13 Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him, 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, 4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
The Gospel According to John is often divided into two chief parts, the first called The Book of Jesus’ Signs, and the second call The Book of Jesus’ Glorification. Chapter Thirteen begins the second part. Jesus knows the hour has come for him to depart. He will now return to the Father through suffering that is part of his glorification.
John begins with the supper, the last supper, but he doesn’t retread old ground, he doesn’t talk about things already recorded in the synoptics. The time of the supper doesn’t bother him. Neither will he record the Words of Institution. Rather he hits upon a rather fantastic thing that Jesus does. He strips down and begins to wash feet.
When I hear about this ritual of the Ancient Middle East, I almost want to live in that era. When a person came into a home there would be a wash basin. A man would sit on a stool, and a servant would come and take off his sandals and begin to wash his feet in the basin of water. This job was usually reserved for the low man on the totem pole, and this usually happened to be a young servant girl. As I imagine this, it wasn’t merely a removal of dust and grime from the street that would gather on sweaty feet walking in an open shoe, but also something of a foot massage that had to have been a welcome end to a journey as well as a nice relaxing routine that would set the mood right for a friendly visit.
This is the act that John the Baptist says he is unworthy of doing for the Christ shortly before he baptizes him. He, the greatest man born of a woman according to Jesus’ own words, did not feel worthy enough to do a slave girl’s act of humility on Jesus. John was basically saying he wasn’t worthy to be the slave of Christ, the servant of Jesus.
The act was one of humility, to this day in the Middle East showing one’s feet to another, even unwittingly by perhaps crossing your legs as you sit is a gesture of insult akin to flipping a person off, and it isn’t one done flippantly even among friends, as friends might salute one another with the middle finger here in the west. The feet are ugly, and they walk on the ground where they are exposed to all sorts of filth and pick up the filth of the world in streets where donkeys, horses and oxen would defecate on the way to market.
And now Jesus wraps a towel around his waist, the savior of the world, the pantokrator through whom everything was made, in whom we move and have our being. That man. That man picks up a towel, he puts aside his glory and takes the form of a servant, he wraps the towel around him, kneels before a tax collector, kneels before a terrorist who will betray him, kneels before a fisherman who will deny him, kneels before sinners of every sort, lifts their feet one by one and begins to wash them in humility. In this he shows that he has come to serve, and not to be served.