Foot Washing Weirdness

Jesus washes feet

The preparations have been made. The Passover Feast has begun. Jesus knew this would be his last Passover with the disciples, and this meal certainly wasn’t the only thing on his mind. The cross loomed tall and imposing in his near future, and he knew his time was short.

The disciples on the other hand were clueless as usual. Maybe they were semi-conscious of the strange things Jesus kept saying and how he’d been acting, but the one thing you could count on with the disciples was how oblivious they were. Typical males, right?

The disciples were looking forward to celebrating another Passover with Jesus. It was always a memorable time of eating and laughing, relaxing around the table, and reflecting on the goodness of God.

So here they are again, gathered together, gathered round the table, ready to begin the ceremonial meal. We are familiar with how the story begins. Jesus gets up from the table, wraps a towel around his waist, pours water into a basin, and proceeds to wash the disciples’ feet.

Now this would have caught the disciples off guard; this was out of the ordinary. It seems out of the ordinary for us, too, but for different reasons. We are not accustomed to this custom; we are used to washing our own feet, not having someone else do that.

In Bible times, when you were a guest in someone’s home, they took it upon themselves to wash your feet. The purpose was to be hospitable, to be a good host, and to honor your guests and make them feel welcome, comfortable, and at home during their stay in your house. And after a long day of walking dirt roads in sandals, having clean feet makes everything better.

This practice of being a good host to guests is one we still practice today, even if it looks different. We welcome our guests when they arrive, we take their coats, we invite them to sit down, we offer them food and drink. Things really haven’t changed that much.

While our Bible-times-host wanted to make sure his guests had clean feet and were comfortable, the actual washing of their feet was not something the host ever did. It was beneath the host; it was not proper for a free man to stoop so low.

So the job of washing feet was given to the servant or the slave, and always the lowest one on the totem pole. If a family did not have the means to have their own servants, the job fell to the lady of the household or the children. Never the man of the house.

This is why the disciples were shocked. This is why Peter resisted. The one they held as their King was stooping down to do the job of a worthless slave? Not on Peter’s watch.

But let’s look at this event from the perspective of Jesus.

More than likely, this is the first meal Jesus has hosted for his disciples. Jesus still lived at home with his mom. He didn’t have a place of his own, so he would not have had occasion to be a host.

But Jesus is hosting this meal. He ordered the preparations. He rented the space.

And as host, the responsibilities of taking care of the guests fall to him. Finding someone to wash everyone’s feet is his job.

But he doesn’t find someone. Whether this slipped his mind or was part of his plan all along, there is no servant in the room to wash feet.

I wonder if the disciples picked up on this. I wonder if they kept looking around the room nervously, trying hard not to make eye contact with Jesus, afraid he would ask them to get up and do this humiliating job?

I imagine it might have been similar to when you go out to eat with friends, and the food arrives, and everyone just stares awkwardly at their plate until someone finally offers to pray for the meal. I imagine it might have been like that.

So then Jesus gets up and does what comes naturally for him. He doesn’t think twice about it. He does not see it as something beneath him.

Of course he doesn’t. He himself once said, “For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.”

It is perfectly natural for Jesus to wash their feet. It is his very nature, his character, to humbly serve others no matter if it costs him his time, his reputation, or his life.

And he does not limit his service only to those who would call him friend. He lowers himself even before Judas, and serves and loves and hopes for the best while being aware of the worst.

Afterwards, he says to his followers, “I have given you the ultimate example of how you are to be. Serve each other just as I have served you.”

While we may or may not literally follow Jesus’ example of washing feet, we are not to just be copycats of Jesus. We are called to be like Jesus. Just as his natural response and reaction was to serve his neighbor, so we should be seeking to become more like him so that our natural responses and reactions look like his.