Jesus washes the feet of Judas

Each of the accounts of Holy Week gives a different account of the relationship between Jesus and his disciple, Judas Iscariot. I want to puzzle a little today, in the time between the Maundy Thursday service and the Good Friday service, about what it means that Jesus washed Judas’s feet at the last supper.

The Jesus of the gospel according to John is a sort of superhero and the Judas of that abscondita 8gospel is an arch-villain. The Jesus of John is scarcely believable as a human being. Jesus the Man is much clearer in the other gospels, so the divine powers of Jesus in John are not a theological crisis. [1] Jesus is so nearly identical with God the Father, that John has trouble representing Jesus as praying in any meaningful way. Things are not as bad as this poster portrays them, but they are bad. [2]

In John, Jesus doesn’t have a eucharistic Passover supper with the disciples, where he talks about his body as bread and his blood as wine, but he does have something the other gospels don’t have at all, which is a foot washing scene. It is easy to focus on Peter, in this well-known account, because he is so flamboyant, but I want to think today about Judas.

Jesus wraps a towel around his waist and makes the rounds of his disciples, washing the feet of each one. That means he washed Judas’s feet as well. He doesn’t wait until later, after Judas has left. He does it when they are all together. He acted as the house servant of the man who later that evening would direct the Romans to the quiet place where Jesus could be safely arrested. [3]

judas 2Jesus considered the foot washing as a prophetic act. It wasn’t an act of sanitation, as if he had passed foot sanitizer around. It was more like Jeremiah (Jeremiah 27) wearing an ox yoke around so that when his countrymen asked why he was doing that, he would say that this is what is going to happen to Judah when the Babylonians invade. It is why Ezekiel cut off his hair and burned some and threw another portion into the win (Ezekiel 5). It is an action that is meant to teach something.  Here is a view of the occasion by 14th century painter, Duccio di Buoninsegna.

And what was it supposed to teach?

I, who am your lord [4], am acting the part of a servant . And if even I do that, how much more should you do that for each other? [5]However demanding that may be—”by this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if ye have love for one another”—among the disciples, it is just that much more demanding as it applies to Judas.

Think about it this way. Jesus washes Peter’s feet and then Judas’s feet and then he tells all his disciples to love and serve each other, as the foot washing illustrates. Shall we understand that, in principle, as a call for Judas to love and serve Peter and for Peter to love and serve Judas? I am reminded of Luke’s account of the return of the prodigal, in which the father very wisely instructs the servants to dress the returned son with all the emblems of the family that make him their master. [6] Does Jesus, in washing Judas’ feet in the presence of all the other disciples, instruct them, as the father in Luke’s story instructs the servants, to treat him as one of their own? Does the footwashing of both disciples mean something like that?

Consider this while you are thinking about it. In an effort to blacken Judas’s character judasfurther, John tells us not only that Judas was in charge of the common purse, but that he was stealing from it. [7] Jesus, who presumably (in John’s account) knows about this, doesn’t say anything to him about it. Jesus doesn’t ask Peter to do anything about it. What would it mean to love and serve someone who was stealing from the common treasury. What would it mean for us, in our time, to love and serve someone who was stealing from the church?

In this act of humility and service, Jesus refused to single Judas out. Jesus adopts the role of a servant in washing Judas’s feet, just like the others, even though he knows that Judas is “not clean” (13:10) and that no foot washing is going to make him clean. In his instructions to his disciples to “love one another as I have loved you,” he makes no exception of Judas.

This may be one of the scenes in the life of Jesus that has no implied meaning for us at all, as when Jesus is anointed for his burial. If it did have some direct meaning for us, I would be tempted to try to soften it by thinking about “tough love” or about the cost all the other disciples would have to pay. I don’t think I want to do that this year.

[1] They are certainly a reflection of the conflict that was well under way by the time the Gospel of John was written. In conditions of conflict the two sides increasingly diverge and Jesus gets worse in the language of his opponents and better in the language of his supporters.
[2] See Jesus praying at the tomb of Lazarus in John 11:41, 2).
[3] Just who it was who arrested Jesus varies from one account to another, but John has Roman soldiers there.
[4] There is always a little flex in the title “lord” in the Gospels because everyone who has servants is the lord whom they serve, but there is also “the Lord,” who is God and, especially in John, there is always an interaction between “lord” and “Lord” when the disciples address Jesus. I am choosing the lower case “lord” here because Jesus is making the general case.
[5] John 13:12—16
[6] That’s what the robe and the sandals and the ring mean according to Ken Bailey’s wonderful account of the story in his Poet and Peasant.
[7] Mark, who doesn’t say anything about the treasure, has a much more ambiguous view of Judas, who, when Jesus is arrested at Gethsemane, says to the mob, “Seize him and take him away securely” (translation by Raymond E. Brown in The Death of the Messiah.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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