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Failure and Forgiveness: What Can Holy Thursday Teach Us?

A towel and some dirty water. These humble objects are the symbolic signs of what it means to serve Christ and love one another. –Mary Louise Bringle, Feasting on the Word, Year B

a clipart image of a basin and a towel

Can you think of a time in your life when you were sick and needed someone to take care of you? Can you remember how it made you feel to depend on another person for help?

I am uncomfortable when I have to rely on others. That is why my most recent eye surgery was so difficult for me. Whether or not we have disability, there are times in all of our lives when we need assistance. We all need help sometimes, no mater how old we are.

Accepting care from another person can be difficult. Many of us would rather be the one providing help instead of being on the receiving end. Accepting help can be uncomfortable. When we need help, we often feel embarrassed or even ashamed.

Peter was uncomfortable when Christ tried to help him by washing his feet.

It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end… so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”

–John 13:1-4, NIV

On the night of the Last Supper, Jesus gave his disciples a tangible example of what it meant to follow him. He modeled a new type of radical love for them, but they still failed to understand the lesson

“It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end… so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him (John 13:1-5, NIV).”

. During the time of Jesus, roads were dusty and dirty. If they could afford shoes, people wore sandals. Poor people went entirely without shoes. A person’s feet were usually very dirty.  

In the ancient world, the act of foot washing was reserved for the most lowly servants or slaves. Often, servants would bring guests water to wash their own feet when they entered someone’s house. Peter and the disciples did not know why Jesus would want to perform such a demeaning task for them. It seemed unfathomable that the Messiah would lower himself in this way.  

Peter was especially confused. From his words, we can infer that Peter felt uncomfortable and possibly even embarrassed. He asks Jesus, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet (John 13:6)?

Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”

Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well (John 13:7-9)!”

When Peter finally agrees to allow Christ to wash his feet, he does so because he is afraid of being separated from Christ.  He still fails to understand the  true significance of what is taking place.

After Jesus completes the act of foot washing, he uses it as a teaching moment for his disciples. He takes time explain the meaning of the symbolic action he has performed:  

 “When 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.  “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet .I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

–John 13:12-16, NIV

The disciples didn’t realize that soon, Christ would lower himself even more. Although Christ had tried to warn them, they failed to understand that the next day (Good Friday), Christ would humble himself so much that he would be willing to die a terrible death on the cross.

The disciples failed to understand the lesson of the foot washing. They also failed to help Christ when he needed it the most.

Holy Thursday is a day that is full of failure:

  • The disciples failed to understand the significance of the foot washing (John 13:1-17)
  • Judas failed Christ when he betrayed him lead the soldiers to him in the Garden (John 18)
  • Jesus’s disciples failed him when they deserted him (Mark 14:50)
  • Even Peter failed Christ when he denied Christ three times (Mark 14:66-72)

On Holy Thursday, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet with water. On Good Friday, Christ cried out for water from the cross.

Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.”

–John 19:28, NIV

At that moment, Christ needed someone to met his human needs. As he had cared for the disciples by washing their feet the day before—now, at the end of his life—he needed someone to take care for him.

But instead of receiving care, he was heaped with scorn and mockery.  

  A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips.  When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

–John 19:23-30, NIV

When Jesus needed his disciples the most, they all failed him. Mark tells us how Jesus was entirely abandoned, “Then all his disciples deserted him and ran away (Mark 14:50, NLT).”

Holy Thursday is a day that is full of failure– but Easter Sunday is full of forgiveness.

The Romans and the people watching did not understand what they were seeing on Good Friday. They saw a man, crowned with thorns, hanging on the cross.. They saw Jesus suffer and die after a long ordeal, and they failed to understand. They thought it was over. To them, it looked like death had finally won

They did not understand that Jesus’s experience on the cross was a triumph. It didn’t look like any victory they had ever seen. When they pictured victory, they thought of a warrior King like David, riding into Jerusalem on the back of a white steed.

How could victory look like suffering? How could triumph look like defeat? How could Jesus be the Messiah, if he died?

But despite all this sorrow and failure, Easter morning still dawned bright and clear. On Easter morning, Christ rose again. The tomb was empty, and all those who had failed Christ were welcomed back into relationship with him. They received forgiveness.

If Judas had even survived long enough to truly repent of his sins, Christ would have forgiven him as well. Sadly, depending which Gospel account you read, Judas either took his own life or suffered a violent death in a field.

All of us have failed. Our failures are not exactly the same as the mistakes the first disciples made, but we are all sinners nevertheless. We have all done unkind deeds and spoken thoughtless words. There have been times in all our lives when we ignored the cry of the needy.

However, despite all our failures, we have hope.

Conclusion: A New Commandment and a New Hope

On Holy Thursday, Christ gave us a new commandment. In some traditions, Holy Thursday is called “Maundy Thursday,” because it comes for the Latin term for this new “mandate.” After he washed the discples’s feet, Jesus told them:

      “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another –John 13:34-35, NIV.”

After Christ washed the disciples’ feet, he commanded them all to love one another.

What does that love look like? It looks like humble, every day signs of caring for one another: dirty water and a towel.  It also looks like Christ’s suffering and death on a cross. It looks like the forgiveness of Easter morning.

This Holy Week, let us recommit ourselves to this sacrificial love. May we be willing to accept care when we need it–because we all need help from one another, even if it makes us uncomfortable…

 And may we also be inspired to care for one another, as Christ cared for us.


A lot of research went into this week’s Holy Thursday meditation. I am particularly indebted to the scholarship of Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, the authors of The Last Week: A Day-By-Day Account of Jesus’s Final Week in Jerusalem. I am also thankful for the resource Feasting on the Word , especially the section by Mary Louise Bringle on Holy Thursday from Year B. (affiliate links. I highly recommend both books).

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