Commentary on John 13:1-17, 31b-35
The Gospel of John records Jesus’ final night with his disciples in John 13.
This chapter is often considered the transition point in the Gospel, meaning it is here that Jesus is now really heading toward his “glorification”—that is, the cross, resurrection, and, as John 13:1 tells us, his return to the Father. In John’s language, Jesus’ “hour” has come. Those of us who have been working through the lectionary this Lent, however, should recognize these words from John 12:23 as well. John 13:1 isn’t the first time Jesus acknowledges the arrival of his hour, but it is the first time the narrator tells us of this fact. Moreover, it is in John 13:1 that Jesus’ departure from the world is linked to his return to the Father. In this Gospel, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are part of this singular event: Jesus’ return to the Father.
In John, Jesus knows his destination, as well as the route that will take him back to his Father. The disciples, however, are still in need of instruction. In fact, John 13 emphasizes the contrast between Jesus’s knowledge and the astounding amount of ignorance around him. Even at this late point in Jesus’ ministry, his disciples repeatedly misunderstand who Jesus is, what he is doing, and where he is going. Jesus uses this episode in John 13 to teach his disciples two key things:
1) in spite of their ignorance, Jesus knows what is coming, including who it is that will betray him, and
2) authentic disciples of Jesus imitate his type of love for one another, regardless of their social status or knowledge.
The disciples require Jesus’ example in order to know what this type of love is. In John 13:1, the narrator describes Jesus’ readiness for his return to the Father this way: “having loved his own in the world, he loved them unto the end” (eis telos, my translation). This last phrase—to the end—is difficult to understand. On the one hand, it easily connects to Jesus’ final call in John 19:30: “It has been finished” (tetelestai). Yet to find its complete fulfillment here misses additional connections in the Gospel that show Jesus’ type of love goes through, but does not end, on the cross. Instead, it is better to understand the phrase eis telos as “unto completion” or “completely.” Jesus’ love is complete, or what 1 John will call perfected love (teleiōtai hē agapē, 1 John 4:12, 17).
Unlike the Synoptic accounts, Jesus’ last meal with the disciples in John is not the Passover supper. It cannot be, since for John, Jesus will die as the ultimate Passover Lamb on the Day of Preparation (John 19:14). Rather than focusing on the food and drink as symbols of a new covenant, Jesus uses this moment to symbolize his type of love to his disciples by washing their feet and sharing a morsel of his own food with his betrayer (John 13:26-30). Focusing on the foot washing, the symbolic element of Jesus’ actions becomes clear when we look at John’s description. Jesus’ movements should remind readers of his statement in John 10:17 where he says he “lays down” (tithēmi) his life “so that [he] might take it up again” (hina palin labō autēn, see also 1 John 3:16). In John 13:4, Jesus “lays down” (tithēsin) his clothes, washes his disciples’ feet, and then “takes” (elaben) them back again in verse 12. Jesus’ washing thus symbolizes his death and resurrection that he endures on behalf of disciples and the world. At the same time, however, it also shows us that serving one another through the lowering of ourselves is also complete love. Rather than just dying for one another, then, Jesus gives his disciples an example of what it means to love one another by living as well. In fact, this is exactly the message Jesus gives at the end of our lectionary passage in verses 34-35:
I am giving you a new commandment: love one another, just as I loved you so that you might love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you should have love for one another.
In other words, Jesus came so that he might show us how to love.
Not only is loving with Jesus’ type of love difficult, however; so is receiving that type of love. It is for this reason that Peter recoils at Jesus’ humiliating behavior. Peter did not know what Jesus was doing; he did know that according to his world, a master did not wash his disciples’ feet. Peter cannot bring himself simply to accept Jesus’ action; he needs an explanation first and then wants an extra portion once he hears Jesus’ response: wash my head and my hands too! (verse 9). Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ commitment to die on his behalf in verse 36-38 is similar; Peter doesn’t want to accept it. He knows it is more acceptable for a disciple to die on behalf of a master. Yet, when Peter is given that chance, he denies Jesus and runs away in shame (John 18:12-27). It is through this experience that Peter learns he cannot love like Jesus before he experiences Jesus’ type of love. This is a lesson for all of us as well.
As we prepare for Good Friday, we too join Jesus at his table. We need to receive the type of love he gives us with the washing of feet and dying on a cross. We also need to see that these actions are not the “end” of his love, but rather examples of the unending type of complete or perfect love he gives. It is this love that enables us to love one another. Rather than needing to know all that Jesus knows, Jesus instead challenges us to admit our ignorance and lower our guard to receive his love. In so doing, we open ourselves to learn and to live a life of discipleship that mirrors his love.