Washing feet

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John 13: 1-20

Jesus is approaching the climax of his life. All his acts of service were about to be culminated and summated in his willing sacrifice on the cross. And it is all motivated by agape love – the love that gives.

‘Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end (telos)’. The ultimate example of self-sacrificial love is about to be demonstrated in the act of foot-washing now, and in the cross to come. This is a sacred moment. Jesus is spending his last hours with his chosen few, and yet the evil one is in the room too – in the heart of Judas Iscariot.

John’s emphasis is on Jesus’ total and unshakeable knowledge – both of himself and his being, his status, his calling, and of this moment – ‘the hour had come’.

There are four things that Jesus knows utterly and unshakeably in the core of his being.

  1. The hour had come
  2. The Father had given all things into his hand
  3. He had come from God
  4. He was going back to God.

They encompass where he has come from. In the bliss of the Holy Trinity; his supreme position in the cosmos as Lord of Lords; the significance of this hour – the crux point – the pivot for the whole of salvation history; and his ultimate destiny at the Father’s right hand.

This is what Jesus knows, and this is what gives him total security in who he is. With such power and status, we might expect him to defeat the devil who is in the room with him in an overwhelming burst of spiritual power and light. ‘I saw the evil one fall from heaven like a flash of lightning’. He might have blown Judas away in a moment with a blast of divine wrath.

Instead, he gets up from the table and stoops to t floor. And he washes his disciples’ feet.

Washing feet was the most menial, lowly and despised occupation reserved for the lowest of the low. The streets of Jerusalem were dirty and disgusting – there was filth, disease, urine and excrement in the highways. It doesn’t take much imagination to see why washing feet was a filthy and demeaning task. It was particularly unacceptable to a religious person because it led to ritual impurity, and the foot washer would have been barred from all religious activities.

Some high-minded Jews insisted that Jewish slaves should not be required to wash the feet of others. In essence, this job should be reserved for Gentile slaves – or alternatively for women and children who didn’t count. And of course, we can see that to be forced by others to take on this role – to be compelled by force to wash the stinking feet of others – is profoundly abusive, damaging, humiliating.

The Jewish literature records that when Rabbi Ishmael returned home from synagogue one day his mother wished to wash his feet. He refused on the ground that the task was too demeaning. Apparently, there is no recorded instance in either Jewish, Greek or Roman literature of a superior washing the feet of an inferior.

So, the shock of the disciples at Jesus’ action is understandable. How can their Lord and Master do such a thing? Has he lost his mind? Or does this mean that perhaps Jesus is not who he claims to be?

The critical point is that John juxtaposes Jesus’s total and unshakable security in his self-knowledge with his action in humble and humiliating service. John’s deep psychological insight (and the inspiration of his words by the Spirit) is that it is precisely because of Jesus’s total security in his status that he is able to lower himself in this striking way.

It is an example of the profound Christian doctrine of kenosis. The one who though he was in the very nature of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself (kenosis) – made himself nothing – and took the form of a servant. He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2).

Jesus takes off his outer clothing (perhaps symbolic of stripping himself of outward security), takes up the servant towel and puts it around his waist. He willingly adopts the garment and appearance of the most menial house slave. He pours water into a basin, stoops down to the floor and starts the filthy task.

The doctrine of kenosis does not mean that Jesus exchanges the form of God for the form of a servant. It means that Jesus willingly and self-consciously lowers himself in order that the true nature of his deity is revealed unmistakably through human frailty and humble sacrifice. His status is not lost through the act of foot washing – it is powerfully revealed, unveiled, and made-known.

Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine yourself incontinent, lying in faeces, urine and vomit, being gently and tenderly washed and cleaned by Christ himself. This is the true nature of God revealed in the face of Jesus Christ.

I think it is profoundly significant that Jesus washes the feet of Judas Iscariot too, the one indwelt by the evil one. He doesn’t just confine himself to nice people, to grateful people, to the chosen ones. He washes the feet of the unlovely, the hostile, the wicked, the abusive, the malevolent, the one dedicated to destroying him. He washes the feet of the evil one himself! What majestic and mysterious power. How can he do this? It comes from his total unshakeable security in who he is.

Having performed this dramatic and shocking action, Jesus then explains it. First, there is divine action, and then there is explanation.

V 12 Do you understand what I have done for you. You call me Teacher and Lord and you are right for so I am – If I then your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly I say to you a servant is not greater than his master nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.

Jesus claims the title of Lord, the one who has total authority over his disciples, and Teacher, the one who instructs, guides and models.

‘You should do exactly what I have done to you’. But just as Christ’s loving and voluntary self-abasement is rooted in his security in his supreme status, so in the same way, we cannot take the lowest place unless we are rooted and founded in the knowledge and security of our own status.

