Jesus Interprets the Meal (John 13): A Maundy Thursday Reflection

In the Gospel of John Jesus does not celebrate the “Last Supper” in the Upper Room with his disciples as is described in the other three gospels. In John he has already identified himself with the bread (Jn.6) and the wine (Jn.2). So in the Upper Room Jesus acts out a parable which interprets the meaning of the Supper as the other gospels present it.

This parable is that of Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet (Jn.13:1-17). The Lord becomes the Servant, performing a most menial task. In the world of that time a Gentile slave could be ordered to wash someone’s feet but a Jewish slave could not. That the Jewish Jesus does this, chooses to do it, shows this is an act of freely chosen humility (humiliation?) not an imposed task. Further, this foot-washing was something that wives would do for husbands, children for parents, and disciples for their masters. Jesus, then, reverses the roles in relation to his disciples. We can conclude, then, that this radical act of service was a freely chosen act of reversal of relations with others in order to serve them as they have need.

In John’s gospel, Jesus’ act of foot-washing interprets the meaning of Supper he shares with his disciples in the other gospels. Sharing the bread and the wine at the Lord’s Table is the recollection of how he recapitulated in his life, and pre-eminently at the cross, the truth of the Lord who serves his people to save them, even unto death, the death on a cross (Phil.2:8). It is also a celebration of our participation in in saving servanthood (by eating and drinking of his “body” and “blood”). Finally, the meal anticipates the great messianic banquet in the kingdom of God when the Lord will return and again don the servant’s garb and serve his people (Lk.12:35-40).

All this is intimated in Jesus’ action in the Upper Room that night. The disciples did not fully understand the significance of what Jesus did, though he clearly told them that they were to emulate him in washing other’s feet. And we still struggle as his disciples to grasp it today! It has proved more than difficult for Jesus’ disciples today to freely choose to adopt the role of servant to one another in the church and to others in the outside world. Those few that do we call “saints,” an exalted status that only a few can reach, so as to distance ourselves from Jesus’ commandment to do so ourselves.

Dorothy Day, who served the church and the poor buy feeding them and advocating for them through the Catholic Worker movement she helped found in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City, is one such “saint.” She however refused the accolade, saying she didn’t want to be dismissed so easily. Just so.

As we come to the Table this night, keep in mind Jesus’ own interpretation of this meal. We might better remember that if we hear it in music. So we’ll listen to Michael Card sing “


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