John 13:1-5, 12-16
In 1611, a group of scholars presented King James I of England a fresh, new translation of the Bible. He had ordered the work and paid for it, and it came with a dedication page that still appears at the start each reprint of the King James Version.
“TO THE MOST HIGH AND MIGHTY PRINCE, JAMES, by the grace of God, KING OF GREAT BRITAIN, FRANCE, AND IRELAND, DEFENDER OF THE FAITH, etc. The Translators of the Bible wish Grace, Mercy, and Peace, through JESUS CHRIST our Lord.
Great and manifold were the blessings, most dread Sovereign, which Almighty God, the Father of all mercies, bestowed upon us the people of England, when he first sent Your Majesty’s Royal Person to rule and reign over us. [Then it talks about how worried they had been about what would happen when Queen Elizabeth died without a direct heir, but then] …the appearance of Your Majesty, as of the Sun in his strength, instantly dispelled those supposed and surmised mists, and gave unto all that were well affected exceeding cause of comfort; especially when we beheld in Your Highness, and Your hopeful Seed, by an undoubted Title, and this also accompanied with peace and tranquility at home and abroad.”
Is it any wonder that after a lifetime of being addressed this way, day in and day out, King James became the person who gave the world the phrase “the divine right of kings”? Is it any wonder that the aristocrats who surrounded him and laid it on every bit as thick came to expect their own underlings to treat them in a similar way? It was just how things were done, and not just in England. There were places where it was even more extreme in that day, and one was Peru.
Like the rest of Latin America at the time, Peru was organized into a rigid class system held together with slavery and racism. So when in 1579, a former slave of African descent had a son named Martin by a Spanish noble who abandoned her and their children twelve years later. The family was desperately poor, but Martin was lucky to be apprenticed at one point to a barber (remember that in those days they were also the surgeons), so he had a skill to support himself, which he had to do by the age of ten.
When he was fifteen, a monastery in Lima took him in as a servant, and they gave him the job of begging for the support of the monks’ work with the sick. Apparently, he was very good at it. He somehow managed to find enough regular support to provide for 160 people each week, usually with something left over, which was distributed to the poor. Soon his medical skill as a barber came together with his efforts on behalf of the sick and he began to become known as a healer.
Rather than make his fortune as a doctor, Martin felt that was his calling from God to stay among the Dominicans he was already working for and praying with, to carry on the work that he saw himself as part of, so he asked to be admitted as a lay member of the Dominicans.
The answer was, “No.” It was bad enough that he was poor. It was worse that he was born out of wedlock. Worst of all, though, Martin’s skin was dark. He could work with them and for them, but he would never be one of them. The Constitution of the Dominican order in Peru specifically said, “No black person may be received to the holy habit or profession of our order.” Case closed.
The problem, though, was that God was doing amazing things through Martin de Porres. His fundraising alone was impressive. Then he went and founded an orphanage. But he had an ability the rest of the Dominicans did not to evangelize among people who had no inclination to listen to the Spaniards living in the cloister. Martin de Porres was able, perhaps because of his skin color, that his own father and the Church used as an excuse to look down on him, to minister directly to the physical and spiritual needs of slaves at the lowest end of the social ladder. He did all this while still doing chores at the monastery, which is why you can see pictures and statues of him throughout Latin America that show him holding a broom. In 1603, the monks could no longer not admit him, and they made Martin a lay brother in direct defiance of their own rules because he was clearly showing signs that the Holy Spirit was working through him.
The gospels tell of a time that Jesus had broken the rules, too: those unwritten rules of conduct that the colonial Peruvians and the scholarly English translators shared. By the way, we have our own version, that is so familiar we don’t pay attention to it. It’s what tells us that we don’t have to be polite to someone who is only a waitress, or that the safety regulations that apply to a chemist in a lab aren’t important when it comes to the people on a production line working with the same compounds. It’s what suggests which neighborhood can be sacrificed for a new stadium or where a new highway should be built. It’s why we walk past someone sweeping the floor without even nodding.
The way that Jesus broke the rule was that he washed his disciples’ dirty feet instead of leaving it to a servant. He made them all watch him do it, too. And when he was done he said,
“‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.” [John 13:12-16]
When his followers have taken that to heart, like Martin de Porres, it has opened the doors to show a world where, say, a president might see no shame in putting his building skills to work at a Habitat site, doing carpentry like Jesus, so that someone who needs a home might have one. It points to a world where somebody like Yo-yo Ma can perform a concert at an elementary school as well as Carnegie Hall, and where critics might decide that it’s okay to appreciate rhythm and blues alongside classical music. It points to a world where being a gentleman or to be a lady is not a matter of birth, but of how someone treats other people.
Humility is not humiliation – quite the opposite. Humility carries a dignity sanctified by Jesus. Humility points to the reign of God, where we are all children of the King.