“Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” – John 13:3–5
This passage has fascinated Christians throughout church history. Jesus washing his disciples’ feet has been an enigmatic gesture. We duplicate it from time to time at weddings or in church services. Other times we try to get at the heart of servitude behind it, imitating the spirit of foot-washing.
We all seem to recognize that this is a powerful act that Jesus performed.
Consider what Jesus did here. Foot-washing isn’t what it used to be (nostalgic sigh). At the risk of sounding vain, you could wash my feet without being too repulsed. But I don’t walk consistently long distances over consistently dusty and pack-animal fecesed roads wearing only sandals like everyone in the first century. I can say with confidence that Jesus bent down and washed some nasty feet that day.
And then think about John’s wording. With the realization that “the Father had given all things into his hands,” that “he had come from God,” and that “he was going back to God,” Jesus took the natural next step. He got up, swapped out his clothes for a servant’s towel, and did a servant’s duty.
Jesus wasn’t performing some symbolic gesture to identify himself as the kind of person who serves. No, Jesus actually did what a servant does. He was a servant in that moment. And in that moment, he had the full realization that all power belonged to him. He worked as a servant knowing full well that he came from the universe’s throne and was heading back to it shortly.
And here’s the craziest part of the whole thing for me. Judas was at that dinner party. John carefully explains that this foot-washing scene took place “when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him” (v. 2). Which means that this is a bit different than a husband washing his wife’s feet during a wedding ceremony (are a wife’s feet ever cleaner than on her wedding day?). Jesus (in the moment he knew he had all power) literally became the servant of his most bitter enemy (in the moment Satan was most influencing him).
Dante placed Judas in the worst circle of hell. Jesus washed his feet.
Why did Jesus do this? Here’s his explanation:
“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 also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master” (vv. 14–16).
Jesus became a servant—actually performing the actually degrading actual work of an actual servant—so that we would learn to do the same. “A servant is not greater than his master.” But how many of us are “greater” than Jesus in this regard? Maybe we would perform a symbolic foot-washing of already clean feet. But no way would we actually do what an actual servant does. No way would we degrade ourselves to help the fully capable churchgoers around us. And NO WAY would we do anything to bless our enemies, especially not a sacrificial act that puts us to shame even as it brings them honor. We’re better than that.
But Jesus wasn’t. And he tells us not to be.