Jerusalem like most places in the Middle East at the time of Jesus had very dusty roads. As most people walked, especially when travelling locally, the Jews had a custom of washing feet which made a lot of sense, especially from a good hygiene perspective. Essentially, if a guest was visiting, the host would have a servant in the house wash the feet of the visitor when he arrived. Not only was this a gracious thing to do, it meant when they reclined at the table (in those days, people generally sat on the ground, somewhat sideways, which meant the feet of the person next to you was very close to your face i.e. feet to bosom) you did not have to deal with smelly feet. Now, if friends were renting a place for a get-together akin to the Last Supper, they could opt to wash each other’s feet or not bother.
It is in this context that I want to write today about the story of the washing of the feet in the Gospels. Jesus was a few hours from death and knew that He had very little time left with His friends. From another perspective, the fate of the legacy of His ministry lay in the hands of His friends whom He had spent the last 3 years discipling. How would they respond to what was going to happen to Him, what will they do with His message after He is gone? How would they hold up to the persecution that would undoubtedly come their way? He was a target for the religious authorities of the day and soon to be a target for the political authorities as well. It was only a matter of time before the same fate befell His friends. With all this looming in addition to how He must have felt about His imminent cross, He was really looking forward to His last meal with His friends. Luke 22:15-16.
While they were eating, Jesus mentioned to the group that one of them was going to betray Him. Not quite understanding what is going on, they begin to ask themselves who it might be and possibly what He meant by betray. While none of the Gospels really expounds on it, the disciples swiftly moved on to who might betray Jesus to who was the greatest of the group! I imagine that while trying to prove to each other that they would never betray Jesus, they start recounting stories of their individual relationship with Jesus. Who spent the most time with Him, who knew Him first, who believed Him first, etc. It would not be long before their ‘egos’ kicked in. I knew Him first or He confided in me once, so I must be greater than you. Lurking right behind one’s ‘ego’ is ‘pride’.
While they were still squabbling, Jesus got up from the meal, took off His garments, grabbed a towel and put it around His waist. He poured water into a bowl and began to wash their feet and wipe them. John 13:3-5. I bet this must have stopped the conversation. The One whom they called Lord and Master was doing the work of a lowly servant. They were witnessing something so counter-cultural that I can imagine a collective gasp from the disciples when the saw what was happening, they knew who Jesus was, Peter, James and John saw Him conversing with Moses and Elijah! It is no surprise that Peter could not take it. He tried to stop Jesus but Jesus told him he could have no part in His ministry if He couldn’t wash his feet. After He was done, Jesus went on to explain His actions, reminding them that He was among them as the One who serves and they must follow His example and wash each other’s feet. That is something I didn’t notice until recently. I’m sure they (and I) would have no problems washing Jesus’ feet but to wash each other’s feet, that might be more of a challenge!
The first thing I draw from this story is the humility of Jesus. He, The Creator, stoops to wash the feet of His creatures. God condescending to live with man is like a human being condescending to become an ant. Although I am very aware that the gap between God and man is infinitely wider than the gap between man and an ant, the illustration serves to somewhat emphasise what it must have been like for God to become man and then to stoop down to wash man’s dusty, dirty feet. With this as the example, we are called to serve one another in humility. Jesus tells us that to be great in God’s kingdom we must be ready to serve. This is a very counter-cultural message, especially in our day. We all want to be served, we want our needs to be understood and met. Jesus is calling us to serve, to understand and meet the needs of others. Therefore, my willingness to serve others with humility is a good barometer of how Christ-like I am. While if we are honest with ourselves, this is hard to do and really isn’t possible without God’s grace, the message is clear: the extent to which we wash each other’s feet is the extent to which we follow Jesus.
The other thing I draw from this story is that Jesus washed the feet of Judas too. He was in the room and Jesus knew Judas was going to betray Him, Luke 22:21-22, John 13:2-3. He also knew how much He would suffer and eventually die because of that betrayal. This is the most convicting part of the story for me. Would I have washed anyone’s feet? Begrudgingly, I may have washed the feet of the person sat next to me to save myself from his smelly feet but that would have been for me. On my best day, if someone had asked nicely, I may have opted to wash the feet of my best friends in the group. I am certain though that I would not have washed Judas’ feet if I knew that he was about to betray me. That is why I am convicted by the story. It is easy to be nice to someone you love, even someone you like. However, it is exceedingly difficult to go out of your way for someone you don’t like and humanly impossible for someone who intends to do you harm. Doing so is otherworldly, it is one of the reasons why if we live our Christian calling like Jesus, we will stand out. Matthew 5:14-16.
Having read this story, I cannot dismiss this as something only Jesus would do and move on. For one thing, Jesus says “if you know these things, blessed are you if you practice them”. John 13:17. So, I must, therefore, accept that if I am to follow Jesus, I must work humbly with Him [Micah 6:8] and I must serve others without prejudice or thought of personal gain. Furthermore, I cannot be selective about who I serve. I must serve the people who wish me harm, or people I may not like, in the same way, that I serve the people I love. I cannot be selective about who or when I choose to be a Christian. In washing Judas’ feet, Jesus has left us no excuse, there are no boundaries for humility, no boundaries for modelling God’s love and pouring out God’s grace on a world so much in need of it. Jesus calls you and I to treat that work colleague who is trying to get you fired, that boss you can’t stand, that neighbour who plays loud music and is such a nuisance, that family member who you just can’t see eye to eye, that in-law who refuses to acknowledge your existence, the same way He treated Judas.
If we are to be great in God’s kingdom, then we must follow our Lord’s example. For true greatness and humility in God’s sight is the sacrificial, self-less service rendered to others.