This picture, by Ford Madox Brown, has an unusually low viewpoint and compressed space. Critics objected to the picture’s coarseness – it originally depicted Jesus only semi-clad. This caused an outcry when it was first exhibited and it remained unsold for several years until Madox Brown reworked the figure in robes.
John 13 12 After he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he asked them. 13 ‘You call me “Teacher” and “Lord”, and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
1 Peter 4: 8 Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. 9 Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. 11 If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever.
The roads in Jesus’ time were unpaved and people wore sandals, covering their feet with the dust and grime of their journey. When it rained, the roads became impassable seas of mud. When it was dry, the dust mixed with sweat to coat their feet and lower legs. So the end of every journey meant the need for clean feet. But water was often in short supply in the high desert country around Jerusalem.
In a house such as this, the most lowly servant would have been tasked with feet-washing. It was the holiday season of Passover, however, so the servant might have had the night off. In this servant-less situation, it seems that each of the disciples had considered his station in life and had arrived at the conclusion that he was somewhat above this demeaning task.
Then into the smugness of their pride Jesus came to leave the whole world an example of how each of us might become like him. We can only follow him if we are willing to take up his work of the towel and basin. But the servant is never better than his lord. When we confess Jesus as Lord, nothing can ever again be beneath our dignity.
The most menial and lowly task was once performed by the Son of the highest. The Messiah of majesty could stoop to serve the muck and mess of our misery. The root of royal Jesse could quit being King long enough to be the slave. Such examples of humility still come from those who understand that servanthood is the mandate of Jesus. The towel and basin are still the most suitable symbols of all who want to follow Christ, of all who would be like him.
Lord, help me take up the towel and basin, never forgetting that I am the servant and you are the Master. Teach me that the servant is never greater than his Lord; neither is he that is sent greater than he that sent him. What can I do to serve one of your creation this Easter season . . . even today?