Because I am huge on context, let me set the stage for this post. I am teaching a series of lessons on “How We Study the Bible” on Sunday mornings. Last week the lesson was on the necessity for us to determine, as far as we humanly can, the meaning of the text in its original setting. If we do not look to see what the text meant to the original audience, then the chances of us ever learning what the text should mean for us are slim and none. This coming Sunday the lesson then proceeds for us to learn, once again as much as we humanly can, the differences between that original audience and our situation today.
My “test” passage is John 13:1-15, the story of Jesus washing the disciples feet. Many questions arise from this text, and chief among them, at least for me, is “Why is this event, so critical in many respects, totally ignored by the other gospel writers?” To phrase it the other way, why is it that only John records this event? Which then opens a very interesting study . . .
One would have to be blind and deaf not to notice the radical differences between John and Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But let’s just take one slice of the larger picture and see if it does not help us with the issue of chapter 13. The slice I am referring to is that of the miracles recorded in the gospel of John. By my count there are seven – not counting, of course, the resurrection of Jesus himself. These are: the changing of the water into wine (or Welches grape juice, depending on your theological leanings), the healing of the official’s son, the healing of the paralytic, the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus walking on water, the healing of the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Of these seven, only two are recorded by the other gospel writers (unless you count the healing of the official’s son, which is a possibility).
It is interesting to note that the two that John “duplicates” are also the two that receive the least amount of his attention. It is almost as if John is saying, “Everyone already knows about these stories, they have been discussed in other gospels accounts, so I am going to mention them but not spend a lot of time on them.” In contrast, the healing of the paralytic in chapter 5 and the healing of the blind man in chapter 9 receive careful and in-depth treatment.
John is communicating messages, even simply in the amount of space he allots to the stories he wants to highlight.
So, back to my point. If we could summarize, what is the common denominator in all of these seven miracle stories? What is their point? Only one appears to stress the supernatural power of Jesus as such – the story of him walking on the water. This is one of the stories John “duplicates” from the other accounts, and receives very little attention, comparatively speaking. I would suggest, however, that when viewed alongside the other miracle accounts, John is including this event not to stress Jesus’s super-human power, but to underline one of his major themes.
Note that every miracle account in the gospel of John emphasizes Jesus’s awareness of, and removal of, a person (or persons) physical or emotional need. Stated another way, Jesus serves the ones he miraculously heals, feeds, or brings back from the dead. His miracles are examples of his service to those who are hurting. Jesus relieves the pain of the groom and his family by providing the appropriate wedding beverage. He serves the official by restoring his son. He serves the paralytic and the blind man by healing them. He serves the people by feeding them. He relieves the emotional crisis of the disciples in the boat by walking out to them, and immediately getting them to their destination. He serves Mary, Martha, and of course Lazarus, by bringing Lazarus from the grave.
Catching on to a common theme here? Good.
The account in chapter 13 is not a one-off, stray account of a weird event in the final hours of Jesus’s life. The washing of the disciples’ feet is really the culmination of Jesus’s teaching to the disciples – and the exclamation point of John’s account of Jesus’s ministry (prior to the crucifixion, of course). Jesus came to serve, to wash the feet of not only his disciples, but of everyone he came into contact with.
I have heard it said that we have to physically wash one another’s feet in order to obey Jesus’s words in John 13:14. Never mind that a person’s foot in Jesus’s day was covered in all kinds of dirt and grime from walking up and down dusty streets strewn with all kinds of unsavory material. Never mind that our feet today are probably the second most hygienically protected parts of our anatomy. Never mind that most of us shower, if not daily, then at least several times a week, and that we protect our feet with comfortable socks and sturdy shoes (ladies sandals excepted). Never mind that we totally ignore other passages where Jesus is just as emphatic with commands we blithely overlook – has anyone chopped off their right hand or gouged out their right eye recently (Matthew 5:27-30)?
So, what is it about John 13:14 that makes people want to follow the command verbatim whilst eschewing other equally clear commands? Just an opinion here, but I think it is because washing someone’s already clean and hygienic foot is just soooooooo emotional and sooooooooo spiritual. And, again just a personal opinion, we are utterly and totally misapplying the passage when we do so.
John’s point is not that the follower’s of Christ need to wash an already clean and well protected foot. John’s point – I guess I should say Jesus’s point – is that we should serve other people, even up to and including performing the most embarrassing and personally disgusting acts of kindness for other people.
How many people who would gladly wash someone’s already clean foot would also clean an invalid’s filthy bathroom? How many people who would make a big show of washing clean feet would also clean the house of the crazy cat lady whose charges have urinated and defecated over every square inch of that house? How many people who want their foot washing to be recorded for posterity would want their picture taken while they wretch over the sight and smell of a homeless person passed out in their alcohol induced vomit?
We see pictures of someone, maybe even an important someone, washing the feet of another person and we think, “how noble.” Maybe it is. Maybe the person is diabetic and has not washed their feet in weeks and maybe it is an act of true service and kindness. But my guess is that in the overwhelming majority of cases the foot is already so clean as to be sterilized and the event is staged to demonstrate how much we are like Jesus.
And because we do not stop to think about how different our world is from the world of Jesus and his original apostles we utterly, totally, and completely miss the point of the story.
The point of this post is not that we should never wash the feet of someone who desperately needs that service and who cannot do it for themselves.
But, please, unless you are going to chop of your right hand and gouge out your right eye, don’t use John 13:14 as some proof text to justify your act of “service.”
We only serve when we climb lower.