Commentary on John 13:1-17
It has taken 12 chapters to reach the eve of John’s third Passover.
It will take five more to walk through this single evening with Jesus and his own. The long night will not end until the cock crows and Jesus is handed over to Pilate at daybreak in 18:27-28. But first are these five chapters in which Jesus comforts his friends and prepares them to love as he has loved. This begins with the foot washing.
Love is the first main verb of the passage in Greek. It rises from a sea of subordinate clauses in John 13:1-3. Love governs all of that, all that has come before, and all that is to come. Because everything else is subordinate, love and the foot washing as an expression of that love emerge as Jesus’ informed response to all of it: the festival and with it the unfolding of Jesus’ hour, the world beloved and dark, Satan and Judas, Jesus’ own in the world then and now.
The word for end in the phrase “he loved them to the end” appears in its verbal form in John 19:30 where Jesus’ last words on the cross are “It is finished.” That completion, fulfillment, perfection of love is anticipated in the love enacted in the foot washing here, which overturns societal expectations as the cross overturns expectations of what a savior should be.
There is no last supper in John. Only Judas eats. There are echoes of Eucharist in the feeding and the associated discourse (John 6:11, 35-58) and again in the resurrection breakfast on the shore (21:13). But the primary act of radical, self-giving, poured-out love that plays out on Jesus’ last night isn’t in broken bread but in Jesus washing the dusty, sweaty feet of his own.
The only other dinner in John comes a chapter earlier, six days before this Passover. Each Passover in John is associated in some way with Jesus’ body and with dying and rising. At the dinner in John 12:1-8, we find Mary, Lazarus’ sister, anointing Jesus’ feet with perfume and wiping them with her hair. This is explicitly associated with the raising of Lazarus, with Jesus’ own burial, and with Judas, who protests, pretending to care about the poor when he is merely a thief. The Bethany siblings are the only people, other than the Father himself, whom Jesus is specifically said to love until the mention of the disciple whose only name is the verb love in John 13:23. So Mary’s act of love serves as a pre-enactment of Jesus’ and a demonstration of the extravagant love we are to show him and one another.
After the first main verb love, the next ones do not come until John 13:4-5 when we reach the deliberate unfolding of the foot washing in Jesus’ rising, laying down, taking up, wrapping round, and pouring before he begins to wash and dry the disciples’ feet. This happens in reverse in 13:12. Then Jesus explains that he has overturned expectations in this act of radical love as an example for all who call him teacher and Lord.
Jesus’ laying down and taking up of his robe may hold echoes of the good shepherd who lays down his life and takes it up again for the sheep (John 10:11-18). But above all the love expressed in the foot washing directs us to the mystery of love’s fulfillment on the cross and in the future opening out beyond that.
If we cannot feel the radical nature of the foot washing ourselves, we can experience it vicariously through Peter, who rejects it in the clearest possible terms. Jesus, he says, will never ever for all time wash his feet. Peter reacts in a similar way when Jesus tells him he cannot yet follow (John 13:36-38). We have a chance to consider Peter in next week’s text. For now his response invites us to consider our own understanding of what it means to let Jesus love us.
How hard it can be to accept that we are Jesus’ own, that we are already clean, and then to accept that we are always with him and he with us and that God continues to cleanse even the parts of us that we consider most unworthy of his gaze, the less lovely parts we’d prefer to hide away under layers of our best selves. But God who sends light into the impenetrable darkness of the world is certainly not daunted by our small brokenness, and love is the best answer to every hurting stinky thing in the world. It is God’s answer and Jesus’ answer, and it is to be ours.
This is made explicit in the explanation of the foot washing (John 13:13-17) and again in the threefold love commandment (13:34-35) and its reiteration in 15:12. We are to love one another as Jesus has loved us. Our love emerges from his, as branches grow from a vine. The word clean (13:10) has the same root as the verb prune (15:2). What Peter and we may perceive as something shameful, God sees as an opportunity to refine a branch already growing out of the beautiful Word-vine so that it can bear more fruit in love.
God’s love poured out before us at our feet is the lesser scandal pointing to the greater, more mysterious scandal of the cross when God allows the vulnerability of the divine love enfleshed to extend to the furthest extent, to be defenseless before lying, power-grasping, Caesar-worshipping authorities of church and state.
Then, in love’s greatest act of all, the broken one returns quietly to a weeping woman in a garden and a bunch of fearful followers locked away in the dark Jerusalem night and lets them touch his broken parts as he breathes the Spirit of truth upon them.
All of John is the story of God’s love for the world, and John 13 is that love displayed in the specificity of Jesus’ love for his own. Our participation in the vulnerable, mysterious, live-giving love of God begins with Jesus before us, humbling himself and us. It is in pouring ourselves out in love as the beloved teacher has done and as he makes possible in us that we become able to function as his servants, his sent ones, his friends, reflections of his light in the dark world God loves.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Holy Lord God,
Jesus washed the 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.
Amazing grace, John Bertalot