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. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. – John 13:12-17
Foot washing was an ordinary part of hospitality in the ancient world, a service performed by low-status servants or slaves for householders and guests. When these sandal-clad people entered the house from the dirty street (before the invention of enclosed sewers) their feet were quite thoroughly soiled. It was a routine way in which low-caste people dealt with the filth of life on behalf of their high-caste employers, and it reinforced the physical humility of the servant, without requiring any particular vulnerability on the part of the person who was being washed, because power relationships were kept nicely intact.
On the night before he was arrested, Jesus turned this into a profound symbolic action when he washed the feet of his friends. He, whom they knew to be highly exalted (his status as “Teacher and Lord” – the phrasing we use in FUM – is affirmed in this passage), demeaned himself to the lowest level in society. This was more than just associating with low-status and unclean people. He was doing their work, touching the filth that only they should touch. It was excruciatingly intolerable for his friends, to have him do this intimate and degrading thing, and it made them feel profoundly vulnerable. They begged him not to do it.
When I have participated in foot washing liturgies during Holy Week, I’ve felt that struggle – that vulnerability – in myself. Whether I’ve been with a group of close friends, or on retreat at a monastery, it is surprisingly difficult to allow someone whom I consider my “equal” to wash my feet. And judging by the number of jokes on my Facebook feed about needing to schedule a pedicure before Maundy Thursday, I think most people find it a difficult experience to have their feet washed by someone other than a service worker. (The fact that we feel not at all vulnerable when hiring a Vietnamese immigrant to wash and buff our feet – and that we don’t even see the irony in doing that in preparation for liturgical foot washing – reveals just how unchanged social inequalities are since Biblical times.)
Jesus’s symbolic action of foot washing taught his friends more than his spoken messages about “the greatest becoming the least” had been able to do. Jesus showed them that he was reversing the normal patterns of power and status, that his life and death really did mean good news to the poor. And he told them quite explicitly that they should do the same – that they should treat each other with the same love that he had shown them and that they should be servants in the world. This was to be the very mark of their identity, the way the world would be able to identify them as Christ-followers. They would become foot washers. They would become the liberators of society’s foot washers.
During his first Holy Week in office, Pope Francis caused a huge scandal when he went to a juvenile prison and washed the feet of 12 young offenders, both male and female, both Christian and Muslim. The Pope’s foot-washing on Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday) is traditionally understood by the Catholic Church as symbolizing Jesus’ institution of the priesthood, but Pope Francis made it about something else entirely. Conservatives were outraged; the rubrics of the church restrict the pope’s foot washing to those who stand in the place of the disciples – 12 of the Cardinals. Instead of washing the feet of these elites, he stooped to touch 12 social outcasts. Church leaders condemned him. Yet letters received by the Vatican from prisoners in other parts of the world showed that the gesture was deeply meaningful to many people. A youth offender in Los Angeles wrote to the Pope: “Society has given up on us, thank you that you have not given up on us.” In choosing to wash the feet of convicts, in particular, Pope Francis chose to marry two primary themes of the gospel – service and forgiveness. This gesture spoke more good news to the unbelieving world than all the Easter homilies he could have preached on the meaning of the gospel.
When I was living in Kenya, I became quite close to a group of Australians who called themselves “Jesus Christians”. They lived a radical gospel life that often challenged me to examine myself. They held all things in common and didn’t accept any money for their work. They lived extremely simply and sought to obey God’s leading in all matters, without seeking any social recognition. Their discernment was deep and I had a very high respect for them. Some years before they came to Kenya, they had lived in India.
India has a caste system in which about 25% of the population – called Dalits – are considered “untouchable”. The source of this untouchability, this permanent status of unclean, derives from the fact that these are the people whose job it is to empty the toilets. Called “manual scavenging”, this work involves removing human waste using rudimentary tools and carrying it in baskets on the head to a distant disposal location. Most of the current manual scavengers are women, and most suffer from terrible health problems, as well as social stigma. Despite laws against this and human rights campaigns in solidarity with the Dalits, the practice continues in India today.
When my Australian friends, the ones who dedicate every aspect of their lives to radical obedience to Christ, arrived in India, they looked for how to serve in a Christ-like manner and discerned that they were called to manual scavenging. Dalits who had become Christians and had thereby discovered their worth and dignity were yearning to be liberated from the dangerous and degrading practice, so my friends volunteered to take their place. They did it without pay or recognition, simply as a way to obey Christ in that context. It was their form of foot washing.
That challenged me. A lot. Is the gospel I embody with my life truly preaching this kind of “good news” to those who are oppressed? Am I obeying Christ by positioning myself in radical solidarity with the dirty and despised? Am I willing to see Jesus in those who deal with the filth of life on my behalf? Am I vulnerable enough to wash and be washed?