We had a discussion the other week in my exegetical class on the Gospel of John about the account in John 13 where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. I have found it to be one of the acts of Jesus that I often talk about yet have trouble understanding because we (in the West) are more than a few centuries removed from this kind of practice.
I have heard numerous sermons talking about the basic idea behind washing feet: It was done because people walked around in sandals in the dusty middle eastern landscape. It was done because people sat and ate at tables reclining and feet were often close to faces. Feet were (and still are in many places in the world) one of the dirtier parts of the body. Therefore, they had to be washed when you entered a house or ate.
So why did Jesus wash the feet of his disciples? This was typically the job of a servant. There wasn’t a servant present to wash feet. Jesus wanted to serve his disciples. He wasn’t supposed to do this. Peter recognizes this and protests – (“Lord, you – YOU – are going to wash MY feet?…No, you will not ever wash my feet” 13:6, 8).
In a few denominations, foot washing is still regularly practiced in accordance with John 13:15 (“that you also should do as I have done to you”). I’ve been in a few services where “foot washing” is done for special occasions (commissioning of leaders, during holy week, etc.). It is a nice, though uncomfortable, kind of activity. In our class discussion, Dr. Thompson pushed us further, asking if reproducing the activity actually helps us to understand the significance of what Jesus did.
Because Jesus didn’t wash feet just because feet smelled or because it was an embarrassing job and no one else wanted to do it. It’s bigger than that – it is about status.
Those of us who don’t regularly practice foot washing as a ritual or sacrament often try to come up with analogous acts of service that we can do today. When I was in college, I spoke to a group of middle school students on this topic and suggested that they think of ways that they can do something to serve someone ‘beneath them’ (I didn’t have a very good idea of who would be ‘beneath them,’ so I think I suggested a younger sibling). I think one of my examples to this crowd of students (that I am slightly embarrassed to share here) was to make their younger siblings bed for them.
An act of service? Yes. A modern parallel for Jesus’ feet washing? Maybe not so much.
Dr. Thompson suggested that the question needs to go beyond “how can we wash someone else’s feet?” Yes, we should serve others, but the extent of Jesus’ example goes far beyond a simple act of service. Instead, Jesus washing the feet of his disciples points us to a tangible expression of the way that Jesus inverted status and social roles.
Washing someones feet means giving up your own claims of status for the sake of the other. If we want to find a parallel, we need to think about living in such a way that we are offering up our own positions of status to others and humbly accepting a lower status.
I think this is one of the more difficult challenges facing Western Christianity. We are immersed in a world in which status is everything. Our status is marked by the label of our clothing, the contours of our vehicles, the cleanliness of our hair, the color of our teeth, the places we buy food, the number of letters behind our name, the vacations we take, the block which we live on, the number of figures in our paycheck, the size of our cubicle, etc.
We can’t escape it – but maybe (just maybe) we can live our lives in a way that can move towards Jesus’ subversive example of status inversion that we are commanded to follow.