The Way Up Is Way Down—John 13:1-17

Studies in John’s Gospel—Bible study lesson 33

by Reta Halteman Finger

Orthodox icon of Christ washing the feet of the Apostles (16th century, Pskov school of iconography).
Orthodox icon of Christ washing the feet of the Apostles (16th century, Pskov school of iconography).

The curtain has closed on Act One of a two-act play. We have read the first book of a two-book volume. As we approach John 13:1-17,  it is time to refer back to the V-diagram we examined at the beginning of this series and notice that we are changing directions.  (The V-diagram is always available in the sidebar – just click on the image to open it in a new tab or window.)

Act One of John’s Gospel opened with “In the beginning was the Word” (1:1) and traced the three-year ministry of the Word-made-flesh (1:14). It is named “The Descent of the Word.”

Act Two begins at 13:1, covers only a few days, and is named “The Ascent of the Word.” Now before the festival of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.

Jerome Neyrey’s commentary notes that just as John 1:1-18 is the prologue to the first half of this Gospel, John 13:1-3 provides the prologue to the second half. Besides the descending-ascending symmetry, both texts include the intended audience: “He came to what was his own” (1:11a) and “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (13:1c). Yet not all is well. John 1:11b continues: “but his own people did not accept him.” John 13:2 parallels that with “the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot to betray him.”

Finally, we can compare the other titles of these two books. The first half, the Book of Signs, demonstrates Jesus’s creative power. The second half, the Book of Glory, reveals his eschatological power over death, though ironically through the bitter shame of execution. As the rest of this lesson of 13:1-17 foreshadows, “the way up is way down.”

It’s a dirty business

The setting is the Last Supper, an event which in the Synoptic Gospels institutes the “Lord’s Supper,” a ritual of inclusion that Christian groups have practiced ever since. John omits the meal details, since Jesus has already invited “his own” to eat his flesh and drink his blood in 6:52-59. Instead, the author includes another necessary ritual which would have been practiced before any household supper in Palestine—washing dirty feet.

This practice was no symbolic act, such as the yearly event in which the Roman Catholic pope publicly washes and kisses the feet of a few people who presumably have scrubbed their own feet ahead of time. In the context of John’s Gospel, you may have bathed at home, but walking to someone’s house for an evening meal in Palestine was dirty business. No roads were paved. They were dusty in dry weather and muddy in the rainy season. Donkeys, goats, and sheep traveled the same roads. Dogs scavenged for bits of food. People threw the contents of their chamber pots onto the street. Human and animal waste lay everywhere you walked, and was splashed on your sandals, feet, and legs by the donkey carts that passed by.

If guests were invited into a home with servants, a low-level servant or slave would wash everyone’s feet before the meal. In a poor home, it was the job of the wife or daughter. But this meal in John 13 is very unusual because there is no evidence of servants or of women who might have been expected to wash the feet of this company of men. Did they actually recline at table with dirty feet because no one wished to dishonor himself by stooping to do slave’s and women’s work? So it would appear!

A surprising social reversal

Actually, there’s a lot going on under the surface of this special Passover meal, but only Jesus and Judas are aware of it. Judas is part of a devilish plot that Jesus strongly suspects, and he realizes this will be his last meal with “his own.” It is “during supper” (v. 2) that he gets up and takes off his outer robe to strip down to the knee-length tunic that characterizes a slave. He ties a towel around his waist, pours water into a washbasin, and starts washing the other men’s feet (13:2-5). This is his last chance to demonstrate the kind of humble caring that members of the family of God need to have for each other.

I would imagine the other disciples were equally shocked and surprised, but Peter exemplifies the loudmouth who objects because he doesn’t get what’s happening. Only six days earlier, Peter saw a woman disciple anointing Jesus’s own feet with expensive perfume to exalt him. Why does he now stoop to wash our dirty feet?

In the final paragraph (13:12-17), Jesus explains his actions as setting an example for all who would be part of his family. “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (v 14). In other words, if you want to stick with me, the most menial task is not beneath you. To be “clean” (v 10) is to both give and receive service—including scut work—in the family of God.

Questions for reflection and discussion:

1. Are you part of a church group that practices footwashing? If so, what has it meant to you? If you are part of a church that does not literally obey John 13:15, why doesn’t it?

2. In what way does Jesus’s act of washing feet challenge gender roles?

3. Do you agree that “the way up [to God] is way down?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.