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Maundy Thursday: The Stooping Savior

03.12.2024

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As a parent of two children under two years old, I am well acquainted with the task of dealing with the filth of another. For the first few decades of my life, I only had to worry about my own cleanliness, but the role of dad has imparted to me the duty of helping maintain the hygiene of our two wonderful and messy daughters. Daily life now includes a constant rhythm of diaper changes, wiping snotty noses, and scrubbing those unexplainably sticky hands. 

Being human is messy (literally and figuratively), and sometimes we cannot care for ourselves—requiring someone to perform the humbling task of caring for us.

These new responsibilities in my life have given me an increased appreciation for the deeply symbolic moment when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, mere hours before Judas betrayed Him and handed Him over to the high priests. The Gospel of John presents this story vividly, capturing the rising tension as Jesus knowingly and willingly marches toward his crucifixion. 

It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around 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 around him.
John 13:1-5

Immediately, Jesus is met with opposition from Peter and the rest of the disciples. In a cultural context, it’s easy to understand why. Everything about this task would have been seen as demeaning: His seemingly random outfit change was an intentional adoption of a slave’s attire, the act of foot-washing was a job often reserved for the lowest of servants, and the concept of a superior washing their inferior’s feet was completely unheard of., Why in the world was this great man, their teacher, leader, and messiah, engaging in such an embarrassing undertaking? 

After completing the degrading task, Jesus paused to partially explain that He modeled how they were now meant to live. It is one thing to tell people to serve; it’s another to show it in the messiest way possible. Jesus didn’t offer up hollow words about service without first showing it in action. 

His challenge for his followers was relatively simple: if Jesus, the King of kings and the Lord of Lords, would stoop low to wash their dirty feet, they should follow his example to wash one another’s feet. 

Later in the evening, Jesus emphasizes His point by giving them blunt directions for how they are meant to live.

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
John 13:34-35

This statement is the basis for what we now call “Maundy Thursday,” a title derived from the Latin word for “mandate.” Maundy Thursday commemorates this powerful evening and how Jesus demonstrated what it looks like to serve one another through his actions and words. 

Within this mandate to love one another as Jesus loves us, God forms the foundation for what His church should look like: sacrificial love. Throughout the New Testament scriptures, the Apostle Paul and others will continue to expand on this idea by revealing what Christian love looks like in application, mirroring Jesus’ language in John 13 with the phrase “one another.” 

We are meant to love one another, honor one another, live in harmony with one another, forgive one another, bear with one another, comfort one another, pray for one another, encourage one another, and so much more.

The timing of this new commandment cannot be understated. Unlike his oblivious disciples, Jesus knew in this holy moment that he was only hours away from being violently taken away from them and put to death. So at this final meal in the Upper Room, Jesus intentionally takes time to showcase the values of his coming kingdom for his followers to model after he is gone—traits like humility, longsuffering, meekness, and love. Values that would fundamentally run counter to the virtues the world elevates. 

What are followers of Jesus called to look like? Sacrificial servants. Humble supporters. Washers of feet.

However, on Holy Week in particular, we would be woefully misguided to diminish Jesus’ role on earth as merely an example to follow. As is the case for many of Jesus’ intentionally vague parables and actions, there was something far deeper happening at this moment than his followers could initially comprehend. In his exchange with Peter, he promised they would one day understand the symbolism of what he was doing. Now, two thousand years later, we understand that through this act of service, Jesus was hinting at a bigger picture of what he came to earth to do.

Just as he took on the garments of a servant and stooped low to serve, he humbly stepped down to earth and took on the likeness of a human. 

Just as he obediently condescended himself to the dirty work of foot-washing, he obediently subjected himself to death on the Cross, permanently washing away the sins of those who put their faith in Him.

And just as he rose up and resumed his rightful place at the table, he conquered death and rose from the grave, returning to his rightful place beside the Father.

The commandment from Jesus to love one another is not a love without explanation or precedence. 

Our love is called to reflect the sacrificial love of a savior who stepped into our mess to cleanse the hearts of the undeserving and unworthy on the day we call Good Friday.

Now, our paradigm for service has shifted. When my wife and I clean our daughters, subjecting ourselves to another’s mess, it doesn’t come from self-seeking motivations. It is born out of love. The same is true for all who have put their faith in Jesus. We no longer live lives of self-gratification and pain avoidance, seeking recognition or a reward for our deeds. 

Instead, we serve one another in humility and love, modeling ourselves after the servant and savior who stooped low for you and me.

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Scripture References

  • John 13
Jacob Harkey Spiritual Formation Director at Passion City Church, Washington D.C.