Passover was about to descend upon Jesus, the Twelve, and the millions who were in Jerusalem to celebrate, to commemorate the night God led his people out of Egypt. An untold number of lambs would be slaughtered for the feast.
Having foreshadowed this day again and again, John finally tells us that Jesus’ hour had come, the time when he would complete his mission and return to the Father. The specter of death hangs over the passage; John tells us that the devil had already decided to push Judas into betraying his master.
But all is not darkness. Jesus knows what he must do, knows he will soon be back with the Father, knows that everything will turn out just as the Father had planned.
Thus, the dominant theme here will not be death, but love. “Having loved his own who were in the world,” John writes, “he loved them to the end” (13:1b, NRSV). The CEB translates, “he loved them fully.” Both are possible — and we don’t have to choose, because both are true. That love, of course, is about to be demonstrated on the cross. But before that happens, Jesus wants to demonstrate that love in a concrete and memorable way while he still has an opportunity to explain to them what it means.
Jesus is having his final meal with the Twelve, and startles them by doing something completely unexpected:
And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. (vss. 2b-5)
Footwashing itself was nothing new. Imagine wearing sandals and walking to a dinner party on dusty roads. It was a common courtesy to provide water for guests to wash their feet; hosts who had servants might assign the lowliest of them to wash the guests’ feet for them.
But this was a strongly hierarchical culture in which people knew their place. Masters didn’t wash the feet of servants. Teachers didn’t wash the feet of their disciples. And Jesus was no ordinary teacher: hadn’t the disciples already acknowledged him as Lord? To them, especially Peter, it was unthinkable that Jesus would do such a thing.
Why did Jesus do it? And why in the middle of the meal instead of at the end?
Perhaps the gospel of Luke gives us a clue. In his account of the Last Supper, Luke tells us that after Jesus announced that one of them would betray him, the disciples fell to arguing which of them was the greatest (surprise, surprise). In response, Jesus said,
The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. (Luke 22:25-27)
Somehow, I imagine this as a perfect opportunity for Jesus to rise from the table and wash the disciples’ feet. Of course, in John’s account, the announcement of the betrayal comes after the footwashing rather than before, so this may not have been what happened. (And think of the irony: having been shocked by having their feet washed by Jesus, the disciples fall to arguing who’s greatest. Oy.) I have little doubt, though, that sometime during supper the disciples gave Jesus sufficient reason to teach them a living parable about humble service.
Let’s not forget, however, that all this was part of Jesus’ loving the disciples “to the end,” to the nth degree. Much of what he would say to them that evening would center on love. We’ll return to that subject in next Sunday’s post.