So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.
As we read the account of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, we see in his action a powerful theological statement about his identity and mission as the Suffering Servant of God. Because we know Isaiah’s prophecies about this Servant, and because we know that Jesus was soon to offer his life on the cross as the ultimate act of servanthood, we rightly see deep meaning conveyed through his foot-washing activity. In many Christian traditions, foot-washing ceremonies provide a way for brothers and sisters in Christ to express their deep commitment to and care for each other. Foot washing can feel almost sacramental for those who give and receive it.
Give me the courage to break through cultural barriers that would keep me from serving others in imitation of you, Lord.
Such theological reflections and traditional enactments are quite appropriate and quite wonderful. Yet, our theological and communal renderings of foot washing can keep us from seeing it as it would have been originally seen. For the disciples of Jesus, foot washing was an ordinary, necessary, and common activity. Because feet got dirty from unpaved roads and paths mixed with open footwear, and because people reclining at meals tended to put their feet where others would encounter them, it was necessary for feet to be washed before meals. People of limited means would provide water for their guests so they might wash their own feet. If the host of a meal was well enough off to have a servant or slave, then foot washing would be part of this lowly worker’s duty.
Thus, when Jesus began to wash his disciples’ feet, they did not think lofty theological thoughts or feel inspiring religious feelings. Rather, they saw their Master doing the work of a servant. They saw him humbling himself to do the work that nobody else would have chosen to do. It’s no wonder that, at first, Peter declined Jesus’ gesture (13:8).
After Jesus finished washing the feet of his disciples, he interpreted what he had done. He called upon his disciples to imitate his example by washing each other’s feet. “For I have set you an example,” Jesus said, “that you also should do as I have done to you” (13:14). Jesus was not setting up some new religious ritual. Rather, he was instructing his disciples to serve each other in tangible and humble ways.
As we seek to follow Jesus in our daily work, we should not feel obligated to literally wash the feet of our coworkers. Rather, we should consider how we might serve them in ways that are neither required of us nor worthy of our station. I think, for example, of a friend of mine who was an executive in a large company. One day he noticed that one of the company’s custodians was struggling to carry several large boxes up some stairs. The executive stopped to help. For several minutes the two of them labored over the boxes until they were put away. When this sweaty executive turned to say goodbye to the custodian, he noticed tears in the other man’s eyes. “I’ve worked in this company for many years,” the custodian said. “Before today, no boss ever stopped to help me. Thank you so much. You have no idea what this means to me.” Sometimes foot washing is not foot washing, but box carrying.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
As you consider the foot washing story in John 13:1-20, what do you see? What strikes you about this incident?
Can you think of actions in our day that are more or less similar to foot washing in their cultural meaning?
Have you ever taken the role of a servant in your relationship to others in your workplace?
Can you think of ways you can imitate Jesus the servant in your workplace?
Lord Jesus, thank you for taking the role of a servant as you washed the feet of your disciples. Thank you for humbling yourself to serve them. Thank you for giving us a picture of how we are to serve others.
Today, I ask for wisdom to know how I can imitate your servanthood. It’s unlikely that I will be washing feet today, Lord. But there are many other ways I can serve. Guide me by your Spirit, I pray. Give me the courage to break through cultural barriers that would keep me from serving others in imitation of you. May all I do be for your glory and honor. Amen.