Thirteen men lounged around a table, ready to eat dinner. Then one stood, removed his outer clothing and wrapped a towel around his waist. While the other twelve mumbled conversation between bites, he walked to a corner of the room and filled a basin with water. He first wiped James’ feet. Matthew was next and squirmed like a 5-year-old. The next three sat in silence. Peter broke the stillness. “Lord, are you going to wash my feet? … No, you shall never wash my feet."
When I meditate on the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples in John 13, I sit in awe and wonder. Awe at the humiliation of Jesus washing filthy feet. Wonder because I don’t get it. Then I read the punch line: “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” Jesus commanded us to wash one another’s feet. Yet, below the surface, this command lacks meaning. Do we institute a church ritual of foot washing? But I don’t wear sandals. I walk little. Sidewalks and carpet protect me from sand and dirt. My feet are nothing like those of Peter or John.
According to Jesus’ words, we miss everything about following him if we fail with the basin and the towel. But his meaning encompasses so much more than cleansing someone’s feet with a wet cloth. Jesus calls us to practice the art of doing things considered “below us” for others. We must put away selfishness, get on our knees before one another and serve them. Along the way, we discover that following Jesus means doing things traditionally unbecoming or even scandalous.
This is what Jesus did. In John 12, the crowds hailed Him as the King: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” They finally realized that Jesus was the King sent to save the Jewish people. Peter agreed, so Peter could not let Jesus wash his feet. Kings don’t wash people’s feet. Kings lead; they don’t serve. Peter could not allow Jesus to serve him. Yet Jesus turned Peter on his head: “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” Peter returned, “Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well.” Jesus instead wanted Peter to hear, “Let me serve you and clean the dirty part, and quit telling me how to be king.”
Jesus set the bar high. He saw (maybe smelled) a need for cleansing among the twelve, who sat too blind and selfish to address it. So he served and did not wait for someone else to do it. Then He said, “No servant is greater than his master” (John 13:16).
Back to the punch line: “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” Much of the church knows this command and others like it. “Serve one another.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Consider others better than yourselves.” So why don’t we live them out? Why don’t I serve others to the point of washing their feet? Why aren’t we willing to give up our lives for one another?
Jesus tells us: “Now that you know these things …” The disciples knew “these things” because Jesus had touched them; He got close and washed their feet. Jesus saw the dirt and the pain that they did not want to see, and he cleansed it. Jesus did not command the twelve to do something they had never received.
According to Jesus’ words, we do not wash others’ feet because we have not let Jesus wash ours first. We act strong like Peter and tell him not to touch us. But the truth is that we just don’t want Jesus or anyone else to see our dirt. We are used to carting it around. We accept it. We might even like it. And we don't want to let Jesus serve us this way because if we submit to this kind of service by the creator of the universe then we have to acknowledge that we are servants also.
The only way we can serve is to allow the greatest of all serve us. This puts us in our place. It gives us the ability to see that we are no better or worse than anyone else. And then we see that we don't serve by will-power and strength. We serve out of brokenness.
Jesus is pleading: “Let me wash you. Let me serve you. Parts of your life weigh you down and bind you. You drag your feet; I want to see you run and play. You can’t see others’ needs until you let me love you and touch the tender parts of your heart. Let me wash away hurts, offenses, anger, hidden loneliness that you pick up as you walk through this dirty world.
Jesus has washed my feet many times. Still, selfishness comes over me like a slow, quiet cold front. I don’t realize my spiritual barometer is dropping until I wake up one morning with a cold, hard attitude. I recognize then that my feet are dirty again, that I need Jesus: to talk with Him about my day, my pain, my joys. I must tune my ear to His words of love and acceptance. I must submit and allow the lover of my soul to wash me again.
Photo Credit: Giotto. Washing of the Feet. MyStockPhoto.com