Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many. [Matthew 20:26-28 (NLT)]
When picturing the Last Supper, we probably visualize it much like Leonardo da Vinci’s famous mural with the men seated on chairs at one long table. While visually appealing, the picture is inaccurate. Instead of sitting on chairs with their feet concealed under the dinner table, Jews and Romans in Jesus’ day lounged on low sofas or cushions surrounding a low three-sided table called a triclinium. The cushions or couches were placed on the outside of the three sides which left the inside open for serving and entertainment. Diners would recline on their left sides, lean into the bosom of the person on their left, support their heads with their left arms, eat and drink with their right hands, and stretch their legs out to the right.
Crowded together, each person’s head wouldn’t be that far from someone else’s feet. Considering where people’s sandaled feet had walked and what they’d walked in, we now understand why providing for foot washing was an expected part of hospitality. Sometimes, a servant (usually the lowest one in the household) did this task. In the absence of a servant, however, it was customary for the host to leave out a pitcher of water, a basin, and a towel so that the guests could wash their own feet. This must have been the case that Thursday night when Jesus and the disciples gathered in the upper room.
Just a few days earlier, after the mother of James and John requested honored places for her boys in the coming kingdom, Jesus told all of the disciples, “Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave.” If everything they needed to wash their feet was there, why did the disciples walk right past the pitcher and towel? They certainly didn’t expect Jesus to wash their feet but, with no slave present to do it for them, why didn’t the men pause long enough to wash their own? Author Adam Hamilton posits that the men didn’t stop to wash their own feet because they feared that, by stopping, they might actually have to act the servant and wash someone else’s feet. In spite of Jesus’ words, it appears that the disciples still didn’t understand what it meant to be a servant leader.
Jesus was the leader and they were His followers; He was the teacher and they were His students. In truth, they were the ones who should have been washing His feet but Jesus reversed all social expectations. Wrapping the towel at his waist and filling the basin with water, He took the lowest servant’s part, knelt by each man, and washed his feet. Those were the feet of betrayers, deniers, and deserters; Jesus knew what they’d done and what they soon would do. Rather than a job for God incarnate, this was a menial chore for the lowest servant but Jesus did it anyway! He showed us all what it means to be a servant leader. May we always follow His example!