Jesus was a teacher; in Aramaic, the word is rabbi. Like all Palestinian rabbis of the time, Jesus had a group of close followers who went everywhere with him. Being semi-nomadic, these disciples would all have left their families behind and sworn obedience to their master. We see Jesus’ disciples fitting this mould exactly.
A Jewish rabbi could ask his disciples to accept all aspects of their teaching. If they did not like what they heard, they simply ‘tore up the contract’ and left. We see many of Jesus’ first disciples doing just that in John 6:66 over Jesus’ Eucharistic teaching.
The only thing a Jewish rabbi could not ask of his disciples was for them to wash his feet. Only a slave could be asked to do that.
In context, then, the story of Jesus washing the feet of his own disciples in John 13 is extremely odd. Firstly, because Jesus should not have even thought of foot washing; and, secondly, if feet had been washed, his own would have been first.
As the reading shows, Jesus’ disciples were confused. They knew that Jesus was making a radical suggestion, but were either too afraid to face it, too embarrassed at his unorthodox approach, or simply did not understand.
But with hindsight, it is obvious what Jesus was saying: being a servant is an integral part of being a Christian. Because we are to follow Jesus’ example in everything, we can be asked to be servants in this same mould, that is, we are to think of ourselves as slaves. In other words, there is nothing that we cannot be asked to do. For him, we can and should be willing to do anything.
This is a matter for great thanksgiving: there is no longer any need to ‘keep up with the Jones.’ We are free from all distractions and ambitions. Our sole reason for existence is to serve: to serve Jesus and serve the saints in our local church, St Andrews’.
And because the Greek word for ‘thanksgiving’ is ‘Eucharist,’ any public washing of feet in church (whether on Maundy Thursday or not) is sometimes called a ‘John’s Eucharist.’