Jesus and his disciples were gathered to partake of food together. Whether or not it was the Passover feast being celebrated, which is debated (John 13:1), I would imagine it still had some of the qualities of a regular meal.
Perhaps they were sharing gibes and stories.
- Maybe one or two related the most recent, funniest thing said by their own child or nephew.
- Perhaps a couple of the men discussed the latest rumor about the Roman government’s true intentions.
- Or possibly the fishermen were telling tall tales of the big one that got away.
Amidst their meal, Jesus rose from his reclined position, stripped down to a loin cloth, and wrapped a towel around his waist. He, then, placed some water in a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet (see NET notes of 13:4-5).
In reading this story, it might be easy for us to miss the significance of Jesus’ action. Footwashing was an unremarkable, ordinary ritual of the times. The regular washing of feet was habitually done in one’s own home as well as when one was a guest in another’s home, and it typically occurred as the person arrived. Hence, when Jesus undressed and took on the appearance of a slave to wash feet in the middle of a meal, it would have been regarded as highly unusual, thereby drawing the attention of any first century person. Furthermore, the task was characteristically completed by a servant or by women and children, not the host and definitely not a person of status, such as a teacher . . . let alone the Son of God. This was so shocking and unprecedented for the disciples that Peter could not remain silent, causing him to insist “Jesus, you will not wash my feet!!!!” (John 13:6).
As readers, we may be tempted to roll our eyes at Peter’s outburst, but let us consider our own reaction if someone of status and power began to wash our feet:
- the CEO of our company;
- a general or an admiral;
- a justice of the highest court in the land;
- the Head(s) of State.
I dare say, our shock would leave us speechless . . . well . . . at first . . . until someone in the room would blurt out: “Sir/Ma’am, what are you doing? Let someone else do that.” After all, we have certain rules of propriety, predetermined standards in our societies of what is acceptable and not acceptable for those of a higher status. Such an action by someone of such a prominent social position would be viewed as undignified and improper. We, in turn, may feel embarrassment for them . . . and shame for ourselves.
However, after Jesus completes the task of washing his disciples’ feet, he informs them:
You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and do so correctly, for that is what I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you too ought to wash one another’s feet (vv. 13-14).
Unlike the systems of our world, Jesus does not cling to his status, and he invites his followers, from across the ages, to do the same. We in our contemporary world share characteristics with Jesus and his disciples for both of us live in systems of societies that have particular rules and roles in which status is significant. We have been submerged in these systems, since the time we took our first breath, absorbing the systems’ principles. We learn, as we develop, what it is to be valued as a human within the system: priority is placed on winning. Thus, we have been trained to compete with and nullify the other in order to rise to the more elevated positions. That is, our worth within these systems is dependent on our ability to beat the other or gain the upper hand. Whether it was the number of gold stars we received for learning the most memory verses in church or having the latest toy before any of our friends, our value as a person has been linked to our winning. As we aged, the subtle rules of winning remained from having the biggest house in the neighborhood (even if it was only by a foot or two) to the highest paying job in the company or even the most butts in the pews.
Importance is connected to power and status—that is, winning.
This emphasis on winning is overtly evident today in my country. The line in the sand is drawn between the Conservatives/Liberals, the Republicans/Democrats, and the masked/unmasked, to name a few. These groups are squared off as each side seeks to outdo the other. In this heated competition, the other side is depicted as the object of our fear . . . our enemy. Like enemies at war, we are quick to believe the worst about the other. We paint broad strokes of generalities in this battle of us vs. them. To do any less than that could weaken our stance. No longer is the other seen as a human being for that could result in our demise . . . our loss. We resist displaying any vulnerability because that, too, may be the beginning of our downfall . . . of losing.
To hide our vulnerability (our uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure), we become experts at hiding our fears and pain.
To maintain the upper hand, we use various means to keep distance from fear and pain.
- Some have used emotional methods, such as rage. Rage keeps others out of its path, building a barrier to separate others and our own self from pain.
- Some use physical means such as the purchase of guns. This is evidenced by the increase of gun sales in the U.S. at the beginning of the pandemic and is seen at the continued rise of said purchases as tensions keep mounting.
- Some use vitriolic attacks, as seen in the ongoing battlegrounds of social media. Members will hide from or go against fear and pain by posting the latest article or meme in order to skewer the opponent. I doubt our opponent hears us shouting about our position via a social media post. If we are unable to hear ourselves and our own pain, we are not capable of genuinely hearing the other. Thus, such rantings may simply be meeting our own need for protection–to safeguard ourselves from fear and pain.
