Whose Feet are in Your Basin?

Vernard Eller

In the Gospels we are told of two kingdoms, each represented by its king. These two come into a confrontation that focuses upon their respective basins. The issue between them centres on freedom, power, and security; and thus the incident can speak to us in our world of military madness.

The kingdoms are ‘the kingdom of God’ on the one hand, and ‘the kingdom of this world’ on the other. The respective kings are Jesus and Pilate. Of course, Pilate was only a military governor and thus a deputy of the actual king, Caesar. Yet just so, Jesus claimed to have been anointed (deputized) by the one for whom the kingdom of God is named; so the parallel is closer than we might think. In any case, in their confrontation, each filled the function of king.

In the context of a dispute among the disciples, the Gospel of Mark has King Jesus defining the difference between the two kingdoms some days before the confrontation itself takes place:

‘You know that in the world the recognized rulers lord it over their subjects, and their great men make them feel the weight of authority. That is not the way with you; among you, whoever wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the willing slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give up his life as a ransom for many.’

Jesus, of course, here has spotted the world just exactly right; and Pilate well fills the bill as a ‘recognized ruler’. He had a reputation for handing down cruel and arbitrary decrees. He had made efforts to suppress the worship of the Jews and desecrate their holy places. In consequence, he had to put down insurrections and had proved wholly competent in doing so. He had the POWER to lord it over his subjects and make them feel the weight of his authority. This gained him the FREEDOM to have things pretty much his own way. And his way was to maintain rather tight SECURITY regarding his own position and that of the Empire.

Jesus, then, proceeds to describe his own kingdom in completely different terms: ‘This is not the way with you’. The principles of his regime are serving rather than being served, the giving up of one’s life, being a willing slave of all. There’s nothing here of POWER. FREEDOM is nonexistent (unless one chooses to credit the word ‘a willing slave of all’ – and some freedom that!). And SECURITY…?

Jesus’ statement makes it plain that, in his kingdom, the behaviour of the citizenry is to be modelled after that of their head. Perhaps it goes without saying that the principle holds in Pilate’s kingdom as well: people are out after all the freedom, power, and security they can get; the king is the one who has best succeeded and so takes it upon himself to administer these things for the rest.

The lines are drawn; and the advantage is on Pilate’s side all the way!

On the way to the great Kingdom Confrontation, Jesus took up the basin that was to signify and demonstrate the quality of his Kingship: ‘Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash his disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel’ (John 13:5).

Now things were getting serious. Earlier, all Jesus had done was say words; here he is doing them. Washing feet was the most menial of services; in fact, it was slave labour, nothing else. Peter knew this and made the proper response: ‘I will never let you wash my feet. That is no way for a king to act; so get off your knees and quit making a fool of yourself and of us. Kingdoms are not built that way.’

But Jesus did wash the feet of Peter and the others. And then he said, ‘You call me “Master” and “Lord”, and rightly so.’ He was not about to let his action be taken as a denial of his kingly status and authority. Further, he said, ‘I have set you an example; you are to do as I have done for you.’ The way of the king is meant to be followed.

John’s is, of course, the only Gospel to describe the basin and feetwashing. However, in Luke’s account of the Lord’s supper, there is a passage which can be understood as nothing other than a verbal equivalent. It shows some relationship to our earlier text from Mark but is different enough to command separate consideration:

‘Then a jealous dispute broke out: who among them should rank highest? But he said, In the world kings lord it over their subjects: and those in authority are called their country’s “Benefactors”. Not so with you: on the contrary, the highest among you must bear himself like the youngest, the chief of you like a servant. For who is greater – the one who sits at table or the servant who waits on him? Surely the one who sits at table. Yet here am I among you like a servant. You are the men who have stood firmly by me in my times of trial; and now I vest in you the kingship which my Father vested in me; you shall eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones as judges of the twelve tribes of Israel’ (Luke 22:24-30).

This kingdom of Jesus is not only different; it’s just plain weird: ‘In the world, kings lord it (naturally)…Not so with you (obviously)…I am among you like a slave (washing feet)…And now (not then; now on my knees) I vest in you the KINGSHIP which my Father vested in me.’ Weird is the only word for it.

As we move to the confrontation that entails Pilate’s basin, we are going to be free to pick and choose verses from several of the Gospels. We are not claiming, thus, to be doing an historical reconstruction; we are doing a theological construction.

Thursday, with its basin, was Jesus’ day. Friday, with its, was Pilate’s. And as Jesus was arrested and tried, Luke tells us: ‘That same day Herod and Pilate became friends; till then there had been a standing feud between them’ (23:12). The character of worldly regiment is inevitably marked by feuding. But Jesus’ kingdom is radically at odds with the world’s. So the worldly kingdom is quick to overlook its own differences in order to oppose his. Such is the cruciality of this confrontation.

