Commentary on John 13:1-17, 31b-35
His hour had come… He loved them to the end… You do not know now… but later you will understand.
Poets speak of circles of time, rivers of time, or the time before time. Physicists understand time as a construct that keeps everything from happening at once. Storytellers get to arrange time, sometimes condensing and sometimes expanding it, so that it conveys their stories’ most important truths. The disciples, though, have no such luxury.
Like most of us in our day-to-day existence, they are constrained by time’s linearity, living each moment as it occurs, one event after another. Unlike us, however, they lack the advantage of knowing the end of this particular story before it happens. While we experience Maundy Thursday from the perspective of both sides of the cross–in our liturgical calendar Good Friday has not yet happened, even though we always live in the reality of Easter–the disciples must make sense of events only as they unfold.
So, when Jesus washes their feet and wipes them with a towel, it is understandable if the disciples do not quite get the point.
Washing usually takes place before the meal, not in the middle of it. Masters usually have their feet washed by their servants, or teachers by their students, not the other way around. And, since this is not a Passover meal1, the disciples might not have expected an extended period of teaching or remembrance as typically happens on that occasion. Events are not unfolding in a way that makes sense to them. No wonder Peter blurts out, “You will never wash my feet!” (John 13:8).
However, just as one prepares for an upcoming meal by washing the hands, so Jesus prepares his disciples for what lies ahead of them by washing their feet. As John narrates the episode, subsequent events give meaning to present realities. Jesus knows what is coming (and we know, too, having had 2000 years to reflect on the matter), and he wants his followers to be ready: (1) Jesus will die (and live); (2) the disciples will live (and die).
Jesus will die (and live)
Several verbal threads tie this passage to Jesus’ death:
- “His hour had come…” (13:1). Up to this point in the Gospel, the hour has not yet come (2:4; 7:30; 8:20), but it persistently beckons from the future, drawing the present forward to its climax. We learn that “the hour” will be a time of death (16:2) and a time of glory (17:1), encompassed within that kairos moment when Jesus is “lifted up from the earth” (a reference to both the crucifixion and the resurrection), drawing all people to himself (12:32).
- “…to depart from this world and go to the Father” (13:1). The verb translated as “depart” is metalambano.
- “He loved them to the end” (13:1). This same night, according to John’s narrative, Jesus will teach his disciples that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (15:13). For this reason the Father loves him, “because I lay down my life in order to take it up again… I have power to lay it down and I have power to take it up again.” (10:17-18). The verbs translated “lay down” and “take up” are the same verbs that refer, respectively, to Jesus “taking off” and “putting on” his robe (13:4, 12).
- Further, Jesus’ robe (imation = garment; 13:4, 12) is an object of special interest at the time of the crucifixion (19:2, 5, 23, 24). Might his robe symbolize something crucial about his identity and mission?
- “He loved them to the end” (telos; 13:1). When he is ready to die, Jesus proclaims, “it is finished” (19:30; John uses the cognate verb, teleō). This is the end, both in the sense of the final act and in the sense of the ultimate purpose, and its meaning is love.
- At another dinner, only a few days before, Mary washes Jesus’ feet with perfume and wipes them with her hair (12:1-3; cf. 11:2, where the narrator references the event ahead of time, connecting it to the raising of Lazarus). When Judas complains, Jesus speaks about the necessity of his own burial (12:7). His words linger in the background here. Just as Mary prepared Jesus for his upcoming death, he now prepares his disciples for their upcoming life.
The Disciples will live (and die)
Jesus states explicitly that his actions on this night are an example for the disciples. “You also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (13:15). If washing feet is the particular example, the wider principle quickly becomes clear: “Just as I have loved you, so also should you love one another,” (13:34).
It is on account of love that Jesus’ washes his disciples’ feet, and it is on account of Jesus that his followers will be able to live into that love with one another whether or not they fully understand or are able to see the outcome.
It may be useful for the preacher to consider what, exactly, is Jesus calling his followers to do? To display an attitude of humble service, such as Jesus has demonstrated by washing the disciples’ feet? To treat one another in such a way that love is more important than life itself? To have one’s own life and the life of a congregation or community modeled after the life of Jesus? To treat one another with love even if it is difficult, or it runs counter to prevailing norms, or if we cannot see the outcome, or even if doing so does not entirely make sense?
Whether we wash in it or drink from it, the water that Jesus offers is living water, given freely to his followers in his life and through his death. The inclusio that frames today’s pericope is a reminder that the ultimate source and final purpose of this water of life is love: he loved them to the end (13:1) so that we might love one another (13:34).
We may not recognize, in the moment, how it all fits together, but the promise is sure: “later you will understand.” (13:7; cf. 16:4).
1Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, in which the Last Supper is a Passover meal, in the Gospel of John this meal takes place on the preceding day. Jesus will be crucified at about the same time that the lambs are sacrificed in the Temple in preparation for the Passover meal.