One of the events leading up to Jesus’s crucifixion is recorded only in John’s gospel. It probably occurred during the Last Supper, but it doesn’t matter, because this event, standing alone, underscores what was central to the life of Jesus. He was a servant.
In John 13:1-17, we read of a singular act of humility and servanthood on Jesus’s part. “[Jesus] 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.”
Sometimes, this act is minimized because it was the custom of the day for the host of a gathering in a house to wash his guests’ feet as a matter of hospitality. After all, people walked a lot in sandals during those days. Their feet were very dirty when they entered a dwelling. Jesus was just doing what everyone did. Hardly.
The host didn’t do the foot washing. A servant or slave performed this duty. Jesus was the Messiah, and we remember the impetuous Peter’s objection to what Jesus was doing. Do we remember Jesus’s response to Peter? “Now that I, your Lord…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.” As Jesus often did, he turned custom or law upside down.
Did Jesus command foot washing? Centuries of debate on this question continue, but it seems safe to say that most Christians or churches don’t practice it. Some Christians or churches do practice foot washing, however, because Jesus said to do it. Some Christians practice foot washing during the week before Easter as a way of calling attention to everything that Jesus did on his way to the cross.
In the western world today, foot washing is weird. And then there are questions about hygiene and odor. Foot washing Christians take care of these questions with the use of latex gloves and perhaps a bit of disinfectant. I’m not sure that health-related concerns are any more legitimate with foot washing than with baptism or communion, but we don’t think of the latter two practices as being weird.
It’s not my intent to get in a fight over foot washing. But I’m not sure I can think of anything else Jesus did that stands for Christian servanthood the way foot washing does. Homeless shelters practice foot washing every day. They do it because the homeless people they serve actually need it. They also do it because they are trying to follow an example set by Jesus.
The Church of the Brethren does practice foot washing. The following is a meditation used as part of the foot washing ritual.
Just plain, ordinary,
He didn’t ignore the head,
The heart and the soul
– spectacular things like that.
But I’m especially glad
That he cared about feet.
How many Messiahs ever did that?
You can wax eloquent
And be beautifully abstract
About people’s heads and hearts and souls.
But it is hard to be
Removed from human need
When you’re kneeling down on the floor
Washing another’s feet.
Dusty roads are scarce
And very few sandals are worn now.
But feet trapped in leather
Are just as tired
And just as ignored.
There still aren’t many
Who care about feet.
Something to think about as we prepare to end this Season of Lent.