Jesus often said some odd things during His time on earth. Things such as “Let the dead bury their own dead” (Luke 9:60) and “Do not throw your pearls to pigs” (Matthew 7:6).

One of the more bizarre ones for us today is, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet” (John 13:14). How bizarre! Why would anyone want to do that?

But like so much else that Jesus said and did, there's more to this statement than meets the eye.

A Basin, a Towel
Jesus said this at the Last Supper, the final meal that He shared with His Twelve Apostles in Jerusalem. Jesus was concluding His earthly ministry. In a few hours, He would be arrested, tortured and crucified. He knew He was about to die. So this supper was sacred and important.

As the meal progressed, Jesus taught the Apostles many profound things—about sacrifice and the kingdom of God. The clock was ticking and He was trying to accomplish much in a short time.

Unfortunately, most of that went completely over the heads of the Apostles. Rather than soaking in all of the wisdom Jesus tried to impart, they got into an argument about which of them was the greatest (see Luke 22:24). Never mind paying attention to anything as menial as foot-washing! The din filled the room.

Then Jesus stood up. The Apostles were distracted from their quarrelling. Jesus took off His shirt, went to the corner of the room and picked up a basin of water and a towel. Then He walked back to the table, got down on His knees and began to wash the feet of the first Apostle He came to.

One by one, He proceeded around the table, stooping, washing, drying and smiling.

To understand this, we have to put it in context.

It was the custom of the day that, when a traveller entered a house, one of the household slaves or servants met the guest, removed his dirty sandals and washed his feet. It was both a sign of respect and a practical service. But it was the most menial of tasks, a slave's work.

Since the Apostles had no slaves, they usually shared the responsibilities among themselves—such as cooking, laundry, buying food. But foot-washing was at the bottom of the list. No one wanted that job.

Men who argued about which of them was the greatest were not going to stoop to the level of a slave. None of them had offered to wash Jesus' feet, let alone each other's.

“Do As I Have Done”
It was precisely at this moment that Jesus, their Lord and Master, took on the role of a servant and did what none of them dared do.

The room was silent. All that could be heard was the low shuffle of sandals being removed from calloused feet and the soothing sound of water splashing softly on dry skin. Tears were running down faces. Heads hung low.

“When He had finished washing their feet, He put on His clothes and returned to His place. 'Do you understand what I have done for you?' He asked them. 'You call me “Teacher” and “Lord,” and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet' ” (John 13:12-13).

A thoughtful silence settled around the table. Jesus looked at His men. “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you,” He said (John 13:14).

Living Servanthood
Sometimes we are literally called to wash each other's feet, as when a shelter worker washes the feet of a street person and gives him or her new socks and shoes. But Jesus is really talking about assuming the role of a servant, doing the lowest of tasks, considering oneself not to be above others.

It is called humility and comes in many forms. It's mopping floors at a shelter or cleaning toilets at the church. It's singing backup to the star singer. It's passing the puck for another to score. It's sitting long hours with a lonely shut-in and helping behind the scenes.

Jesus not only taught servanthood, He lived it. And He challenges us to follow His example. Do you have what it takes to stoop to greatness?

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