Thirteen is a chapter famous for the unique version of “the supper” and Jesus’s paradigmatic act of service. Once again, John gives us a different version of a Synoptic teaching. Where Mark would say “even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,” John gives us an otherwise unknown scene with a rather explicit point:
“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” (13:14-16).
But it’s even more emphatic. “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God” (13:3)—knowing he was all of that—acted the lowly servant. It doesn’t get more obvious! That’s the power of the moment. There is no arguing with this. There is no one more important, authoritative, powerful, entitled, or deserving of servitude. So who of us is exempt from service? Who could possibly read blithely over this story and not feel bound to humility? Perhaps it is difficult to be like Jesus, but there should be no uncertainty about how we should be.
One of the most well known quotes in the NT follows and, we may be sure, takes its meaning from the the example of service. “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 love one another” (13:34–35). Of course, one might argue that the way he had loved (and would love) them must include much more than washing their dirty feet. Fine. But it is easy to see that even with the foot washing framing the “new command,” we are very prone to excise it and “love one another” on our own terms and our own time, without recognizing that Jesus’s kind of love must express itself in terms of service and humility. Have you ever considered that loving from a position of power and wealth may not fulfill Jesus’ commandment?