I have to admit to a pet peeve, a practice among Christian groups that really drives me crazy – the foot washing ceremony. I’m sure you’ve seen it or experienced it. For me it has been in the context of a weekend retreat or conference. At the end of the event, the leaders breakout a bunch of water basins and wash our feet or have us wash each other’s feet. It is supposed to be a dramatic, meaningful and inspiring end to a wonderful weekend. I know this may offend some of you my readers, but I truly believe that the way this ceremony is currently done completely misses the point of what Jesus was trying to teach His disciples – and us. The practice is based on the narrative found in the Gospel of John.
It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.
The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him… 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.
For me, one of the keys to understanding this passage is the last verse, “…do as I have done for you.” He did not say do “what I have done” but “as I have done.” I think this is an important distinction. Jesus was not telling us to duplicate His actions but to embrace His attitude. What is so remarkable is the context in which John places Jesus’ action. At this point, Jesus knew He was about to die a horrible death. He knew He was about to be betrayed by a man who spent 3 years with Him. He knew that He was about to experience again all the glory He had known with the Father. And He knew that everything in the universe was under His authority. In light of all these disparate and seemingly conflicting experiences there was one thought foremost in Christ’s mind – to show His disciples, His friends, the full extent of His love. The foot washing wasn’t only about humility. It wasn’t about establishing a new Christian liturgy. It was about showing what love looks like. Being fully secure in His own mission, calling, position and relationship with the Father enabled Him to take on the posture of a servant.
Unfortunately, we have turned this most powerful demonstration of love in action into a show. It seems to me that too often it has become a spectacle designed to demonstrate our “humility,” to show our equivalence to Christ by going through the same motions, but without the power and without the love. If we are truly secure in our relationship with the Father, if we understand the fullness of what it means to be “in Christ,” then we don’t need to resort to the occasional ceremony to demonstrate servanthood.
Let me suggest some more meaningful and, I think, more appropriate applications of Jesus’ example. How about you husbands doing the dishes for your wives after supper. Is that not more loving and serving? How about watching the kids of a single mom in order to give her a night out or babysitting for a young couple who can’t afford to go out but need a date night? How about mowing the lawn for a neighbor, cooking a meal for a friend, fixing a car, helping paint a church member’s new home? How about doing some home repair for an elderly couple or driving them to the grocery store? I hope you get the point. Washing each other’s feet is an act of love based on the fullness of our life in God. It is not a demonstration of our humility, nor do we aim to get credit for a good deed. Having been the recipients of the “full extent of His love,” is it not appropriate to show the same to others?