It’s one of the most famous moments in the gospels – just before the Last Supper, Jesus prepares to wash the feet of his disciples. This sends a wave of utter horror through the group, but Jesus insists, to the point of saying Peter is effectively rejecting him if he doesn’t have his feet washed. It’s an incredibly moving scene – the Messiah, the King, the Son of God, kneeling to wash the feet of a group of ordinary, working class men.
Of course, it’s hard for us to truly wrap our heads around this. We wear shoes. We wear socks. Okay, there are few of us who would claim their feet as their most attractive feature, but apart from being a little sweaty, most of the people reading this probably aren’t sitting there with filth-encrusted feet.
It was different back in the day. No nicely paved roads, just dusty tracks. Walking those tracks in just sandals, or worse, barefoot, isn’t going to leave you particularly clean at the end of the day. Or even healthy – how many times did the disciples get blisters, cut their heels on stones, stub their toes?
That’s before we get onto another major issue – there were a lot more animals walking the same roads at the time. Do the maths.
All this considered, it’s not surprising that washing the feet of guests was a job that fell to servants. Sure, the head of the household may be magnanimous and provide water – not to do so would be a failure of hospitality (as Jesus points out elsewhere) – but he wasn’t about to get on his knees and do the cleaning. No, that job was delegated. The most important guy in the room absolutely, positively, did not wash feet.
And yet Jesus did.
You can imagine the horror that crosses Peter’s mind though. Here’s Jesus about to do the job of a servant – bad enough, but Jesus is about to wash his feet. That’s the sort of thing that would remind Peter of exactly how disgusting his feet were. No way did he want Jesus doing that job, it was just wrong.
(There is another biblical passage that records an honoured person offering to wash feet – David has just asked Abigail to marry him, and her response is to accept this by offering to become like a servant and to wash the feet of David’s household. Template for Jesus’s actions or an example of the sort of roles women were expected to fulfil at the time? Or both?)
And so maybe that’s why the whole thing takes on a metaphorical aspect as well – suddenly it feels as though the passage isn’t just about dirty feet, it’s about dirty souls as well. It’s about the need for forgiveness and, crucially, grace – the Son of God isn’t sitting up there dispensing divine justice with lightning bolts, he’s seen the problem of sin and evil and dirt that plagues humanity, gets down there and does something about it, to the extent of becoming like a servant. To the extent of dying, brutally and in disgrace. The implications of this, once we see it like this, are both agonising and awe-inspiring – God does this for us out of love. No wonder Peter was so shocked. No wonder Jesus was so insistent.
The practice of foot-washing has continued down the centuries as a re-enactment of what Jesus did, but I wonder if making it a ritual robs it of some of its power – maybe we’d discover the power of the story more if we did something shocking – clearing out blocked drains, for instance, or cleaning toilets. But even these lack the immediacy of foot-washing. It’s personal and reminds us of what God did for us. It’s a message of love and grace.
The question is, do we accept it?
(There’s a follow-up post to this one here…)