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Working Preacher Commentary on John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

The Johannine last meal and foot washing scene conveys a decidedly different message than the Passover meal accounts in the Synoptic Gospels. Yes, the action takes place at a meal that occurs before Jesus is arrested and during the course of the night, Jesus predicts Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. However, the Synoptics keep their focus on the Lord’s Supper and its commemorative symbolism for Jesus’ sacrifice, while John’s narrative takes a more cosmic and collaborative perspective. When Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, he is not just preparing followers for his death, he is demonstrating a new way to live in a corrosive, power-hungry world.

The passage begins with language that fits well into John’s dualistic story world: “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.” John had been hinting at the coming of Jesus’ hour since chapter two and now the hour had arrived—there is a sense of apocalyptic purpose here. John has set up “the world” as an opponent to God in several places already.1 Jesus departing from the world to go to the Father may serve to highlight the contrast between the earthly and heavenly, finalizing a separation between those who will embrace him and those who will reject. This polarity is certainly exaggerative, part of John’s writing style, but it also sets up a scene that forces a choice between the way of Jesus and the way of the world.

To further solidify this dualism, the next verses contrast the activity of Satan—the evil personified and called the “ruler” of this world by John (12:31)—with the actions of Jesus. Satan may be the force behind Judas’ betrayal (13:2) but Jesus, the one from God who had been given all things by the Father (13:3), was about to show the disciples how to resist such evil. Jesus’ actions and words set an example for them, demonstrating how something expected: love, and something unexpected: humiliation, could work together to reverse the effect of evil in the world.

Humility is the word usually employed to describe Jesus’ disrobing and washing the disciples’ dirty feet and that is an appropriate signifier, but the action Jesus performs is also humiliating in a first-century Mediterranean context. Preachers love to clarify that the task of washing feet fell to lowly servants but it is more accurate to say that it was usually performed by lowly female servants. As much as it pains me as a woman commentator to say it, the fact that Jesus takes on the task of a female servant is extra humiliating, especially in the eyes of the disciples. The shock and resistance we see in Peter’s response, “You will never wash my feet!” (13:8) seems understandable when viewed through the lens of honor/shame and gender dynamics in the ancient world. When Peter suggests that Jesus wash his hands and head as well, he is trying to force Jesus out of the female servant position into the role of a male, religious leader. Don’t wash my feet, baptize me! But Jesus pushes back against his discomfort because his humiliating role reversal is central to the lesson he is teaching the disciples.

The prophetic act of washing their feet is so counter-cultural, in fact, that Jesus cannot leave it as just a demonstration. So that they fully understand what he is teaching, he gives an explanation after the washing. “Do you know what I have done to you?,” he says, “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” (13:12-14). Jesus is shocking them into a realization about the nature of true power. Lords and teachers usually sat at the head of the tables, using their power and authority to preside over meals. That is how a hierarchical, patriarchal world operates. Jesus, the Lord and Teacher from God, disrobes, kneels, and cleanses his guests like an overlooked scullery maid. This is a reversal of epic proportions, not just for their culture, but for any culture in the world.

He has to be very clear: “ For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, slaves are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them” (John 3:15-16). Jesus identifies himself as the slave and messenger of God so that they might realize that they will be his slaves and messengers in the world and follow the example or pattern (hypodeigma) of humility/humiliation.2 Such a reversal of power—one that serves in humility and performs the work of slaves rather than claiming and coveting male authority—is the antidote to the evil pattern of the world.

In the last part of this passage (John 13:31-35), Jesus provides his disciples with the force that will empower them to live out the counter-cultural example he has set. Jesus’ glorification comes because he is willing to suffer and die—it is the means by which God glorifies him. Since such an example is so difficult to follow, they will need to support each other. The new commandment Jesus gives is not the “love God, love neighbor” of the Synoptics but one that emphasizes the importance of resisting evil together, in community and through their love for one another. Everyone will know Jesus’ disciples by their love, yes, but also by their willingness to be humiliated, to value servanthood, and to work to reverse the hierarchy that evil has set up and perpetuated in the world.

See my other Working Preacher commentary pieces (on John 4, 9, and 11) here:

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