In contrast to the synoptic Gospels, John is clear that Jesus’ last meal with his disciples was not the Passover meal. Instead, it was the night before the day of preparation for the Passover, when the lambs for the ritual meal were sacrificed. In John’s narrative, that particular day of preparation was also the day before the Sabbath – so that particular Sabbath was a high holy day for the Jews (see John 19:31). This detail is important for understanding the symbolism for this writer of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Indeed, every detail from 13:1 to the end of the gospel is significant. Unfortunately, the gospel is nearly always cherry-picked in order to make a point of religious piety. The “last supper” is assumed to be the Passover meal. The breaking of bread and the pouring of the cup of wine described in Mark, Matthew, and Luke (and memorialized by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25) gets conflated with the foot washing described by John. Maundy Thursday liturgies then become problematic: do we wash feet? serve Communion? dramatize our complicit shame as we leave the darkened church one-by-one?
The chapters following the last meal contain the heart of John’s argument that Jesus was the Anointed One sent by God to fulfill the longing of the Jewish people for deliverance from injustice, foretold for first century Jews in the book of Daniel. Raymond E. Brown proposes that Chapters 15-17 are not part of the evening meal; but are further reports of Jesus’ teachings added in to emphasize who Jesus was. Brown’s opinion is that 16 is a duplicate of the teaching in 14, and 17 follows logically from 15, so the sequence should be 14, 16, 15, 17.
For now, consider the last meal described in Chapter 13. There is no ritual of bread and cup. There is only the demonstration of a radical abandonment of self-interest. John writes, “Now that the devil had planted it in the mind of Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, to turn him in, at supper Jesus could tell that the Father had left everything up to him, and that he had come from God and was going back to God.” Here is the apocalyptic claim. The One who would bring liberation from the Empire of Rome had come from God, and would be returning to God. There is no more time to waste in explanation – only a profound demonstration will do. So – apparently in the middle of the meal – Jesus gets up, assumes the role of a slave, and washes the disciples’ feet.
Peter (of course) doesn’t get it. The Master never washes the feet of the disciples. To do so disrespects the whole relationship. So he says “no way you’ll wash my feet!” And Jesus says, unless I do, you won’t have anything in common with me.” The NRSV says “. . . you have no share with me.” These words have been misunderstood since John first put them to parchment. Peter still doesn’t get it, nor have many since. This demonstration is not about being physically or mentally clean of “sin” or the dust of the road. Jesus’ action means there is no hierarchy among the followers of Jesus’ Way. Jesus says, “So if I am your master and teacher and have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet.” Paul put it best in Galatians 3:28-29: “You are no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or freeborn, no longer [even] male and female. Instead you all have the same status in the service of God’s Anointed, Jesus.” No priests, no bosses, no financial “masters of the universe” who claim higher worth than anyone else; most especially no dominion over anyone regardless of gender or circumstance. Jesus spells out how things work in the normal course of civilization: “Slaves are never better than their masters; messengers are never superior to those who send them.” Instead he proposes the radicality of the kingdom of God. “If you understand this, congratulations if you can do it” – meaning, follow his example, not the way things are always done; and good luck with that!
Jesus then refers to Psalm 41: “The one who has shared my food has turned on me.” We think that means Judas, and at one level it does. But look at what Psalm 41 is talking about. This psalm deals with those who consider the poor – not the poor themselves, but those who “consider” the poor – i.e., those who do God’s work. After the encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus’ disciples were confused when Jesus said he had food they knew nothing about (John 4:31-38). That “food” is doing the work that God sent Jesus to do. In the context of the apocalyptic legend of Daniel, the “food” that nourishes the spirit is deliverance from oppression; the restoration of God’s rule – God’s kingdom – God’s distributive justice-compassion. In the Psalm, the narrator confesses that he has not considered the poor. His enemies are certain that the worst will happen to him as a result. “They think that a deadly thing has fastened on me, that I will not rise again from where I lie. Even my friend in whom I trusted who ate of my bread has exalted at my misfortune . . . But [God] has upheld me because of my integrity, and set me in [God’s] presence forever” (emphasis mine). Like Job, who knew he was a man of God, and maintained that identification no matter what happened to him, John’s Jesus claims his own integrity as the son, the servant, and the messenger of God: I AM, he says. “[I]f they receive anyone I send, they are receiving me; and if they receive me, they are receiving the one who sent me.”
Then Jesus becomes upset, and acts out the scene described in Psalm 41 by dipping bread in his dish and handing it to Judas. At that moment, in a direct contradiction of the meaning of the bread broken and shared in the synoptics, “Satan took possession of him,” and Judas leaves as soon as he has eaten the bread. “Satan” is God’s adversary – the personification of how the world usually works. Judas was unable to make the transition Jesus tried to demonstrate when he washed the disciples’ feet. Peter verbalized the confusion, but Judas acted on it.
When Judas had gone, Jesus says he is going where no one can follow – which seems to be a contradiction because we know the argument that is coming in Chapter 14: “If I go to prepare a place for you, I’ll return and embrace you, so where I am you can be too.” But the words that actually close the scene make clear what Jesus was trying to say all during dinner: “I am giving you a new commandment: love each other. Just as I’ve loved you, you are to love each other. Then everyone will recognize you as my disciples – if you love each other.”
The scholars comment in The Complete Gospels: “The ethic in this gospel has been reduced from the other gospels’ ethic of love of neighbor, even of enemy, and is restricted to love within the Christian community” (note, p. 239). That may well have been the case for John, whose community was under threat of being thrown out of the local synagogue. The problem with that interpretation for contemporary believers is two-fold: In the spirit of Psalm 41, John may have been claiming a level of integrity that he found lacking in those who did not accept Jesus as the Anointed One – leaving one of the most beloved of scripture verses standing for an exclusivity that the Jesus “everyone knows” would have rejected. Even worse, such a context risks reducing the commandment to the kind of verbal street defiance generally not acceptable in church sanctuaries.
Given the passion of John’s argument, and doing our best to avoid reading later Christian dogma back into John’s time and place, the scholars’ point is provocative and illuminating. But if 21st century progressive Christians can claim any part of this chapter as definitive for social and political transformation, then the more traditional interpretation must be used and expanded. John’s Jesus says, “. . . you are to do as I’ve done to you . . . If they receive anyone I send, they are receiving me . . . Just as I have loved you, you are to love each other.” Anyone – not just believers in Jesus – who are able to give up the kind of power conveyed by following society’s rules and can serve and love one another, will also serve and love others in the same way. Jesus’ reversal of roles demonstrated a radical abandonment of self-interest that includes relinquishing dominion over creation itself – biblical absolutists notwithstanding. And it is here and now, not in some “sweet bye and bye.”