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Foot Washing: Dirty Feet

"Christ washing the Feet of the Disciples" about 1575-80, Jacopo Tintoretto

They had dirty feet. And there was nobody to clean them. Truth is, the thought of cleaning each other’s feet never crossed their minds. Not because they were too proud, but simply because it was not their place and there was no cultural expectation for them to do so. We usually give the disciples a hard time for not cleaning each other’s feet but that would be like criticizing a person for not paying for the groceries of the person behind them: it is not expected.

There was no social obligation to make the disciples believe they have to wash each other’s feet, especially in the Middle East where social roles are deeply ingrained. The servant is the servant and the master is the master, servants would never dream of allowing their masters to come down to do such menial tasks. To assume the disciples where expected to wash each others feet but didn’t is to steal the beauty of the story. That is what makes Jesus actions so shocking; it was literally unexpected.

The disciples were still contending of who was the greatest in the kingdom (Lk 22:4) and they had been maneuvering for position. But Jesus wanted to teach them that true greatness is revealed by humility and loving service. So he got up, took off his outer garment (which was a rabbis sign of authority), knelt down and washed his disciples feet.

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. – John 13:12-15

“You call me teacher and Lord because that is what I am. I am above you. And I being Your Lord and teacher have washed your feet, you should also do the same.” He took advantage of an opportunity to teach his disciples what it truly means to be great in the kingdom of God: To be humble and lovingly serve others.

We wash each others feet to commemorate Jesus incarnation and life of service. We wash each others feet to celebrate the arrival of the kingdom of heaven. A kingdom where the first are last and the last are first. We wash each others feet because we are his church learning what it means to humbly serve and love each other the way Christ loved us. For it is written:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

he humbled himself

by becoming obedient to death—

even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

and gave him the name that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father. - Phillipians 2:3-11

Although this service is humbling, it is far from degrading. Who would not feel privileged to bow before Christ and wash the very feet that were nailed to the cross? Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25:40)

We aren’t simply washing one another’s feet, we are washing the feet of Jesus.


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