So he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel round his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped round him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet? Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” John 13:4-8
The account in John of the last supper includes the dramatic encounter of our Lord with Peter. During the evening meal our Lord has wrapped round Himself a towel and commenced to wash the disciples’ feet – an act typically done by a lowly household servant.
When our Lord completes the cleansing He asks the disciples if they understand what He has done for them (v.12). He then speaks of the act He has performed as a model of leadership – that those who would lead must be servants. “No servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” (vv.16, 17)
This theme is the usual focus of this passage, and one which has resonated in many fields. Secular articles today talk about the importance of “servant” leadership. Many make the point that such a spirit of service shatters our typical human conceptions of leadership or authority. It creates an authenticity that power can never create. It is also part of that reversal of expectations so common in the Gospel summarized by our Lord: “The first shall be last.”
But there is at least an equally compelling point our Lord makes in this incident of foot washing, and it comes in the resistance of Peter. He is appalled that the Lord should don a towel for service, and seeks an exception. “Not me” – he declares, perhaps in embarrassment or shame he had not first offered to wash the Lord’s feet.
But our Lord with almost harshness – certainly with uncompromising indirectness tells Peter: “If not, you have no part in me.”
Jesus is, I think, saying: “Peter, if you can’t submit to this, if you will not let me serve you, then you simply don’t get it at all.” You can’t be part of what I am doing, what my presence means and what the Gospel is, unless you submit.”
You see, besides the call to leaders to be servants, is the requirement that they also submit to being served – that they let the Lord be their servant.
I submit to you that it may be hard for a leader, for a lawyer, to be a servant of others – to wash another’s feet in humility. But it may even be harder for leaders to receive service – to submit to the care and tenderness of another. The reason is, I think that in serving others, one at least still maintains a degree of control. And control is something we seek, especially often those in positions of leadership, those who have power and authority. But in receiving service, one submits – loses control, acknowledges need, is not in charge, is vulnerable. In having your feet washed, you are, actually and figuratively, exposed and naked.
In a profession like law, we surely need to reiterate the servant dimension – and lowly service at that. The profession has too often lost that servant dimension and become an avenue for power, advantage and control. But there may be an even greater need to suggest that the crying need for all of us is to let the Lord minister to us – directly, and through others.
In our strength and self-confidence – real and imagined – we resist being broken, humbled. We may minister, but hide our need of ministry – that we are desperately in need of the Lord’s serving us.
The text tells us what dangerous ground we are on when we fail to recognize that if we are to have a part with Him, we must let Him clean, and wash and serve us. It’s not an option.
Lynn R. Buzzard
– This article comes from AI’s devotional for lawyers titled, “What Does the Lord Require of You?”