Commentary on John 13:1-17, 31b-35
“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (Isaiah 52:7).1
Not all feet are as beautiful as those of the messenger of good tidings whom Isaiah extols! We have all seen a few and know it to be true. Feet can be smelly, dirty, gnarled — as were surely most of the disciples’ feet that Jesus washed on that first Maundy Thursday that John 13 recounts.
Surprised by Jesus
Many of us know the story well and perhaps for that reason have become somewhat immune to the audacious character of Jesus’ actions. We don’t recognize fully the astounding fact that the “Son of God,” one of John’s preferred descriptions of Jesus, should deign to wash the feet of his very human disciples, and not vice versa. Indeed, as John 13:3 makes clear, Jesus is fully aware of his status and authority. He knows that “the Father had given all things into his hands.” Nonetheless, the master, the leader of a small band of disciples, takes on the role of a servant. He rises from the table, removes his outer robe, ties a towel around himself, draws water, and washes and dries the feet of his followers.
Much doctrine might be derived from the passage. In Jesus’ actions and Peter’s protests are surely signs of baptism as well as symbols of his death and the salvation he offers, the implications of which preachers can explore, of course. Yet just as important to proclaim on Maundy Thursday is the central Christian virtue of humble service and love to others.
A curious question
After the foot washing, Jesus returns to the table and asks his followers a remarkable question: “Do you know what I have done to you?” (John 13:12). On one level the answer to the question is obvious. The disciples surely know what Jesus had done. He had washed their feet. The Teacher, as Jesus calls himself in verse 13, is of course, seeking a further lesson. He has not merely washed their feet but has offered an example of how his followers are to live together. As Jesus says in verse 15, the disciples should do to one another as I have done to you.
Yet there is likely still more in Jesus’ question. It was not, after all, “Do you understand what I just did?” Or, “Do you understand the lesson I was trying to teach you?”. No. It was, “Do you know what I have done to you?” What has Jesus done? One answer is that in his concrete actions upon the very bodies of his followers — their dirty, smelly, gnarly feet — Jesus has inaugurated the central role that the virtue of humble, self-giving love and service ought to have in the communities that will gather around his name after he has been crucified and raised to God. He has not just taught them something with words. The example he gave them was no clever anecdote. Rather through the generous, humble actions of his real body on their real bodies he did something to them.
A new constitution
Through his actions Jesus constitutes the disciples as a community, his community. The humble, loving service that foot washing embodies forms a kind of community constitution — a fundamental principle and precedent — for Christians. This is also evident from Jesus’ words later in John 13. The followers of Jesus, we read in verses 34-35, are to “…love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This is no mere counsel, no simple recommendation or hope that the disciples will live this way. Rather, like the laws given to Moses at Sinai, which in a very real way formed the constitution of God’s people in the Old Testament, Jesus says his words are a new commandment!
Do we know what Jesus has done to us? This is a profound question that preachers of John 13 might explore with their congregations. It has to do with the character of our communities and the nature of the virtues by which we live.
Jesus’ constitution of the Christian community around self-giving, humble love and service is, today, a remarkable counter cultural moral vision. With this vision we are a long way from the leadership strategies of the corporate world designed to enhance productivity and the status of the “effective leader” who knows how to manage others and, when necessary, step over them. We are even further away from the self-interestedness of capitalist economic ideology and the blustery quests for power, advantage, and domination so well-known from the realm of politics chronicled in the headlines we read every day. The way of following Jesus is different.
Seeing beautiful feet
“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (Isaiah 52:7)
We might think that the beauty of the proclamation of good news, peace, salvation, and the divine reign of Isaiah’s messenger is so magnificent, that it radiates through and over the herald, poetically renewing in beauty his entire countenance, including his feet. On Maundy Thursday Jesus teaches us the way to see the beauty of the dirty, smelly, gnarled feet of our sisters and brothers is through humble, loving service to one another. It is by washing them.
1. This same commentary can be read in Spanish here.