The moment in Jesus’ life when he would experience the deepest humiliation and the most intense suffering had arrived. He was alone with his disciples to celebrate the feast of the Passover, but in a few hours he would be arrested by the Jewish leaders. For three years he had taught the disciples and had shown them how it is necessary to renounce our own interests to serve those of others. But now, according to Luke 22:24-26, they had not learned the lesson yet. The passage tells us:
“Now there was also a dispute among them, as to which of them should be considered the greatest. And He said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called “benefactors.” But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves.’”
A memorable action
The books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell us of that last night that Jesus spent with his disciples, but John gives us a story that the others leave out. It is about a memorable action that Jesus performed, an action by which he once more taught an important lesson to his disciples. In John 13:1-5, we read:
“Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. And supper being ended, the devil having already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray Him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself. After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.”
Let’s stop our reading for a moment to better understand this act in the context of Palestine in the first century. In every country, there are signs of hospitality, ways to properly welcome someone. It is often a matter of offering a seat or a glass of water to drink, politely asking the reason for the visit, giving a hug or shaking hands, and so on.
In the time of Jesus one gesture of hospitality practiced in Palestine was the act of providing water so that visitors could wash their feet. Nearly everyone wore sandals instead of closed shoes. The roads were dirty, and it was hot. It was pleasant to wash tired feet in cool water. A host could tell a slave or servant to wash the feet of guests instead of simply furnishing the water. If the host had prepared a feast, a servant would be there with the water at the entrance to the house in order to render this service to each guest as he or she arrived. This was, all the same, a very humble task, generally done by the person of least importance, the one of lowest rank in the household. The students of a teacher had to render certain services to him, but the teacher did not have the right to demand that they wash his feet. This was considered a little too humiliating. Among the disciples of Jesus who were present at the feast of the Passover, none of them had thought of rendering this service to the others. But Jesus himself lowered himself to do it for his students, or as we generally call them, his disciples.
We must serve as Jesus did
The text continues in this way in verses 6-11:
“Then He came to Simon Peter. And Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, are You washing my feet?’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this.’ Peter said to Him, ‘You shall never wash my feet!’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.’ Simon Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.’ For He knew who would betray Him; therefore He said, ‘You are not all clean.’”
We can easily understand Peter’s reaction. It would not seem normal for the Lord to do for his disciples what should have been a slave’s job. John the Baptist said that he would not be worthy to be a slave to Jesus—even to loosen the strap of his sandals in order to wash his feet. If he was not worthy to serve Jesus, he obviously would not be worthy to be served by Jesus. This was how Peter felt, too. For him, as for people of our day, a very important person should not have to do humble tasks. Others must serve such a person. This would be part of the rights associated with his position.
The first verses of this chapter tell us that Jesus was very aware of his identity and his position. He knew that he would soon be glorified, that he had come from God the Father and he would return to God the Father, who had given all things into his hands. But he did not cling to his rights. Philippians 2:7,8 tells us that he “made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” For him there was no conflict between greatness and service to others. He said in Mark 10:45, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
When Peter wanted to refuse to have his feet washed by Jesus, the Lord said to him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me” (John 13:8). Then he spoke of being, not unclean, but completely pure. Indeed, it was not Peter’s feet that he had in mind, but his soul. Jesus washes his disciples and makes them clean with his blood—his death on the cross. Washing the feet of his disciples could seem like a service that was too humiliating for someone like him to accept, but being arrested, insulted, beaten and nailed on a cross would be a hundred times more humiliating. Yet Jesus was ready to be subjected to all of this, and whoever is unable to accept the suffering of Jesus for him can never be purified from his sins. There is no other solution. If Peter cannot accept Jesus washing his feet, how will he accept that Jesus dying for him? We have to allow ourselves to be served. We have to allow ourselves to be saved by Jesus. We cannot take him as king if we don’t take him as savior, just as we cannot accept him as savior without accepting for him to reign over us as king.
We must follow the example of Jesus
The story we are studying ends this way:
“So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.’” (John 13:12-17)
Jesus called on his disciples to follow the example he had given them. He does not mean the church should organize a religious ceremony where members wash one another’s feet, whether or not they are dirty, whether or not this practice would be a custom of the country. He meant that the disciples should be humble enough to serve one another, even if the services rendered might seem humbling. This could mean sweeping the floors or cleaning the toilets of the place where the church meets, helping one’s wife with the housework if she is too tired, looking after someone who is sick with AIDS and cleaning up his vomit, or simply giving a glass of cold water to a child.
The disciples were too proud to wash the feet of others. Each one wanted to be first. The proud person is always in competition with others. He wants to be richer, stronger, more intelligent or more listened to than others. He wants to be in first place, the place of honor. He compares himself with others to point out he has seniority, he is more faithful, more useful, better educated, more gifted—and thus should enjoy a particular advantage, receive special attention, be given more responsibility or honor. This attitude always creates problems. The proud man who believes he is not receiving the honor he is due becomes angry and sulks for days. In contrast, the humble man is not too concerned with his own value or his own dignity to think about the needs of others. When we are tempted to insist on our own dignity, prestige or rights, let us remember Jesus Christ on his knees in front of the dirty feet of his own disciples.
Humble service was at the heart of the nature of Jesus and his mission. To accept Jesus means letting ourselves be served by the one who is greater than all, and following his example of serving others in humility.