24 March 2016

John 13:1-7, 33-35

“He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’” (vv. 6-7)

Psalm: Psalm 116


Today is Maundy Thursday, when we remember the Last Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-26) that Jesus shared with his disciples. This reading focuses not on the meal itself, but on something that happened "during supper" (v. 2) - Jesus washed his disciples' feet. Sandaled feet must have got very dusty and dirty, and the act of cleaning them was one of the most menial jobs that anyone could be required to do. It would have been unpleasant, humiliating and probably rather smelly! Yet Jesus claims for himself the task, wearing the practical clothing of a servant for the act (verse 4).

Perhaps this is why Peter is so shocked. Most English translations struggle to capture the full force of his question. Greek has no strict rules about the word order in a sentence, so the order can be carefully chosen for emphasis. Peter says, 'Lord, you my feet are washing?'. Placing the two pronouns together, at the front of the clause, emphasises them very heavily. In fact, the pronoun 'you' is not technically needed at all in the Greek, as the verb itself makes it clear who is washing. So including it, especially next to the respectful 'Lord', doubles the emphasis. Peter is demanding, 'Is it foryou, myLord, to washmy feet?' In hearing Peter's shock, we begin to rediscover for ourselves how radical an act Jesus is performing here. This is a self-giving love which is shown here in sharp contrast to the actions of Judas (John 13:21-30).

Jesus speaks of his love for his disciples in verse 34, but shows it also in verse 33, with the affectionate "little children". He tells his disciples what he has before told "the Jews" (v. 33) (by which John usually means the Jewish authorities or Pharisees) - that they can't follow him where he is going. But unlike the occasions when he has said this to "the Jews" (John 7:34; 8:21), Jesus goes on to promise Peter that he will be able to follow "afterward" (John 13:36). This mirrors the promise that, although he doesn't understand now, he will understand later (verse 7).

To Ponder

  • Foot washing is something we can find uncomfortable in church today - why is this? Should we find other rituals to replace it, or is its discomfort the point? How might we show Christ's loving, humble service in culturally appropriate ways?
  • John's Gospel tells us that the meal takes place "before Passover" (v. 1). The other Gospel writers place it within the Passover festival celebrations (Matthew 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-25; Luke 22:7-23) when Jews celebrate God's liberating acts in bringing the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Either way, Passover forms the context for Holy Week and Easter. What significance is there in this timing?
  • Jesus gives "a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another" (v. 34, see also John 15:12-17). This sits alongside the "great commandments", to love God, and to love your neighbour as yourself. What is the difference between loving others as we love ourselves, and loving them as Jesus loves us?

Bible notes author

The Revd Catrin Harland

Catrin Harland is the Methodist chaplain to the University of Sheffield, where she spends her time discussing life and faith with students and staff, aided by coffee and cake. She is passionate about equipping young adults to discover and live out their calling in the Church and the world.