First published August 10, 2010.
I’ve been trying to decide how to write about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. Years ago, I hinted at a feeling of entitlement among the disciples, just a moment of it. I think it was too much of a hint. So I’ll be less subtle.
Confidence let Jesus be humble. Entitlement causes humbleness to be needed.
The whole story of the foot-washing starts with John talking about the love Jesus has for his disciples, the power he has from his Father, the fact that he is about to return to the seat of his power. John clearly reaffirms Jesus’ status and then says, “so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.” The act of service is rooted, for Jesus, in not having anything to prove.
He gets nothing from this act, usually reserved for a gentile servant. Rinsing the feet of guests from the dirt that accumulated from manure-laden paths as they walked to a party had no redeeming value. This was not like opening the door for someone, an act that people can take turns doing. This was not about helping the helpless, an act that can earn inverse status points.
This act would have carried no points, would have seemed repulsive to the disciples rather than noble. The idea of a servant leader was still new; was, in fact, in the process of being created at this table, on this night.
As I have been thinking about this action, I cannot find an equivalent in our society. We look to Mother Teresa touching lepers or countless homeless advocates passing out socks, but while inspired by Jesus, they aren’t what Jesus was doing in this moment.
But, says John, Jesus wasn’t jeopardizing his position, he was establishing it.
Several posts on this story are available as a PDF: Reflections on Washing Feet.