Footwashing Scene from a French Diptych ca. 1350-75. Public Domain.
“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” Mahatma Gandhi
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
When I was a senior in high school, I belonged to an informal group of religious nerds. There were twelve of us (think apostles/tribes), all seniors from different churches in Mount Vernon, Ohio. We met once a month or so for bible study, communion, music, and prayer in my friend Clif’s loft (think upper room). This time of year, nineteen years ago, we met during holy week on Maundy Thursday. I grew up in a faith tradition that didn’t observe Maundy Thursday and thought my friends were saying “Monday” Thursday until I was finally corrected. My Catholic friend Austin explained that at his church, there is usually a foot washing service. We then read the passage from John about Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Then he said it was our turn.
The feet of high school boys are gross. Some of us had just come from baseball practice. Others had just come from tennis. All I knew is that I didn’t want to get partnered with Matt B. Matt, the resident hippie, rarely wore shoes and walked everywhere. When he was required at school, he slapped on a pair of worn-out, grimy Birkenstock sandals. His mother made him hose off his feet before he could go into the house. And for a good reason. During the summer, he got tan lines on his legs where the dirt on his feet stopped.
It made perfect sense, then, that he was my partner. And there is no way to sugar coat it. The water in the pale got so dirty that I had to change it. I used two towels. The others gathered around to make sure I got in between every toe. It was gross. It was humbling, even a little embarrassing.
I can’t read this passage from John without thinking of Matt’s feet. As bad as they were, they were likely not as bad as the disciples’ feet. Jerusalem had open sewers. Domesticated animals shared the streets with humans. General hygiene in the first century would not meet our standards. And yet, Jesus washes the feet of all of his disciples before dinner, even Judas, who he knows will betray him later.
If you were dining at a wealthy household in the first century, it would be common to have your feet washed before dinner. Meals were often served while people reclined around a short table. Feet were visible and in the shared space. But this job was reserved for household slaves or servants, not the host.
On the night of his betrayal, Jesus leaves his disciples with an object lesson. Leaders in God’s new way serve others, and nothing is beneath them. It’s upside down. Unassuming. Practical. Humble.
Maundy Thursday is one of the darkest days of the Christian Calendar. It is the day that Jesus celebrates the meal and is arrested by Roman officials. Jesus will spend the night in front of different tribunals and will be convicted of insurrection. His friends will abandon him, and he will feel alone. Everyone, it seems, will turn on this humble leader.
At the end of Holy Week, we are called to reflect the life and death of Jesus. We are asked to consider why an injustice like this took place, and extrapolate out by asking what crimes like this continue to take place in the world today.
May you find time to reflect on during this most holy time.