Jesus was a surprising person. The crowds expected a conquering King. But Jesus wasn’t what they expected. He surprised even his own disciples.
Jesus and his friends gathered for a meal. Since the roads were plain dirt, in dry weather they were deep in dust and in wet weather they could become liquid mud. The shoes most people wore were simple: a flat sole, held to the feet by a few straps. So, every step soiled the feet.
Like the crowds, the disciples’ minds were fixed on ideas of the Kingdom of God - dreams of thrones and power and glory and influence. In fact, the disciples were conflicted about which of them would be the greatest in this Kingdom – while they still had dirty feet. Rather than rebuke them, Jesus grabbed a towel and began washing their feet. Here is a King whose symbol of authority is a towel. Jesus demonstrated and taught three lessons about leadership in his use of the towel that night.
Lesson 1: Jesus’ use of a towel represented his whole life and leadership. Washing his disciples’ feet was no isolated event. On the contrary, what Jesus did that night in the upper room vividly portrays the whole journey he made from the Father into the world and back to the Father. Jesus laid aside his garments just as he had laid aside his glory in heaven and his privileges as the Son of God. He engaged in a menial act of service – just as he died a degrading death. And when Jesus had finished washing their feet, he took up his garments and returned to his place of honour, just as he was taken up from the grave and was seated again with the Father.
Lesson 2: Jesus’ use of the towel revealed his perspective on positional power. From a human perspective, washing feet is beneath the dignity of a King. Peter was shocked and responded, “You shall never wash my feet”. Peter wanted Jesus to fit into human ideas of royalty and privilege. However, Jesus dismantled this concept of position and pecking order. He dismantles our concepts also. We live with the notion that to be leader is to be exalted. Jesus acts out the giving of himself to serve humanity. Just before coming into Jerusalem that week, Jesus told His disciples, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45). He turned everything upside-down!
Lesson 3: Jesus’ use of the towel teaches us that we serve God by serving others. After washing their feet, Jesus said to his disciples, “Do you understand what I have done for you? 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 should wash one another’s feet” (John 13:12). This way of relating to people reverses the order. It is subversive. It destabilizes. The King who led with a towel inaugurated a kingdom of foot-washers. He deleted the infatuation with leaders clamouring for power, people climbing over each other to get to the top.
As liberating as this is, this way of life doesn’t just happen. Like Paul, we may say, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing…Who will rescue me…?” (Romans 7:19-24).
At those times when it’s difficult to “take up the towel” (to serve), rather than “throw in the towel” (give up) it’s time to once again be washed by Jesus. Because to the degree I allow him to love and serve me, that’s the degree to which I am able to serve others in the liberty of the Kingdom of God.