A Provocation: Maundy Thursday: April 13, 2017: John 13:1-17, 31b-35

John 13:1-17, 31b-35
13:1 Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

13:2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper

13:3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God,

13:4 got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.

13:5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.

13:6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

13:7 Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

13:8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

13:9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”

13:10 Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.”

13:11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

13:12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?

13:13 You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am.

13:14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.

13:15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.

13:16 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.

13:17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

13:31b When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.

13:32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.

13:33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’

13:34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

13:35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Jesus take off his outer garment in this scene?
  • Really?
  • Why does he wash their feet?
  • Really?

Some Longer Reflections:

It’s a small thing, perhaps, but it might matter.  If you imagine the Last Supper with Leonardo DaVinci, with the whole group sitting around the supper table, you will imagine Jesus lowering himself, bending low before each of the disciples.  The scene, with its language about masters and servants helps you imagine this.

But here’s the thing: no one is sitting on a chair.

In the ancient world people reclined to eat, perhaps on a low platform, perhaps on the floor.  Under their left arm was a cushion.  Before them was a low table from which they ate with their right hand and only their right hand.  The translators obscured this eating arrangement when they had Jesus “[return] to the table.”  The Greek just says that he “lay back down.”  The Greek does not mention a table.

This might not matter.

But it might.

You might want to experiment with the physical arrangement of the scene before you interpret it.

For one thing, if Jesus is kneeling and the disciples are reclining on the floor, his head might well be higher than theirs.  The posture is rather uncomfortable, but his head would have been higher.

If they are reclining on a low platform, Jesus’ posture is not so awkward.  But even then, their heads are mostly on the same level.  That means that the radical sense of subordination and humility that people report when they wash people’s feet as part of a Maundy Thursday service is at least to be modified when reading this scene.

For another thing, if the disciples were sitting on dining room chairs, Jesus would have to get each of them to pull out from the table so he could reach their feet to wash them.  (Either that, or he would have to creep about under the table.  Not a pretty picture.)  But if they are reclining around a table, each person around the table will be at an oblique angle to the table.  Their hands would be much closer to the table than their feet would be, and Jesus would be approaching each of them from the rear.

Experiment also with this physical arrangement.

Maybe that is why Peter seems so surprised that Jesus is washing his feet.

Maybe he didn’t see him coming.

That’s probably not too likely.  In John’s story Jesus is pretty visible when he is in the scene, and he has been bustling around getting a basin and water.  But maybe Peter was preoccupied with eating, or talking, or something.  That would be a little Peter-like, even in John.  It would also explain why Peter speaks in the present tense (at least in the original Greek): “Lord,” he says, taken by surprised, “Are you washing my feet?”  The translators have moved the question into the future tense, which implies that Peter sees him coming and heads him off before he starts: “Are you going to wash my feet?”  That way of reading the scene could work, and it makes for some useful sermons.  But the Greek could imply that Jesus, having approached Peter (from the back?), has already begun to wash his feet.

Whatever you decide about Peter’s surprise, you are stuck with the present tense: “Are you washing my feet?”

There is another surprise in this scene, one that you will discover if you actually wash another person’s feet.

Ask someone who loves you, someone whom you love, ask them if you might wash their feet.  Adopt the postures that go with ancient dining: reclining and kneeling.  Wash their feet slowly.  Dry them.  Pay careful attention to your mutual reactions.  You are likely to discover what I have discovered: there are MANY nerve endings in hands and feet; even with heavy callouses you will be struck by the intensity of the feeling.  That may be why those of us who are ticklish are often ticklish precisely on the soles of our feet.

But you will discover, I think, more than who is, and is not, ticklish.

Washing feet is intensely intimate.  That is why I would encourage you to eplore this physical scene with someone whom you love.

That might be part of why Peter was so surprised.

That might be why this scene culminates in a discussion of love, not submission.

Yes, Jesus does indeed talk about servants and masters, but when the scene comes fully ripe he does NOT say: “By this they will know that you are my disciples, because you submit to each other.”  I have heard Christians imply something very like that, though they usually do not imagine reciprocal submission.  Usually when submission is under discussion, someone with a position of power (historically usually male) is telling someone (historically often a woman) to submit to authority.

But this scene comes to fullness with a discussion of mutuality and love.  Disciples will be recognized by the way they love each other.  On Maundy Thursday, that love starts, not with submission but with intimacy.

That is a good thing.  If intimacy started with submission it would scare me. Intimacy that requires submission is abusive and dangerous.

In this scene, touch and tenderness are mutual.  Love is reciprocal.

In this scene, intimacy leads to life.  This is an important truth in Holy Week and always.

 

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