We wear shoes, and seldom play in the dirt
We all like to feel important (nothing like starting with a sweeping generalization, but if it’s true maybe it’s okay). We want to feel needed, respected, appreciated, and like we matter. One of the ways we go about this is mentally assigning ourselves some kind of status and then trying to find ways to gain the respect of those who we perceive as being just a bit more important than we are. An assistant manager tries to impress the manager by having a tight flow of operations (even if it means being a little tough on the employees they manage). A student tries to show mastery of the class content during an open discussion (even if they do slightly humiliate a classmate in the process). You can insert more examples, but the idea of trying to impress those “above” us is a common human experience.
Enter Jesus into the conversation. Among his last acts was humiliating himself with those who were “beneath” him, his disciples. At their last meal together he wrapped a towel around his waist and washed their feet. Foot washing was a common practice in those days, when you wear sandals in the dirt your feet get a bit grimy. It’s kind of like taking your shoes off when you enter someone’s house today. The thing was, washing feet was the job of the servants. No one of importance wanted to assume the position of kneeling before a guest, let alone wipe off the mud created by the dusty feet and water. This is why one of Jesus’ followers, Peter, told Jesus not to wash his feet. Jesus insisted, but Peter knew it made no sense for Jesus to be washing his feet. Jesus did a lot of things that made no sense, at least not to us, but I doubt he was the one with the warped view of things.
After washing thier feet, Jesus spells out the reason he did it. He affirms that his is their teacher and their Lord, and that if he did this for them, then they should serve others. They need to serve others in ways that seem humiliating. That are dirty and do absolutely nothing to exalt themselves in the eyes of others.
We (I) have a hard time with that lesson. It’s easy doing the things that make us look good. But willingly submitting to following the example of Jesus and doing things that seem beneath us is hard. We won’t do it unless we actually believe in following Jesus. If we do we’ll care more about obeying our master than concerning ourselves with what others are thinking as we do. Jesus did a lot of things like this–washing feet, hanging out with the poor, going to dinner parties that made the religious leaders question his morality–following Jesus takes courage. You have to trust that the way of Jesus, the way that looks ridiculous to the world, actually makes the most sense.