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. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (verses 12-15)
What a powerfully, graphic lesson, on several levels. That foot-washing showed the disciples the full extent of Jesus’ love, as he stooped down to wash them clean, just as he would shortly do in his sacrificial death on the cross. Further, those washed feet were a picture of our ongoing need to get regularly “washed up,” cleansed from the daily grime of sin.
But now Jesus turns the picture back on the disciples (and us), like a mirror reflecting who we ourselves are meant to be. We’re meant to look like the Master. We, too, are meant to wash feet.
To appreciate the power of the lesson we need to go back to the very beginning of that evening’s meal. Two of the disciples had been sent by Jesus as the advance-team, getting everything ready for this crucial Passover celebration. The seder plate, containing bitter herbs and parsley and salt water and charoseth (a mixture of apples and nuts), was in place on the table. The lamb was prepared. Unleavened bread was at hand. The wine was poured. Water was ready for hand-washing. More water was ready for foot-washing. Everything was ready. Everything, that is, except a servant to do the dirty, grimy, demeaning job of washing feet.
Foot-washing was a crucial part of a Palestinian meal. Walking on dusty roads all day in open sandals meant that feet got so caked in dirt that they would be completely uncomfortable until washed clean. To make matters worse, a Middle Eastern dinner table featured couches, matts or cushions upon which guests would recline, their heads toward the table and their feet stretched out behind. Unwashed, dusty, dirt-encrusted feet, rubbing up against themselves all evening, would be miserable.
So, the custom of the day demanded that a servant wash guests’ feet prior to the meal. Can’t you imagine the griping (internally, at least) as each of the disciples realized that no servant had been arrange to carry out the job. Who would do it? Anyone? What about the guys that made the arrangements, or lack thereof? Surely they should do it!
And while that grousing continued, up from the table rose the only person who no one would ever expect to fill this role – the Master, Jesus himself. He stripped off his outer clothing, laying aside his rights with his garments, and took basin and towel and started to wash each pair of dirty, smelly feet.
For most of us, foot-washing is no longer a practical need. But there are many other acts of service that would fall into the same category, ones we might naturally avoid because they were too uncomfortable or demeaning or downright messy. And Jesus says, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (verse 15).
So don’t gripe. Don’t maintain your own rank and prestige. Don’t wait for someone else to take up the towel. Watch for those grimy, foot-washing opportunities. Watch eagerly. You’ll be surprised how many pop up. And when you spot one, you’ll know what to do.
Get up from the table. Lay aside your rights. Get down to the feet. Be like Jesus.
Lord Jesus, I have seen your example. I am gripped by your service. I sense the cost. I choose to follow. Help me, by your Spirit, to have eyes to see the opportunities. Then empower me with humility and love to follow your lead.
Reflect: Ask the Lord how he wants you to respond to his example this week. Allow him to bring to mind an act of service that would follow his lead. Ask for his help. Then step right in.