A lot happens at the Last Supper, especially if one puts together the various Gospel accounts, which emphasize different aspects. Luke, for example, focuses on the Passover meal in keeping with a theme of banquets and eating together that carries through the whole of his Gospel. John focuses on the foot washing and Jesus’ promise that he will not be separated from them forever. Along with love, there is also betrayal. Judas leaves partway through the meal after Jesus identifies his betrayer as the one who will dip bread in the same dish as he does—one who amongst the many gathered there must have reclined very near to Jesus, suggesting some sort of closeness of friendship between them before the betrayal. Luke’s account mentions an argument that breaks out during the meal, over who would be the greatest among them. As I read it over again, I was especially struck that such an argument would take place on the same night that Jesus performed the foot washing. But then I looked back at the details of John’s account, and indeed it says that Jesus arose from the supper in order to perform the foot washing. They were already partway through the meal when it took place. Perhaps, then, if we put together the two accounts, Jesus’ act of washing Peter’s feet is a response to all the arguing.
Many, many arguments are ultimately rooted in a kind of pride: in this case, it seems to be a desire for honor, but we can easily extend the same idea of pride to think about all the ways that we defend ourselves against acknowledging our own limits: wanting others to think that we are right and they are wrong after a conflict, when the truth is probably that it is a mix of everyone’s weaknesses, or wanting to save face rather than to acknowledge ourselves as sinners and as broken people. Imagine, though, abandoning the back and forth of who is right or wrong in an argument, and instead performing an act of love that says, I care for you and do not care about my own esteem in this situation. This is what Jesus models for us.
Jesus, then, gets up in the middle of the meal and goes to wash his friends’ feet. Peter protests. This is the act of a servant. He’d rather wash Jesus’ feet. It is always easier to give love than to receive it. We tend to think the opposite, but I can think back to services now more than a decade ago at my former church, where all the members of the congregation took turns both washing one another’s feet and being the one to wash. It is far more vulnerable to let one’s own feet be washed. Our feet have a whole history to them: histories of injury or trauma, signs of aging, rough and smooth spots. This history is visible. Sometimes they smell. It is always more vulnerable to receive love, to truly receive it into all of our rough and injured places, than to give it, because in giving it we also feel our own strength. In letting others love us, we feel our own neediness and weakness. Indeed, Jesus himself had just experienced this when his own feet were anointed by Mary of Bethany, in a passionate and public display of her love for Jesus. Jesus did not turn away that kind of love, but received it. He let it in.
Jesus, then, responds to his friends’ desires to outdo one another in esteem and says, Love one another. Loving one another means washing another’s feet, as a servant. Jesus’ act of love also means allowing another to wash my own feet, and letting myself be vulnerable to those who, like Jesus, know me well enough to see all my weak spots. Love one another is mutual.
One way I like to pray with this passage every year is to imagine being at table with Jesus and allowing him to wash my feet, and to see whose feet Jesus invites me to wash. We can also think about who has been Jesus for us, washed our own feet for us even in our weakness and sin. As we then celebrate the Eucharist and share in the Lord’s supper, we are reminded how much our bodies are like his own, but ones that the Lord also will transform, from suffering into new life and resurrection.