John 13 – On Knowing Where Your Towel Is

John 13 Bible with Green and Blacks 85 percent Cacao Dark Chocolate

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Today’s PassageJohn 13

In John 13, we get into Jesus’ last Passover, and as you might expect, there’s a cloud hanging over it. Last things have a tendency to be sad. (And of course a song comes to mind; here I’m thinking of “The Last Unicorn.”) But in spite of the path before him, Jesus doesn’t focus on his own suffering, present or future. Instead, he begins the Passover by washing his disciples’ feet.

This scene featured prominently in my high school youth group experiences. We emphasized servanthood, and at times we practiced actual foot-washing, including on a mission trip to downtown Cincinnati, where we washed people’s feet in Washington Park. In the ancient world, where most people traveled on foot and absolutely no one traveled by automobile, washing dirty feet was an unpleasant necessity, performed only by servants or one’s inferiors. With the modern world’s manifold conveniences, our feet don’t get nearly so dirty. So on the various occasions when youth group members washed each other’s feet, the gesture was more symbolic and ceremonial. But on that downtown Cincinnati mission trip, we met several people for whom the foot-washing had practical value. One man, whose soles and toenails were much worse for wear, greatly appreciated the service and the warm soapy water.

I also heard numerous sermons on the foot-washing passage. They consistently underscored that it was servant’s work, and for a Rabbi to wash his disciple’s feet was all but unthinkable. Peter even protests, “Never shall You wash my feet!” (8), and I get the impression that he’s moments from insisting that Jesus has it backwards, and Peter should be the one with the water and towel. And when Jesus tells the disciples, “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (14), you can picture them looking around at each other in astonishment. Such an act, in their culture, would be to concede one’s own inferiority to whoever one was serving. Forget humbling; it would be humiliating.

But Jesus models the posture and practice for them, washing each of their feet. And when I read John’s side remark “For He knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason He said, ‘Not all of you are clean’” (11), it struck me for the first time that even Judas got his feet washed. John’s gospel turns the camera hard on Judas’ hunger for money. The previous chapter brought to light that he would’ve preferred for Mary of Bethany to sell her ointment instead of anointing Jesus’ feet with it. He offered up the pretext of giving the proceeds to the poor–a value of three hundred denarii, nearly a year’s salary–but John also reveals that Judas regularly skimmed the purse to line his own pockets.

So Jesus even washed the feet of Judas, who sold the savior out for a hot buck. It’s one thing to serve and receive no thanks for it. It’s another thing altogether to serve and get a knife in the back in return. Would you willingly give yourself to a traitor for whom all you gave wasn’t enough, who’d sell you to your enemies just to milk you for another thirty silver shekels?

Jesus Christ would. And when he takes the towel to the feet of his betrayer, he’s saying: do your worst. There is absolutely nothing you can do to stop me from loving you.

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