To be forced by an external power to take on the role of the lowest of the low, the house slave, is damaging, abusive, destructive. But to voluntarily choose the lowest role, motivated by love and out of the security of knowing our real status, as dearly loved daughters and sons of the King, that is totally different. This is the profound dignity of Christ-like service.

So, Christ’s action is motivated by free agape love, ‘there is no compulsion in love’. It is not coerced, manipulated, even driven by a sense of duty, of ‘ought’. It is totally free and un-coerced.

And although it is not recorded in the passage, we know from elsewhere in the New Testament that Christ’s action was motivated by joy. ‘For the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross, and despised the shame.’ It was joy, bubbling, inexpressible, eternal joy that motivated Jesus to take on the role of the slave.

From the outside, the actions of Christ and the actions of the abused house slave may look indistinguishable. They are wearing the same clothes, grovelling on the floor, covered with filth, absorbed in back-breaking toil. But the house slave is driven by external force and necessity, she is conscious of her status as lowest of the low, bottom of the pile, human trash, and she is damaged, demeaned and further humiliated by the process.

The Christian servant is driven by agape love, compassion and joy is conscious of her or his supreme status as a loved and honoured princess or prince of the royal family, and is ennobled, upbuilt and fulfilled by the action, thrilled to be living out the life and love and presence of Jesus. From the outside, they are indistinguishable, but on the inside, the experience is totally different.

Jesus’s example and John’s description of it in his Gospel was a fuse which ignited an explosion of caring in the ancient world. It was profoundly formative as a model of Christian service and care for the sick, the infected and the dying. And if we have ears to hear it can ignite further explosions today.

John juxtaposes the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet with another foot washing – but this time it is Jesus whose feet are washed.

In John 12, John emphasises that this incident happens only a matter of days before Jesus is to be crucified at the time of the Passover – the time the sacrificial lamb was put to death.

Mary the one who has previously sat at Jesus’ feet now takes a litre of expensive perfume– a huge quantity equivalent to over 300 grams – stoops down to the feet of Jesus and anoints his feet (and probably other parts of his body) with the precious ointment. Such is the quantity of the perfume that the whole house is filled with the fragrance. And then in a shocking and intimate act, she releases her hair, stoops down to his feet and tenderly wipes them with her hair.

It is a strange and wonderful scene of extravagant sacrifice and intimate tenderness; it is a sensual and scandalous act. Respectable Jewish women did not let down their hair in male company – this was something for the intimacy and privacy of the bedroom.

Mary is demonstrating her love and concern for Christ by this act which encompasses humility and self-abasement, tenderness, and extravagant willing sacrifice for the person of Christ. Interestingly, this episode comes before the example of foot-washing in John 13. Mary does not need to be taught about foot-washing – she does it instinctively and generously.

The reaction of Judas is that of the sensible, pragmatic, evidence-based moralist. The ointment was worth nearly a year’s wages for a peasant worker. Thousands of pounds. But Jesus understands her heart and defends her. The meaning of his words is uncertain, but I suspect that Jesus saw that she was, in reality, anointing his body for burial. Commentators have pointed out that because of the intense fragrance and quantity of the perfume, the smell would still have been present when Jesus was crucified six days later. In other words, as Jesus hung on the cross, he was smelling the fragrance of Mary’s sacrificial act, the fragrance of sacrificial and costly love.

The whole house was filled with the fragrance of sacrificial and costly love.

Christian carers have frequently been called to self-sacrificial love, at the cost of abandoning family, comforts, marriage, sleep, health, sacrificial giving, even sacrificing their own lives to care for others. So, both Christian medicine and Christian nursing may call us to pay a very high price.

Notice that Mary’s sacrifice was entirely voluntary and uncompelled. It was a spontaneous act of astonishing generosity. It was motivated by love for Christ.

So, what is the most precious, the most costly closed container in our lives, in our heart? Are we prepared to sacrifice it out of generous and costly love for Christ? Our natural tendency is to grasp, to hold on to the things which are most precious. But the way of fruitfulness is to voluntarily open our hand and release those precious things we hold so tightly.

‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground, it remains alone – but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit.’

As the twentieth-century martyr, Jim Elliott said ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.

I am very conscious that much of this is theory, and that I continue to struggle to live in the reality of this example. But I know in the core of my being that it is the way of fruitfulness and the way of joy. I am sure that Mary did not begrudge the sacrifice of that perfume. I am sure her eyes were filled with tears of love and joy. This is what the perfume was for, to anoint the body of her Lord for death, and to fill the house with the fragrance of love.

John Wyatt is Emeritus Professor of Neonatal Paediatrics at UCL and Senior Researcher at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, University of Cambridge.


Listen to John talking further on this topic on a recent 1st incision podcast from CMF.

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