John 13: 1-17
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. 2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 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.
6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 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.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
The Dirty Feet
Jesus and his 12 followers have been walking into the city of Jerusalem from the nearby village of Bethany. They plan to celebrate the Passover Meal together. Preparations for a room had already been made and all was now ready for this family gathering.
As Jesus approached that upper room he is well aware of what the next few hours will bring. He knows that in less than 24 hours he will have been executed. As he approached the city he is weighed down in spirit. The agony of the garden of Gethsemane has already begun for Him.
But his disciple’s thoughts were elsewhere. As they approached that room they were immersed in an argument. A debate had been going on all week. Who would be the greatest among them in the new kingdom their master was about to establish? Luke tells us that there was conflict between them. The mother of James & John had intervened earlier asking Jesus that one of her sons be appointed Vice President and the other Secretary of State. Their request had been refused, but the other 10 disciples were hopping mad. They were still angry with one another as they climbed the stairs to the upper room.
If the weather was dry they had been walking on roads that were covered with dust. Every step sent a swirl of dust around their ankles. If the weather was wet, they walked in mud. So wet or dry their feet were dirty. Open sandals guaranteed that.
As they filed into that room, their minds were still filled with their arguments. John may have been thinking to himself, “I am his favourite.” Peter may have been saying “But I am obviously the leader.” Andrew may have been thinking, “But I was the first to follow Him.” One by one they walked past a bowl and a waiting towel, and jockeyed for position at the table. Perhaps they wanted to avoid sitting close to anyone they felt most irritable towards. Finally each one found a place and sprawled on the cushions that surrounded the low table. No one has clean feet.
Now in most homes it was customary for each person to wash their own feet when entering a home. Each person would take off their own sandals, wash their own feet, dry them, and then enter the house. Wealthy homes would have one of the household servants do that for the guests.
But there were two other customs. Upon entering a home the disciples of a Rabbi would wash the feet of their teacher as a mark of respect & affection. The other custom was that if a group was entering the house, one of the group would say something like, “Well since I have my hands in water already, let me wash your feet too.” – Just like opening a door for the others to enter in our culture.
But that evening, all had dumped their sandals at the door. No one had washed their own feet, perhaps sensing that might obligate them to wash anyone else’s. But as the meal got under way, Jesus sees that they are tense and irritable. These men are not teachable. How can he communicate with these men unless they forget their pride?
So Jesus rises from the table. Every eye is on him. He takes off his long outer garment and there he stands dressed only in a loin cloth. It is interesting that clothes pick up great significance during the next 24 hours. Here he is, voluntarily disrobing himself.
- Tomorrow at the trial he will be disrobed by others against his wishes.
- His mockers will clothe him in fine purple in order to humiliate and ridicule him.
- And then at the cross, he will be stripped again, and exposed to public view.
- At the foot of the cross while he is dying, the soldiers divide his clothing among themselves but gamble for his long outer robe that was of seamless weave.
But on this Thursday night, Jesus does voluntarily what others will do in malice on the morrow. His voluntary act is a preface to his greater humiliation the next day.
Then Jesus stoops down and picks up the towel and ties it around his waist, and takes the large earthenware jar of water and pours water into a basin, and taking that bowl of water, he approaches the first of the 12 reclining men. Getting down on his knees he begins to wash the feet of his friends.
The atmosphere is tense. All conversation has ceased. An uneasy silence permeates that room, interrupted only by the splashing of water. Every eye is on Jesus as one by one he washes the feet of those men. Every mind is in turmoil but every mouth is shut, except for Peter of course. We’ll get back to him in a moment.
Why does Jesus do this?
He has enough on his plate right now. It is the night of the betrayal, the denial, the arrest in the garden. It is the night when the trials of the Kangaroo Courts will begin. At this late hour why try to drum one more lesson into the disciple’s head? For three years he has tried to teach them about humility and servant-hood. He has presented children before them to try to teach that lesson. He had spoken of Gentile rulers and tried to underscore that same lesson by showing them its very opposite. He had taught it by example and words, but they have not caught on. But once more on this night before his death, Jesus attempts to teach the lesson one more time. Considering what else he had on his mind, it is really amazing that he should do this. Did you notice that the story begins with the words “Jesus knew that His hour had come to depart this world. He knew that God had put all things into his hands. He knew where he had come from and where he was going.”?? Nonetheless, he rises from supper to do the work of a servant.
