Please turn in the pew Bibles to the gospel of John, chapter 13, and follow along as I read verses 13 and 14.
13 You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am.
14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet.
Amen. The world of God. Thanks be to God.
Walter Edgar, In his South Carolina, a History (University of South Carolina Press, 1998) notes that in 1925, the state of South Carolina had only 225 miles of paved roads (491). All other roads in the state were either low country sand or upcountry red clay. Many whole towns had not a single paved road and not a single sidewalk. Moreover, in that day, before powered lawnmowers, people did not generally raise grass. Yards were bare, packed dirt which were swept with a broom. Nor was South Carolina much different from the rest of the nation and the rest of the world in those days. For most of the history of our species, most people lived with a lot more dust and dirt than we do.
Go back in time much farther, go back to first century Palestine. Outside the temple area in Jerusalem, few people in that time ever saw pavement of any kind, and they wore sandals—no socks, just sandals. You can imagine then that if people were out and about all day, doing their work, their feet got dirty. Hence, if guests came to your house, it was the custom to do something about their dirty, aching feet.
Poor people, which is to say most people, would give guest water and a towel, and the guests would wash their own feet. In Luke 7:44, when Jesus chastises Simon the Pharisee for his lack of hospitality, he says, you gave me no water to wash my feet. Now Simon was wealthy and he could have had a slave wash Jesus feet, but Jesus does not make mention of that. He says, you at least could have given me a little water and a piece of towel so that I could have washed my own feet, but you did not even do that—indicating that Simon the Pharisee totally failed as a host.
Among wealthier households, footwashing was a slave’s job. You had to kneel before a person and handle what they walked on. This was considered demeaning, humiliating. The head of the household, even a poor household, would never wash another person’s feet.
With that background then, let us turn to John 13. Scholars argue about when this incident occurred. V1 says that it happened “before the festival of the Passover.” We are told in v2 that there was a supper, but this was not the Last Supper, which occurred during Passover. This apparently was some days earlier.
In any case, in these verses, we have the story of Christ washing his disciples' feet. This is not an ordinary footwashing. Ordinarily, first century Jews washed their feet at the door when they arrived. But we are told in v2 that this occurred during supper—which seems a strange time to start to washing feet. Obviously, Jesus is saying something to the disciples and to us.
The disciples were given to fussing about who was the greatest among them, and this fussing led to quibbling about seating arrangements at the table—because the more important seats, the seats closest to Jesus, could be taken to indicate their status in the group.
They were all wearing sandals of course, and their feet were dirty. There were probably slaves around to prepare and serve the meal, but for some reason no slave had been assigned to wash feet. Perhaps whoever supplied the room and the meal thought there was a designated footwasher among the disciples. It was the duty of disciples to wash their rabbi's feet. In the previous chapter, Mary had washed Jesus feet with precious ointment. This was an act of extraordinary devotion. She changed the ordinary footwashing custom into an act of worship. Mary was a female disciple of Jesus. Jesus was unusual among Jewish rabbis in that respect. Most rabbis did not have female disciples, but many rabbinic schools had a footwasher, usually a young and poor student, who was accounted the least of the rabbi’s disciples. But among Jesus’ disciples, there was no designated footwasher. No one was recognized as the least and last of the disciples. So the unspoken question in John chapter 13 is who is going to wash feet? Who is going to admit to being the least and the last?
No one. They all saw the water pitcher, basin, long linen towel, but they pretended not to see. They reclined at the table with dirty feet rather than humble themselves by volunteering to wash feet. Perhaps they thought, “Somebody ought to at least wash Jesus’ feet, but if I do that, where will that put me in the social pecking order? If I volunteer to wash his feet, I will have to wash everybody’s feet, and I’ll be stuck with that job from now on. And so each disciple thought, Maybe if I just wait—somebody else will do it.
If you’ve been in church much, you know that kind of thinking goes on all the time. Somebody needs to take care of the nursery, Somebody needs to clean those bathrooms, Somebody ought to change that lightbulb. But not me. Not much has changed. At that supper, each disciple was hoping someone would volunteer to do this dirty job, but they were not going to be that someone.
So Jesus did it. He waited for awhile to see what they would do, but they did nothing, and the supper was well underway, when he gave up on them in disgust, and did it himself. There was a need. Dirty feet was the need. Everybody saw the need. All the disciples knew what was wrong. Only Jesus did something about it.
