The story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples is unique to the Gospel of John and replaces the Eucharistic element expressed in the other Gospels. Jesus demonstrates that unity in love and compassion is essential within the leadership hierarchy for the witness of the gospel. He instructs His disciples to behave according to the Gospel message they carry, urging them "to wash one another's feet."
Fr. Timothy Lowe, former Rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem, exegetes John 13, and reminds us that this intimate act of service and love is transformative for all who hear and do as the Lord instructs.
Read the full episode transcript here.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You're listening to Doulos a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos offers a scriptural daily bread for God's household and explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director of the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. I'm so happy to welcome Fr. Timothy Lowe, a retired priest who has served within the Orthodox Church in America, most recently from the Albanian Archdiocese in Worcester, Massachusetts. Fr. Timothy also spent significant time at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem, serving as their Rector. So wonderful to be speaking with you, Fr. Timothy.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 0:42
Well, thank you, Hollie, it's really a joy to be here. You know us retired priests always have to look for something to do.
Hollie Benton 0:49
Well, you've got your work cut out for you. So as you may know, Fr. Timothy, the icon of Jesus, washing the feet of his disciples is the main image we associate with the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative, specifically the intensive program in servant leadership for parish councils or ministry teams, which we developed in partnership with St. Vladimir's Seminary and many other biblical scholars and Christian leaders within the broader church across many jurisdictions. We call the program Doulos, which I'm sure you know, means servant or slave in the New Testament Greek. It's a beautiful image filled with all sorts of paradoxes. Jesus, the one we confess to be the Son of God, who sits at the right hand of the king of heaven, humbles himself to wash the feet of his disciples in the manner of a common household slave. I have to admit, I was a little bit reluctant to use the image on our website, primarily because of the temptation to presume that we can channel Jesus so easily, posturing as the humble hero of the story depicted in the icon. But if we attend to the story from the Gospel of John, and even if we study the icon itself, we must acknowledge that it is Jesus who does the initial cleansing. We will read the passage soon where Jesus says, "If I do not wash you, you have no share of me." And after the initial cleansing, much like a rite of passage, then Jesus says that this serves as the example that the disciples ought to wash one another's feet. And what's striking is that we don't see the disciples washing the feet of one another in the icon, it's telling. And in this way, there's no way we can confuse ourselves with the true hero of the story. As Jesus reminds us, in this text, a servant is not greater than his master.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 2:36
The icon that you have on on your website, and you know, is a very traditional, simple icon. And I would like to see it changed a little bit by the iconographers, in as much as it's recounting the event and the text, and therefore an icon must exegete the text. So the simplest icon, of course, Christ is there, as it says, wrapped with a cloth and with the basin. And there are basically two differences of him. One is standing blessing, which you have on your website, and the other is him actually beginning to wash. That in itself is very simple and then you have the other disciples. Peter, of course, is the main focus, because he and Judas are the only two mentioned, the others are just mentioned generically, and so the focus is on these two. And we'll get into that in a second. Often, though, you don't have Judas in the icon, which of course is anathema. If they don't have all 12 of them there, then it's not being faithful to actually what the text is telling us. Because the critical point is the crisis that Peter is having over the washing, and then of course, Judas betraying, and so in that sense, it's a very simple icon, it's there, the disciples look sober, a little bit overwhelmed, and that sort of glazed look over and Christ there in his solemnity, either blessing or beginning the symbolic washing, which of course we know is ultimately indicative of His coming cross.
Hollie Benton 3:58
So let's hear this passage together from the Gospel of John chapter 13, starting at verse three, "Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands and that he had come from God, and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples feet, and to wipe them with a towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, Lord, are you going to wash my feet? Jesus answered, You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand. Peter said to Him, you will never wash my feet. Jesus answered, unless I wash you, you have no share with me. Simon Peter said to Him, Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head. Jesus said to him, one who has bathed does not need to wash except for the feet, but it is entirely clean. You are clean, though not all of you, for he knew who was to betray him. For this reason, he said, not all of you are clean. After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, Do you know what I have done to you, you call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do, as I have done to you. Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. So Fr. Timothy, how is this account and John's Gospel different from other gospels?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 5:51
Basically, here in the Gospel of John, you have this event of the washing of the feet, which is unique to his gospel alone. And the fact that he does not also include in the Gospel any sort of Eucharistic account, taking this as my body, so on and so forth, also is quite telling. And therefore, we need to pay close attention, because the washing of the feet is replacing the Eucharistic element, it's replacing it. And therefore, it shows us what John wants us to focus on. What are the issues facing his community, that he eliminated what we think is one of the most important events, Eucharistic Body and Blood, and so on and so forth. He replaces it with the washing. And I think it has to do solely with the fact that the struggles within the community were showing divisions among the leaders. And therefore this whole section, beginning as we said, here in John chapter 13, and goes through the whole discourse, which we read on Holy Thursday, ends with this issue of the desire for oneness and unity. And again, I read back that if something is being addressed, it means there is a problem. And the issue is the leadership in the church, first and foremost, because he's talking to the future leaders, the disciples, okay. So this is why I think that this is really important on this issue of leadership, and specifically service.