As much as Jesus is willing to say to Pilate is: ‘My kingdom does not belong to this world. If it did, my followers would be fighting…My kingly authority comes from elsewhere’ (John 18:36). Jesus’ kingdom is different from Pilate’s; yet he is willing to pit the one against the other in direct showdown. However, the showdown will not be that of military power, because Jesus’ kingdom does not recognize or practice such. Nevertheless, Jesus does claim ‘authority’. Pilate will claim his in a bit.

‘Then Pilate said to him. “Do you not hear all this evidence that is brought against you?”; but (Jesus) still refused to answer one word, to the Governor’s great astonishment.’ (Matt. 27:13-14).

Although it may not be apparent, the battle has been joined. What Pilate’s freedom amounts to will become clear shortly; Jesus’ becomes clear now. The way of the world dictates that, when one is accused or attacked, one must defend oneself.

That is an aspect of what Jacques Ellul calls the world’s ‘order of necessity’; the world has no choice; responding in kind constitutes its only means of accomplishment. But Jesus is of ‘the order of freedom’; he doesn’t have to fight, and he doesn’t have to respond. He can afford to remain both defenceless and silent. And that, my friends, is a freedom of such quality that the world has not even comprehended it.

But shouldn’t he have taken the occasion to witness to his kingdom, win some converts, and tell the world where to go? Our strategies would seem to say ‘yes’; Jesus is free, and he says ‘no’. He understands the mindset of Pilate and his ilk. Any comprehension of the kingdom of God is simply beyond them. After all, how long did it take Jesus to get those teachings through the thick skulls of even his own disciples?

Jesus is free; and he doesn’t have to cast his pearls before swine. He is freer than we are. He knows that ‘getting the world changed’ does not depend upon him. The world – and Pilate – are in good hands and will be taken care of in due course.

 ‘Do you refuse to speak to me?’ said Pilate. ‘Surely you know that I have authority to release you, and I have authority to crucify you?’ ‘You would have no authority at all over me,’ Jesus replied, ‘if it had not been granted you from above’ (John 19:10-11).

Jesus had claimed a kingly authority; and although nowhere apparent, it is in process of carrying the day. Pilate now claims his authority; but he’s just batting the air. And it is not simply, as Jesus suggests, that he has only as much authority as God grants to him. It soon will become evident that Pilate does not actually have any choice. Authority or not, he can’t release Jesus; his authority is bound hand and foot by the world’s order of necessity.

In the face of the facts, now, Pilate finally has to say, ‘I find no case against him’ (John 18:39). And the text tells us that ‘from that moment Pilate tried hard to release him’ (John 19:12). This free, secure, powerful ruler was used to lording it over his subjects. But was he able to bring off the action he tried? Not for a moment.

‘Pilate could see that nothing was being gained, and a riot was starting; so he took water and washed his hands in full view of the people, saying, “My hands are clean of this man’s blood; see to that yourselves”’ (Matt. 27:24-25).

Here, then, on Friday, is Pilate’s basin. What does it represent? Let’s put it over against Jesus’ Thursday basin.

At the outset we made light of Jesus’ call to be ‘the willing slave of all’. That was a deliberate deception, because the word willing is indeed the very key to the kingship of Jesus. Voluntarily to take on the role of a slave is perhaps the freest action a person can take. One obviously is not being driven by any natural impulses.

Only a free person can afford to do that. And it is plain that the kingdom of the world does not and cannot provide either its citizens or its kings that degree of freedom. Jesus’ taking up the basin and towel (as a prefiguring of his taking up the cross) is the very paradigm of what freedom can be. And he offers the same freedom to those who will volunteer to wash feet and bear crosses with him.

Pilate’s basin, quite the contrary, was a public admission that he was not free to follow even his own conscience and understanding of the truth. The authority he boasted against Jesus had come to nothing. With his basin, Jesus had accepted responsibility – responsibility not only for his own action but for the welfare and healing of those he washed. Pilate tried to use his basin as an evasion of responsibility, but he has not sufficient freedom to succeed even in that. His hands did not come clean; and the blood of Jesus has continued to be upon him as much as upon anyone.

The basin of Jesus, perhaps, does not in itself show much POWER; its main point is powerlessness. Even so, it shows forth the considerable power of forgiveness and cleansing. Still, it was the powerlessness of that basin (and cross) that opened the way for the powerful action of God. God raised Jesus from the dead. Now he is King of kings and Lord of lords, and he will reign forever and ever.

But what could be a weaker, more powerless action than trying to wash one’s hands of a matter – and not succeeding? Yes, against Jesus, Pilate had all the show of power; but what did it come to? True, he managed to get Jesus killed; but where was the victory in that? Where is the victory ever in that? Is not the killing of one’s enemy always the admission that one is caught in necessity and powerless to do anything good or constructive? And for that matter, who gets hurt worse in such an encounter, the victim or the killer?

And SECURITY? Jesus’ basin does represent security, because his basin-action was in the will of God. And to be in the will of God is the only true security in time or eternity. ‘Now I vest in you the kingship which my Father vested in me’ – and such kingship is ever secure.

