by Bill Tuck
When I was pastor of St. Matthews Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, one of my church members told me that one of the most vivid memories that he had from his small rural church was the service of foot washing. I don’t expect that there are too many of us who have actually participated in church foot washing services. Some church traditions observe foot washing as an annual practice of their Maundy Thursday liturgy. Monks in Benedictine Monasteries wash the feet of guests as a part of their hospitality. But among many church groups today any talk about foot washing usually brings only snickers or sneers.
John is the only gospel writer to record the foot-washing episode. John seems to depict the setting of this story on the night before the Passover. The other gospels set the Last Supper on the night of the Passover celebration itself. John, however, shows Jesus being crucified on the Passover. You can debate whose chronology is correct. John’s purpose was to depict Jesus as the Paschal Lamb. Raymond Brown, the noted New Testament scholar, observes that there is nothing in the Passover tradition that can be compared to foot washing. This episode then was simply an occurrence that arose out of the need at a particular moment.
The traditional approach sees this story primarily as a sign of the humility of Jesus. What was it that prompted Jesus to initiate this acted parable? The attitude of the disciples as they approached this meal likely gives us a clue. Many scholars feel that the disciples were probably debating who was going to be the greatest in the Kingdom of God right before they came to the table. The air may have been thick with hostility. Angry thoughts were directed at the two disciples who thought they were going to be “big shots” in Jesus’ kingdom when he came into power.
The assignment of who washed the feet of the other disciples was likely a duty at which they took turns. No one disciple would have had it all the time. Whoever’s turn it was this night ignored it. As the disciples came in for the Passover meal, they reclined on cushions or on the floor beside the table. Because of the heated debate about who was going to be first, no one was going to stoop to do a slave’s work of washing somebody else’s dirty feet.
John said: “Jesus took a towel and a basin.” The King James translation gives an incorrect image in its translation. Jesus did not wait for the meal to be over before he got up. Jesus got up and girded himself in the middle of the meal, as though he could stand it no longer. Had he wondered why no one had accepted the customary duty of washing the feet of the disciples? He could feel the tension among his disciples, so he stopped eating and took a towel and basin. He might have taken a sword as a sign of religious power. He might have taken gold as a sign of monetary power. He might have taken the Torah as the sign of religious power. He might have taken a crown as a sign of political power. But he took a towel and basin—a sign of humility and service—and washed the feet of the disciples.
Why did Jesus perform this humble act of a servant? John tells us, “Because Jesus loved them to the limits.” He loves the disciples to the “uttermost.” Jesus loved all of the disciples. Judas was not excluded. John clearly indicates that Jesus knew that he was going to be betrayed by Judas. Jesus washed the feet of all the disciples, including Judas. Can you imagine Jesus tenderly washing Judas’ feet? Did Jesus whisper to him, “You still have an opportunity to turn away from your act of betrayal?” Up to the end Jesus tried to reach Judas. Were there still some words of love that were projected? We do not know. But the only defense Jesus used was love. Even his touch, however, could not deter Judas.
Jesus washed the feet of the disciples and this acted parable symbolized humility and service. But this action was much more than that. It was also a sign of cleansing. When Jesus approached Peter, the “big fisherman” was filled with astonishment and shame because he had been unwilling to perform the fatigue duty of washing the feet of the other disciples. “No, Lord,” Peter exclaims, “You can’t wash my feet.” “If you do not allow me to wash your feet, you have no part of me.” There have been those who have tried to interpret this statement as a reference to baptism. But it seems to me that this action is a prophetic sign. It points to the redemptive death of Christ. John is seeking to tell his readers that this act of humiliation is the sign of the One who would wash and cleanse us all by his sacrificial death. In one of our hymns we sometimes sing about “the fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins.” We are cleansed as we are plunged beneath “the fountain filled with blood.” Foot washing is a sign of the cleansing which Christ gives us through the power of his sacrifice and death. I believe foot washing is much more than a symbol about baptism. Our baptism is a sign of the greater cleansing—the cleansing that Jesus Christ brings through the essential washing of his death. The first requirement of every disciple is self-surrender. We must let Christ serve us—wash us—so we can be clean.
