Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.’ For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? 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. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. (NRSV).
When Jesus took off his robe and wrapped himself in a towel he confronted an entrenched way of thinking.
For many, there was no other way to see the world. It was only natural that the rich, powerful, and influential were to be served by others. After all, these had more to give. Their time was more valuable. Their contribution was greater.
More menial, humble tasks could fall to others.
So when Jesus began to dress as a servant he was challenging an established system. Even in this small gathering – apparently absent of servants – none of the disciples had volunteered for the lowly job of dust removal.
Indeed it seemed more natural that they should all sit down to this final meal in their own mud, sweat, and stench!
And so it makes some sense that John would go out of his way to ensure that his readers know that Jesus is not doing this because he is unclear about who he is. He rose from their table: ‘…knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God…’ This is not an act rooted in an uncertain identity. Rather, it is a service performed from an ever deepening sense of God’s call. It stems from the heart of the creator of the universe.
And everyone was surprised.
Simon Peter, it would seem, was even offended. He objects to this humiliating undertaking by the one he calls ‘Lord’. Their dialogue moves from Peter’s refusal to participate, to wanting more, and back to the perfection of Jesus initial invitation. Peter is confused by all this.
And so Jesus offers his explanation. Perhaps they really didn’t quite ‘know’ what Jesus had done. Does he remain among them as ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’? Can he act in such a way and hold their honor and respect?
Jesus’ reasoning is as simple and clear as it is radical. If Jesus can do this as their leader, they are to move in the same direction. His is an example to follow.
After all, the disciple is not greater than the master.
It wold seem Jesus never imagined the influence of his action ending with understanding – mere knowledge that this man of God once did these things. He hoped it would have a more profound influence over their life together. This was to be lived.
Jesus, here as much as ever, was to be imitated: ‘If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.’