But back in the first century, it was. It was down right rank chore. It was reserved for the lowest person on the household totem pole. Nobodies, house servants, washed feet. Feet which had more than jam between toes (let the reader understand). If this kind of foot washing was a profession today, you can bet Mike Rowe would give it a shot.
In John 13, Jesus and his disciples eat their last meal together. Things were tense: Jesus said someone was going to betray him. But at one point, it got a little awkward. Master Jesus strips himself of his outer garment, drapes a towel around his waste, gets on his knees and starts and starts scrubbing the filthy, fecal feet of his disciples. And then he says, “If I have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Everyone is offended. Or perplexed. Later in John 13, Jesus says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (v. 34). As a matter of fact, if the disciples love as Jesus says, the world will know they follow Jesus (v. 35).
So what’s this all about? Was Jesus really telling his disciples to become literal foot washers? Didn’t Jesus know that shoes and boots would be invented and our feet would be protected and clean(er)? Is Jesus saying that the ultimate sign of love is to wash someone’s dirty feet?
Foot washing is a parable. An illustration. A foreshadow. Of what?
The cross, of course. That’s where John’s story is going. On the cross, Jesus goes low in humility–much lower than he deserves–and deals with all the muck and mire and trash and feces in the disciples’ lives and ours. That is “how” Jesus loved the disciples. Not merely by washing feet but by washing them in giving himself up for them. Elsewhere, John writes, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sin” (1 John 4:10). As a servant who washes feet strips down and forfeits their personal dignity, Jesus was striped of much more than his robes and dignity. He lost his connection to the Father because he became sin, a curse for the disciples, for us so that we might come to God. He washed away the muck, yes. But he became the muck. He lost it all. He radically gave himself up. In washing their feet, he gave up his rights to be “the man,” and he became the servant. In dying for their–our–sins, he became the man on the cross. That is love. Foot washing equals cross-bearing.
But Jesus doesn’t just give up himself so we don’t have to. He gives himself up so that we can. And if the disciples, if we, love this way–radical, self-giving for the good of others–the world will know we belong to Jesus. You want to follow Jesus? You get to wash feet. You get to die. That’s what true love is. We love without any fanfare. Without any recognition. Without anything in return. Friends, this is a high calling. May God help us!
And then there’s that word in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The world might be able to argue against our doctrines and worldview, but it will not be able to argue against our love. The world may object to justification by grace and prayer to a God we can’t see, but it will not object if we lay down our reputation, power, control, resources, comfort, convenience for others. The world may not like the idea of a Triune God being worthy of all glory and praise, but it will always be attracted to radical, humble, everyday self-sacrifice.
People may not join us, but they will know we have a different Master. A Master who serves. A Master who washes feet. A Master who bears a cross. Let’s be people who follow our Master.