“If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15).
Few events in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth had been more astounding.
The disciples and many others were amazed to see Jesus displaying power against demons, sickness, and even the natural world (Mark 1:27, 4:41). But it was expected that the Messiah would have power and authority (cf. Isaiah 11:1-10, etc.). His teachings were profound and also came with authority (Matthew 7:28-29), yet, after all, Jesus did come from God (cf. John 13:3).
And then the disciples saw Jesus carrying the basin of water with a towel around His waist.
The humiliation and degradation involved in foot washing has largely been lost on us. Nevertheless, it was acutely felt in the ancient world. People walked around barefoot or in sandals. If they lived in a city they would be walking in mostly unpaved streets with refuse and human waste everywhere. If they lived in rural areas they would be walking in the mire of the fields and the animal pens. Ladies who enjoy wearing flip-flops today can perhaps begin to sympathize with their ancient counterparts– nevertheless, at the end of the day, ancient feet were beyond disgusting. To enjoy a proper meal, they would need to be washed.
Generally it was a slave who was designated to wash the feet of the family members and their visitors. The lot would always fall to the slave with the least standing– the low man on the proverbial totem pole. It was not a job that anyone would enjoy– and it would certainly not be a task that anyone would consciously, willfully choose to do.
And yet the Lord of all, God made flesh, Him through whom all things were created (cf. John 1:1-3, 14) now stands before the disciples and proceeds to wash their feet (John 13:3-5).
Impetuous Peter cannot stand the thought of the Lord and Christ washing his feet (John 13:6-8). He keenly perceives Jesus’ humiliation to stoop to such a task and he cannot bear the idea of this role reversal. Peter knows that he should be washing Jesus’ feet, not the other way around! In order to alleviate the shame, Peter requests for Jesus to also wash his hands and head (John 13:9)– anything to make this humiliation of Jesus less humiliating.
Yet, as usual, Peter does not really understand what Jesus is doing. Jesus, of all people, is very aware of how humiliating and degrading it is to wash feet. Jesus perceives the astonishment, confusion, and perhaps even horror of His disciples. He then fully explains why He washed their feet, and in so doing, He provides one of the greatest challenges to any who would call themselves His disciples.
Jesus does not deny that He is Lord and Teacher– that He is. It is as their Lord and Teacher that He washed their feet– the most humiliating and degrading task– to teach them that if Jesus the Lord and Savior washes feet, so too ought those who follow Him. As Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, so the disciples should “wash the feet” of fellow disciples!
This is exceedingly important, and we should not get so wrapped up in arguments about whether we are to “literally” wash feet or not to cause us to miss the force and power of Jesus’ action and example. How many times in the Gospels does Jesus come out and say explicitly that He is providing an example? Not too many! Therefore, it is evident that Jesus is emphasizing this action and its meaning, and wants all of us to take notice.
Service is rarely glorious. Service is often demeaning. It can be repetitive and annoying. It may seem futile. It may offend our sensibilities. Jesus knows all of this, and that is why He washed the disciples’ feet.
If Jesus our Lord washed feet, humiliating and degrading Himself to the utmost (cf. Philippians 2:5-10), doing the most unimaginably disgusting job in the ancient world, then for those who call themselves His disciples, there is no job too humiliating or degrading to do in His name (cf. Colossians 3:17).
If Jesus our Lord washed feet, who are we to say that a given task is too beneath us for us to accomplish?
If Jesus our Lord washed feet, who are we to say that a given task is too repetitive or futile to accomplish?
If Jesus our Lord washed feet, who are we to say that expectations for us by others are too degrading and beneath our abilities?
Jesus shows us through His example that we must serve (1 John 2:6). We must do this in every aspect of our lives. Husbands and wives must “wash one another’s feet,” and should not complain that tasks are too degrading or repetitive or stupid (Ephesians 5:21). Parents and children ought to “wash one another’s feet” (Ephesians 6:1-4). Employees are to “wash feet” by working as to the Lord, no matter how obnoxious their earthly boss may be (Ephesians 6:4-9). We can find plenty of other ways in which we can serve in other capacities in our lives (Romans 6:15-23, 12:1).
Service is not always pleasant, enjoyable, novel, or exciting. It can be downright frustrating, humiliating, and obnoxious at times. But let us remember that Jesus our Lord washed feet, and we are to do likewise. Let us serve in all capacities as Jesus served so that He may obtain the honor and praise (cf. 1 Peter 1:7)!
Ethan R. Longhenry