That Washing Feet Thing Jesus Did

It’s Holy Week, and someone somewhere will be washing feet. This is because in John 13, during the last meal with his disciples before his arrest, Jesus takes time to wash the feet of his disciples. This act was significant in their culture. In those days, in that culture, part of welcoming someone into your home was having a slave (δοῦλος ‘doulos’ is the Greek word used, and that means slave) attend to the guest with a towel and water to wash the guest’s hands and feet. They travelled a lot and roads were dusty. Anyway, point is Jesus took on the job of the lowest person in the social hierarchy, the person with no rights or even identity. The person whose job it was to welcome guests and wash their hands and feet. The person who didn’t even get to share in the meal that the guests would be eating.

Is there an equivalent in my culture? If I welcome a guest to my home and offer to take their coat and hang it up for them, I am still going to sit down and eat with them. So this weird foot washing thing wasn’t just Jesus being hospitable. Jesus took on the role of a slave. He did the job no one else wanted to do. And he did this for the benefit of others.  He did it “as an example to follow” (John 13:15).  Something for Jesus’ followers to do as He did.  “The message is more important than the messenger, remember that” (John 13:16).

Jesus, the ‘teacher and Lord’, didn’t demand to be waited on. No, he chose to wait on them, the students. He flipped the social order on its head. And then, he invited his students to go about flipping social orders as well (v14-15). As Archbishop Justin Welby writes in his book Dethroning Mammon:

“John 13 is an invitation to turn the world upside down through humble acts of service. That is the Christian revolution. Jesus has given us a superpower: there is nothing in this world so ugly that it can’t be turned into something beautiful with God.”

As followers of Jesus, we too are meant to ‘wash feet’, but I’m not convinced going around with a pitcher of water and a towel and stopping people in the town centre is what Jesus had in mind. That’s just weird, and it’s not really weird in a helpful or meaningful way.  However, offering foot washing and foot care service to the homeless (as a volunteer at the Hope Centre in town used to do) that would be a foot washing in line with what Jesus was on about. Pope Francis washing the feet of prisoners, maybe. But sadly, I’m not convinced that what we tend to do in churches is what Jesus had in mind. I could be wrong. Tell me if I am. But I wonder – have we ritualised foot-washing to the point of forgetting what Jesus was really doing?

What would the modern day equivalent be to this act of humble service?

In India, maybe Jesus would have assumed the role of a Dalit toilet cleaner? Maybe Jesus would have dove into the sewers with no protective clothing? And maybe he would have taught his disciples to do likewise? But foot washing wasn’t just an ‘undesirable task’. It was also an act of hospitality, of welcoming someone into your home. Like a Kurdish refugee offering me food every time I stopped by for a visit. Despite her lack of wealth, she was over flowing with generosity in her heart.

What would ‘foot washing’ really look like today? Who is the “slave” in my community? Who does the jobs no one wants to do? Who doesn’t get to share in the feast and the celebrations?

What is Jesus calling His followers to go about doing today, in 2017, wherever we happen to be gathering and sharing the Lord’s Supper today?  Who is Christ calling us to serve in such a way as to remind them of God’s love for them?  What act of service are we called to do that speaks of Jesus’ body broken for us all, including them?

May God bless us all with a greater awareness of His presence, love and overflowing generosity this Holy Week.


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