“He had always loved those who were his own in the world, but now he showed how perfect his love was.” (John 13:1) What Jesus did this night was about love: his love for his ‘own in the world’ — his disciples … us. Foot washing in Jesus’ day was a task for only the lowliest of menial servants. So despised was this task that Jews of Jesus’ day even felt that it was not okay for a Jewish servant to wash the feet of a fellow Jew, but that this should be left to Gentile servants. In the stratified society of those days, a superior would never have performed any service for a person of lower rank, let alone wash their feet, and peers certainly wouldn’t have ever even dreamed of washing each other’s feet. For Jesus to do this was shocking in the extreme, totally inappropriate, a complete break with propriety.
A well-known Jewish tale is told of Rabbi Ishmael’s mother, a pious woman who worshipped her son. One day she astonished the Sages/the Elders when she appeared before them to complain about her son: “Rebuke my son, Ishmael, for he does not show me honour.” The faces of the Sages turned pale, and they asked her, “Is it possible that Rabbi Ishmael should not show honour to his mother? What has he done to you?” She replied, “Every time that my son comes home from the academy I want to wash his feet and to drink the water, but he will not allow me to do so.” The scholars then said to Rabbi Ishmael: “If this is her desire, you must honour it.”
This was Jesus’ point: it was only as a mark of great and self-abasing love that one might permit a superior/someone we should honour to humbly wash our feet. This we see portrayed in the story of the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears. Simon the Pharisee, in whose house Jesus had been invited to a meal, is scandalised that Jesus would even let her touch him. But Jesus says to him, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven — for she has loved much.” (Luke 7:44-47) In what she did Jesus recognised her great love and accepted it for what it was. In what Jesus did this night he wanted to show the ‘depth of his love.’ When Peter would refuse to let him do it, Jesus presses him: “If I do not wash you, you can have no part with me.” (John 13:8) It is interesting to note that, when he appears to Peter after the Resurrection, Jesus again presses Peter with the question: “Do you love me?” (John 21:15, 16, 17) Jesus had said to Peter, “At the moment you do not understand what I am doing, but later you will understand.” (John 13:7) Now he is asking: “Do you understand?” (John 13:13) And Peter can only answer, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” (John 21:15, 16, 17)
Just after tonight’s Gospel passage, in what is called the ‘Farewell Discourses,’ Jesus says to us, “I give you a new commandment: love one another; just as I have loved you, you also must love one another.” (John 13:34) “… just as I have loved you” — we are to love one another as greatly as he loved us: “I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you,” says Jesus. (John 13:15) Later Jesus will say, in a remark that links what he did this night with what he will do tomorrow: “A person can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends, if you do what I command you.” (John 15:13-14) Tomorrow he will show us truly the ‘full extent of his love’ — this is how much we are to love one another! Tomorrow, as we look on how far/how low he is willing to go for us (Philippians 2:5-7) (and against which Peter protested just as strenuously (Mark 8:32)), as we gaze on that hideous spectacle raised up for us (c.f.: Mark 15:39; Luke 23:47) (foot washing was shocking, but not half as shocking as the Messiah submitting to crucifixion’s dishonour, dying the death of the damned), in the beleaguered silence born of its shamefulness, if we listen (Rule of St Benedict Prologue:1), we will hear Jesus say to us, as he did this night, “Do you understand what I have done to you?” (C.f.: John 13:7) And again, he will be asking us about our love: “Do you love me? Keep my commandment. … I tell you most solemnly, whoever believes in me will perform the same works as I do myself, indeed, he will perform even greater works.” (John 21:15; 13:23; 14:12)
Tonight’s example puts before us humble and loving service as the way to do as he has done: “Such service,” says St Benedict, “fosters love.” (Rule of St Benedict 35:2) Of it Benedict says, “They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other, supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else.” (Rule of St Benedict 72:4-7) What a way to show how perfect our love is! (Mark 13:1) For it is a way to go from one work of love to an even greater work. It is a way to ‘take up our cross and follow’ Christ our Saviour, who has shown us on his cross how to love mightily. (Mark 8:34. C.f.: John 3:16) It is a way to show our God and neighbour such ‘unfeigned and humble love.’ (C.f.: John 13:1; Rule of St Benedict 72:8-10; 4:1-2; Luke 7:47) And when at last we come to the end of our way and hear our Lord ask us, “Do you understand?” we shall easily and quite naturally be able to respond, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” (C.f.: Rule of St Benedict 7:67-69; Matthew 25:34-36) Tonight’s Gospel is really the beginning of a love story in which we learn how to dance a love-dance with our Lord and God.