Narrative Lectionary Reflection
February 25, 2018
On Maundy Thursday, churches have taken part in a footwashing ceremony. People come forward, taking off their socks and shoes while someone splashes water on their feet.
Not everyone takes part. As a pastor, I can remember planning footwashing as part of Maundy Thursday service years ago. It happen to be one of the lowest attended Holy Week services that year.
Footwashing can seem uncomfortable to us moderns. It was just as uncomfortable to Peter as Jesus began to clean his feet. He didn’t understand that Jesus was showing a new way of being in the world- a message that still resonates today.
We now focus on the Last Supper and the washing of the disciples’ feet.
Engaging the Text
He said to them, “Do you know what I’ve done for you? 13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, because I am. 14 If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. 15 I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do.
John 13 starts what is commonly called “The Book of Glory.” These final chapters of John describe the glorification of Jesus and his eventual return to God the Father. The farewell discourse keeps with an ancient tradition where famous men are remembered in exhortations, prayers and consolation of followers.
In keeping with the theme that John is different from the other gospels, this story is different than the synoptics. For one, it takes place the day before Passover, while in the synoptics it takes place on the day of Passover. The Synoptics have the Passover meal which became the Lord’s Supper as the focus, but not so in John. In John the focus is footwashing. While the two are different, the focus is the same: making Jesus’ love for his friends visible and instructing his disciples to do likewise.
Chapter 13 opens with Jesus knowing that the time had come. Soon he would be led away, tortured and crucified. He chose this time to show his love for his friends. Some versions say that Jesus loved them to the end which can mean loved them fully or to the utmost. Jesus loves as much as it is possible to love, starting with the footwashing and going to the cross, the grave and the resurrection.
In verse 2, we have a bit of an interruption of Jesus showing his love to his disciples. We are told that satan enters Judas who will soon betray Jesus. The devil and Jesus are at work. What is important to remember here is that Jesus washes all of the disciple’s feet including Judas. It is an act of love in the face of the devil’s actions.
After the meal, Jesus gets up, takes off his robes and grabs a towel. He is getting ready to begin washing his friend’s feet. Now, footwashing was considered an act of hospitality offered to guest after their journey. In washing the disciple’s feet, Jesus is combining the role of host and servant. What makes Jesus’ act so scandalous is that the act of footwashing was either done by the guests themselves or by a slave or servant. It was considered so menial that Jews didn’t think Jewish servants should have to do this. It was only appropriate for Gentile servants. Jesus was showing what it meant to be a follower, a disciple. The way of the world is that leaders were to sit in places of honor while those below them wash their feet. But Jesus is flipping the script. “ You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, because I am,” Jesus says. Teacher and Lord were titles that in the world meant someone who was an important person who was to be served. But Jesus inverts the meaning. To be Lord means to show love in service. “Just as I have done, you also must do,” Jesus says telling the disciples that this is what they must do if they claim to follow Jesus.
In washing the disciples feet, Jesus says that they are clean, but not all of them. Jesus is referring to Judas. Theologian Karoline Lewis notes that washing reveals what was hidden
While it is true that the act of washing heals the man’s blindness, the washing also enables him to see where Jesus comes from, and, in the end, he is brought into the fold of the Good Shepherd. The healing of the man born blind is also a sign that exposes those who do not believe. The foot washing in chapter 13 has similar connotations. It is a washing to be made clean if the sense is washing away that which would prevent full recognition of who Jesus is and what is about to happen. It exposes Judas. The washing makes possible having a share with Jesus, being in relationship with him, in his community, in the fold, as opposed to being cast out, like the blind man or going out, like Judas.
Judas is not clean because he doesn’t believe. Why? We don’t know. What we do know is that as Jesus shows what it is to be a follower, Judas misses the point.
Judas is a central part of this text. We don’t know why Judas did what he did. What we do know is that Satan worked through Judas to betray Jesus. Each gospel has a different take on Judas. John is probably the most negative. What is so important about Judas in John?
For some theologians, Judas is not simply evil, but pathetic. Theologian G.S. Sloyan sheds no tears for Judas:
The figure of Judas is immensely attractive in popular preaching. He is the favored one who turns on his friend, the table companion who acts against one whose only deeds were love. How to account for it? In a culture like ours, where human motivations are of paramount importance, this question can make even the world’s salvation look insignificant. The latter is cosmic and therefore daunting, but the microcosm of the human heart is the stuff of drama. The Evangelist, it should be noted, does not linger on the betrayal. He discredits the traitor by calling him a thief (12:6) without naming avarice as Judas’ motive for handing Jesus over. In the apprehension of Jesus in the garden, John omits the kiss of Judas as the identifying sign. In sum, he is content to specify diabolical influence as the compelling motive. But once this flight to the preternatural has been taken, the pulpit dramatist feels cheated. The amateur psychologist is at home with the ordinary run of human motives: a bit of Shakespeare, a bit of Freud, a counseling course just completed. John situates the struggle on higher ground: the all-holy God challenged by the ruler of this world through a contemptible weakling. John should be let have his way. (Emphasis mine)
But there is another way to look at this. Instead of focusing on Judas motivations or lack thereof, we should focus on the fact that Jesus washed Judas’ feet. Nothing in the passage suggests that Jesus didn’t wash the feet of his betrayer. What we are show is that Jesus truly does love fully, to the point of loving the one who would hurt him deeply. A poem by George Marion McClellan shows this love of one that definitely did not deserve it:
CHRIST washed the feet of Judas!
The dark and evil passions of his soul,
His secret plot, and sordidness complete,
His hate, his purposing, Christ knew the whole,
And still in love he stooped and washed his feet.
Christ washed the feet of Judas!
Yet all his lurking sin was bare to him,
His bargain with the priest, and more than this,
In Olivet, beneath the moonlight dim,
Aforehand knew and felt his treacherous kiss.
Christ washed the feet of Judas!
And so ineffable his love ’twas meet,
That pity fill his great forgiving heart,
And tenderly to wash the traitor’s feet,
Who in his Lord had basely sold his part.
Christ washed the feet of Judas!
And thus a girded servant, self-abased,
Taught that no wrong this side the gate of heaven
Was ever too great to wholly be effaced,
And though unasked, in spirit be forgiven.
And so if we have ever felt the wrong
Of Trampled rights, of caste, it matters not,
What e’er the soul has felt or suffered long,
Oh, heart! this one thing should not be forgot:
Christ washed the feet of Judas.
Jesus washing the feet of his friends, even the traitor is a sign of God’s overflowing love, even for one that doesn’t deserve it.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.