It’s often struck me that Jesus’ so called ‘new commandment’ is not very new at all! Love one another. You could say, if you wanted to be critical, that this commandment is rather obvious, unoriginal and vague. Of course we should love one another – everyone knows that. But then Jesus adds some crucial words… ‘ as I have loved you’.. We are not simply commanded to love one another, but to love as Jesus loved us.. What does that mean?
Well, Jesus didn’t give a long sermon about the nature of love. He didn’t quote poetry, tell funny stories or display his best rhetorical skills. He just did something. He took off his outer garment, tied a towel around himself and began to wash the disciples’ feet..
People sometimes say that footwashing was very common in the Middle East when the roads were dusty and people wore sandals… People say it wouldn’t be weird and embarrassing then in the way we might fear it is now – because people were used to it. It was just ordinary. And up to a point they are right. I watched some builders in Jerusalem a little while ago hosing down their feet after a day’S work on a building site and I thought about the disciples for a moment.
But, there are ways in which foot–washing was still something somehow controversial, a bit awkward, in the ancient world. I am sure you can imagine that however ordinary a part of life having dirty feet becomes feet are still feet – and are still one of the least attractive parts of the body, and with most potential to accident and illness. I can imagine that first century feet – with no correction then for club feet and no medicines against the kind of things we get wrong with our feet, with people walking a good deal in sandals and rags on rough ground – that feet were even grimmer then.. And so the job of washing feet was always given to the lowliest person, and even to the lowliest slave.. Foot washing was not for the fainthearted then (as now!) and it was a job given to the least powerful person available. There’s an interesting little aside in a Jewish commentary on the book of Exodus that makes clear that the job of foot-washing could not be required of a Jewish slave.. You couldn’t even demand that a slave do this… It was a job so lowly that you couldn’t make a Jewish person do it. And there’s a version of the story of Joseph (a sort of ancient world Mills and Boon take on the multi-coloured coat Joseph) that says that his wife loved him so much that she sent away the slave whose job it was to wash feet and insisted on washing Joseph’s feet herself.. ‘She must have loved him’, we’re obviously supposed to think..
So there are lots of signs that people were more than a bit squeamish about foot washing in the ancient world….and not really that different from us.
And certainly, in a world thoroughly driven by honour and status, to wash someone’s feet was always a sign that you were lower in status than them. It wasn’t an honourable or prestigious thing to do. It wasn’t ‘cool’.
For Jesus to do it to the disciples was something quite astonishing. And he tells them then not to wash his feet in return, but to wash each other’s feet. That’s how they are to show the kind of love that he was commanding them to live.
I can imagine that among the disciples there were all sorts of little hierarchies – Were Peter, James and John the top three? Was the beloved disciple in a class of his own? They might have had it clearly in mind who would wash their feet… and there wouldn’t have been anything mutual about it…And then there’s Judas…
And Jesus says they’ve got to wash each other’s feet. They are not servants and masters, but friends. They are to love one another with mutual honour.. with equality of dignity..
And do you notice that Jesus washed Judas’ feet too? He loves him – despite, according to John’s Gospel, knowing that he is the betrayer. He loves even the one who betrays him. He washed his feet too – the feet that will soon run to the priests, towards thirty pieces of silver..
I’ve been reading lately the writings of a remarkable Jewish woman – who died at Auschwitz. She has helped me to see that it might be helpful to think about love, not as something vague and hard to pin down, but as first of all a refusal to hate. She was seeing hate emerge all around her (as we do sometimes now) – and she says,
‘I know that those who hate have good reason to do so. But why should we always have to choose the cheapest and easiest way? It has been brought home forcibly to me here how every atom of hatred added to the world makes it an even more inhospitable place. And I also believe.. that the earth will become habitable again only through the love that the Jew Paul described to the citizens of Corinth in the thirteenth chapter of his first letter.’
It was this love, of course, that the Jew Jesus was demonstrating when he took a towel and washed the feet of those he called friends, refusing to hate Judas, giving him the same sign of love. He was doing something to make the world a more hospitable place, for everyone..
So now the commandment to love, as I have loved, looks a bit more new.. This love is physical, it is real and immediate.. It is careless of status or honour..It refuses hatred.. It is profound hospitality and welcome. This is the love we are being given by the God we see in Jesus. And this is the love we are commanded to give to others.
That must be more challenging than taking off your shoes and baring your toes in public… But let’s see shall we…