Commentary on John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Maundy Thursday is a time for reflection on Jesus’ love and human resistance to it.
The name “Maundy” comes from the first Latin word of John 13:34, mandatum (commandment): “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another” (NRSV). Thus, Jesus’ command to love, tied to the example of the foot washing, lies at the heart of this day.
The narrator of the foot washing begins the story with a somewhat lengthy recollection of Jesus’ coming death. Jesus’ crucifixion is tied in John to Passover, and the marking of the festival’s approach (13:1) is like a ticking clock whose alarm the reader knows is about to go off (cf. John 11:55; 12:1). John couples the approach of Passover with another declaration that Jesus’ hour has arrived (13:1; cf. 12:23) and that Judas is about to betray him (13:2; cf. 12:4). The reader knows well the events that are set to begin shortly. Although Jesus’ long farewell speech to his disciples intervenes, and the betrayal of Jesus does not occur in the story until chapter 18, the proximity of those events shapes all of the words and actions of the passage.
Throughout the passion narrative, John takes care to assert Jesus’ knowledge of and control over the events of his death. The events are shaped not only by the arrival of Jesus’ hour, but also by his foreknowledge that the moment has arrived: “Jesus knew that his hour had come” (verse 1). Similarly, the foot washing is prefaced by Jesus’ knowledge “that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God” (verse 3). The events that follow are framed by Jesus’ understanding of what is happening and his intentional action to lead and teach his disciples in light of what they will experience.
The passage also claims that Jesus’ actions are intentionally shaped as acts of love meant as examples to be followed. The preface of verse 1 frames the foot washing as an action defined by love: “having loved his own who were in the world he loved them to the end” (13:1). The phrase “to the end” can also be translated “to the utmost,” suggesting Jesus’ final and definitive act of love. Jesus goes on to explicitly state that the foot washing is an example for disciples to follow. “You also should do as I have done to you” (verse 15). As the closing verses (31b-35) remind us, such actions display the disciple’s love.
Not all people readily accept Jesus’ love, including the disciples closest to him. Peter’s responses show the difficulties humans may encounter. His first words seem simply incredulous, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” (verse 6). It is possible that Peter’s words imply that the roles should be reversed. Peter, of lower status than his teacher, should instead serve Jesus by washing his feet. It is also possible that Peter is simply confused by Jesus’ act and trying to understand what it means. Either way, the phrasing suggests Peter’s resistance. Jesus’ act is socially inappropriate or incomprehensible, and Peter means to dissuade him of such foolishness.
Peter is undaunted by Jesus’ reassurance that all will become clear in the future (verse 7). Now his resistance becomes blatant: “You will never wash my feet.” (verse 8). Again, Peter’s refusal of Jesus’ generous act points to the absurdity in Roman culture of a person of Jesus’ relative status undertaking the task and demeanor of a slave.
Peter resists Jesus’ act of love. John does not tell us why Peter refuses Jesus and thus leaves room for our own reasons to enter in. Perhaps Peter is embarrassed by his master’s lowly form. Perhaps he cannot stand the reminder of the grace offered to him in Christ and his need for it. Perhaps Peter’s ties to social convention prevent his recognition of the gift. He sees a role reversal that can only be a joke. It is interesting to note that he is not critical that Jesus offers others such a sign of love, until Jesus offers the same gift to Peter himself.
Whatever Peter’s reasoning, Jesus responds with a demand: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (verse 8). Sharing in Jesus involves being served by him, even in so lowly and intimate a form as foot washing. Like the branch that is pruned or cleansed in order to abide in the vine and bear fruit (John 15:2-4), Jesus’ disciples must be washed by him.
Now Peter changes tactics. He no longer rejects Jesus’ washing, but demands a more thorough version: “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” (verse 9). At this point, Peter may recognize the depth of his own uncleanness. If Jesus is offering cleansing, he wants a complete bath. Yet Jesus deflects this request as well, suggesting that Peter has “washed” and is “entirely clean” (verse 10). Jesus’ foot washing does not represent an overall purification of his disciples, but is an act of love and service Jesus performs for them.
Jesus commands his disciples to “love one another” in this way (13:34). The lectionary selection skips verses 18-31a, which focus on Judas’s betrayal of Jesus. As such, verses 31b-35 focus the reader’s attention on the foot washing as an example of Christian love. When Jesus says “just as I have loved you” (13:34), the reader sees the foot washing as the antecedent of these words. And while this is undoubtedly so, the removal of verses 18-30 can lead us to forget John’s inclusion of Judas and his betrayal as part of the foot washing story.
Judas’s presence at the supper means that the example Jesus sets is not simply one of service to an elite group of believers. Jesus has washed Judas’s feet, and therefore has included him among those he loved “to the utmost.” Similarly, the love of disciples for “one another” might be understood to include even those others we might prefer to forget.