A Time to Wash Feet

Read: John 13:1-17

The time for public ministry was finally done. The last sick person to be healed had been healed. He would cast out no more demons. He would tell no more parables. He would have no more disputes with the chief priests and Pharisees. When Jesus entered the room on that final night with his disciples, he shut the door on the world. Almost. For a little while. He really needed this quiet place to breathe. To connect, to reflect, and anticipate—before the whole world explodes in the morning.

This night, his thoughts centered upon the ones he would be leaving behind. John remembered, “He loved them to the end.” (v.1) This simple phrase reveals, not only the duration of his love, but also the extent of his love. He couldn’t possibly have loved them more, or longer. But then, who can ever find the end, or the limits of infinite love? He loves them still—as he loves us, and always will love us. To the end.

He really wanted to explain to them about the coming days. He was going to leave them. But he’ll return one day. In the meantime, he’ll send them a helper. A comforter. A counselor. A guide. And while he’s gone, he’ll be preparing a place for us all to be with him forever. This would be a lot of information for them to grasp during one short dinnertime conversation. But even now, they weren’t quite ready to receive it. There was a more fundamental problem that needed to be addressed. They were still acting like a lot of quarreling siblings.

All this talk about the kingdom was giving everyone ideas. And that was probably giving Jesus a headache. There was an ongoing dispute among them about who would be the greatest when the kingdom finally comes. One mother even had the nerve to drag both her boys forward (by the collar? . . .  or the ear?) to secure Jesus’ promise that they would receive special places of honor beside him when he finally sits on his throne. The scene would have been comical—if it hadn’t been so frustrating. Jesus must have thought something like, “O great! On top of all the growing grief from the lawyers and the priests and the Pharisees, all we need is a pushy mother! Isn’t anyone even listening around here? I’m not going to a coronation. I’m going to a cross.” The boys were all still quarreling as they climbed the steps to the room where they were to eat the Passover meal together. Their last Passover supper. S o much to still teach them. So little time.

When they entered the room, still sniping back and forth under their breath, everything was prepared for the meal, except for one thing. There was no servant assigned to wash feet. This was a real problem in a society where everyone had been walking dusty roads all day, wearing sandals. Common courtesy demanded that someone must be available to wash the feet of the guests when they arrived. This was usually the assigned task for the lowest household servant. But no one was available. Now what? Someone needed to begin washing feet. But who? Can you imagine the conversation at that point?

“Don’t look at me! You do it!”

“Why me? Do you think you’re too good for this job?”

“Who made you the boss over everybody? No way I’m doing that!””

This was the same kind of quarrel children have had in every household, probably since households began. And these were the men Jesus was depending on to continue his ministry in the days ahead. Previously, he had set them all down to explain the role of servanthood in the kingdom. He had used children as an example of what we are to become, and the rulers of this world to illustrate what we must not become. (Matthew 18:1-4; 20:20-28; Luke 22:24-27) He had to do something to get their attention. They needed an immediate attitude adjustment.

Sometime after everyone found their place and began to eat, dirty feet and all, Jesus suddenly arose from the table and began to remove his outer garments. He had the immediate attention of everyone in the room.  In his mind, he might have been remembering the time in heaven when he stood to remove his divine glory, preparing to put on human flesh.  (Mark 10:45; John 1:14; Philippians 2:5-8). Now, he was removing earthly garments. Then he removed heavenly garments. Now, he was wrapping himself with a towel to wash feet. Then, he had clothed himself with flesh, which was to be broken and sacrificed for the sins of men and women everywhere. Now, he was preparing to do a job no one else would do. Then, he had come to do a job no one else could do.

John describes the action as if he is watching the entire scene replay in slow motion. After removing his formal outer garments, Jesus picked up a towel to tie around his waist., Then he picked up a pitcher of water and emptied it into a basin—and carried it to the first disciple. Incredibly, the creator, the master over all heaven and earth knelt before the first disciple to do the job someone should have been willing to do as soon as they entered the room. He washed the man’s feet. He washed the feet of each man, including Peter’s, despite his protest, and including the feet of Judas, knowing all the time that Judas was planning to sell him for silver later that same night. I tend to think Jesus must have taken extra time with Judas’ feet, looking him straight in the eye the entire time. His eyes, however, would not have been filled with reproach. They would have been filled, even then, with love.

After every foot was washed, he stood and removed the towel, replacing his outer garments. Then he resumed his place at the table, calmly meeting every eye that was fixed on him. He paused just long enough to be sure he had everyone’s attention before asking, “Do you understand what I’ve done to you?” (v. 12) The master teacher was always assessing whether his pupils were getting his intended meaning.

The obvious answer, of course, would have been that he had just washed everyone’s feet. But the intended question behind the question was, why did he do that? As the master, he would have been expected to assign the task to one of the twelve, if no one else was available. Judas, for example, might have been a logical choice. It would seem to have been poetic justice, like saying, “I know what you’re planning to do anyway, so before you leave, you can just take the time to wash all our feet.”

But that would have been vengeful and spiteful. While this may be perfectly understandable within the world’s value system, it was totally inconsistent with the essential norms of the culture he had come to instill within his church. Jesus was teaching his disciples how the Kingdom of God must operate. This required the introduction and implementation of a completely new culture. I call it the Kingdom Culture. For example, in this case, Kingdom people must always be careful to be redemptive in their words and actions. Never vindictive.

Furthermore, the cultural rules of this kingdom demand a completely different set of criteria for determining rank and position. These aren’t awarded on the basis of birth, or strength or cunning. In fact, none of the factors that typically distinguish individuals in normal human society apply here. Later, Paul would write that within this kingdom, we don’t recognize differences in national origin, economic status, or gender. (Galatians 3:28)

Within this kingdom, within this culture, position is recognized based on service. Simply put, whoever serves the most—whoever serves the best—becomes the greatest. This turns the value system of the world, and all its organizational flow charts completely upside down!  Success in this kingdom means we must be busy making other people successful. Even if it means washing their feet.

This means that today, people using the world’s methods to climb the ladder of success within the Kingdom are probably climbing in the wrong direction The way up really is down around here. This principle is so important that even Jesus didn’t violate it. On this night, he showed his greatness by kneeling to wash feet. He was already on record saying, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)

Beyond that, Jesus did this simply as an expression of love. Love isn’t really love until it’s demonstrated in meaningful ways. Like when he did the job no one wanted to do, because someone had to do it. Or when he took a deep breath and taught the same lesson one more time to this group of slow learners.

John never forgot this lesson. I’m sure this scene was somewhere in his mind when he later wrote, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.  (I John 4:7)

So, in conclusion, I need to ask you a simple question. What do you think would happen if everyone in your church began to look around to find people who needed their love (needed their help help) and helped them, beginning with those already within the church, and extending throughout their community?

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