But why? Notice that first verse again, “Having loved his own who were in the world, He loved them to the end – to the uttermost.” Because he cares so deeply about these men, there is nothing he would not do for them. Because he loves them, He will not give up on them. Tomorrow he will die for them. Tonight he will be their servant.
But as he washes feet He meets resistance. Peter is embarrassed. He feels guilty. He knows that it isn’t right. He should be washing feet, not Jesus. He says to His Master “You shall never wash my feet!” I can understand how Peter felt. He had declared some months earlier “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And now, the master is about to wash his feet. That’s a task for slaves and servants not Messiahs.
Walter Wangerin the Lutheran writer describes the scene in these words.
“Last of all Jesus came to Simon.
Simon Peter, forever proud of his humilities!
He snatched his thick feet back beneath the cover of his robe, saying
“Oh no! You’re not going to wash my feet, are you?”
Jesus sighed and said,
“You may not understand right now what I am doing,
but you will in the future.”
“No!” Simon said. His face trembling.
“You will never wash my feet.”
Something tightened in Jesus throat. “If I do not wash you,” he said,
striving to keep kindness in his voice,
“If you do not let me serve you, you can have no part in what I am doing.”
Tough words for Peter to swallow.
It is interesting to note that when Peter had first declared his conviction that Jesus was the Christ, Jesus had said that the Christ must suffer and be killed. (Mark 8;27-33) Peter had resisted Jesus then, and said that such a thing could never be. And Jesus had had to speak tough words to Peter then too. “Get behind me Satan. You don’t understand what God is up to.” Here is Peter again – resisting the washing of his feet.
But why does Jesus insist on this submission of Peter? Perhaps because the foot-washing points to the washing from sin that takes place in the greater humiliation of the Crucifixion on the next day.
The week before, when Jesus and the 12 were entering the city, Jesus had connected His servant-hood and his death together
“Whoever would be great among you, must be your servant,
and whoever would be first among you must be servant of all.
Not even the Son of Man came to be served,
but to serve, that is; to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43-45)
Listen to Paul who some years later made the same connection.
Though He was in the form of God,
and did regard equality with God something to be held on to,
He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant,
and being found in human likeness
he humbled Himself
and became obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.” Philippians 2:6-8
Jesus, bending down in humility, washing their feet, was symbolically acting out his death on their behalf. In the humiliation of the trial and crucifixion he would pour out his life’s blood as a sacrifice to cleanse them from their guilt, their shame, their sins. That is why Jesus says to Peter, “If you do not let me do this for you, you cannot be my disciple.” And Peter responds. “Then not just my feet, but my hands and my head!” Peter wants nothing of Himself left out of the Kingdom.
Pilate’s Wash Bowl
I have mentioned that there is a clothing connection running through this story. There is another connection. There is another washbowl in the story. It appears the next day in Pilate’s court. Jesus is his prisoner. Pilate wants to release him, but because he is a coward, he sentences Him to death instead. But he feels dirty, polluted, guilty, ashamed. He calls for a bowl of water. And washes his hands. He hopes to wash his hands of the entire thing. But I wonder if he succeeded?
Shakespeare tells the story of Macbeth. After he had murdered King Duncan of Scotland, there was blood on his hands. His wife says, “a little water clears us of this deed.” But the more Macbeth washes his hands the more foul he feels. He cries out:
“Will all great Neptune’s Ocean
wash this blood clean from my hands?
No! This my hand will rather the multitudinous seas … make red.”
As the play comes to an end we see Lady Macbeth sleepwalking. In her sleep she is washing her hands, over and over again. Muttering to herself and her husband that the spots will not go away.
And I suspect that Pilate’s attempts to wash his own hands failed. But if he had let Christ wash his feet, wash his hands, I think Pilate would have found a clear mind and a pure heart.
Many people in our culture are plagued by feelings of guilt over things done or not done. Plagued by a deep sense of shame over their weaknesses past and present. They have tried every which way to wash the memory away or slough the guilt off. But they suspect that the stain of their misdoings have penetrated to the very bones and marrow of their lives.
Some of us here today live with that same sense of being stained beyond all cleansing. We live with a sadness of heart over choices made, or things said and done, that come back to haunt us in the quiet moments of our days. Self-washing never works when character has been so deeply stained.
But here is the good news about Jesus. He offers us His washing of our feet and our hands and our hearts. He can wash deeper than any stain has ever gone.
In the humility of his love, he comes to everyone of us, kneels before each of us, and offers to wash our feet. Like Peter we can draw back, and say “You will never wash my feet!” Or we can catch ourselves and say “Not just my feet, but my hands and my head.”