Pilate’s basin, on the other hand, was a clear indicator that he was losing his grip. When a ruler has to go against his better judgment in order to placate the riotous mob, he’s on his way out. Pilate gave the crowd what they wanted and turned over Jesus; but not long thereafter, under the complaints of the Jews, Pilate was recalled to Rome. There he got caught in a change of administration; and tradition has it variously that he committed suicide, was banished to the boondocks, or had his head cut off. It matters not which; this, in any case, is about as much as the world has to offer in the way of SECURITY, even to its ‘Benefactors’.

So take your pick: either Thursday’s basin or Friday’s!

And now the moral of the story (which was our only reason for telling it).

The two basins make clear the difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world. With Jesus lies the FREEDOM that is far beyond the freedom of the world. The world can’t even appreciate it as freedom. It’s the freedom in which we can voluntarily give ourselves as slaves in the service of our Lord and refuse to fight and to remain defenceless. It’s the freedom to keep silent when others dictate that we must talk back. It’s the freedom to let our very personhood be lost for Christ’s sake and the gospel’s, knowing that we then are safe.

With Jesus lies POWER. It’s not the gross, visible, person-centred power which is limited by the wisdom and character of its wielder. No, Jesus does not give us any power that we can control. He gives a power that controls us. ‘And how vast (are) the resources of power open to us who trust in him. They are measured by his strength and the might which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead’ (Eph. 1:19-20).

With Jesus, in the will of God, lies SECURITY. ‘Do not fear those (like Pilate) who kill the body…As for you, even the hairs of your head have all been counted. So have no fear; you are worth more than any number of sparrows’ (Matt. 10:28-31).

On the other hand, the basin of Pilate shows up the truth regarding the vaunted freedom, power, and security which is offered by the world. A world that knows not God must labour under an order of necessity. This order of necessity strictly limits its freedom, power, and security.

Pilate had all the advantages the world had to offer, but in the one official act left open to him, he took a basin and confessed that he was not FREE to release an innocent man. He lacked the POWER to govern the people under his charge. He could not maintain himself in the SECURITY of his own office.

In the basins, then, is demonstrated the truth of Jesus’ observation that no servant can be the slave of two masters. Therefore, choose this day whom you will serve. Above all, we Christians dare not let ourselves be duped into buying what the world calls freedom, power, and security.

Nor does it follow that we should be out railing at the world for not being the kingdom of God. Yet that’s what we so often do. No, remember always that these people are sheep without a shepherd. In spite of their best efforts, they are enmeshed in the order of necessity. As Ellul has observed, given the circumstances, the world probably does about as well as anyone would have a right to expect.

Yes, of course, the world does have to face the judgment of God but in God’s way and in his time, with or without our help. As we have been told, judgment begins with the household of God. Our first calling is to get ourselves, the church, conformed to the kingdom of God rather than demanding that the world show such conformity.

Scripture does talk about our making a witness in the world and to the world. It even gives some instruction on how to speak before magistrates and rulers. (We must be careful, however, not to let the world become merely a synonym for the state; the world includes the state but much more.) Yet we dare not use such texts to obscure the thrust of our Jesus-Pilate lesson.

Jesus showed no desire and made no effort to seek out a confrontation with the world. His emphasis was wholly on being who he was called to be, being the kingdom of God. The world, it turns out, could not help noticing the presence of this different kingdom. Nor could it overlook the implication that that presence was a challenge to the world’s own kingdom. The confrontation came surely enough and Scripture suggests that our practice of kingdom faithfulness will bring it about just as surely.

In the confrontation, Jesus made his kingdom witness. But his very defencelessness kept the confrontation from becoming a ‘confrontation’.

Jesus’ silence is not a law that prohibits Christians from addressing government. Yet that silence should alert us to a consideration we have tended to ignore. When, as is our wont, we are so very quick to berate government, lecture it, prescribe the ‘Christian’ actions it ought to take – when we do this, we do not take into account the world’s order of necessity. We see Pilate as only a ‘bad character’. We assume he could be different and could do differently – if only he would listen to and heed the advice of the ‘good’ Jesus.

But this is not at all the way in which Scripture presents Pilate. He comes through as a person no better nor worse than the common run of humankind. Yet he was a guy caught in a bind. Precious few moves were open and none of them good.

Yes, the account does place Pilate under judgment, but it expresses a real sympathy for him at the same time. Jesus declines to talk kingdom to Pilate. He knows that Pilate is not free to hear kingdom. The racket of the world (the only voice he has ever heard) already has battered him into deafness. And for Jesus to enter into argument with him would only be to forfeit his own freedom and join the world’s necessary way of doing things.

Yet we commonly confront government and the world, addressing ourselves to a freedom and capability of response that simply isn’t there. And then we get all hot and bothered. We slip out of our proper feet-washing role because the world won’t (actually, can’t) hear and heed our good advice.

No, the only proper witness to the world is one that itself demonstrates our freedom from the world. And that, Jesus’ example would indicate, may at times dictate that we quit talking and simply be the defenceless, suffering servants we are called to be.

So, take your pick: it’s either Thursday’s basin or Friday’s.

(Reprinted from The Other Side July 1977, pp20-30)

Related Resources