The appropriateness and inappropriateness of foot-washing

Today, churches around the world will gear up for Maundy Thursday meals and services. The word maundy derives from the Latin mandatum and references the mandatum novum (new commandment) of John 13:34. Jesus’ new commandment to his disciples was that they love one another as he has loved them. In the context of John 13, this is expressed through the episode of foot-washing. In the wider context of Jesus ministry – and the reality to which the foot washing points – it is expressed through the substitutionary, vicarious death of Christ on the cross for the sins of those that believe.

There are two sections to the foot-washing washing of John 13:1-17. The first half of the pericope (vv1-11) focuses upon the spiritual significance of being washed by Jesus. As Bruce Milne notes, Jesus ‘is performing a symbolic prefigurement of his cleansing sacrifice at Calvary… the foot-washing uncovers a number of aspects of the death of Christ’ (The Message of John, 1993).

The second half of the passage (vv12-17) focuses upon the ethical implications of Jesus’ death for his followers. Just as Jesus humbly served his disciples – despite being their Lord and master – through the washing of their feet, they too ‘ought to wash one another’s feet’. The example given is one of humble service. Nonetheless, we should remember that Jesus is prefiguring his death through the act of foot-washing. Jesus’ act of humble service was most fully realised in his humiliating death upon the cross on our behalf. Thus, the ethical implications of the foot-washing are most fully realised, not here in John 13, but in Philippians 2:1-11.

Jesus washed his disciples feet because they were turning their nose up at having to do it for one another. Their master washed their feet and proceeded to make clear ‘a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him’. But if Jesus was prefiguring his death on their behalf through the foot-washing, and a servant is not greater than their master, then Philippians 2:1-11 draws out the right ethical implication. The disciples were turning their nose up at washing each other’s feet when, in reality, their service of one another ought to extend to the laying down of their lives for one another, just as Jesus was going to do.

It is widely agreed, then, that Jesus was not laying down a command to wash one another’s feet as a binding universal principle. This is supported by the fact that there is no practice of foot-washing among the early church, the only other mention of foot-washing coming in 1 Timothy 5:10. The principle being laid down is one of attitude. Jesus was commanding his disciples to express humility through sincere and costly service of one another. This reading is backed up by the mandatum novum itself: ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’.

It is worth pointing out here that people will know we are disciples of Jesus, not by our washing of feet, but by our love for one another. Clearly, in Jesus day, the washing of feet could be an expression of humble love and service of others. Foot washing was an everyday required service. It was something that Jewish slaves were permitted not to perform. It was a menial task that was genuinely necessary and helpful which most people would have preferred somebody else to perform for them.

Today – with the proliferation of showers, shoes and better personal hygiene – foot washing clearly does not hold the same significance. In fact, foot washing today is more of an inconvenience than act of service. For a modern equivalent, I would suggest the taking to the toilet of an elderly person unable to do it themselves. This is a job that most people do not relish, does not bring great honour but is an actually, and daily, required act of service for many.

Whilst this is perhaps how foot-washing would have been viewed in Jesus’ day, it is not as universal as the need to wash feet in the 1st century. A more universal, yet required, service would be doing the washing up or the cleaning of toilets. These are the sorts of things we wouldn’t dream of asking an honoured guest to do but are universally required things that we are often happy to farm out to cleaners or other service providers.

For me, there is a great inappropriateness to foot-washing in the modern era. For one, Jesus was prefiguring the washing of sin through his death on the cross. This side of the resurrection we have the sacraments of baptism and communion to remember such things. Second, Jesus was calling his disciples to a love for one another that was exemplified by his death on the cross for them. Whilst in the 1st Century foot-washing was a humiliating act of service that, short of death, exemplified the point, in the modern 21st century West foot-washing almost undermines the same principle. There is nothing necessary or humiliating about foot-washing in modern British society. To wash feet then becomes a pious act of showiness, which was specifically not what Jesus was aiming to exemplify. It has become nothing but a means of showing off my humility, which by definition is not really humble at all. Third, we are called to love one another as Christ has loved us. That is to lay down our lives for one another just as Christ laid down his life for us. This means engaging in genuinely humble service of one another, not pious acts of religiosity designed to symbolise (without actually showing) my humility. There are real ways we can do this that are culturally relevant rather than continuing with a picture that not only fails to do what Jesus commanded, but undermines it by serving as a means of parading our humility.

The washing of feet is not really the issue. The humble service, even to the point of laying down our lives for one another, is what’s at stake. The washing prefigured Jesus’ death and was a relevant act of humble service. For us, humble service exemplified primarily by Jesus’ death on the cross (not principally through foot-washing) is the point. The question is whether we serve one another best by bathing feet or whether we are better placed actually serving one another in ways that are helpful, meaningful and a true expression of Jesus humble service.