Luke 22:24-30; John 13:1-20
Normally when I think of the Last Supper, I think of the bread and the wine. I think of Jesus’ predicting Judas’ betrayal. I think of the symbolism of the soon-coming crucifixion, of Jesus offering his body and blood for us, even for the ones like Judas.
But at that Passover feast, as Jesus and his disciples were reclining around the table, the disciples started bickering again about which of them was the greatest. Evidently, this was a pretty common conversation among Mediterranean men in ancient times. Sometimes it was a deadly competition among enemies, and sometimes it was a playful banter among friends. There are a couple accounts in the Gospel books about the disciples engaging in this banter that seems to get carried away beyond playfulness.
Luke writes about the disciples’ argument over which of them was regarded as the greatest. In this story, Jesus responds, “The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” But John recalls that Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, tied a towel around his waist, poured water into a basin, knelt down on the floor, and washed his disciples’ feet.
I imagine these disciples bickering back and forth, listing the reasons and qualifications each had for being the greatest. And I imagine Jesus standing up, taking off his robe, tying the towel around his waist, and pouring the water into the basin as he said, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”
And then he washed their feet. Like a servant. Like the lowest servant in a household. He washed their weary, dirty feet.
To the very end of his life, Jesus taught and demonstrated his upside-down Kingdom. In Jesus’ Kingdom, the greatest become servants, the least of these are served, the outcasts are drawn in. In Jesus’ Kingdom, the foolish things shame the wise, the rich become poor, giving is better than receiving, and real life is found in dying.
In Jesus’ upside-down Kingdom, God became a baby who grew up to willingly empty himself and die a horribly dishonorable, painful death to rescue us from ourselves. In Jesus’ Kingdom, everyone is our neighbor and our love for God is demonstrated in our love for each other.
Belonging to this upside-down Kingdom of Jesus is often at odds with our American Dream culture in which everyone is trying to acquire more stuff and live more comfortably and advance to higher positions of honor and power. The Kingdom of Jesus is most definitely at odds with American Nationalism in which we’re grappling to protect “our rights” and keep anyone out who threatens our identity, in which we’re shouldering our way to power and pushing for laws that advance ourselves and enable discrimination against anyone who is different.
In response to arguments about who is greater and who deserves honor and who will sit in seats of power, Jesus wrapped a towel around his waist, filled a basin with water, and washed filthy feet. When the conversation turned to posturing for power and personal gain, Jesus responded with the example of humility.
“Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
Those are pretty clear instructions. Stop arguing about who’s the greatest or who deserves the most honor or what rights you should demand for yourselves. Start washing feet. Start humbly serving each other with love.
That’s what Jesus would do. I know because that’s what Jesus did.