Translation and commentary on John’s Gospel
It was before the festival of Passover that Jesus knew the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. He had loved his own people who were in this world and he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had now placed it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to hand him over, Jesus, who knew that the Father had given everything into his hands, and that he had come from God and was returning to God, rose from table, put off his outer clothes, took a towel and tied it round his waist. Then he pours water into a basin and starts washing the disciples’ feet and drying them with the towel which was tied around him.
He comes to Simon Peter who says to him, “You, Lord, washing my feet!”
Jesus answered him, “You won’t understand what I’m doing now, but afterwards you will understand.”
Peter says to him, “You will not wash my feet, ever!”
Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash your feet you will have no share with me.”
Simon Peter says to him, “Then not only my feet Lord, but my hands and head also!”
Jesus says to him, “The one who has bathed only needs his feet washed, then he is clean all over. And you are clean, but not all of you.” For he knew who was to hand him over; so he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
When he had washed their feet and put on his outer clothes, he reclined again at table, and said to them, “Do you understand what I’ve done to you? You call me Teacher and Master, rightly, for that is what I am. So if I your Teacher and Master have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Amen, amen I tell you, a slave is not greater than his master nor a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you understand these teachings, how happy you are if you do them!”
The writer begins his long description of Jesus meal with his disciples It has similarities to Plato’s description of Socrates’ last discourses with his friends. Although it occupies the same place in the narrative of Jesus’ last days as the Last Supper in the other gospels, it is a) much longer and b) contains no explicit instruction about the ritual of holy communion.
It starts with the incident of the foot-washing which is mentioned only in this gospel and is probably an invention of this writer. But it is a profound invention as it stands for the whole of Jesus’ ministry and particularly for his death. All that Jesus does and all that he suffers is summed up in this image of the slave who washes the feet of the house guests, making them fit to recline at table. As we later learn, the house is the Father’s house where those who trust in Jesus will have a place. Jesus does the slave – work necessary to make human beings clean for the Father’s house. It is the act of love which Jesus does for his own people and which continues to the end. The word used for end means final purpose.
The incident is introduced with grand language, which emphasises that Jesus does this slave -service not in spite of his status as the one to whom God has entrusted everything, but because of it. His intimacy with God enables him to reject all entitlement and to make himself a slave to grubby mortals. To be divine is to serve. Jesus reveals himself in this action, putting off his “outer clothes” to show his true self.
The dialogue with Peter uses the same alternation of verb tenses that I noted in Jesus’ dialogue with the woman at the well. (John 4) I identified this as a form of banter suitable for a flirting between a woman and the messiah -bridegroom. There, she is reluctant to trust Jesus with her character but the dialogue leads her to affirm Jesus as the Lord who makes her clean, because he knows her completely. Here Peter is reluctant to accept both his need to be cleansed and Jesus’ role as the cleaner. Only when he is told that acceptance of Jesus’ cleaning is necessary for “having a share” with him, does he accept it. Having a share with Jesus is a share of the his ministry, his suffering and his eternal life. Disciples cannot gain the last without sharing the other two; they too must take upon themselves the role of slaves to each other. Peter will need another dialogue yet with Jesus before he fully understands.