During this Holy Week, I’ve thought quite a lot about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. I’ve worked my way through some tricky Greek words, wrestled with the exasperating response of Peter (who can always be counted on for that kind of thing), and contemplated the gravity of the coming days.
But mostly, I’ve just thought about Jesus – the son of God, the Almighty incarnate- kneeling down in willing service to wash 24 dusty, dirty, calloused, cracked, leathery, worn, and smelly feet.
It was an insignificant and lowly job, that foot-washing thing, worthy of nobody beyond the lowest servant. It’s a task that doesn’t get noticed, an action that doesn’t get lauded, which is perhaps why the three earliest gospel writers don’t even record it: because it wasn’t something people paid attention to; because its significance was completely lost on those who were right there to see it and experience it.
That’s the thing about foot-washing. When done in the right spirit, for the right reasons, people aren’t likely to take notice. That’s because most foot-washing jobs are entirely inglorious. Entirely. They are not the stuff of headline news or award ceremonies or viral retweets.
They are the dusty, dirty, calloused, cracked, leathery, worn, and smelly jobs. The jobs that absolutely no one wants to do. Ever. Not even a tiny little bit.
Except Jesus – who consistently throws a wrench in the way humanity would choose to live were it left to its own devices.
Like many others in a ministry community, I have washed another person’s feet – one set, anyway, after a month of really hard work during which some of us didn’t perhaps love each other quite as well as we should have all the time, so, you know, we washed feet to make things right and to publicly express unity and grace, forgiveness and humility, which, though beautiful in its own way, isn’t really the point of that foot-washing thing.
What Jesus did when he washed those 24 feet – two of whom belonged to a traitorous friend – certainly embodied unity and grace, forgiveness and humility. But more importantly, it displayed an attitude that says:
- I will do the task that no one else will do.
- I will do the task that most others consider to be beneath them.
- I will do the task that promises no rewards or accolades or notice.
- I will do the task that goes unnoticed and unappreciated.
- I will do the task that others overlook.
- I will do the task that everyone else takes for granted.
- I will do the task that leads to nothing bigger and better and grander.
- I will do the task that is unpleasant and messy and sometimes even disgusting.
- And I will do it quietly, discreetly, and humbly, to the best of my ability, with a gracious spirit.
As moving and beautiful and sincere as our actual foot-washing ceremonies may be – whether in the context of summer camp, large ministry communities, or intimate small groups – washing feet isn’t Jesus’ real challenge for us. Rather, it is to have a foot-washing attitude. In every situation. All the time.
We are all incapable of this on our own. Entirely. A foot-washing attitude cannot grow except in a soul overflowing with the Spirit’s love and grace and strength. A foot-washing attitude cannot thrive except in a life that is totally surrendered to the Lord’s sovereignty. Even more elemental, a foot-washing attitude cannot even be except in those who know their true identity in Christ, know their purpose, and have an eternal perspective – just as Jesus did.
Jesus knew that the Father had given him authority over everything, and that he had come from God, and would return to God. SO – he got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet.
During this Holy Week, when the cross proclaims his immeasurable love and the empty tomb proclaims his infinite power, that foot-washing thing that Jesus did proclaims his wholly servant-minded and humble attitude. We would do well to remember it and do likewise.
This year, I attended a Maundy Thursday service at an Episcopal Cathedral, and foot washing was part of the liturgy. But in the homily, the preacher talked about taking the towel out into our daily lives, which is, I think, a great metaphor for the sort of willingness to do the jobs no one wants to do that you are talking about here.
Yes – that sounds like a wonderful metaphor. I do not take issue with foot washing ceremonies per se, but rather with thinking a foot washing ceremony is the point – when in fact someone with Jesus’ attitude might never ever wash a single foot but will certainly humbly and willingly do many other things that others never would.