by J.S. Smith
Foot-washing: Pro or con?
I for one am all for foot washing, daily, vigorous and lathery. Yet we know that some practice foot-washing as a religious ritual in this age and we are made to wonder what the New Testament requires. In the dusty first century, foot-washing was a matter of hospitality and hygiene, but today, when practiced religiously, it has naught to do with either. What was Jesus trying to teach when he washed his apostles' feet?
The major text on foot washing, of course, is found in John 13:1-20. In this intimate gathering of Jesus and his closest friends, we see the Lord just hours prior to his arrest and execution. It is a time of bittersweet reflection, anxious anticipation and painful resignation. Never doubting his deity or earthly fate, Jesus finishes the preparation of the apostles for the momentous event to come.
In giving the instructions about foot-washing, one must notice his mood to understand how valuable this humble attitude is that he wanted to create in their hearts. If you have ever left your parents or family for a long trip, you know how it is to be anxious and sad at the same time and how much you want to say or do something to express that emotion. Jesus, knowing the hour had come, loved his friends right to the end and spent his last few moments blessing them with wisdom. Would that we all could look at the end of our lives as, having come from God, we now return to him.
The creator of the universe and a man who could call upon the power of twelve legions of angels at any moment, stood up and took a towel and wash basin and began to wash the dusty, worn feet of mere men. Bathing was not an everyday occurrence in that day and sandals on dusty roads made the feet calloused and filthy by dusk. Washing the feet was the first order of business upon arrival at a destination and yet one most always washed his own feet in his own place. Having one's feet washed by another was a sign of hospitality and humble servitude. These twelve men had always been taught to serve, not to be served, and yet here was their master on his hands and knees, scrubbing and drying their feet.
Not surprisingly, it is Peter who delays the Christ and demands to know just what is going on. He tells Peter that he cannot yet understand what is going on, but he soon will; sadly many today have missed the lesson entirely. Peter pushes the Lord's towel away and refuses to have his feet washed, but Jesus explains that if he is not cleansed, he cannot be a disciple. Peter then bounces from one extreme to the other, from washing nothing to washing his feet, hands and head. He is assured that washing the feet is sufficient to be clean.
Jesus washed the feet of a former tax collector, some fishermen, a Zionist zealot and the impulsive Peter who would soon announce to the courtyard, "I do not know the Man!" Yet he also bowed before Judas Iscariot and washed the filthy feet of a
man who would take 30 pieces of silver to betray him into the murderer's hands. I have washed my daughter's feet since she was a baby, but I love and cherish her and she has never betrayed me; Jesus was humble enough to wash the feet of a man who stole from him and would give false testimony against him. Jesus has a humility we all need to adopt.
When he finished, Jesus sat back down and asked them if they understood what had just happened? Perceiving they did not, he explained that he had given them an example of humble service to one's fellow men. The supreme being had been willing to humble himself before men; why cannot men humble themselves before one another? Life will present us with myriad opportunities to come to the aid of others, but pride, indifference and inconvenience will tempt us to pass it up. Blessed are we if we know better and do better.
This is about doing good unto the household of faith and expecting nothing in return, about the mightiest and wisest among us being willing to come to the aid of the weak and novice. It is about the mightiest and wisest being willing to accept assistance and correction from the poor and uneducated who sometimes know better and do better anyway.
Foot-Washing Is Not A Religious Ritual
Primitive Baptists, who also reject instrumental music in worship, practice foot-washing before every observance of the Lord's Supper (http://www.pb.org/pbfaq.html#Feet_Washing). The Pope of Rome reserves one Thursday a year to wash the feet of some aged priests in his employ (http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=34516 ).
The attitude Jesus was teaching, however, is not connected to religious ritual and if relegated to one day per year, it is completely destroyed. In Christ's day, foot-washing was part hospitable custom and part hygienic necessity. In our day, shoes have replaced sandals, machines have replaced most walking, pavement has replaced dirt, and showers have been installed in every home and hotel. Washing feet is in a different cultural and even technological context, but as much as Jesus used foot-washing in his living parable, he was not teaching about foot-washing anymore than the parable of the pearl of great price is about diving for oysters.
Foot-washing is an example of humble service toward others. It was made a requirement for inclusion on a list of widows indeed (1 Tim. 5:9-10). If foot-washing is just religious ritual and every saint must do it in relation to the communion, then this requirement is redundant and meaningless. No foot-washing is an individual affair, a good deed done at home and on one's own. What's more, the feet which are washed are not already clean like in Primitive Baptist worship assemblies and Holy Thursday services. The deeper lesson Christ is teaching in this living parable is about humble service; foot-washing is only one example.
I cannot personally think of anything more humbling than the thought of having to get down on my hands and knees and wash somebody else's feet. Humility is the point. Pride and selfish ambition teach us to put self first and others second, to look out for number one, but that is the kind of attitude that destroys societies, families and congregations. A willingness and desire to serve others shatters sinful pride and replaces it with constructive humility (Phil. 2:1-4).
Once the apostles argued over superiority and Jesus taught them the same lesson, but without the foot-washing (Matt. 20:20-28). This is why a proud and greedy man cannot be an elder; he must be hospitable for he must serve others and not himself. Husbands must love and cherish their wives and put their needs first. Parents must sacrifice to benefit their children. The Bible says over and over again that "God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble." If you cannot wash the saints' feet for fear it will humiliate you or ruin your self-image, you are putting a road block in the way of God's delivery of grace to you. Moreover, that self-image of yours needs not a face-lift, but a nose drop, out of the air.
Pharisees don't wash others' feet (Luke 7:36-50). Back in the age when people showed up at your house to eat with dirty feet peeking through their dusty sandals, it was customary to supply a pan of water to them, but Pharisees were the clergy and hierarchy of the day and they did not stoop to such base necessities. Simon had invited Jesus to dine, but he sent a louder message when he "overlooked" the custom of the day. Had it not been for this sinful woman, Jesus would have eaten his meal most uncomfortably. As it was, the man who thought he needed no grace fell desperately behind the sinful woman, for pride and humility separated them. She saw her sin and wanted to be cleansed of it; the Pharisee justified himself and turned up his nose even at Jesus.
Remember that Jesus said that showing hospitality to his brethren was like showing it to him (Matt. 25:35-40)? What do you figure refusing good works toward his brethren is like? Jesus said in the same setting that night, "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends" (John 15:13). John got the message, for he later penned the highly practical commands found in 1 John 3:16-18: "Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and in truth."
Refusing opportunities for humble service is like telling Christ to wash your feet, hands and head, but don't expect me to get down there for anybody else (Gal. 6:7-10)! James said, "Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin" (4:17). As Judas turned up his heel to Christ as he walked out to find the Roman soldiers, the Christian who proudly or indifferently will not serve others is ruining his discipleship and betraying his teacher. "They profess to know God, but in works they deny him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work" (Titus 1:16).
Washing the saints' feet today may include the literal act at times, but it is not limited to that act, nor to times of religious ritual. We wash the saints' feet when we practice pure religion by visiting widows and orphans in distress. When we share with brethren in need or down on their luck, we wash their feet. When we associate with the humble and refuse to set our minds on high things, we wash feet. When we are willing to get our hands dirty in order to cleanse someone in distress, we wash feet.