Commentary on John 13:31-35
During his last meal with the disciples Jesus performs a rite that has become customary in many churches ever since: the washing of the disciples’ feet.
It was a proof of his love for them, an example of service they were supposed to follow (John 13:15). Jesus sounds engaged and positive in verses 1-20, but all of the sudden he becomes troubled in spirit (13:21). The word used to express this feeling is tarasso, which usually refers to anger or indignation (see also 11:33).1 Jesus is vexed at the prospects that one of his disciples, Judas, is about to betray him (13:21). Such an attitude is virtually a sign of shame on the group’s leader, and the fact that the disciples asked him about who among them was going to do such an unthinkable thing, proves it.
Astonishment is followed by puzzlement, when even after clearly signaling Judas as the one who is going to betray him, by giving him a piece of bread and telling him to do it quickly, the disciples misunderstand the exchange, thinking that he was telling Judas to perform some of his duties as the treasurer of the group (John 13:28-29). Obediently,2 even when about to betray him, Judas leaves into the night, a symbolic reference to the pathos of the moment!
There are three important ideas in this passage: Jesus’ glorification (31-32), Jesus’ departure (33), and Jesus’ new commandment (34-35).
The text says that the Son of Man has been glorified and that that is happening now (John 31). Throughout the gospel, glorification is linked to the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus (17:1). Here we see that it affects not only Jesus but also God. God is glorified in Jesus’ death. The cross, rather than bringing shame, brings glory to God. This shows the evangelist’s reversal of the cultural values of the time as well as his subtle — or not so subtle — criticism of the power of Empire. The purpose is to assure his community that its origins are rooted in an honorable event, because through it, God showed God’s love for the world. Here, John joins the rest of the New Testament writers who emphasized the overcoming of shame through weakness.
Glory is a “common Hellenistic word for opinion, honor, or reputation, and is one of the terms used by John to indicate Jesus’ honorific status. Every Mediterranean person would understand the special honor that attaches to an only son of a father.”3 In John, Jesus is said to have had a glory that predated his earthly life, from before the foundation of the world (17:24). This glory is manifested throughout his ministry for his followers to contemplate, since honor must be publicly acknowledged (1:14; 2:11; 11:4).
Jesus here announces his death and resurrection in a coded way using the language of a journey. He is going to a place where no one can follow him, neither the religious leaders (John 7:32-34; 8:21), nor the disciples. He is returning to God, the one who sent him (7:33). At this point, the disciples cannot follow him, but this doesn’t mean that there will be a permanent separation. No. Jesus is going to prepare a place for them (14:3) and then he will come back and take them to himself (14:3).
The verb for take is paralambano, which can also be translated “to receive.” The NRSV chooses to translate this verse as “I will take you to myself” which seems to point at the parousia, that is, the second coming of Jesus at the end of time. But since this is not a prominent idea in John — it only appears sporadically through the narrative (see 5:25-29; 11:27; 21:22;) — it is better to translate it as “I will receive you to myself,” which conveys better the Johannine idea of the disciples, Jesus, and the Father sharing in an spiritual communion through the agency of the Holy Spirit. Maybe this is a conscious way to change the traditional eschatological language of a future parousia, such as the one present in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, into one that reflects more the realized eschatology of John.
Jesus’ new commandment.
In what sense is Jesus’ commandment new? This has elicited many responses. For instance, that Jesus is here providing the disciples with an unheard law, a novelty in the religious world of the time. But there is nothing really new about the need to love members of your in-group, and the strangers among it, something that was already prescribed in the Torah (Leviticus 19:18, 34). What is new is the way Jesus interpreted and practiced that love, namely, through service, as exemplified in the washing of the disciples’ feet. This sacrificial love will be fully manifested on the cross, when Jesus will lay down his life for his friends (15:12-17).
We have to avoid here the thought that Christian love is loftier than that practiced by people of other faiths. Our love for others follows the example of Jesus of Nazareth, even as we acknowledge other love-models in other religions (Buddha, Mohammed, and Moses). We should not be in competition when it comes to love, nor should we make it an object of pride, but we should love concretely and share the burden of a hurting world with people of faith, no matter which one.
For more than two thousand years Christians have been identified as the people of the cross, a symbol of self-sacrifice in John but of conquest and colonization in recent history. I wonder what would have happened if instead of the cross Christians would have been identified by the basin and the towel. Perhaps our world would be less divided, and everyone would love each other a little bit more.
- Gail O’Day, “The Gospel of John. Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. IX. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 729.
- O’Day, 730.
- Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998) 33.