Hollie Benton 7:21
And it seems that Jesus isn't merely cleansing their feet, he's cleansing their hearts and their minds. He's teaching them as he's washing their feet. And so this leadership issue seems really important as he teaches that servants are not greater than their master nor messengers greater than the one who sent them. And it's fascinating too that he says, If you know these things, you're blessed to do them. So He's tying together both the knowing and the doing. Say more about this leadership issue, this leadership hierarchy in this passage.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 7:54
Well, for Jesus to condescend in a slavish action of washing the feet, ultimately puts them all in a bind, okay, all in a bind. And he explains to them later when he demands from them, to follow his example with each other. And honestly, I think this is the leadership key of the text. The first key to leadership is how do bishops, priests, deacons, the clergy, first and foremost, relate to each other? This I think, is key, but how are they going to relate to each other and therefore setting the example as leaders in the community and then in the multiple communities? Because this example will set the tone for the rest of the church as servant leadership has to be set first by example, first by example. In other words, how can we ask others to do what we ourselves are not doing? Because it is in the hypocrisy that will undermine and actually destroy the witness and it makes a mockery of it. You say it, but you don't do. Now what is clear, notice the two titles Jesus uses for himself, first is teacher which you've just referenced in your question. And then master, Lord, I prefer it because of English to use the word master. Master because Lord can get influenced by theological thought and development in the Lord Almighty in one master the one who is the head. He goes on to point out the relational realities of servants, slaves, doulos, the name of your organization, not to be greater than their masters, nor can a messenger, and I prefer that translation than apostle because we've enlarged the idea of apostleship and made the 12 unique, no. The messenger sent with a message, a commission, can never be greater than the sender. Therefore, leadership authority here is established by the action of the leader. And let me stress this point, and not by virtue of our institutional or hierarchical structure. If leaders do not understand this important key, trust me, its witness, which is its importantance, is going to all fall apart. And then the sheep or the outsiders who's looking at it will see the hypocrisy. And the whole thing becomes a mockery of the example. Now one of the strange elements of literally washing someone's feet, and then I'm projecting, here is the intimacy of the act itself, the intimacy of the act, because it's one thing, you see, as a dutiful servant, you're just doing, but to make the choice to lower yourself, and to wash another one's feet, it's an intimate act of communion. I know this may sound strange to people's ears, because we want to talk about the symbolism of the action of what it is, a washing, a cleansing, baptism example, renewal, forgiveness, but it is the first act of hospitality to strangers. And there's a couple examples of this in Abrahamic stories. Twice where he greets the strangers, and then later on, Lot in the whole sort of story of Sodom and Gomorrah, before it gets destroyed, is the first act of hospitality. He asks they both have water to be brought to wash the feet before he orders food to be brought, and so on. But the difference is Abraham is not doing the serving, Abraham. It's his servants who are. But here Christ is the one who was setting the example, setting the example. Now, I want to tell a story. In my early, late teens, Protestant, I actually went on a mission trip to Jerusalem with a group of Southern Baptists. You know, we had this grand idea that we could go and street evangelize, convert Muslims and Jews, in total ignorance and wonderful, idealistic teenage naivete, and whatnot. And there were eight guys and eight girls, we lived in different places. So one night, one of the guys asked, Can I wash your feet? And you know, I said, you know, my initial response was really one of, you know, repulsion. You want to wash my feet? No, I want to wash your feet. And I said, Wow. So I grit my teeth, you know what it is to be an idealistic teenager who reads these things and imitates them, so I let him wash my feet. And what ensued in the act, first of all, washing my feet is wonderful, trust me, if I can get a pedicure, and someone will pay for it, 'll take it. But anyway, that's not the point. But what ensued was a breaking down of barriers and a conversation of intimacy and sharing, that I remember it to this day, and that was at least 50 years ago.
Hollie Benton 12:33
Great story. I have a good friend. And she does a little side gig, side business of doing foot care for seniors. And she talks about what a blessing it is for her to sit at their feet and be taught by them, by their wisdom of years and years.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 12:48
It is an act of intimacy. And I want people to realize that this isn't just a formality. Because I've been in Jerusalem on Holy Thursday, in the courtyard of the Holy Sepulchre, the platform's there, the patriarch is there, the services going on for Holy Thursday, the 12 chairs are there, and the patriarchs coming out, and he's reenacting the event, but it doesn't have something because it's just simply sort of recounting the event. It is not the same thing. Does the patriarch, as the leader of the church, washes the feet of others, and express the unity in the love and the compassion that is essential, that is essential for the witness of the gospel.
