belsen. Torture, false imprisonment, atrocities lie often at the bottom of a hill, the top slopes of which seem gentle and unthreatening, later to drop precipitously to the valley of horrors below.
It is the initial step of seeking, through self-importance, to elevate self. It is the wish to be master rather than servant, that contains the seeds of much evil in the world. For one’s own feeling of being better than the others also argues that the others are worse than one’s self. their feet when they are quite content to wash mine?
Arrogance and self-opinionated views are not harmless eccentricities, they are evil seeds. Central to the Christian faith is humility. The core of Christian teaching is about how unimportant is self, compared with the rights of others. The word “Humility” pervades the gospel stories. Humility is not subservience, but a philosophy which recognises the importance of others, whilst depressing the superiority of self.
A whole clutch of New Testament texts come to mind to confirm this. “Consider the lilies of the field…….”, “Except ye become as little children…”, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle…”, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” are just four from many examples of the gospel teaching which remind us that pride and self-aggrandisement are sins which have sullied human relationships through the ages.
To paraphrase one of the parables. One sits at the head of the table by invitation and not as a right. Pomposity is no part of Christian ethics. Not only does it invite ridicule, but it leads to profoundly unchristian acts whereby others are oppressed and derided.
So I did the washing up, and dried, with cheerfulness, and perhaps just a suspicion of self-righteousness. I even emptied the rubbish bin.
But thank goodness the man came the next day, replacing the broken part, and effected the necessary repair. Prejudice nurtured over a life-time cannot be overcome as quickly as all that.
Fulwood 15 July 1990
Mexborough 18 July 1993; 15 February 1998
Hucklow 21 March 1999