Famous Last Words: A Reflection for Maundy Thursday

If you knew your time was up and you had one last opportunity to leave a lasting legacy for your friends and family, what would you do? What would you say? It’s an interesting question to be sure, and one that is probably worth some contemplation. Whatever it is you would choose to say, you’d no doubt want to be something special, and something that encapsulated the universal wisdom you’ve acquired, but in a way that put your unique spin on it. We see just this sort of moment in today’s Gospel reading, which offers us Jesus’ actions and words in the final hours before his arrest. He knows this is his last chance to impart some wisdom into his disciples, to make everything he’s been teaching them stick.

And so it’s striking that what he does is wash their feet.

In a world of dusty roads and simple footwear, foot-washing was an important part of hospitality in Jesus’ day, but it was also a dirty — and therefore lowly job. In our more private culture, foot-washing is uncomfortable because it feels intimate; in Jesus’ day it would also have carried an added — and no doubt equally awkward — power differential. The person washing your feet would be the lowest among the low, a person to be ignored. And so when Jesus bends down to wash the disciples’ feet, he is making a big statement. And it’s a statement they do not fail to catch:

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me’ (John 13.6-8).

Later, he explains his actions to them:

You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. (13.13-17).

This is a genius move on Jesus’ part. It is an action that is both mundane — something that happened every day in his culture, and radical — the lord doing a slave’s job. And, it is an action that embodies his teaching on leadership and, well, life. As he had taught them, “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave” (Matt. 20.26f).

Here, in his final hours with this disciples, he lives this teaching out, showing — in case anyone wasn’t sure — that he wasn’t joking or spiritualizing when he taught as he did. But also — in case anyone wasn’t sure — the point of this humility is not humiliation or even asceticism, but love:

‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (John 13.34f).

So, what was it that Jesus wanted to tell his disciples in his last moments with them? What was the core of his teaching he wanted them to remember?

Humble service in mutual love.

This should be both hopeful and challenging for us two thousand years later. For, on the one hand, this is a simple teaching. But on the other hand, it is not one Christians have been good at living out. And so, tonight, as we follow Jesus into the Garden of Gethsemane, where he will be handed over to the authorities by a friend, let us remember what was on his heart and mind, the one message he wanted to leave behind. Let us inscribe it on our hearts, and live it.

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