After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “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. (John 13:12-15, NRSV)
Only the gospel of John has this story. Jesus and his disciples have come to Jerusalem for the Passover, joining the great throngs of pilgrims who have journeyed to the city from all over the empire. The thirteen men sit down to what will be their last meal together. And at some point during the meal, Jesus unexpectedly gets up from the table, strips down to the guise and status of a menial servant, and begins to wash the disciples’ dirty, smelly feet, one astonished man at a time.
John has told us that “the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot” to betray Jesus to the authorities (13:2). One can imagine Judas’ reaction to this debasing act of servitude by Jesus. Some believe that Judas’ treachery was meant to force Jesus’ hand, to make him get on with the job of wresting power from the Romans: Surely, if the authorities try to arrest Jesus, he’ll fight back! If that’s how Judas was thinking, then the foot-washing might have been further confirmation of his chosen course of action. Are you kidding me right now? This is taking the humility thing too far. You’re a king — the most powerful king there ever was or ever will be. Time to start acting like it!
Unfortunately, we’ll never know what was in Judas’ mind. All we know is that a few days later, he realized to his horror that he had made a terrible mistake, and took his own life.
John only describes Peter’s reaction to the foot-washing, which we might translate as, “What the heck? No way!” Jesus patiently replies, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (John 13:8). That’s all Peter needs to hear to do a prompt about-face: “In that case, give me the whole works!”
None of this, of course, was about personal hygiene or social custom. Nor was it mere metaphor. Jesus concretely took the role of a servant to teach them a lesson they weren’t expecting and probably didn’t want. Judas, after all, wasn’t the only one expecting Jesus to take his rightful place as king. Everything that had happened that week, from Palm Sunday onward, would only have convinced the Twelve further that Jesus was about to put all of his powers on display on the brightly-lit stage of Jerusalem.
Would they learn the lesson?
Not right away, it seems.
Comparatively speaking, as acts of humble service go, foot-washing was nothing compared to crucifixion. Understandably, the disciples didn’t interpret the cross as embodying the triumph of humility but defeat by the powers of jealousy and hatred, and indeed, the power of Rome. They fled the scene of Jesus’ arrest; they hid themselves away, terrified that someone would come for them next.
“Do you know what I have done?” Jesus asked the disciples, as he washed their feet. No one said it, but the answer would have been, Nope, Lord, haven’t a clue. Nor did they understand what Jesus had done on the cross, not at the time. Not until Sunday. Easter was more than the resurrection of Jesus’ body. It was the resurrection of the disciples’ hope, and the beginning of its transformation.
Hope takes the long view, sees the big picture. Death cannot be separated from resurrection. The humility of Jesus in washing the disciples’ feet, in dying on the cross, cannot be separated from the earlier power of his miracles nor his coming again as the undisputed King of kings.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus tries to tell his disciples that he must suffer and die. And they don’t seem to get it, as if there was no place in their heroic Messiah-story for such a plot twist. Messiahs aren’t supposed to die, especially not that way, a shameful death at the hands of pagans. Nor are powerful kings or revered rabbis supposed to get on their knees, washing the dirt from between a fisherman’s or a tax-gatherer’s toes.
But Jesus gave them an example to follow. In his present kingdom, until the King himself returns in power and glory, leaders serve.
. . .
That lesson has always been a timely one. The disciples weren’t alone in their visions of grandeur. We have our own ideas of success, and may baptize our ambition with pious language. Over and over, we’re treated to the sorry spectacle of church leaders becoming enamored of their own power, confusing God’s glory with their own.
But don’t get me wrong. This isn’t about pointing fingers at a handful of bad apples in the barrel of ministry. This is about all of us: our pride, our pretension, our lust for a certain kind of significance and our aversion to anything that feels like insignificance.
Jesus has given us an example to follow, in the full knowledge that for God’s Messiah, resurrection follows the cross and exaltation follows humility. Whose feet is God asking us to wash?