There are many people today who read the account of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and jump too quickly to the conclusion that Jesus was an egalitarian who wanted to break down all distinctions between people. But that is not the message of the story. Had Jesus meant that to be the message, he would have concluded the lesson by informing his disciples that from now on they were all on an equal level with no more rulers or servants. Here is what he actually says:
“Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (John 12:12-17).
Notice that Jesus not only affirms the continued existence of masters-lords and pupils-servants-messengers, but clearly gives precedence to the former over the latter. Rather than deconstruct all forms of difference and hierarchy, Jesus calls on those with power and authority to practice servant leadership. Stewardship, not sameness, is what Jesus illustrates by washing the feet of his disciples. Indeed, were all distinctions of rank between Jesus and his disciples to be eliminated, his act of humility would lose its meaning.
My son, you live in an age and a country where the adolescent cry of “that’s not fair” has been adopted by adults and enshrined as the central virtue of democracy. Such people seem to think that justice and fairness are synonymous. They are not. The spoiled child who demands that he and all his siblings get exactly the same size slice of pie seeks fairness; the mature and virtuous adult who wants to see all people treated in a proper and fitting manner seeks justice.
Now if by fairness we mean acknowledging that all people have the same intrinsic value and worth, then that is a good thing. But the increasing cry for fairness in our country has far more to do with treating everyone as if they were the same than with honoring them as fellow creatures made in the image of God. There is a great difference between just hiring practices that do not discriminate on the basis of race, class, or gender, and the demand that no distinctions be allowed (or even acknowledged) between races, classes, and genders.
Justice does not mean treating everyone the same; it means treating everyone in accordance with whom and what they are. When I was young, a man was called a sexist (and rightly so) if he treated women exactly the same way as he treated men. Today, in keeping with the modern idol of fairness, he is more likely to be called a sexist if he does not treat them exactly the same.
The goal of justice is not for everyone to have the same education, the same salary, the same awards, and the same possessions. Justice gives to each his due, in accordance with his merit, his status, and his dignity: not his eternal dignity as a child of God, but his temporal dignity as a unique individual living in a specific time and place. Indeed, the quickest way to rob a man or woman of their dignity is to treat them as if they were the same as everyone else.