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Home > Fathers of the Church > Tractates on the Gospel of John (Augustine) > Tractate 58

Tractate 58 (John 13:10-15)

1. We have already, beloved, as the Lord was pleased to enable us, expounded to you those words of the Gospel, where the Lord, in washing His disciples' feet, says, He that is once washed needs not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit. Let us now look at what follows. And ye, He says, are clean, but not all. And to remove the need of inquiry on our part, the evangelist has himself explained its meaning, by adding: For He knew who it was that should betray Him; therefore said He, You are not all clean. Can anything be clearer? Let us therefore pass to what follows.

2. So, after He had washed their feet, and had taken His garments, and was set down again, He said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? Now it is that the blessed Peter gets that promise fulfilled: for he had been put off when, in the midst of his trembling and asserting, You shall never wash my feet, he received the answer, What I do, you know not now, but you shall know hereafter (vers. 7-8). Here, then, is that very hereafter; it is now time to tell what was a little ago deferred. Accordingly, the Lord, mindful of His foregoing promise to make him understand an act of His so unexpected, so wonderful, so frightening, and, but for His own still more terrifying rejoinder, impossible to be permitted, that the Master not only of themselves, but of angels, and the Lord not only of them, but of all things, should wash the feet of His own disciples and servants: having then promised to let him know the meaning of so important an act, when He said, You shall know afterwards, begins now to show them what it was that He did.

3. You call me, He says, Master and Lord: and you say well; for so I am. You say well, for you only say the truth; I am indeed what ye say. There is a precept laid on man: Let not your own mouth praise you, but the mouth of your neighbor. Proverbs 27:2 For self-pleasing is a perilous thing for one who has to be on his guard against falling into pride. But He who is over all things, however much He commend Himself, cannot exalt Himself above His actual dignity: nor can God be rightly termed arrogant. For it is to our advantage to know Him, not to His; nor can any one know Him, unless that self-knowing One make Himself known. If He, then, by abstaining from self-commendation, wish, as it were, to avoid arrogance, He will deny us the power of knowing Him. And no one surely would blame Him for calling Himself Master, even though believing Him to be nothing more than a man; seeing He only makes profession of what even men themselves in the various arts profess to such an extent, without any charge of arrogance, that they are termed professors. But to call Himself also the Lord of His disciples—of men who, in an earthly sense, were themselves also free-born—who would tolerate it in a man? But it is God that speaks. Here no elation is possible to loftiness so great, no lie to the truth: the profit is ours to be the subjects of such loftiness, the servants of the truth. That He calls Himself Lord is no imperfection on His side, but a benefit on ours. The words of a certain profane author are commended, when he says, All arrogance is hateful, and specially disagreeable is that of talent and eloquence; and yet, when the same person was speaking of his own eloquence, he said, I would call it perfect, were I to pronounce judgment; nor, in truth, would I greatly fear the charge of arrogance. If, then, that most eloquent man had in truth no fear of being charged with arrogance, how can the truth itself have such a fear? Let Him call Himself Lord who is the Lord, let Him say what is true who is the Truth; so that I may not fail to learn that which is profitable, by His being silent about that which is. The most blessed Paul— certainly not himself the only-begotten Son of God, but the servant and apostle of that Son; not the Truth, but a partaker of the truth— declares with freedom and consistency, And though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I say the truth. 2 Corinthians 12:6 For it would not be in himself, but in the truth, which is superior to himself, that he was glorying both humbly and truly: for it is he also who has given the charge, that he that glories should glory in the Lord. 1 Corinthians 1:31 Could thus the lover of wisdom have no fear of being chargeable with foolishness, though he desired to glory, and would wisdom itself, in its glorying, have any fear of such a charge? He had no fear of arrogance who said, My soul shall make her boast in the Lord; and could the power of the Lord have any such fear in commending itself, in which His servant's soul is making her boast? You call me, He says, Master and Lord: and you say well; for so I am. Therefore ye say well, that I am so: for if I were not what ye say, you would be wrong to say so, even with the purpose of praising me. How, then,could the Truth deny what the disciples of the Truth affirm? How could that which was said by the learners be denied by the very Truth that gave them their learning? How can the fountain deny what the drinker asserts? How can the light hide what the beholder declares?

4. If I, then, He says, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. This, blessed Peter, is what thou did not know when thou were not allowing it to be done. This is what He promised to let you know afterwards, when your Master and your Lord terrified you into submission, and washed your feet. We have learned, brethren, humility from the Highest; let us, as humble, do to one another what He, the Highest, did in His humility. Great is the commendation we have here of humility: and brethren do this to one another in turn, even in the visible act itself, when they treat one another with hospitality; for the practice of such humility is generally prevalent, and finds expression in the very deed that makes it discernible. And hence the apostle, when he would commend the well-deserving widow, says, If she is hospitable, if she has washed the saints' feet. 1 Timothy 5:10 And wherever such is not the practice among the saints, what they do not with the hand they do in heart, if they are of the number of those who are addressed in the hymn of the three blessed men, O you holy and humble of heart, bless ye the Lord. But it is far better, and beyond all dispute more accordant with the truth, that it should also be done with the hands; nor should the Christian think it beneath him to do what was done by Christ. For when the body is bent at a brother's feet, the feeling of such humility is either awakened in the heart itself, or is strengthened if already present.

5. But apart from this moral understanding of the passage, we remember that the way in which we commended to your attention the grandeur of this act of the Lord's, was that, in washing the feet of disciples who were already washed and clean, the Lord instituted a sign, to the end that, on account of the human feelings that occupy us on earth, however far we may have advanced in our apprehension of righteousness, we might know that we are not exempt from sin; which He thereafter washes away by interceding for us, when we pray the Father, who is in heaven, to forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors. Matthew 6:12 What connection, then, can such an understanding of the passage have with that which He afterwards gave Himself, when He explained the reason of His act in the words, If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you? Can we say that even a brother may cleanse a brother from the contracted stain of wrongdoing? Yea, verily, we know that of this also we were admonished in the profound significance of this work of the Lord's, that we should confess our faults one to another, and pray for one another, even as Christ also makes intercession for us. Romans 8:34 Let us listen to the Apostle James, who states this precept with the greatest clearness when he says, Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another. James 5:16 For of this also the Lord gave us the example. For if He who neither has, nor had, nor will have any sin, prays for our sins, how much more ought we to pray for one another's in turn! And if He forgives us, whom we have nothing to forgive; how much more ought we, who are unable to live here without sin, to forgive one another! For what else does the Lord apparently intimate in the profound significance of this sacramental sign, when He says, For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you; but what the apostle declares in the plainest terms, Forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye? Colossians 3:13 Let us therefore forgive one another his faults, and pray for one another's faults, and thus in a manner be washing one another's feet. It is our part, by His grace, to be supplying the service of love and humility: it is His to hear us, and to cleanse us from all the pollution of our sins through Christ, and in Christ; so that what we forgive even to others, that is, loose on earth, may be loosed in heaven.

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Source. Translated by John Gibb. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1701058.htm>.

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