John tells us that Jesus was conscious of who he was. He laid aside his outer garments. This action was symbolic of Jesus “laying down” his life. “The laying aside of his outer garment” is symbolic of Jesus’ incarnation. John states that Jesus knew that he had come from God and was going back to the Father. He had laid aside his divinity and came into the world in human form. Laying aside his divinity, Jesus came into the world and took the form of a servant.
I believe that foot washing was also a sign of Jesus’ death which would bring redeeming grace to cleanse his followers. Throughout a disciple’s life, he or she would need constantly to be cleansed again, because each one would sin again and again. Having experienced the redeeming grace of Christ, we will need to return to Christ to ask him to forgive us again for our other sins.
I think this story is also a sign of a way of life. Jesus by taking a towel and a basin symbolized that his life and those who followed him were called to imitate the way of service. “I have given you an example that you should do unto others as I have done unto you.” Does that mean we are supposed to perform foot washing all the time? No, that is not the primary message of this sign. Jesus is our model—our pattern. He has called us to a higher way. We are to imitate Christ. Foot washing is a sign of our call to serve and minister in Jesus’ name.
In the Eastern Church there is a tradition for a Maundy Thursday liturgy which dates back to the fifth century. The archbishop enters the cathedral on Maundy Thursday robed in all of his vestments, accompanied by twelve priests and the reader of the Gospel. After the choir has sung the introits and collects, the celebrant removes his outer vestments and girds himself with a towel and pours water into a basin. He begins to wash the feet of the priest who represents the disciples. The priest who represents Judas eagerly sticks out his feet for Jesus to wash and kiss. Then another priest who portrays Simon Peter is in tears and draws his feet back in reluctance.
The service concludes with the recitation of the dialogue from John 13 and with the words, “Now you are clean but not all.” The archbishop turns and points to Judas. Edwyn Hoskyns, the Cambridge New Testament scholar, states that this ritual drama was not commemorated as an isolated incident in the life of Jesus nor was it merely an example of humility. “It forms,” he believes, “part of the commemoration of the Passion and the liturgy is dominated by the thought of the Incarnation, the Death, and the Resurrection of the Son of God.”
Jesus has called each of us to take a towel and basin and go into the world and serve in his name. It may be that when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, that acted parable was a sign that they were being set apart as servants too. “I have given you an example that you should do as I have done.” You are being called to serve as I have been called to serve. Some of the disciples died as martyrs. Their call to service required some of them to lay down their life for Christ.
In churches where the minister wears a robe and a stole, the stole is not worn merely as decoration. The stole is a symbol of the towel. It is a visible reminder of service. Maybe it would be appropriate for an ordination service of a minister or a deacon to include a foot washing service. The minister or deacon would actually wash the feet of others. This would be a statement that the minister is being set apart not to be a big shot in the church but to be a servant.
The Church of Jesus Christ, if it really models itself after him, will take the form of a servant. Jesus said, “I came into the world not to be ministered unto but to minister, and to give my life a ransom for many.” “The greatest of all,” Jesus said, “is the servant of all.” “If anyone would be first, he/she must be least of all.” If his church is really authentic Church, it will model its life after our Lord who took the Suffering Servant as his image. He was willing to lay down his life in sacrifice for us. The Church is not to be served or to serve itself but to minister in the world in Jesus’ name. Jesus calls us not to see whether we can be big shots but whether we can serve.
Years ago when missionaries first went to China they asked a group of Chinese pastors what most impressed them and appealed to them about the teachings of Jesus when they first heard them. None of them noted his miracles or the Sermon on the Mount. One of them said quietly that the thing that most impressed them was the story about Jesus in the upper room washing the feet of his disciples. The sign of foot washing also calls us to practical service. The Christian life is both prayer and worship, but it is also the bearing and lifting of burdens in the everyday world around us. Let us take the towel and basin, and follow our Lord who served us supremely through his death and calls us to serve and live for him.
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