We are studying John 13:1-35 for Sunday, November 1 – focusing on Jesus’s act of washing the disciples’ feet, and on his articulation of “the new commandment … to love one another.” Our curriculum emphasizes the theme of “loving by serving” embedded in the text. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are some notes on this text:
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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’re continuing our quarter-long study of love by moving into the gospel of John. We know John’s gospel is different from the synoptic gospels, and in particular tells the story of Jesus’s last days differently from the synoptics. [Some more words on John’s special features on this blog are here and here.] Our text for this week is one big part of that difference; only John tells this story.

The setting for John 13-17 is Jesus’s last supper with [I think we assume] the Twelve. This section includes the events of the evening, and a long, long speech by Jesus, as well as a long, long prayer for the disciples.

[When I was in fourth grade, I had to memorize all of chapter 17 as part of the memory work program at our church. In KJV. I admit, it hasn’t stuck with me as much as the experience of trying to memorize it. Whenever I run across John 17, I instantly get a mental picture of the dusty, tree-shaded vacant lot / overflow parking lot of the Lake Avenue Congregational Church on a Sunday morning, and me getting dust on my Sunday shoes, holding my mom’s Bible with the red ribbon, going over that memory work one more time. Even now.]

Then, starting in chapter 18, comes Jesus’s arrest in Gethsemane, and John’s passion narrative, and then John’s account of the resurrection appearances to Mary Magdalene, and then to the disciples – without and with Thomas – and the disciples again on the beach.

It seems important that not long before in this story – just before Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem – there has been another episode of foot washing in this gospel. Mary, sister to Martha and Lazarus, washes Jesus’s feet at a meal in Bethany (John 12:1-8). There, foot washing is explicitly connected with death, and implicitly with love – as well as with the difference between personal relationship and impersonal charity. Personal relationship is associated with Mary; impersonal charity with Judas. There’s something to think about.

The practice of foot washing has meanings for us, after a couple of millennia of Christianity, that it presumably did not have in Jesus’s own time.

My dad was a Mennonite, and grew up in a church that treated foot washing as the Mennonite equivalent of a sacrament. He used to talk about that – it meant something to my dad – so again, whenever this topic comes up I think of my dad and of the importance of being Mennonite. Even now. [And even though, evidently, foot washing is no longer universal Mennonite practice.] If we’ve grown up in or around churches, we will have learned long ago that the Bible times people wore sandals and got their feet covered with dust (like the dust in that vacant lot) and needed to wash them regularly, and that washing guests’ feet was part of basic hospitality, and that it was slaves’ work. We have been told all that many times. According to the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, it was also wives’ work, vis-à-vis husbands. This might reinforce the notion that foot washing has something to do with love, and service born of love.

For Catholics, too, foot washing is a practice with enormous liturgical significance. Every year, the Pope washes people’s feet on Maundy Thursday as part of the Maundy Thursday liturgy, and the practice is part of the rite for the day in all the churches. In 2016 Pope Francis issued a decree announcing that those whose feet are to be washed are to be chosen “from among the people of God” – a big deal, because that language meant that women, in addition to men, could be among those chosen.

Foot washing in Christian tradition generally means, symbolizes, being like Jesus; it means obeying Jesus’s commandments. This is the text that establishes that. Christians have been thinking and talking and practicing this, literally and ritually, for a long time. We already know, or think we know, what this text is supposed to mean. We’ll want to keep that in mind.

This text is the lectionary reading for Maundy Thursday, every year.
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CLOSER READING: We might think of the text as divided into a preamble and description of Jesus’s action (verses 1-5), Jesus’s exchange with Peter (verses 6-10), and Jesus’s discourse after the event (verses 12-17). Our reading for the week adds verses 34-35, Jesus’s new commandment. Verse 11 is some explanation by the narrator.

There is a lot of knowing and a lot of loving going on in the text.

Jesus knows that “his hour had come” and knows that the Father has given him all things and that he came from God and is going to God, and by implication also knows that Judas is about to betray him – this is confirmed in verse 11 – and this knowledge is given as Jesus’s reason for his actions. Knowledge, that is, along with love – since Jesus has loved “his own who were in the world,” which he is leaving, and loves them “to the end.”

(Bill Mounce has a discussion of the translation issues involved in expressing this in English. All that knowledge is the condition for Jesus’s act. He goes on to conclude from this that we fail to serve others out of [misplaced] pride. I wonder whether it might make even more sense to conclude from this that we fail to serve others out of fear – the fear that we don’t have enough, or aren’t good enough, such that serving others feels like a threat to our security. Jesus was entirely secure, and knew it. Unless, perhaps, pride is the disguise fear wears in public.)
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After that preamble, Jesus is the subject of eight verbs in two sentences. His arising and laying aside his garments almost sounds like a foreshadowing of what Peter and the disciple Jesus loved will see in the empty tomb. Washing the disciples feet is active.

So far the text has been all about Jesus. Now there are a few verses of conversation between Jesus and Simon Peter – which again begin with a reference to knowing, both the matter of fact eidō kind and the personal or inner knowledge, the ginōskō kind. Peter doesn’t know [eidō] what’s going on now, but afterwards he will know [ginōskō].

Peter’s initial refusal, translated “never” in the NRSV, is literally “to/into the age,” presumably an idiom that meant something like we might mean by “not in this lifetime!” The “age” might have been short for “the messianic age.” If so, this could be one of the double meanings John is so fond of. It would make foot washing appear for a moment as an act that initiates the disciples into the messianic age.

Our lesson book interprets Peter’s resistance as an expression of pride, arrogance, reading it as Peter’s belief that he deserved special attention. (“My head and my hands, too!”). Again, I wonder. Does that really make more sense than reading it as shame? The sense that he’s unworthy to have Jesus wash his dirty feet? I wonder whether we jump to pride too automatically, before considering our other options.

On the other hand, maybe pride is the disguise shame wears in public.

The bathing Jesus mentions in verse 10 could be a coded reference to baptism.

If so, verse 11 could be particularly disturbing, since Judas had presumably bathed, too.
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Jesus’s discourse starting in verse 12 opens with more knowing: Jesus’s question “Do you know [ginōskō] what I have done to you?” It’s a rhetorical question, which he goes on to answer. As Lord and Teacher, Jesus has given them an example or a figure – like a demonstration, or a diagram on the blackboard: here, this is what you need to do. This is “instruction” in both of our senses of the word instruction: being taught, by the Teacher, and being given directions, orders, by the Lord.

Almost all versions translate Jesus’s opening question as “Do you know what I have done to you?” Every year in church, this strikes me as jarring. I always feel that, in English, doing something to someone has a negative connotation – as in “Did you hear what she said to me? Did you see what that guy did to me?” Some preposition is in the Greek grammar, however, and there’s no good way around it. NIV translates it “for you,” which has its own, different, connotations. Evidently, we don’t normally say this kind of thing this way in English. Curious.

The new commandment in verses 34-35 brings us back to love. Once again, Jesus is the example, the instructive figure. And, like teacher, like student, if Jesus’s disciples have Jesus’s kind of love, everyone will know [ginōskō].

You won’t be able to disguise it. Everyone will know you’re one of them.
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Jesus washes Peter's feet