Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. John 13:8-10
John 13:1-17, John 13:34-35
The Gospel of John spends five chapters (John 13-17) recounting the story of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. In telling the story of the last supper, John never mentions the giving of bread and wine to represent Jesus’ body and blood. It’s not that John doesn’t know or value the sacrament of communion; sacramental allusions fill John’s gospel.
While most of John 13-17 consists of dialogs, speeches and prayers, John begins his story of Jesus’ last meal by recounting a highly memorable action: the washing of the disciples’ feet. Only John tells us about this foot washing.
The primary meaning of this event is clear from Jesus’ words:
You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. John 13:12-15
Washing feet is servant’s work. Jesus is setting the example of love which humbles itself and spends itself for the sake of the other. If Jesus is not too important to wash feet, then neither are his followers. When Jesus stoops to wash dirty feet, he is demonstrating the love of God, which has descended to this world in Christ (John 3:13-16). When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, he showed them how to be gracious; he showed the disciples how to love each other as Jesus loved them (John 13:34).
In the washing of feet, however, Jesus showed the disciples more than how to be gracious to others in simple, humble acts of kindness; he also showed them the importance of graciously receiving the acts of kindness that others offer to them. That is the meaning of the dialog between Peter and Jesus.
Peter says, “You shall never wash my feet.” When Jesus insists, Peter want to turn it into a symbolic religious ritual: “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” But Jesus wasn’t washing Peter’s feet just for show; he was washing feet because they were dirty and needed to be washed. Peter was willing to receive a symbolic washing; it made him uncomfortable to receive a real washing.
The ability to receive gracious acts offered on one’s behalf calls for as much humility as the ability to offer gracious acts to another. Receiving such a gift – and it is a gift when it freely given and not the work of a slave or hired servant – exposes our need and our vulnerability. It puts us in debt to another, and our pride would prefer to be on the other end of that exchange.
The ability to receive grace is every bit as important as the ability to give it. Jesus told Peter, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Jesus is about to do something more significant than washing feet. If Peter cannot in his heart allow Jesus to wash the grime from between his toes, how can he receive the greater gift of salvation that Jesus will bestow on the cross. The gift of salvation exposes our ugliness in ways that far surpass funguses, calluses, bunions, toe-jam and jagged, discolored toenails.
A New Commandment
Thursday of Holy Week – when Jesus ate his last supper with the disciples – is often called Maundy Thursday. “Maundy” is derived from the Latin mandatum, the first word in the Vulgate text of John 13:34: Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos – a new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you.
In his washing of the disciples’ feet, Jesus demonstrated both sides of that equation. He showed the disciples how to love others, but he also showed them the depth of his own love for them. One cannot fulfill the mandatum novum without loving one’s brother or sister in the church, but neither can one fulfill it without fully opening oneself to the grace of God in one’s own life.