So engrained are the rules of societies systems in us that many of us remain unaware of an alternative course of action to moving against or away from fear and pain. Yet, John clearly proposes in this story another way for Jesus’ followers to respond to a so-called enemy.
The so-called enemy is clear. Three times in this chapter the text uses the word “betray” (literally “to hand or deliver over”) and connects it to Judas (vv. 2, 11, 21). The darkness of Judas is portrayed in such a way that John associates the words “devil,” “Satan,” and “night” to capture the diabolical nature of Judas’ actions (vv. 2, 27, 30). Such a picturesque image makes it easy for us to label Judas as the enemy. The opponent, who must be defeated.
Yet, let us recall the events of this chapter.
Judas was present at the meal, which means that Jesus not only washed the feet of his supporters but also of his so-called enemy. Imagine Jesus kneeling in front of Judas, holding the feet of this one who clings to money (12:6), the symbols of power and status in society’s system. In this position, Jesus physically displays vulnerability before the one who will hurt him.
Such actions may seem radical for us, particularly through our lens to gain the upper hand over the opposing side. But Jesus’ unexpected behavior continues.
Jesus announces that someone will betray him. When asked who it is, Jesus says, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread after I have dipped it in the dish” (v. 26). At first glance we may think that Jesus’ action is for the sole purpose of identification of his betrayer. However, I believe it has additional objectives.
- First, it demonstrates his foreknowledge of his betrayer, revealing Jesus’ authority and power. Throughout the Fourth Gospel, John portrays Jesus as a sovereign figure who determines his own destiny.
- Second, Jesus’ gesture may also be an offer of friendship to Judas (see Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, vol. 2, pp. 918-919.) When Jesus dips a piece of bread and offers it to Judas, he is participating in an ancient ritual that extends special favor to the receiver. Through this action, Jesus is reaching out in love to Judas by offering friendship to his own betrayer. Thus, Jesus still sees the imago Dei in Judas, the one we would label “the enemy.” Jesus’ action is not one of self-protection and security. Instead, Jesus becomes increasingly vulnerable as he makes this offer to Judas, knowing that one cannot be betrayed unless one loves.
This action is unexpected. It goes against the rules of engagement in the systems of our societies. To put it simply: Jesus disobeys the rules.
The rules of the systems of our world promote winning, but Jesus embodies the rules of love. This calls for vulnerability and may be expressed through empathy, which sees the other as a human being like me.
Notice how Jesus’ love moves him toward his own pain and the other’s pain, not away or against. When Jesus knows the hour of his death, he is present to his forthcoming pain—he moves toward it. When Jesus extends friendship to his betrayer, Jesus is proceeding toward pain, not only his own but also Judas’ pain of shame, which is seen in his grasping for position and power. As Jesus moves toward the pain, Jesus respects Judas’ freedom to choose.
The rules of systems of the world may say, “Well, that did not work. Judas still betrayed Jesus!” I frequently hear something similar when I teach compassionate communication, the skills of empathy:
- This won’t work with my kids.
- This won’t work with my spouse.
- This won’t work at my job.
- This won’t work in the world.
Such a phrase, I suspect, is focused on outcome. When we use the rules of the world’s system, we desire certain outcomes in order to win.
In contrast, when we participate in Christ’s kingdom, we move towards pain while respecting the other’s freedom to choose. These are the traits of empathy. We surrender our desire for results and center on our response. We honor the other’s freedom while moving toward his/her fears and pain via empathy.
Our courage to act in such an unexpected manner is due to the fact Jesus is already present to our fears and pain, as is evidenced in this story.
Ultimately, the divine-human one’s movement toward human pain is to the point of death. Now, as his followers, we are beckoned to join him, to be present to human shame, anxiety, and fear, including our own. He invites us to break the rules of the world’s systems and do the unexpected. This means surrendering our desire to win. It means turning toward, not hiding from or going against, the pain humans carry.
And . . . we will find him there, waiting in that place of vulnerability.
This blog is a result of reading both Patrick Oden’s Hope for the Oppressor: Discovering Freedom through Transformative Community and Jenna Riemersma’s Altogether You: Experiencing Personal and Spiritual Transformation with Internal Family Systems Therapy.