Commentary on John 13:1-17
“Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.
Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1).
So begins the second half of John’s Gospel. The public teaching of Jesus has been completed, and now for several chapters Jesus focuses exclusively on teaching “his own” — his disciples — and trying to prepare them for what is to come. The statement that “he loved them to the end” is striking. The end (telos in Greek) could mean “end” in the sense of conclusion or termination, or “end” in the sense of goal, aim, or fulfillment.
Given John’s fondness for ambiguity and multiple layers of meaning, perhaps both meanings are intended. Jesus loved his disciples to the very end of his earthly life and ministry, and he loved them fully and completely, without condition or reservation, for this was the fulfillment of his mission.
Jesus knows that his “hour” has come to depart from this world and return to the Father (13:1). He knows that the Father has given all things into his hands, and that he has come from God and is going to God (13:3). Knowing all this, he chooses to demonstrate his love for his disciples in a dramatic way by taking the role of a slave and washing their feet.
Jesus’ act of service recalls what Mary of Bethany had done for Jesus just a few days earlier, washing his feet with expensive perfume and drying them with her hair. Jesus interprets her extravagant act of love and service as an anointing for his burial (12:1-7).
In washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus simply uses water and a towel, yet the extravagance is no less. Indeed, it is nothing short of scandalous that the one who comes from God and is going to God should take on the menial task of a slave. This act points to the even greater scandal to come in the dark hours ahead, when Jesus will lay down his life, crucified on a Roman cross — the form of execution reserved for rebels and slaves.
Peter gives voice to the scandal of Jesus’ actions. “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” When Jesus says that Peter will understand later what he is doing, Peter objects even more strongly: “You will never wash my feet.”We are reminded Peter’s objections in Mark’s Gospel when Jesus speaks of his impending suffering and death (Mark 8:32). Here, as in Mark, Jesus corrects Peter: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” To which Peter responds, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!” (13:6-9).
Jesus’ next response to Peter is a bit cryptic, and perhaps makes use of a traditional proverb. “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean” (13:10). His statement seems to suggest that one’s relationship to Jesus has cleansing power that lasts. It will soon become clear how utterly dependent Peter and the others are on this gift of grace. Jesus adds, “And you are clean, though not all of you,” and the narrator explains, “For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean’” (13:11).
This statement brings us to the greatest scandal of this story. It is astonishing enough that Jesus takes the role of a slave and washes the dirty feet of his disciples, but even more astounding is the fact that he does so knowing full well that they will all fail him miserably in his hour of greatest need.
Jesus insists on washing the feet of Peter, knowing full well that Peter will deny him to save his own skin. What is more, Jesus stoops to wash the feet of Judas, knowing full well that Judas has already conspired to betray him to those seeking his life. John tells us in 13:2 that “the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus,” and Jesus indicates several times in this chapter that he is fully aware of this reality (13:10-11, 18-19, 21-30). Yet even with Judas — cold, calculating, back-stabbing Judas — Jesus’ love remains unwavering. Jesus washes Judas’ dirty feet along with all the others.
Do as I have done to you.
Jesus then tells his disciples that they are to serve one another in same way that he has served them. “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 should do as I have done to you” (13:14-15). This specific example parallels the broader “new commandment” Jesus gives in verse 34: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Jesus’ example suggests that loving as he has loved means taking the role of a servant, caring for the needs of others without expecting anything in return. His example suggests that it is to do this not only for those who treat us well, but even for those who disappoint and hurt and betray us. Can Jesus really expect us to do this, to love and serve even those who fail us or stab us in the back? Are we not allowed even a few exceptions to the love commandment?
Jesus’ commandment to love one another is not a commandment to feel affection, but a commandment to act in a loving way, even when we would rather do otherwise. Of course we always fall short of God’s perfect love, but that cannot be an excuse to nurse grudges and wallow in unloving behavior. As we are washed by Jesus in God’s deep and generous love, our hearts are stretched to love more completely, fully, unwaveringly.
I am reminded of a documentary I saw some years ago on CNN, in which reporter Christiane Amanpour interviewed a woman in Rwanda named Iphigenia. She was from the Tutsi tribe, and during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, her husband and five children were clubbed and hacked to death by a mob of Hutus, including one of her neighbors.
The neighbor who had participated in the massacre spent seven years in prison and then went before a tribal court, where he asked for forgiveness from Iphigenia and the whole community. Iphigenia opened her heart and forgave her neighbor. But it did not end there. Iphigenia, a master weaver, also taught her neighbor’s wife how to weave baskets. The two became friends and business partners.
On the day that Christiane Amanpour was interviewing her, Iphigenia had invited these same neighbors into her home and was serving them dinner. That’s right — she was serving dinner to the man who killed her husband and children. When asked how she found it in her heart to forgive, Iphigenia said simply, “I am a Christian, and I pray a lot.”1
Left to our human resources, this kind of love and forgiveness would be inconceivable. But it is possible because of the one who loves us fully and completely, the one who loves us to the end, even to the cross and grave and back.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Holy Lord God,
Jesus washed his disciples’ feet as a sign of service and compassion. Show us how to live and love in service and with compassion, for the sake of all your children. Amen.
Jesus, priceless treasure ELW 775, UMH 532, NCH 480
God, whose giving knows no ending ELW 678, NCH 565
Lord, whose love in humble service ELW 712
Amazing grace, John Bertalot