I can be a little thick-headed at times. I’ve never been all that good at interpreting signs and symbols. I’m a straight-forward man. If you’ve got something to say, say it. Don’t speak in riddles. Don’t beat around the bush. Don’t dress it up with 20-dollar words and a bunch of poetry. Just say it. Be clear. Be blunt. Just say it. Whether chasing fish on the Sea of Galilee, bartering for the best price at the market, or hashing out things with my wife, straight talk has always served me well.
When I left my fishing business to be a disciple of Jesus, straight talk paved the way. “Follow me,” said Jesus. It doesn’t get much clearer than that—“Follow me.” I know what that means: Jesus is the leader, I’m the follower, I go where He goes, and I do what He tells me. “Follow me.” I can understand that.
But there were times when Jesus didn’t talk so straight and when He wasn’t easy to understand. The story you heard in the Scripture this morning is one of those times.
Though we didn’t grasp it in the moment, Jesus was just a day away from being nailed to a cross. We were in Jerusalem for the Passover and had gathered in the evening for a meal. It had been a tense week. The week began on a high note with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem to the cheers of an admiring crowd. The week had spiraled down from there. Opposition to Jesus seemed to be growing larger and bolder. Most of us sensed we were at some kind of turning point here but none of us could put our finger on it. You could just sort of feel the tension in the room that night as we ate our meal. Conversation was limited and Jesus seemed lost in his thoughts.
And that’s when Jesus did a very strange thing. He got up from the table. Every head craned to see what He was up to. Strangely, Jesus took off his robe, draped it across a chair, grabbed a towel, and wrapped it around his waist. Caught off guard by this strange behavior, none of us said a word. When He got the towel squared away, Jesus took hold of a pitcher and poured the water into a large basin. I thought to myself, “Surely He’s not going to do what I think He’s going to do. Not Jesus. Not the Master. Not for us.”
But that’s exactly what He did. He knelt down and began to wash our feet—patiently, carefully, tenderly, individually. Messiah Jesus was washing our feet.
Our feet! Feet are rarely one’s most distinctive feature. I’ve seen them all—hammer toe, corns, bunions, fungus, crooked toes, missing toenails, toenails a half-inch thick, crusty, callused, filthy, stinking feet. You walk our dusty, muddy roads in sandals, and you are going to have foot issues. I don’t even like washing my own feet let alone anybody else’s. Yet King Jesus knelt down to wash our feet.
The men were in shock. And why wouldn’t we be? Most people washed their own feet. Washing feet was about as low as it gets. The task of foot-washing was so menial that even Jewish slaves were exempt. That job was kept for Gentiles. Foot-washing was a degrading and lowly task. When done by a wife for her husband, a child for her parents, a student for his teacher, it was viewed as an act of extreme devotion. But I’ll tell you what never happened in regard to washing feet: never did persons with a higher status wash the feet of those beneath them. Well, anyway it never happened until that night in the upper room when King Jesus washed our feet.
We were in shock all right. Nobody said a word as Jesus worked His way around the table. One would look at another and just sort of shrug his shoulders. What are you going to do?
Well, I knew what I was going to do. I was going to refuse. My brother disciples may stand for such a thing, but I won’t. Jesus is better than this. He’s certainly better than me. “Lord, you wash my feet?”
“I know it seems strange to you now, Simon, but you’ll understand it later.”
And as I pulled my feet away from Him and up underneath me, I said, “Understand it later or not, you will never wash my feet.”
Jesus sighed (I heard that a lot in our relationship). “Simon, if I don’t wash you, then you won’t belong to me.”
Hmm. That shed a different light on things. I didn’t know exactly what He meant at the time, but I couldn’t bear not to be one of His. So I thrust my feet toward Him, bowed my head and extended my hands: “Lord, then don’t stop with my feet. Wash my hands and my head as well.”
“That’s not necessary,” Jesus replied. “A person who has bathed already only needs to wash his feet to be completely clean. And you are clean—well, all of you except one.” (I realized later the unclean one was Judas—but that’s another story. Jesus washed Judas’ feet too, by the way.)
But back to Jesus’ conversation, and if His words sound a bit confusing to you, it’s because they were confusing to me. Like I said before, I prefer straight talk, and Jesus was talking in riddles here. But He was right. I did understand it later—as in after the cross and the resurrection. That’s when it became clear. Jesus wasn’t talking about hygiene here; He was talking about holiness. His washing our feet was a picture of a greater thing, a greater, deeper cleansing. Only that cleansing wouldn’t come from a stooped over Jesus holding a basin and a towel; it would come from a stretched out Jesus nailed up on a cross. Jesus washing our feet with water was a picture of Jesus washing our souls with His blood. When He washed our feet, I didn’t think He could stoop any lower than that. I was wrong. The cross was lower, much lower. And Jesus stooped that low so He could wash more than our feet; He could wash out the stubborn stains of our sin and set us in relationship with Him—make it so we belong to Him. I shudder when I think that my pride almost got in the way of receiving Jesus’ gracious gift. What was I thinking?
Like I said, I prefer straight talk, and that’s what came next. When Jesus finished, He left us with our thoughts while He washed his hands, put his robe back on, and took His place again at the table. Once He was settled He said, “Do you understand what I have done to you?”
We looked at one another thinking, “Honestly, no.”
“You call me Teacher and Lord,” Jesus explained. “You’re right, that’s who I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, wash your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. Look, I’m trying to set an example for you here. As I’ve done for you, you do for others. No servant is greater than his master; no messenger is greater than the one who sent him. So now that you know these things, do them … and you’ll be blessed.”
Now that I could understand! Straight talk—it sounded a lot like “Follow me!” The whole mystery of the cross bound up in Jesus’ washing of our feet was beyond me at the time, but this “do for one another as I’ve done for you” I could understand. I still found it strange. It broke pattern with foot-washing’s social standards, etiquette, and customs. It wasn’t something I particularly wanted to do. Jesus was asking us to stoop awfully low to serve one another—washing feet of all things—not my deal. But King Jesus is greater than us. And if He would humble himself to serve us in this way, how can I think myself too great to follow His example? It doesn’t seem very kingly, but Jesus is no ordinary king. He is a servant King, willing to get His hands dirty and do the lowest task to grace His people with His love.
And since I like straight talk, I’ll give it to you straight: as Jesus did for us, He wants you and me to do for one another. We can’t die on the cross for anyone, but we can serve others in humble love and in so doing, we can help them experience something of the touch of the Servant King Jesus. And Jesus can work with that to do greater things than we can imagine. So humble yourselves, and serve one another in Jesus’ name.