In a book filled with stunning events, one that surely must rank near the top of the list is found, almost in passing, in John 13, where Jesus, just hours prior to his arrest and execution, washes his disciples feet. That the maker of the universe would stoop so low is, itself, a shocker. People of rank aren’t prone to embrace the towel and basin, not even in the best of times. But on this night we’re given clues into Jesus mindset as he enters this evening, and it’s these “behind the curtain” details that put this event, in my mind at least, among the all time shockers in the Bible. What did Jesus know that makes this even so stunning?
1. He knew that “his hour had come”, which means that he knew he was about to be betrayed, arrested, tried, beaten, and executed. This, for any human (and Jesus was full blooded as the rest of us) would be devastating. Think “death row” on the night of the 16th, and you know that the 17th is your scheduled death, know that this night is your last night, this meal your last meal.
2. He knew that Judas was about to betray him, knew that Judas knew many of the right words but that in the end he would sell out his leader for 30 pieces of silver and a kiss on the cheek. It must be strange to know the human heart of another so well that you can see their darkest parts, hidden beneath a veil of piety, about to be poured out in hatred on you.
3. He knew too, that the rest of the disciples would all, to a man, flee from him. In spite of his three year investment in them, he knew he was about to die alone. They’d fall asleep. They’d argue about who’s greatest. They’d bitterly deny they knew him. They’d flee and cower in fear. “Well done Jesus… your graduates really get it”
To say that it’s a stressful night for Jesus would be the greatest understatement in the universe. I don’t know about you, but stress doesn’t put me in the mood to wash other people’s feet. My favorite response to stress is to take a nap, or go to bed at 8:30, or listen to Sigur Ros, alone in front of the fireplace. I’m in withdrawal mode.
Say, though, you’re an extrovert, the type who’d want to be surrounded with your closest friends on the night before your arrest, unjust trial, beating, and execution. I wonder, would you want these friends? Judas will sell out. Peter will melt in fear. They’ll all fall asleep in your hardest hour. They’ll all flee you when you’re arrested. You want these people at your last party?
I didn’t think so.
Jesus does though, and not so that he can give them a piece of his mind and expose them for the shallow frauds that they’ll appear to be before the sun comes up. He invites them and then, knowing all that’s about to come down, gets up from the meal, takes off his robe, wraps himself in the towel of a servant, and washes the feet of his followers. They’re arguing about who’s greatest. He’s washing they’re feet. They’re clueless regarding the events about to unfold. He’s in tune with his own impending agony.
Anyone else would have given them a lecture, or a beating, rather than a foot washing. Or they would have asked for a “little sympathy for God’s sake…” exasperated over their callous self-seeking natures. Or they would have kicked them, locked the door, and drank all the wine. Not Jesus – He serves people who he knows don’t get it.
How can he do that?
It’s too glib, too easy, to simply say, “he was God” as if that settles everything, because the fact is that he tells us to behave exactly the same way. We’re to serve one another, even when those we serve aren’t worthy of being served at all because of their blindness, stubbornness, arrogance, or whatever. Further, we’re called to serve not just when we’ve “bandwidth”, but apparently also when we don’t feel like it.
Now this is really getting to be too much. Serve people who don’t deserve it... when I’m so filled with my own pain that what I really need is a little more “me” time? Be real Jesus.
He is being real. He’s telling us to be ready to serve, both when it energizes us and when it doesn’t, both when we’ve warm feelings the recipients of our service, and when they annoy us. That’s the essence of what it means to make God visible in this world, because that’s how God made Himself visible in the world most clearly. I’m challenged by Jesus’ example of the towel and basin, chastened with the awareness that I withdraw from serving at times, both because “I’m wiped out” and because “they don’t deserve it”. I rarely use those phrases precisely. I talk about boundaries and enabling instead. Those are two legitimate principles for all of us who work with people must invoke to serve will, but which can also be used to baptize our own selfishness and pettiness at times. What Jesus is saying is true service needs to happen even when you don’t feel like it, and should be offered even to people who don’t deserve it. That’s the gospel.
There’s hope though, because in this same passage, Jesus shows us how a proper state of heart can empower us to serve like this. That, though, is for another post.
O God of the towel and basin;
Thank you for showing the centrality of serving through your astonishing last night before your execution. Grant us eyes to see that you not only did this for us, but that you’re calling us to live this with you. I confess that I fall short too often in this central principle of serving. I withdraw out of weariness. I withhold out of frustration. I need your Spirit if I’m to grow here. Guide me along this path I pray, thanking you that I can ask with confidence, precisely because you serve your people on the basis of your love rather than our worthiness. In your great name I pray….