Reflection for Today ▶️ ⏩ ⏹️
He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.
— John 13:4-5
The act of foot-washing, usually the job of the lowest servant and here carried out by Jesus himself on those who believe they came to serve him is a complete embodiment of the new kingdom of which Jesus has been talking about. The new kingdom of God is to be a complete and utter reversal of all that people knew an empire to be. It is shown throughout all four gospels just how difficult a concept this was for people to understand, and even when they did understand would then assume they couldn't have done, so radical was the vision. Words and explanations were certainly not enough to shift the rigid thinking of the disciples. Time was running out though, so drastic action was needed. What could not be explained in words could be demonstrated, modelled in this single act. Jesus takes the initiative: the last shall be first.
The act itself aside for a moment, it is equally important to look at how the act was performed. This was more than lip-service to servant leadership, it was a thorough immersing into the role.1 Jesus gave himself to this work as completely as he had given himself to everything else he had done, the kindness he had shown, the courage he had displayed, the miracles he had performed—and as completely as he would ultimately give himself to his own death. To serve and to be served was all one.
We can read into this single act, perhaps, the entire philosophy of Jesus' mission—a philosophy shared with another spiritual tradition developed and developing on the other side of the globe during the same general time period, and often encapsulated in the Zen proverb, Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.2
In John's gospel we read how Jesus so completely—and ultimately so literally—embodies the new kingdom of God, where the first shall be last and the last shall be first, where the meek shall inherit the earth, and selfishness has no place. It remains as puzzling, and apparently as unattainable today as is was back in his own time. Nevertheless, we still read the scriptures thousands of years on, and occasionally perhaps glimpse the paradise thus described when we perform a rare, unexpected act of love or service.3
1 Read John 13: Jesus the Loving Servant by David Guzik, Enduring Word, 2018
2 Zen proverb, source unknown
3 Coincidentally, I (re)read just yesterday the short story that perhaps embodies the supreme act of unexpected servitude in a way that equals this gospel story: The Happy Prince, by Oscar Wilde, 1888. I recommend it, highly.