Washing feet: the task of every Christian
I've been thinking a lot about the role of a Christian over the last few years. Frankly, I've been confused by the whirl of activities in churches and the mentality of staying within the four walls of the church and inviting people in so that they can "meet Jesus."
During the last few months, and especially in my last class on Johannine theology, the role is becoming more clear. Christians are supposed to wash feet.
With Easter approaching, some may have already perused the story in John 13 where Jesus washes his disciples' feet. In Palestine during the first century when everyone wore sandals, washing feet was the most distasteful job in the house. Because it was a necessary part of hospitality, the task was given to the lowest ranking servant. It was certainly not a job for a teacher of Jesus' status, yet Jesus did it anyway. In that society and time, it was a very significant sign of humility and in the case of Jesus serving as foot washer, love.
When Jesus came to Peter, the disciple developed a case of foot-in-mouth disease, telling his master that he would never allow him to wash his feet. Jesus responded by telling Peter that until he washed the feet of his disciple, Peter could have no part in him. To Peter's credit, he quickly complied.
Since this episode, Christians have debated whether or not foot washing should be considered one of the sacraments. Many churches do have a foot washing ceremony; this is the basis for Maundy Thursday, just before Easter. All that aside, most of my class agreed that foot washing is more symbolic than literal. So then, asked our professor, what are some contemporary examples of washing feet?
For me, there is no better contemporary analogy to washing feet than taking care of someone who is incapacitated either due to injury, age, or because of the approach of death. There are some tasks that are extremely distasteful, but which must be accomplished for the individual’s health and dignity. It does not take much imagination to think of what some of these tasks might be, but doing these things for someone is the ultimate sign of love.
And like any labor of love, the act itself changes the one performing it.
In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Francis J. Moloney said that foot washing was a “symbolic action of the limitless love for Jesus' own." Jesus even did this for Judas, who betrayed him that very night. A writer named Thomas associated foot washing with the forgiveness of sins. In a contemporary setting, this might play out in the act of taking care of someone, like an elderly parent, who has abused the caregiver in some way. If there is animosity between the patient and the caregiver, the acts of love shown by the caregiver may soften the hearts of both sides resulting in forgiveness, compassion and spiritual healing.
Moloney also writes that foot washing points to death. Through this act, Jesus was presenting a “self-gift." Now Jesus was not selfish, but I sure am. Whenever I do something that is distasteful to me, yet necessary for someone else, a part of me dies. This act of compassion becomes part of the death of my inner selfishness. It then becomes a beautiful act in which God is glorified.
And so, I think that we Christians must think of how we can "wash the feet" of people in this community who will never darken a church door. What can we do for them? How can we bring them to Christ outside of the four walls?