Of Towels and Upside-Down Kingdoms
By the time we reach John chapter 13, we are getting very close to the time of the Passover Feast, and it is in that context that John focuses on Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. They will never again be seen as a unified group, and it could be argued that they are not unified, even at this late-ministry event.
Jesus knows what awaits him. He knows he is about to die. He knows about the impending inhumane beating, the mock trial, the cross. Jesus knows who is the traitor in the room. Everything is coming sharply into focus for Jesus.
It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.
– John 13:1, NIV-1983
The next two verses are little more than passing statements telling us (1) that the meal was underway, (2) that Judas would betray Jesus, and (3) that Jesus knew he had all power, that he came from God and was returning to God. It is almost as though John is getting these things out of the way so he can tell us what he really wants to tell us. There is something very abrupt and disconnected in what comes next.
The Abrupt Interruption
So he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
– John 13:4–5, NIV-1983
What prompted this? Is this some special lesson or service that Jesus planned well in advance? I do not believe so. We get a level of clarity regarding the apparent abruptness of the foot-washing by looking at this very same meal as it is recorded in the Gospel of Luke.
Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be the greatest. Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.’
– Luke 22:24–27, NIV-1983
Jesus is about to die. He knows this to be true. He is eating his last meal with his closest friends, and they are busy posturing for position in a kingdom they do not yet understand. Neither do they understand greatness and power. Context indicates that the disciples’ understanding of greatness aligns well with what today’s Western culture teaches — obsessively pursue a well-defined goal as we consistently rise in status, leaving others in our wake, until we sit atop whatever pyramid it is we are climbing. The contrast between this view of greatness, and greatness as Jesus defines and models it, could not be more striking.
This petty dispute among the disciples has broken out at the worst possible time, or perhaps the best possible time. How ironic it is that the disciples are debating which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom when the greatest in the kingdom was reclining at the table with them.
When Jesus can stand no more of the self-indulgent, misguided squabbling, he answers their debate with a towel. It is a perfect response.
Getting the Feet in Context
To fully grasp the impact of what Jesus has done by washing the feet of his disciples, it is necessary to understand the general offensiveness of feet to the Middle-Eastern mind. To this ancient culture, the head is the most sacred part of one’s body, the seat of the soul, while the feet are the most vile.¹,² Thus, to the Middle-Easterner, it is considered terribly improper, and potentially insulting, to ever touch the head of another person, or to show them the soles of your feet. The shoe, as an extension of the foot, is considered an unclean object; thus, the shoe is not worn inside a home or a holy building.³
This perceived offensiveness of one’s feet is demonstrated in the way the Iraqi people removed their shoes and used them to beat the toppled statue of former dictator Saddam Hussein. In this action, each protestor was making the figurative statement, “You are beneath the lowest part of my body.”
In 2008, journalist Muntadar al-Zeidi insulted U.S. President George W. Bush by throwing a shoe at him.⁴ Protestors from one country will express the most profound insult possible to another country by walking and stomping on that country’s flag. Similarly, today’s youth are routinely seen walking atop a United States flag to express their disdain for whatever is upsetting them on that particular day.
A strong insult was aimed at U.S. President George H. W. Bush when a mosaic of his face was laid in the lobby of the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad, forcing visitors to the hotel to walk across the image of the U.S. President’s face. This insult was reversed by U.S. soldiers who, in 2003, replaced the image with the face of Saddam Hussein.⁵
Having defeated one’s enemies is often described as having put them under one’s feet. This language is used to describe God’s crushing of Satan and placing him under the feet of believers,⁶ and to portray the enemies of Jesus as being placed under his feet.⁷ A widely recognized image of conquest is one of the conqueror’s boot planted upon the neck of the king he has conquered.
Author and Cultural Consultant, Ali Saloom, described his shock at seeing students in the United States seated with their feet upon desktops, exposing the bottoms of their shoes to the instructor. Even more shocking to Saloom was the fact that the instructor did not seem to mind this profound insult.⁸ A missionary friend once explained to me how in some parts of the Middle East, it is considered poor taste to even speak of one’s feet, and if it is absolutely necessary to do so, one is expected to preface the statement by saying, “…pardon the use of the phrase, ‘my feet.’”
Walking in leather strap sandals on unpaved roads, it is easy to imagine how one’s feet could become quite dirty. The dust of the road collects and sticks to the sweaty skin. After many hours of walking, one could easily have multiple layers of dirt accumulated on the feet and lower legs.
