by Lois Tverberg
[Jesus] 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… [Afterwards, he said,] “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. – John 13:4-5,14
In Jesus’ ministry, humility and serving others bears an important role, and in the above passage, Jesus embodies these themes in his washing of the disciple’s feet. He speaks with disgust about teachers who “love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues” (Matt. 23:6) and then he says, “The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (vs. 11-12).
Honor was vital in the first century context, and many customs sought to differentiate those with less status from those with more. Specifically, Jewish culture expected disciples and students to honor their teachers. Disciples were to act as servants to their rabbi, serving his food and pouring water over his hands for him to wash. When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, he not only violated the custom that delegated this task to the lowest household servant but also epitomized humility as he served those who were supposed to serve him. His example is even more poignant in light of the disciples argument that evening about was who was the greatest among them.
Interestingly, a similar story is told about the great Rabbi Gamaliel, who was head of the Sanhedrin and defended the disciples in Acts 5:34-40. He was an influential figure in later Judaism as well.
At a banquet, he got up and served food and drink to several rabbis who were of much less stature than him, which shocked them. A debate ensued about whether the great rabbi could set aside his own honor and serve the others. Some had initially rejected his service, just as Peter rejected Jesus’ offer to wash his feet. But finally, they declared that he could:
Is Rabbi Gamaliel a lowly servant? He serves like a household servant, but there is one greater than him who serves. Consider Abraham, who, even though he was the greatest of his generation, ran to serve what looked like three lowly wanderers (Gen. 18:8). But there is one even greater than Abraham who serves. Consider the Holy One, blessed be He, who brings forth rain and causes the earth to bloom and arranges a table before each and every person. And, during the exodus from Egypt, God walked in front of the Jewish people. (Ex. 13:21) Ordinarily a king would walk or ride in the rear of the party. This shows us that God was willing to suspend God’s own dignity and, therefore, all the more so can a rabbi.
It is interesting that Gamaliel, who sympathized with the early church in the book of Acts, is recorded as acting very similarly to Jesus by humbly serving others. Could he have been influenced by Jesus’ teaching? The Gospels say that he was familiar with the famous rabbi and his unique movement, so it is a strong possibility.
Paul, a disciple of Gamaliel, beautifully brings all these ideas about the humility of God in the person of Christ himself in his letter to the Philippians:
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phillipians 2:5-11)