Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Form of a Servant

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him (John 13: 3-5).

Why would Jesus get up in the middle of supper and begin to wash everyone’s feet? This seems curious to me, especially considering the Jewish obsession with both ceremonial and actual cleanliness. We are taught in Sunday school that Jesus is giving his disciples an object lesson in service to one another here. While a superficial reading of the passage may seem to support that analysis of the foot washing event, I’m not sure that such an interpretation remains true to Jesus’ personality. Did he actually get up in the middle of supper and wash his disciples’ dirty feet, or was the foot washing staged to teach a moral lesson?

Jewish writings discuss two types of washing at meals. Washing before a meal is known as “first waters”. Washing after a meal is known as “last waters”. These terms refer to the washing of hands; Washing before meals is still rigorously practiced in Orthodox Judaism today (Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Berakoth, 2011). Foot washing was a custom of both hospitality and necessity, designed to comfort the weary traveler whose feet were soiled and fatigued from walking on dusty roads in sandals. It was not commanded by the law. In the Bible we see it used to honor and comfort guests.[1]

Jesus has demonstrated that, though he came to fulfill God’s law[2], he did not have any regard for the “rules of men”.[3] Therefore it would not be surprising or out of character to see Jesus, after his disciples had prepared the meal, after having washed according to the customs of the day, “rise from supper” and perform an act which would make him unclean according to tradition. However, in the Jewish culture, the washing of the hands (a ceremonial act) and of the feet (a custom of politeness) always took place prior to the meal, never during its progress (Lenski, 1959). Lenski extrapolates:

After a brief delay the company proceeded to recline upon the couches in the fashion common at that time for dining. No one had said or done anything about the feet. The words in v. 4 ‘he rises from the supper,’ read as though Jesus waited until the last moment when Peter and John, who had been ordered to make all things ready and had done so earlier in the day,[4] set the food on the tables…As far as Peter and John are concerned, they probably thought that they had done enough…Perhaps some expected that Jesus would designate one of their number to play the part of the servant. None of them volunteered (Lenski, 1959).

It is unlikely that Jesus staged a mid-supper foot washing just to teach the disciples that they should serve their fellow man. If we assume that the group had already washed their feet upon entering the room, prior to the dinner, Jesus’ act of foot washing ceases to be meaningful. On the contrary, Jesus himself says that what he is doing is not merely an object lesson, but an example that the disciples should emulate.[5] Further, Jesus’ act of washing his disciple’s feet, far from being symbolic of his humility, actually demonstrates it. Jesus washed real dirty feet that actually needed washing. Jesus laid aside his outer garments.[6] He performed the real work of a slave or servant – something none of the others in the room were willing to do. He did not take on the role of just any slave, but the lowliest of all slaves in the 1st century Jewish household, the one who did the menial work of washing the feet of others, and he did it out of genuine love for those who were his. St. Paul eloquently describes what Jesus did in his letter to the Philippians:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2: 5-11).

Jesus was completely a servant to those around him. He did not simply tell his disciples this, and that they should do likewise. He emptied himself of his glory, took on the form of a slave, and performed a slave’s lowly work – both in the upper room by washing dirty feet, and on Calvary. Jesus demonstrated the self-sacrifice and love that he would show the world the next day on the cross (Engelbrecht, 2009). What Jesus actually did in the upper room is more meaningful than any contrived theatrical object lesson could ever be.

Works Cited

Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Berakoth . (2011, 03 01). Retrieved 03 01, 2011, from Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Berakoth :

Engelbrecht, E. A. (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible - English Standard Version. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Lenski, R. C. (1959). the Interpretation of St. John's Gospel. Columbus: The Wartburg Press.

End Notes

[1] Genesis 18:4; 19:2; 24:32; 43:24

[2] Matthew 5:17

[3] Matthew 15:9

[4] Mark 14: 15-16; Luke 22: 8-13

[5] John 13:15

[6] John 13:4; Phil. 2: 5-8