The Humble Servant
I am not, by nature, a “touch-feely” person. I’m not a person who hugs others very often and I probably communicate that I have my own personal space and would rather it not be violated. I’m working on that. In my early months here some people told me they heard I wasn’t a “hugger,” so they would keep a respectful distance. It is regrettable that I communicated this, and I am working on dropping my personal space boundaries.
As I spend a lot of time in hospitals and nursing homes, I have long been impressed with those who care for the patients and residents of those facilities. It is difficult, and often uncomfortable, work when you are dealing with the bodies of other people. It is one thing to hug a person you love, but when your job is to touch, clean, and care for the body of a stranger, that is not an easy calling. Imagine, then, removing the shoes of another person, taking their feet into your hands, and washing those feet. Hard to imagine, isn’t it?
As we continue our series The Way of the Cross, this week we come to a scene that takes place during the Last Supper. Jesus and his disciples have retired to the Upper Room where they share the Passover meal together. While there, Jesus does something that is unexpected and shocking to his disciples. John relates the events in chapter 13 of his gospel –
1 It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus.
3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God;
4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.
5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
8 “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
9 “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
I want to begin with a phrase John mentions at the beginning of this passage – Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. Isn’t that a beautiful statement? He loved them to the end. In a world where love can be so shallow and so temporary, the love of Jesus had, and has, no end. This is such a challenge to us, that our love would not be so easily broken or abandoned.
In fact, it seems that the more people did to hurt or disappoint Jesus, the more he loved them. Jesus was about suffer the betrayal of one of his own, he was about to be denied by another, he was about to be deserted by the rest, he was about to be paraded through a charade called a trial, he was about to be humiliated, beaten, and crucified, and what did he do? He loved all those people. The more he was hated, the more he was abused, the more he was rejected, the more he loved.
The next statement is followed by this one about Judas – The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. What a comparison – on the one hand you have Jesus and his faithful love that continues to his final breath, and Judas, who forgoes his faithfulness to Jesus and plans on betraying him.
Luke, in his recording of the events of the Last Supper, tells us that the disciples had been arguing about which of them was the greatest, so there is one more comparison between Jesus and his disciples. He would, then, not only love them to the end, but try to get them to understand the core of his ministry and mission in those final hours. He loved to the end, and taught to the end.
So, he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
I don’t know about you, but the idea of washing anyone’s feet is somewhat repulsive to me. Is it to you? I’m right there with Peter, who was initially repulsed by the idea that Jesus would wash his feet and he wanted nothing to do with it, saying, Lord, are you going to wash my feet? No, you shall never wash my feet. I imagine that Peter said this with quite a bit of emotion. Never! Never! Peter is adamant about this.
This was an act the disciples would find shocking. Washing the feet of another person was reserved for a servant, but even the servant would not be required to do the actual washing, only being required to provide towels, water, and whatever else was needed.
For Peter, and the other disciples, the action was inconceivable – how could Jesus lower himself to an act that was reserved for a lowly servant?
For Jesus, the act of washing the feet of his disciples was done to offer them a lesson in humility, as they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest – also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest (Luke 22:24). For Jesus, such an argument among his disciples must have been quite a disappointment. Here it was, just hours before his arrest and crucifixion, and Jesus wanted to use that precious time to give some of his most important teachings to these twelve men who were his closest followers. At this most critical of moments, when Jesus had so much on his heart and mind, his closest followers were arguing about which of them was the greatest – what a disappointment for Jesus! We live in a world where greatness is generally demonstrated from a position of power, wealth, or authority. His disciples had fallen victim to that view of greatness as they argued amongst themselves. For Jesus, greatness had nothing to do things such as power, wealth, or authority; instead, greatness was demonstrated by how one serves others.
What a scene it must have been, then, arguing one moment about which of them was the greatest, and then watching as Jesus poured water into a bowl and began, one by one, to wash their feet. What a contrast between the humility of Jesus and the pride of the disciples! The disciples must have grown quickly quiet, convicted by the example of Jesus. They also grew quiet because they knew that as Jesus served, so would they be called upon to serve others in humility, and that was probably a difficult realization for them.
We’ve all been there, haven’t we? We have those moments where our pride wells up within us, and we aren’t about to lower ourselves to something or someone we feel in beneath us. Even in churches, sometimes people get put out of they aren’t given some position of honor or recognition.
Humility is very, very difficult. It is difficult because we are prone to pride and arrogance. We want to raise ourselves up, not humble ourselves. We are drawn to power, not to letting go of power. But the example of Jesus is the antidote to our striving for power, and our bent toward pride and arrogance. As Paul writes in Philippians 2:5-8 – Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! Just as Jesus served others, we are called to serve others as well.
The humility of Jesus is a challenge to us when pride fills our hearts and souls and seeps into our relationships. That pride can keep us from granting forgiveness or seeking forgiveness and can keep us from dealing with some people because we feel they are beneath us. The humility of Jesus is like a spotlight that shines into our lives to reveal our pride, but here, in this passage, we see this incredible scene of the creator serving the created. Jesus performed an act – the washing of feet – that society had deemed humiliating and demeaning to those who had to perform it and transformed it into a demonstration of who he was and who he wanted his followers to be.
I think Peter resisted because of another reason. I think it was an act of incredible intimacy. Touching the body of another person means you know that person in such a way that you could possibly touch their hand or their shoulder, or perhaps give them a hug, but to bend down, unstrap their sandal, and wash their feet; that violates a lot of social norms and crosses boundaries.
Jesus knew Peter very well, but how well did Peter want to be known by Jesus? Do we really want to know one another, and do we really want others to know us intimately, with all of our shortcomings? Do you find it difficult and disappointing when you learn certain things about others? Do you ever keep people at arm’s length because you don’t really want to know them very well or you don’t want them to know you too well?
There were matters in Peter’s life, I’m sure, he would prefer Jesus not know. We hide things about ourselves from even those closest to us, don’t we? I don’t think it was any different for Peter. This was Jesus getting a little too close for comfort for Peter.
Here is a fundamental truth about faith – in spite of what we know about each other we must still love one another. In spite of our disappointments about others, we must still love one another. Jesus loved his disciples to the end, in spite of what he knew about them, including the knowledge that one was about to betray him. He served them, and asked that they serve others.
But it’s not just individuals who often exhibit pride; churches have been far too prideful as well, telling people how to live, how to think, and telling others what is wrong with them. As the body of Christ – individually and collectively – we are called to live according to the manner of Jesus, which was humility.