As Jesus and his disciples gathered in the upper room, the Passover celebration at hand, his mood was heavy, his thoughts preoccupied. Knowing that the time had come for him to live out his most climactic act of love, he meditated on this moment with great thoughtfulness.
The table, laden with food, was low to the ground with thin cushions surrounding it. Each of the twelve took their spots, Jesus in the place of honor, at the head. John, a tender comfort to Jesus during this time, sat close, sensing his teacher’s sadness.
The men carried on conversations with one another, subconsciously aware of the heaviness of this unnamed grief, the premonition that they were attending a farewell party and something was about to happen of which they had no control.
Their upper bodies leaned forward toward the table, their left hand supporting their weight. They ate with their clean hand as they engaged in banter, their legs and sandaled feet extending behind them. Quietly, Jesus slipped back from the table. The eyes of his disciples glanced toward him, observing his quiet movement.
He began to disrobe, taking off his outer garments and setting them aside. A large towel lay by the table, one that a servant had left behind. He picked it up and wrapped it around his stripped body, mimicking the look of a lowly servant.
Jesus found a large bowl and poured water into it from a jug. Then he carried the bowl over to the table, stooping low to the ground behind each disciple. Taking on the job of a menial houseboy, one by one, he began to wash each of his disciple’s feet.
The men felt awkward and uncomfortable. It occurred to some that they had failed to think about this simple act of hospitality—washing feet. Whose responsibility should it have been? Certainly none of theirs. Where was that servant who had prepared the food and thoughtlessly overlooked this courtesy? Their faces reddened with shame and embarrassment, as they submitted to Jesus’ act of humiliating himself.
They were silent, all except Peter. He never could use self-restraint when it came to questioning what Jesus was doing. With indignation, Peter protested, saying to him, “Are you really going to wash my feet?” Jesus insisted, responding to Peter, “Unless I wash your feet, you won’t be able to share with me in this fellowship of servant hood.”
Stunned and humbled, Peter consented, begging to be washed from head to toe.
Clothed in Humility
When Jesus shared in this meal with his disciples, he wanted it to be memorable—a teachable moment. His act of washing their feet was a foreshadowing of what was to come. Jesus, knowing that his earthly ministry was almost over, faced his final act of humiliation. He would submit himself to death on a Roman cross.
He chose to teach his disciples through this pericope—this smaller story germinating in the larger story of God’s redemption—an unforgettable lesson about servant leadership.
The first thing Jesus did was take off his priestly robes, lay them aside, and put on the stole of a servant. Imagine being at a private dinner party and the guest of honor taking off their dress clothes and putting on an apron in order to bus the tables. Something about that act would seem inappropriate, out of place, and objectionable. That’s how it must have felt to the disciples, as they watched their Lord put on the garments of a slave and perform an unbecoming task.
Humble people are like that. They don’t mind taking on a lower standing than what life could afford them. Unpretentious people don’t mind doing the chores that no body wants to do. Their joy isn’t in being lifted up, but in lowering themselves in order to serve others.
The Posture of the Humble
Jesus knelt, as he made his way around the table behind each of his disciples, washing and wiping their feet. His posture reflected the essence of humility, the idea of leveling oneself to the stature of those with whom you are relating.
In this society, only the lowliest of servants would engage in such an undignified job. Even peers would not offer that act of service to one another. The disciples could hardly imagine washing one another’s feet, let alone allowing Jesus, their teacher, to wash theirs.
After Jesus was finished, he asked them if they understood why he did what he did. He brought up the fact that they referred to him as “Teacher and Lord” and, he affirmed, rightfully so. Jesus explained that his act of washing their feet took nothing away from his authority and personhood as their teacher and Lord. Instead, he served out of the fullness of his personhood, and now admonished them to do the same.
Humble people don’t cling to their titles as proof of their value or worth. They don’t have to include their credentials with their signature, or mention them in order to remind others of their importance. People who possess true meekness throw off those designations while freely and willingly stooping to love, serve, and honor others. And, in so doing, they lose nothing of their own self worth.
Humble to the Nth Degree
It was a common courtesy in Middle Eastern culture for servants to provide jugs of water and basins for foot washing. The roads in Palestine were dusty and coated their sandaled feet. Though people would wash their bodies early in the day, their feet became dirty from walking wherever they needed to go.
However, not all servants would have actually done the washing of feet, but simply provided the resources for individuals to do their own washing. Only the lowliest class of servants would have performed the act of foot washing.
Jesus astounded his disciples when he modeled humility to the nth degree by performing this debasing act. He drew no line in terms of how far he would go to serve. No act was too humiliating or beneath him.
Only the truly self-effacing volunteer to clean toilets, pick up garbage, change dirty diapers and care for the sick and dying—all those jobs that involve sights and smells that are repulsive. Humble people’s senses are insulted, just the same, but they don’t let that override their impulse to act out of the meekness in their heart.
Humility is No Respecter of Persons
Gathered around the table were Jesus’ closest male companions. He had other disciples, women and men, who traveled with him and participated in his ministry. But these were the men that he had specifically chosen to carry on when he was gone.
John was seated on one side of him; Peter close by. And somewhere in the mix was Judas. John, who told this narrative in his gospel, mentioned that the Judas had already made plans in his heart to betray Jesus.
As Jesus made his way around the table, he was cognizant of what was in Judas’ heart. In fact, after he had finished washing all their feet, including Judas’, Jesus became deeply troubled and emotional, asserting, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me!’” (John 13:21)
Can you imagine washing the feet of someone whom you knew was about to betray you and have you killed? The truly humble don’t sift through the crowd, choosing the ones they will serve and the ones they won’t. Humble people serve their enemies. Harder yet, humble people serve those who pretend to be their friends.
Today is Maundy Thursday, "maundy" meaning command and referring to the new command Jesus gave to all his disciples to love one another as he loved. May we pause today and allow Jesus to wash our feet--to wash all of us; and may we humble ourselves and wash the feet of those whom God has called us to love--including our enemies.