Commentary on John 13:16-20
Today we begin today the second part of John’s gospel, sometimes known as the “Book of Glory” (chaps 13-20), covering Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. Today’s passage immediately follows on the washing of his disciples’ feet by Jesus.
It is in that context that he says, “No slave is greater than his master; no messenger outranks the one who sent him.” With these words Jesus clearly urges his followers to serve each other in the same way that he, their Lord and Master, served them by the symbolic act of washing their feet. It was an act only done by the slaves in the household.
Jesus has given service to others a dignity which is totally independent of the status that society confers on people, dividing them into served and server. Jesus’ whole raison d’etre for being among us was to serve. “Blessed will you be if you put this into practice.” It is a truth which many of us – clergy, religious and laity – do not always find it easy to practise consistently.
It would not be quite right to see Jesus washing his disciples’ feet as a humbling of himself. Service in the Gospel is primarily love in action. Love (agape, ‘agaph) is the desire for the well-being of the other. That love is actualised by service, by the doing of acts for the good of the other. It is the act of brothers and sisters to and for each other. Status or position does not enter into it.
At the same time Jesus gives the first warning that there is one among them to whom these words will not apply. It is to prepare them for the prediction about his betrayal by one of the group. “The one who has shared my bread has raised his heel against me.” To share bread together was a mark of close fellowship and that is a primary meaning of the Eucharist which is a “breaking of bread” among the members of a close community. To ‘lift up the heel’ may refer a horse kicking or the shaking off of dust from one’s feet as sign of rejection.
Far from being shocked and disturbed by what is going to happen, they should be aware that everything that Jesus willingly undergoes in coming days is clear proof of his divine origin. “I tell you this now, before it takes place, so that when it takes place you may believe that I AM.”
For what is going to happen to Jesus is the ultimate act of service to his brothers and sisters. It is the greatest love that can be shown. Now they are being asked to hold on to Jesus’ identity as one with the Father even when they see him die in shame and disgrace on the cross.
In fact, their faith will be deeply shaken and will not be confirmed until after Pentecost.
Finally, anyone who accepts a disciple or messenger of Jesus, accepts both Jesus himself and the Father who sent him. There is a clear line of unity emanating from the Father going through the Son and passing through the disciple to others. There is just one mission – to bring about the Kingdom, the Reign of God in the world.
This acceptance is done by our sharing fully in Jesus’ own attitude of service, even to the giving of his life.