Footwashing was a common practice in Jesus’s day. Roads were just dirt, and people would have worn sandals of rope and leather. Combine the sweat-inducing heat with nearly bare feet, and dusty roads, and you can imagine the result. When you entered someone’s home, you came with filthy, sweaty feet, and it was common courtesy to have a servant wash them when you entered the home. Old Testament scholar Andreas Köstenberger notes: “The practice of footwashing, which has a long Old Testament tradition, usually was performed by slaves.”
Some rabbis taught that this task was so lowly and demeaning that it was unacceptable to have a Jew do it—even if he was a slave. Even today in the Middle East, feet are considered filthy and undignified. You may have seen scenes from political protests where angry mobs pound statues or billboards with shoes, or you might recall the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at a visiting president. It’s considered a profound insult. There’s a deep sense, culturally speaking, of disgust about feet.
The Most Humiliating Task of the Evening
When Jesus washes the disciples’ feet (recorded in John 13:1-17), it appears that something of a faux pas has taken place. Jesus was an important figure, a well-enough known teacher, that a crowd gathered and made quite a scene on his entry to Jerusalem. And yet, here he is, the guest of honor in someone’s home, and no one has washed his feet. Not even his disciples considered their master’s dignity and comfort at the meal. So as they bicker about their roles in the coming kingdom, he gets up, disrobes, assumes the role of a slave, and begins washing the disciples’ feet. Songwriter and author Michael Card describes the moment beautifully:
This is a pivotal moment . . . in that Jesus finally gives up on words. He has told them numerous parables about slaves, now he will portray the most humiliating of slave roles, the washing of feet. Even after three long years of his often bizarre and indescribable behavior, the disciples are befuddled by the inappropriate behavior that leaves them speechless.
Only someone with nothing to prove could take such a posture. It’s nearly impossible to imagine a Kardashian, an NFL star, or a head of state doing any such thing; it would be too disruptive to their image of power and prestige.
Yet Jesus, who has power and authority over everything on earth, is free to be radically sacrificial and to act like a slave, crawling on his hands and knees among a bunch of filthy feet. Only someone with the ultimate sense of affirmation, a sense that only the opinion of One mattered, could have such humility.
“You’ll Never Wash My Feet, Jesus!”
As Jesus passes among the disciples, washing their feet, they are bewildered. Peter objects to the indignity of it all. “You shall never wash my feet,” he says. His first response to Jesus is to say that Jesus is too good to wash his feet. Jesus replies, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me” (John 13:8).
The disciples had just been arguing about who would sit where in the coming kingdom, and Jesus is telling them, “In my kingdom, the King is a slave. If you can’t handle that, then you don’t want my kingdom.”
The Way Up Is Down
Peter then swings the pendulum in the other direction. “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” (v. 9). There’s more than a hint of religiosity in there. Not content to merely receive what Jesus has offered, Peter one-ups him, asking for a greater cleansing, demonstrating (as Peter often does) a desire to stand out from the crowd, to be exceedingly good at his religion.
But this moment isn’t about Peter; it’s about Jesus, demonstrating to the disciples (and to all of history) that the greatest among us is the one who serves out of deep and abiding love, out of a love that overflows from the love-filled community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, pouring out from them into the community of people made new by the power of the gospel. He says, “What I’m doing for you is enough.” We need only to receive what Jesus has done—nothing more. No need for outdoing, one-upping, or adding on.
“The way down is the way up,” Jesus essentially says, getting on his hands and knees to scrub their filthy feet.
This excerpt was adapted from Faithmapping: A Gospel Atlas for Your Spiritual Journey by Daniel Montgomery and Mike Cosper.