This week's question comes from a loyal reader in Europe. He writes that in a Bible study "we chose the topic of feet washing. We noticed that the words of Jesus are a strong request to celebrate feet washing regularly. Should it be considered a big loss if feet washing is omitted in a church's activities?"
The incident Andreas refers to is found only in the gospel of John where we read, Jesus "got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, 'Lord, are you going to wash my feet?' Jesus answered, 'You don't know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.' Peter said to him, 'You will never wash my feet.' Jesus answered, 'Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.' Simon Peter said to him, 'Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!'" (John 13.4-9).
Of course, this isn't the first time we read about foot washing in the Bible. In the Old Testament there are a number of references to the act, most of them associated with appropriate hospitality. The first mention of foot washing is found in Genesis when Abraham is visited by three travelers one afternoon. As soon as Abraham saw them he insisted they stop to rest. He invited them to stop by saying, "Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree" (Genesis 18.4). Notice that Abraham doesn't volunteer to wash their feet, only to provide the necessary bowl of water for them. Indeed, this is the case of virtually every instance we read about foot washing in the Bible. Clearly a good host provided a basin of water for travelers to bathe their feet in whenever they visited-but that's about as far as it went.
According to later Israelite law, the task of foot washing was reserved for the lowliest of slaves. In fact, the law prohibited an Israelite slave from washing another's feet. On the other hand, one of David's future wives, Abigail, graciously offers, "Your servant is a slave to wash the feet of the servants of my lord" (1 Samuel 25.41). Her words are clearly a sign of humility.
In the New Testament we read of two foot washings. The first occurs when a known prostitute visits Jesus during a dinner party and weeps at his feet. "She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment" (Luke 7.38). You can imagine that the event caused quite a stir among the dinner guests! In this particular passage, much like the story of Abigail in the Old Testament, it is clearly the humility of the woman that is the focus of the story.
And it seems this was the focus of Jesus' teaching when he went to wash his disciples' feet. The purpose of his actions was to teach his followers that they must be willing to do even the humblest of ministries if they were to be faithful. But Peter's protest allows John to teach his readers a second lesson: although it is an act of humility to do ministry, it oftentimes takes more humility to allow someone to minister to us.
Interestingly, this particular story contains one of the most direct charges by Jesus to his followers. He says, "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" (John 13.14-15). These instructions seem to carry the same weight as his instructions about observing the Lord's Supper or being baptized. And yet, very few churches, and fewer denominations, practice foot washing as one of their rituals. Why?
I think the answer is found in Peter's protest. I've found few Christians unwilling to wash someone else's feet, but I've found very few Christians willing to have someone else wash their feet. Apparently, the thought of someone bathing our feet seems a bit too intimate.
And yet, perhaps that's the very lesson Jesus and John were trying to get across to us: to be a true disciple means we must be willing to be vulnerable and truly humble in the presence of one another. Humility has almost never been the Church's strong suit. But by allowing someone to wash our feet might we might just be taking the first step to achieving genuine, Christlike humility.