It was the time of the Feast of the Exodus and Jesus knew that his time on earth was short, and he was soon to go to the Father. Yet, he loved his disciples on the earth, and he never stopped loving them, even to the end. At the time of the Feast, the Great Liar already convinced Judas Iscariot to hand Jesus over to the authorities. Jesus knew that the Father had granted him authority over all things, and that his purpose was to come from God and to return to Him.
Given all this, Jesus got up from the meal, set aside his dress coat and put on an apron. Jesus asked all of the disciples if they wanted anything as a refreshment, filling their wine cups. Then Jesus took a basin, filled it with water and washed all the disciple’s feet, wiping them dry with his apron.
As he came to Simon the Rock, Simon asked, “Do you think you’re going to wash my feet?” Jesus responded, “You don’t get it now, but you will understand later.” Simon the Rock said, “No. You will NOT wash my feet. It’s too humiliating. I won’t let you.” Jesus calmly said, “If you do not allow me to wash your feet then walk out and don’t come back. If you want to be of my nation, then you must allow this.” Simon said, “Well, then wash all of me—my hands are pretty filthy and I haven’t washed my hair for a while…” Jesus interrupted him, “You are already completely clean, because your commitment to me cleanses you. If you’ve taken a bath, you just need your feet washed, not your whole body. Yet your whole is not clean.” When Jesus said this last bit, he was referring to the Betrayer, who was still there in the room with them.
After all their feet had been washed, Jesus took off the apron, put on his dress coat, and stood in front of them. “Do you understand what I have done? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Master’, which is good, because that’s who I am. So if you see your Master being hospitable to you, then you must do so to each other. I gave you this example, so that you would act in this way. You are not greater than I—I am the one who sent you. It is good if you know what I teach you, but it is better if you do it—if you do what I do. Mind you, I am not talking to all of you. I have chosen you, but one of you was chosen to fulfill the Scripture, ‘He who receives my hospitality has slapped me in the face.’ I tell you this ahead of time so you will understand when it happens. Listen carefully—whoever welcomes into his home one of my workers actually receives me. And whoever receives me welcomes God who sent me to earth.
In many Mennonite traditions, it is common to take Jesus’ command to wash each other’s feet as a sacrament. Thus, in many churches in the celebration of the week of Passion, they have a ceremony in which the church member’s feet are washed by each other. What happens is really quite surprising. We are often shocked at our reserve, at our measure of politeness.
Many of all—perhaps all of us, at first—take on the reaction of Peter—“You won’t wash MY feet.” We like to think that it is because our feet are dirty, filthy, undeserving to be touched. But I think, if we explore our feelings more carefully, we find that there are one of two real reasons for our hesitance. First of all, we find the touch of our bare feet to be intimate—too intimate. We are allowing someone who is fundamentally a stranger touch us in a sensitive and personal place. The second reason is because we are exposing a hidden part of ourselves to people. We are allowing people to see that which should not be seen. Opening ourselves up to the air what had been safely hidden. What we are really feeling is the shame of nakedness.
Now the fact of the matter is that when Jesus got up, wrapped a cloth around himself and washed the disciples feet, he was not proclaiming a new sacrament. We no longer do the daily practice of foot washing and so we do not understand the context in which it was placed, as the disciples did. Foot washing was done for the guest, as they came to stay at one’s house. Even as today, when we have a guest, we might offer them something to drink, even so the host of the ancient world offered to have the guest’s feet washed. It was the first part of a whole ritual of hospitality that included drink and food and possibly spending the night.
But although there was much ritual surrounding it, hospitality fulfilled a real need. To offer a drink in the ancient world was no empty ritual like we have, for usually we offer a drink to those who are not thirsty. Rather, the ritual of hospitality is given to one who has traveled, by foot, a long distance. Perhaps only as short as a mile, but often it is a long journey of a day or two, during which water is scarce and food more so. To travel was to endanger oneself, for bandits roamed the countryside and there was little security, and therefore little sleep. To offer hospitality, then, is to offer drink to the thirsty, food to the hungry and a safe place to sleep to those who are exhausted. Foot washing is the first part of this, for it cleans the dirt off the road, and makes one more comfortable, not just personally, but also taking away the anxiety of the traveler that he might be dirtying one’s home.
