Commentary on John 13:1-17, 31b-35
John’s account of the last supper begins with Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.
The action is simple, yet its significance is revolutionary. Using the most ordinary means, Jesus conveys the most extraordinary love and commands his disciples to do the same.
First, note that Jesus is the one who performs the action in 13:1-10. He is the doer, who acts on behalf of his disciples. In the ancient world, people commonly washed their own feet. When guests arrived at someone’s home, feet covered with dust from the road, a good host would offer them a basin of water. The host would not do the washing, but would provide the water so that the guests could wash their own feet. In some cases the host would have a slave wash the feet of the guests. But it was understood that no free person would stoop to wash the feet of another free person. Hospitality meant offering water and perhaps the services of a slave. It did not mean doing the washing.
For a free person to wash someone else’s feet meant that he or she was assuming the position of a slave. The only reason someone would do this voluntarily was to show complete devotion to another person. This is what Jesus does here. He assumes the role of a slave to show the depth of his love for his disciples (13:1). Jesus does not act out of weakness, but out of strength. John tells us that Jesus has come from God and is going to God, and that God has put all things into Jesus’ hands. Yet the one who has all things in his hands now uses his hands to wash feet. His power comes to expression in self-giving love (13:3-5).
What is more, the devil is present and active in the scene, putting betrayal into the heart of Judas (13:2). Yet here the love of Jesus remains unwavering. Jesus does not meet evil on Satan’s terms but on God’s terms–for in the face of betrayal he apparently washes the feet of all the disciples, including those of Judas. The love that Jesus shows here cannot be equated with a feeling of affection. It is the form that divine power takes in the face of sin and evil.
Peter’s sputtering objection to the footwashing is completely understandable. No self-respecting disciple could allow a teacher to act this way toward his pupils (13:6). Yet Jesus insists that he must act in this way, because if anyone is to be in relationship with him, it will come as a gift–the scandalous gift of divine love (13:8). Peter cannot comprehend this now, but his denial of Jesus later that evening will make clear that if his relationship with Jesus is to have a future, it will have to come as a gift of love from the crucified and risen Jesus.
Second, Jesus tells the disciples that what he has done is not only a gift, but an example. As he has washed their feet, they are to wash one another’s feet (13:12-17). Note that this command is not given at beginning of the chapter. Jesus refrains from commanding them to show love to others until after they have received love from him. By washing the feet of others, they are called to share the love they have received from Christ.
At this point a preacher will find it all too easy to reduce the implications of the footwashing to a generic summons to “be helpful.” The jaw-dropping act of love that Jesus performs by washing feet can all too quickly become a moral platitude. Yet one has to wonder whether it was really necessary for Jesus to take the part of a slave at the last supper, and then to suffer the kind of execution that the Romans used for slaves and rebels, if he was simply out to encourage a little more civic-mindedness.
The directive to wash one another’s feet is a call to share the kind of love that startles and surprises. It is a call for love to show up when no one might expect it. God put all things into Jesus’ hands, and Jesus did the unexpected by stooping down and using his hands to wash feet. The followers of Jesus, too, have been entrusted with abilities and opportunities. The example of foot washing is a call to do what is needed, not merely expected, a call to translate love into service that might even catch someone off guard.
Third, Jesus’ commands in John’s gospel are community-building. Jesus tells his disciples to wash one another’s feet as he washed feet, then says that they are to love one another as he loved them (13:14, 34). Note that in both commands there is a sense of mutuality. People wash and love “one another.” The mutuality recognizes that Jesus’ followers need to continue receiving love from others even as they continue giving love to others. No one is self-sustaining. Empowerment for service comes as love is both given and received in the communities to which Jesus’ followers belong.
The danger, of course, is that community can become overly comfortable and ingrown. But recall that Jesus washed the feet of Judas who betrayed him and Peter who denied him. The call to wash one another and to love one another builds community even as it confronts the failings of its members. It is also clear that community is not an end in itself. It is a form of witness to the world. People bear witness to the love of Christ by their words and by forming communities in which the love of Christ is shared. In John’s gospel, love is not an abstraction but the action that brings people into relationship with Christ and with each other. The world comes to “know” the love of Christ as his love takes shape in communities, where people serve and are served (13:35).