In an unprecedented and deeply disturbing break with tradition, Jesus arranged his garments into that of a servant, took the basin of water meant for ritually washing hands before the meal, and instead washed each of his disciples’ feet. This came on the heels of their once again arguing over who was the greatest among them.
So far, the way Jesus had addressed these disputes had not penetrated the thick resistance of culture, ambition, tradition, and beliefs within them. Millennia of hierarchical governance, dating clear back to Bronze Age Israel—when the people had tired of heterarchy and demanded a king—had so formed and fashioned first century Judaism, it went without saying. It was part of the bones and sinew of the people. Add to that entrenchment the deeply patriarchal hegemony of the Graeco-Roman culture and world.
It was literally inconceivable to Jesus’ disciples that there would not be a leader, and deputies, a pyramid of power in which one would be on top, one or two would be aides, and so forth, until there were those at the bottom (the publican and zealots, perhaps, and certainly the women).
Yet also warring within them were the sacred traditions surrounding students to their rabbi. A student was to become so like their rabbi they could one day receive that rabbi’s “mantle,” the teachings and ways of the rabbi. When the student received the rabbi’s mantle, they would be able to teach and interpret the word of God as their rabbi did. They would have the power to “bind” and to “loose” the word of God, to forbid and to permit with indisputable authority.
Jesus knew this.
Battling Belief Systems
Therefore, if I myself ceremonially cleanse your feet, the Lord and the Teacher, then you all are under moral obligation to ceremonially cleanse each other’s feet.Jesus to his disciples, John 13:14
If Jesus truly was their rabbi and their Lord, and they were truly Jesus’ students, then there was no other recourse. They were morally and spiritually obligated to do as their rabbi had done.
Imagine the cognitive dissonance ringing in their heads! Jaws dropped, eyes round with horrified consternation. What Jesus had introduced was a radical new flow chart. In this model
- The leader loves those they lead so much they would rather do the jobs no one wants as a way to show them their love.
- It is the leader’s pleasure to share the rewards, and to share themself with those led.
- Instead of arguing with each other about who gets to be the boss, Jesus wanted them to outdo each other in
- helping each other
- taking care of each other
- watching out for each other
- doing for each other.
Jesus had been speaking of these things throughout his ministry. But it had made not one dent in the disciples’ debates over who would be first, who would be in charge, whose authority would outrank whose. Now, Jesus said to them,
For I have given you an example to imitate, so that just as I did to you, then you will do.Jesus to his disciples, John 13:15
Jesus was indicating something even deeper than a lifestyle change. Jesus was teaching a completely new way of approaching how his disciples—and all who would come after them—were to understand authority.
(1) Tangible Love
- Jesus physically took of his robe: in a practical sense so he could work, in a symbolic sense becoming humbled as a servant, in an emotional and social sense, so that he would be his most vulnerable.
- He physically got down on his knees: again, in a practical sense, so he could work, symbolically, emotionally, socially, so that he would be the most humbled, the most available and vulnerable.
- He washed each man’s feet. Every disciple received the same tender care from his Lord and Teacher. No one, including Peter, received more. No one, including Judas the Iscariot, who would betray him soon, received less.
This is about tangibly loving others, particularly our spiritual brothers and sisters, and even more so, our Christian coworkers, so much that you and I are willing to do whatever it takes to help them, look out for them and take care of them.
I had to really spend some time thinking this all through.
- What menial things would I be willing to do, hidden jobs that nobody wants to do, that are thankless, messy and difficult?
- How often would I be willing to be at the absolute bottom, simply looking for things to do that would be loving, helpful service?
- Who, exactly, would I be willing to be completely vulnerable with, humbled before, and available to the way Jesus was for his disciples in that moment?
- How do I square Jesus’ example—which I, as his disciple, am morally obligated to imitate—with those who have hurt me, or used me?
- In what circumstances would I be willing to say yes to someone else, rather than have my own way?
- When do I worry about my position, or how things look, or fear losing ground in terms of influence, or pleasure, or agency, rather than think of the good of the other person?
The truth is, we are all always doing cost versus benefit ratios in our heads.
What do I consider to be a cost in terms of
- personal dignity
And so forth. I am sure you can make your own list!
Would the benefit of serving Jesus outweigh those costs for me, and for you?
(2) Patient Help
This controversy had arisen at regular intervals with the disciples. It would have been a perfectly understandable response for Jesus to have felt angry, frustrated, and discouraged. He had only a few hours left with them!
But if he did feel those things, it certainly did not show.
Instead, Jesus lovingly, gently, patiently helped his disciples understand something they really needed, to be able to live out what it meant to truly be his disciples. As he physically washed their feet, Jesus was also correcting their wrong thinking, and appealing to their love. This is how you and I are to spiritually wash one another’s feet.
You and I are to be vulnerable with each other, lovingly helping each other, gently correcting each other, being patient with each other as we give and receive teaching, shepherding and counsel from each other.
I wonder about myself.
- How teachable am I, on any given day?
- How approachable am I?
- How willing am I to take suggestions and constructive criticism? Am I willing to at least listen?
- By the same token, how willing am I to correct, in a gentle loving way, as Jesus did with the disciples? Would it feel like, to them, that I had washed that person’s feet?
Jesus told them to wash each others’ feet. So often, I think, we see ministry as flowing in one direction: I serve the other. But Jesus was instructing his disciples to view each other both as ones who serve and ones who receive. Whenever believers come together, there is something each has that can benefit the other—in Jesus’ economy, there is never a one-way transaction.
For many of us, serving is actually not the hard part. Receiving is. Viewing ourselves as vulnerable and in need, and viewing others as having something not only to offer us, but what they have to give is sacred, and my receiving of it necessary as an act of love.
And again, I have to ask myself,
- How willing am I to be that vulnerable, that I can receive with enjoyment and gratitude what another has to give me—as Jesus received what Mary of Bethany had to give him?
- In what ways have I rebuffed another’s attempt to serve me, to “wash my feet”?
- How often have I failed to view the other as someone who has something of value that will benefit me, that I may even need—as Peter needed Jesus to wash his feet in order to have fellowship with the Lord?