Thus, when Jesus was commanding his disciples to wash each other’s feet, he was telling them to practice the whole of the hospitality ritual to each other, not just a part of it. It was Jesus’ plan that many of his disciples would be travelers—itinerant evangelists—who would need to have many stations throughout the world, in need of hospitality. Thus, he is commanding his disciples, not to wash feet, but to meet the needs of the disciples. It is the introduction of the command he gives a number of times in a number of ways in the following chapters: “Love one another”, “Greater love has no man than this than to lay down his life for his friends.” A part of this love, John insists (especially in his letter—I John 3:17) is to offer hospitality. Food, drink, a place to stay and possibly clothing to those in need. It is a command to be a social network for disciples of all shapes, colors and creeds.
This is a command that Jesus gave many other times. “If anyone is to give even a cup of cold water to even the least of these because he is my disciple he shall not lose his reward.” “If anyone offers hospitality to you, they offer it to me.” “In as much as you have done so to the least of my brothers, you have done it to me.” To be hospitable to believers isn’t a nice idea, it is a foundational moral command of the church.
Another thing to notice is that Jesus washed the feet himself. This is a unique feature, and the one that Peter most noticed. When a host offered to wash a guest’s feet, he did not do this act himself. Rather, he had a servant do the washing. Thus, there is no discomfort as to having one’s feet washed by a peer, or (God forbid) one greater than one. Rather, it is done by a negligible one—a person beneath one’s notice.
However, Jesus, in this scenario, placed himself in the servant’s role. Yet the disciples could not pretend that Jesus was beneath notice, to be ignored. Peter finally couldn’t accept the contradiction between how Jesus was acting and who he was, and so he spoke up. But it was imperative for Jesus to be the servant. In this way, the disciples could also take on that role. It is not enough to say that a Christian could take on any role, no matter how lowly, no matter how marginal it made one.
Rather, Jesus command is for all of us to do the menial tasks, the servant place. It is a part of our participation in the Christian community. This is why Jesus said that leaders must act like servants—they must do the menial tasks, the tasks that made them lowly. (Luke 22; Mark 8). They must lower themselves to be the servants, even as Jesus did. Not a single Christian leader, or Christian member or Christian teen or Christian pew-warmer can escape from Jesus command of service. We must be the lowly to the lowly. We must offer help to those in need, where they are, where we find them. And we must make ourselves as less important than they.
One last thing that Jesus emphasized. When Peter complained to Jesus that he would not receive the foot washing—that he would not participate in the demeaning of Jesus—Jesus responded with a stern rebuke. He said that if Peter wanted to be a part of Him, a part of His community, then not only did he have to serve, but he had to be served.
Often we think of ourselves as undeserving of help. But, more often than not, we think of ourselves as too independent to help. We have been raised in a society in which independence is most significant. If we are in need, we ought not to ask, we ought not to receive, for it is a wrong for us to put other’s out, to make them help us.
Jesus thinks of service in a different way. When we are in need, we are providing an opportunity for others in the church to be like Jesus. We are providing an opportunity for service, for community to build, for us to be dependent on each other. And frankly, it is this last that our society loathes, that we all secretly hate. We cringe at the thought of being dependent on others, to rely on others for help. But the fact is, that is exactly what Jesus is creating with this example, with this physical parable. Jesus is creating a community of mutual dependence. We are to lean on each other, and give to each other. We should be dependable in our dependence on each other. We help each other’s needs and we give to each other’s needs. We love and are loved. We give and receive. And so we are the people Jesus commanded us to be.