Although we can read a plain text for our meditation, to understand it properly we need the help of a commentary. In fact, without the help of commentaries it is impossible for us to understand the whole meaning of a text. The commentators help us by investigating and meditating upon the context and theology of a particularly text to understand the meaning properly.
I’ve benefited a lot from a commentary by Tom Wright. His presentation is very practical and very challenging and several times it helped me to understand the text completely in a different way which I never thought or read about it before. In his commentary on John 13:12, Wright gives a vivid image about the pattern which the Lord given us for to follow. But the way he narrates is very appealing to our spirit. As we read one point, our curiosity increases to know further what he is going to say. So the next para or point not only highlights the previous para or point, but also takes us to the climax in a dramatic way which will inspire us very much.
It is worth meditating each para slowly so that we can be ready for the next point. And when we read the whole commentary a beautiful tapestry is unfolding in front of our eyes.
Before presenting his points Wright says:
I’ve never done a needlepoint tapestry… but I’ve watched, and I know how it’s done. You need the pattern, the outline: someone has to design it, and colour it on to the canvas so that the artist can see which coloured threads go where. Then the pattern has to be followed very carefully, stitch by stitch. It’s laborious, and a bit of a strain on the eyes, but as the work develops there is a growing sense of excitement as the picture comes alive, and of anticipation of the complete work. Finally it is framed, ready to be hung on the wall as an object of beauty and interest, a sign both of love and of a particular moment.
—Tom Wright, John for Everyone, London, SPCK (2004), Indian Edition, Delhi, ISPCK, 2015, Part 2, p. 47
As I do lots of cross stitch work, particularly with a complicated one, I clearly understood the way he described making a tapestry. I am attaching one which at present I am doing. I can understand when Wright wrote about ‘stitch by stitch…a bit of as strain on the eyes (but lots of strain)….
Next, Wright says this:
Jesus speaks in verse 15 of giving his followers a pattern to copy. The word he uses could mean, in the ancient world, a picture showing how something was to be done, a tracing that someone else would follow, filling in the details. And this pattern sets Jesus’ followers a task so laborious, requiring such a strain not only on the eyes but also on the nerves, will, heart and energy, that we shouldn’t be surprised at how many of us fail to get it right. Jesus, having washed his disciples’ feet, declares that he has established a pattern for them to follow.
Why is this so hard? What does he have to go on to insist that the slave is not greater than the master, that the person who is sent is not greater than the person who sent them? (p.47)
Because we are proud. Today, when we perform the foot-washing ceremony in our churches….it is the leader, the senior minister, who does it. (p.47) It has become a sign of leadership. When Jesus did it, he was doing what normally a slave would do; but when we do it, we’re doing what Jesus did. Though, as I said before, it is a deeply intimate and moving thing to do, it is still, rather obviously, the leader of the congregation copying Jesus—and, in a strange way, having his or her own authority and status enhanced by doing so.
Somehow we need to get beyond this. Thank God there are many Christian leaders who do. Of course, the acting out of the symbol is only the tip of the iceberg. The critical thing is whether the same leader is prepared to get up in the middle of the night to sit beside the bed of an old, frail, frightened man who is dying all alone. The test that matters is whether the same leader is ready, without a word of either complaint or boasting, to stay behind after the meeting and do the washing-up or put out the garbage. Of course, it’s important that everybody in a church family helps with the necessary tasks. But the truly Christlike leader is known by the ease and spontaneity with which he or she does the little, annoying, messy things—the things which in the ancient world the slave would do, the things which in our world we always secretly hope someone else will do so we won’t have to waste our time, to demean ourselves.
Or even if we do, we wish that someone would notice it and proclaim it to others so that others will appreciate it.
The church needs to learn this again and again, because (God forgive us!) we are so readily subject to the temptation to proclaim Jesus as Lord when what we really mean is that we, his servants, are rulers of this or that province in his kingdom. We easily create little spheres of influence, of power, and we enjoy exercising it. We talk about the kingdom of God in the hope that some of that kingly glory will rub off on us. We draw attention to the promises about God’s people in Christ being ‘kings and priests’ in order that we can lord it over others. And we quietly forget about the servant bits, the nuisance bits, the things which … yes, the things which Jesus would have done. (p.48)
Of course, there are endless possibilities for self-deception here. We can so easily use the doing of menial tasks themselves as a way of avoiding the real and important, but demanding, vocations that we alone can fulfil. Or we can even use them as a way of showing how humble we are, so that we can be proud – of being humble! At that point the right answer is to laugh at ourselves and get on with something else
The point is that, for us as for Jesus, we should be looking away from ourselves, and at the world we are supposed to be serving. Where the world’s needs and our vocation meet is where we ought to be, ready to take on insignificant roles if that’s what God wants, or to be publicly visible if that is our calling. And, as with Jesus, the picture of footwashing is meant to serve not only as a picture of all sorts of menial tasks that we may be called to perform, without drawing attention to them. It also points towards the much larger challenge, the challenge that Jesus issued to Peter in the last chapter of the book, the challenge to follow Jesus all the way to the cross, to lay down life itself in the service of God and the world he came to save.
Balancing the warning about servants not being greater than their master is the promise at the end of the passage. Those who go in Jesus’ name, who get on with whatever work he gives them to do in his spirit and his love, are given an extraordinary status and privilege. Anyone who welcomes them, welcomes Jesus, and thereby also welcomes ‘the one who sent him’. You probably won’t realize it at the time. You’ll be too busy thinking of the people you’re working for and with. But, as you look back, you may be startled by the joy of realizing that as you walked into that house, that hospital, that place of pain or love or sorrow or hope, Jesus was waling in, wearing your skin, speaking in your tone of voice. ‘I’ve given you a pattern’, he said, and he meant it.
…To wash someone else’s feet, you have to think of yourself as (p.55) only a slave. That, as we saw, can feed all the wrong kind of thinking: it can produce a sort of inverted pride, a pride at one’s own humility. But with love there’s no danger of that. Love is all about the other person. It overflows into service, not in order to show off how hard-working it is, but because that is its natural form.
—Tom Wright, John for Everyone, London, SPCK (2004), Indian Edition, Delhi, ISPCK, 2015, Part 2, pp. 55-56