Jesus took the role of a slave and washed feet. He even washed the feet of Judas. Judas was actively plotting to betray Jesus in a few days, and Jesus knew it, and Jesus washed his feet anyway, because he still loved Judas.
In v6, we come to Peter. Peter could not believe that Jesus was doing this. Peter had at least some inkling of who Jesus was. He knew that when he was in the presence of Jesus he was in the presence of God. He cannot imagine God washing his feet. He cannot imagine God as a slave doing the most demeaning of slave jobs.
In v6, Peter asks Jesus in horror, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" and Jesus said, Peter, I know you do not understand what is happening here, but yes, I am. And Peter says, No, "you will never wash my feet." Whereupon Jesus answered, If I don’t wash your feet, you are not my disciple. If you don’t accept this loving service from me, you have nothing to do with me. And this would say to us, if we don’t accept Jesus’ loving service for us, we do not have anything to do with him.
Now Peter loves Jesus. He does not understand what is going on, but he loves Jesus, and so, with typical Peter impulsiveness, he jumps in all the way and says in that case, Lord, wash me all over, because I am all for you.
Now we need to ask some questions of this scripture. The gospel of John describes Jesus actions in some detail. He got up, he took a towel, he poured water, he washed feet. This is an action parable. What then is the lesson of the parable? We are told the lesson before the parable begins. In v1, we read “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
This song of our children, "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so” is a basic truth for us all. It is the basic truth of this parable.
Jesus loves us with a love that surpasses all understanding. Our own love is shallow, frail, often conditional, often fickle. It is impossible for us to fathom Perfect Love, which loves all of us in spite of all our frailness and fickleness. Jesus loves us more than father or mother or friend. Jesus loves us even more than we love ourselves, and therefore Jesus is concerned more about us than we are concerned about ourselves. Jesus proved his love by living among us and serving us like a slave.
This action parable, this footwashing, is about love. Jesus says, if you love someone, there are no demeaning actions that you cannot do for that person. Love makes the lover the willing and faithful slave of the beloved.
God is the creator of the cosmos. When we think of God, we think of majesty, of holiness, of unimaginable splendor. We expect to worship God in awe and reverence. We don’t expect God to become like us. This is the most astonishing thing about Jesus. God did become like us. God was born among us as a human being, walked like us, talked like us.
Why would God do that? If I were the ruler of the universe, I certainly would not reduce myself to being one creature on one planet in one corner of a galaxy. But God did. Why? Because he loved us.
To carry this a little further, you would think that if God chose to become one of us, he would at least chose to be great and powerful among us. This was pagan belief. There was widespread belief that a conqueror like Alexander the Great, for example, was in fact a god, or at least son of god. Alexander had temples where he was worshipped as a god. I guess their idea was that someone who can beat up and kill everyone must be God. That is a human idea about God. We do not find that in the New Testament. God did not come as one of the high and the mighty among us. God came as a peasant from the Roman backwater province of Galilee. He was not even ruler of Galilee—just a nobody. Why would God do that? To show us what love is.
Jesus expands on that thought in this parable. He becomes a slave to his disciples. Why would God do that? To show us how love acts. In v12, Jesus asks them a question:, "Do you know what I have done to you?” Obviously, the disciples did not know, so Jesus explains, in v13-15, “You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, 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.” Jesus said, I am your rabbi. Certainly no one there disputed that. The disciples did not understand Jesus, but they recognized him as their teacher. He goes on to say, I have shown you something here. I washed your feet. I did you a service that needed to be done. I set an example of taking care of a need. This is what love does. This is what you should do, as you love one another.
Now if we take this action parable literally, we probably miss the point Jesus was making. Some churches make footwashing into a sacrament—like the Lord’s Supper. They have a footwashing ritual that they do periodically as a part of a church service. Now that is all right, but it probably misses the point. Footwashing was part of first century Jewish culture. Jesus used this cultural practice to emphasize the kind of people we ought to be. Jesus is not saying that we should go back to wearing sandals and walking in the dirt, so that we can have our feet washed. That is not the point at all. He is saying that his people are a people who meet needs, in every culture, in every time.
That is what Jesus did. He met needs even if the need required him to get down and dirty and do a slave’s job. That is what Jesus call us to do—to meet needs even if we must get down and dirty and do a slave’s job. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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