As far back as Genesis, we see the patriarch Abraham honoring his visitors by offering to bring water so that they might wash their feet.⁹ You will notice, however, that Abraham did not offer to perform the act for them. Removal of footwear, and with it the dirt, was considered a part of holiness in worship. Thus when Moses met with God on the mountain, God told Moses to remove the sandals he was wearing, because the ground upon which he stood was holy ground.¹⁰
The Foot Object Lesson from Jesus
Returning to the meal with Jesus and the disciples, Jesus interrupted the childish posturing and arguing of the disciples, an argument centered on which of them should be considered greatest in the kingdom. Jesus then made a shockingly profound statement, without speaking a word, by attending to the feet of the disciples.
The text does not tell us this, but by its very absence, I believe we can safely assume that not one of the disciples offered to abase himself by washing the feet of Jesus, and certainly not the feet of the other disciples. The Master, the Teacher, God incarnate, was attending to the disciples in a way that none of them thought of attending to him. Jesus, the exact representation of God,¹¹ is enacting before the disciples the nature and character of God, in order to teach them a proper understanding of who God is! “I am among you as one who serves.”¹²
Foot washing was considered a task so lowly that it could not be required of a Hebrew slave.¹³ Amid the jockeying for kingdom position and status that had captivated the disciples, none was willing to jeopardize kingdom status by lowering themselves to the position of washing the feet of their competition. They were prepared to fight for a throne, but not for a towel.
As the disciples arrive for the Passover Feast, one of the holiest celebrations, they enter the room and look around for whoever is supposed to be there to serve them by washing their feet. They look in vain for such a person, and rather than humiliate themselves to perform the task, they resign themselves to reclining and eating the holy Passover with dirty feet!
Keeping in mind this “greatness” mentality of the disciples, recall the humility and the insight of John the Baptist who declared himself unworthy even to untie the sandals of Jesus, much less to touch and wash his feet.¹⁴ What the disciples considered vile and demeaning, John the Baptist considered a great honor, one of which he was undeserving.
The custom was for the host to provide guests with water, and possibly a non-Hebrew servant, for foot washing.¹⁵ When Jesus was dining with Simon the Pharisee, Jesus rebuked Simon, noting that Simon had offered Jesus no water for his feet.¹⁶ In sharp contrast to the inhospitality of Simon, the woman in Luke 7 not only washed Jesus’ feet, wetting them with her tears — she dried them with her hair, and she kissed them. She gave no thought to what placing herself beneath the feet of Jesus might do to her kingdom or societal status. She understood that Jesus is everything, and she is nothing.
If our Lord, King, and Master is a servant, then where does that place us? We are servants of a servant who serves us. This is why some have referred to the kingdom of God as an upside-down kingdom.¹⁷
In one teachable moment, Jesus has translated acts of service and degradation into premium expressions of love and greatness. Jesus did this using nothing but the circumstances and the illustrative materials around him. He acted out a parable with a towel and a bowl of water, and in so doing taught a group of proud men with dirty feet what was the expected pattern of behavior for the remainder of their lives.
The love and service to which Jesus calls us is a love that cannot be fettered by evil. Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, plural, and that had to include the feet of Judas, the man who would betray Jesus to his death on that very night.¹⁸ It included the feet of Peter who would shamefully deny Jesus three times before the sun rose the following day.¹⁹ The Christ-following mand and woman know that our love and service in the kingdom is in no way dependent on the responses of those we serve.
Blessings upon you my friends.
Victoriously in Christ!
1. Burleson, D., (n.d.). Consulting Tips for Foreign Cultures and Religions. retrieved 08/16/2015 from http://www.dba-oracle.com/consultant_religon_culture_guidelines.htm
2. Aquino, M., (n.d.). Do’s and Don’t’s [sic]in Thailand retrieved 08/16/2015 from http://goseasia.about.com/od/thaipeopleculture/a/dosanddonts.htm
3. Saloom, A., (March 8, 2013). Ask Ali: Why is it rude to show the soles of your feet. retrieved 08/16/2015 from http://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/ask-ali-why-it-is-rude-to-show-the-soles-of-your-feet
4. Gammell, C., (December 15, 2013). Arab culture: the insult of the shoe retrieved 08/16/2015 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iraq/3776970/Arab-culture-the-insult-of-the-shoe.html
6. Romans 16:20
7. 1 Corinthians 15:25
8. Saloom, A., (March 8, 2013). Ask Ali: Why is it rude to show the soles of your feet. retrieved 08/16/2015 from http://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/ask-ali-why-it-is-rude-to-show-the-soles-of-your-feet
9. Genesis 18:4
10. Exodus 3:5
11. Hebrews 1:3
12. Luke 22:27
13. Church, C. (2003). Footwashing. In C. Brand, C. Draper, A. England, S. Bond, E. R. Clendenen, & T. C. Butler (Eds.), Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (pp. 592–593). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
14. Mark 1:7
15. Judges 19:21
16. Luke 7:44
17. Acts 17:6
18. John 13:21–30
19. John 13:38