Hollie Benton 13:28
So before we wrap things up here, Father, I'd really like you to speak to the significance of the story, not just for the internal leadership community, what's going on inside the institution, and the commandment to the disciples, or the teacher who is sending his students, or the master who is sending his slaves or his messengers out. What is the significance for the way we treat one another who may not submit to the same gospel, who may be outsiders, who don't submit to the same teaching? Does the commandment to follow the example of Jesus, by washing the feet of one another, come with any kind of condition or caveat?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 14:11
Well, as you know, I initially focused my exegesis here on the way the leaders of the church relate to each other and thus form the core of their witness to the rest of the world. It forms the primary basis for how to relate to the world around us, how to relate to the world around us, because we are so quick to be arrogant, so quick to be judgmental, so quick to put down others and seeing them as the person opposite us, opposite us, that we are called to relate to and include in our lives. John, purposely focusing on Jesus's personal example for us to look at, it demands that we cannot abstract our faith and trust in God as a theoretical thing you see, our God and our neighbor are right there. And the fact that if we're willing to serve them, not what "what is it going to give to me," see, because a lot of times, those of us that are clever enough, like to network, right, so we do things because we know they're going to give something back or we'll get something back, we're making a transaction. But to do something freely, humbly, as just a way to live, ultimately, is transformative. And the key point is, is we never know how it's going to affect and transform other people's lives, because that's not our business. How is this going to change someone, if I do this act in kind, it just simply is something we do, not looking for any gain, not looking for even any attention. But simply as a way we simply respond to the world through service, through hope. Now, I want to tell something, an example of something that happened this Sunday at church. I was at a baptism, no big deal. I've been a priest for 38 years, done tens and tens and tens of baptisms, and whatnot. But I saw something that was extraordinary. First time, and it had to do with the person who was being baptized. Usually it's, you know, children, babies, infant baptism, and whatnot. And then there might be converts later on. But this person was 75 years old. I mean, her whole life as a female had already been lived. And as you know, I was presiding, I was not the main priests, because I'm retired, I was helping via the parish priest. And as the baptism was going on, I just found myself staring at her in a little bit of awe, I don't know her backstory, I only know her name. So I don't know where she has been for the last 75 years, you know, but the fact that she was not just received in the church through chrismation, but is actually being baptized, was revealing. Again, sort of the amazing event that I was just privy to, but part of me was saying, Oh, my, oh, my, what have you gotten yourself into? Because now, when we talk about service in this Gospel reading, if Peter allows Christ to wash him, he can't go back and be unwashed. See, it is a foundational point, a reference point of past and future. He cannot go back. And so I was saying to myself, really, at 75? You want to take upon the weight of this Gospel, committing yourself to this service, and therefore the weight of judgment, you know, judgment, you know, this is the whole point of "I have done this to you. Now, you also have to do it to others." We live namely, under this new life, either judgment unto life, Matthew 25, well done good and faithful servant entering the joy of your master, or judgment and condemnation, depart for me, for I never knew you. So I guess my point to anybody who's listening is believe it or not, ultimately, if there is a God, and if it is the biblical God, and if it is the God of St. John's gospel, the Father that Jesus references, you know, in the end, it's all about sheeps and goats. There's nothing more dangerous for you know, speaking to the inside of us believers, even if you're a new believer at 75, nothing more scandalous than a goat masquerading in sheep's clothing. It's just what it is. So while there's still breath in our lungs, there better be prophetic voices, and I don't care who is the source, I don't care if it's a Muslim prophetic voice, a Hindu, atheist, whoever the prophetic voice is, whenever it comes, whoever it comes by, and whoever challenges the hypocrisy for those of us that claim to stand for something, and dare I say, even the evil leadership of any kind of authority, be it political, civil, church or whatnot. See, they are the voice of God to us reminding us again, and often we know that prophets anywhere, it's going to cost them their life, at least that's what the biblical examples are, and we certainly have secular examples, okay. But, and this is, you know, as we close out here, but in the end, it is all about service. And therefore, as Jesus will say to them later on in this section, no one has greater love than this than they lay down one's life for one's friends, you are my friends, if you do it, I commend you. So I don't care who you are. If you are doing de facto in some fashion, whatever the Lord has commanded his own students, disciples, students, see, then you are the beloved, you are the sheep, and someday because we will all be judged, you will hear, Well done good and faithful servant. For some of us I suspect the truth will come out once and for all definitively, Depart from me for I never knew you. So again, this is tough stuff, but what can we say, Hollie? This is the truth.
Hollie Benton 20:18
The Lord provides each day.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 20:20
Hollie Benton 20:21
Thank you, Fr. Timothy, appreciate the conversation.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai