Some biblical passages attract more errant interpretations than others. It isn’t the stories’ fault. The ones that do are often among the most powerful and vivid of them. John’s description of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples is one of them.
There are a lot of reasons for that misunderstanding. Feet are a big part of it. So, is the business of washing feet – and neither of them have a part in our public rituals. So, the practice invites speculation based on modern assumptions about what it might mean to kneel down in front of someone else to bathe their feet.
As a result, there are endless interpretations that dwell on service, servant leadership, doing good, submission, and humility. These are not bad themes, in and of themselves, but they yield strange theology and strange pictures of what Jesus was doing.
Many people come away with the assumption that Jesus either suddenly realized that he was going to die and that it was time he talked to his disciples about their leadership style. Or people walk away from Maundy Thursday sermons with the equally strange notion that the Christian life is a journey that consists of two parts: (1) get saved, (2) be a servant.
It’s a small wonder that people boil the Gospel down to good works and service. This, in spite of the fact that they often can’t quite pin down what it means to be good and in spite of the fact that they can’t quite tell you just how people ought to be served.
The reason they can’t is because, as good as being good can be and as good as being a servant might be, that just isn’t the point of the story.
The key to its meaning lies in the way that John frames the action that Jesus takes:
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. (Jn 13:3-4, ESV)
And in his description of his exchange with Peter:
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” (Jn 13:6-8)
Jesus knows that Peter is on his way spiritually. He is living into the Kingdom that Jesus has inaugurated. He has left his fishing business, he tromped around the countryside with Jesus, and he’s been on mission trips.
But he hasn’t arrived and he’s about to face the biggest setback yet in his journey. He has been cleansed, but he is still picking up road dust. And he is also about to flunk, big time.
Service in the Kingdom, then, is not a matter of doing good for others for no particular reason — or doing good for the sake of doing good. Service is about a life of service lived out of a recognition of one’s own deep dependence upon God for forgiveness and cleansing. And it’s about service that points others to the same gift.
Now, inevitably, some will complain, “Oh, I see, so we are good to others so that we can get them into the church.” But that’s a matter of getting your shoe on the wrong foot (if you will forgive the pun).
The Christian’s availability to others is not about serving them in order to “get them for God.” It’s about sharing an incomparable gift. And it is about living a life so deeply, comprehensively shaped by the journey into God’s Kingdom that no one could ever read your life as anything else.
A case in point is my friend, John Kraus. John was among my cherished friends during my Cathedral days in Washington. He was a deeply devoted Christian and – for years – the head verger. He was retired by the time I arrived at the Cathedral, but he would still come around on Sunday morning for conversation, coffee, and donuts with some of us on the staff. John had a blood disease that finally morphed into Leukemia and claimed his life and I had the great privilege of being there for his funeral.
The preacher said: “John left strict instructions that there were to be no eulogies.” He told me, “One man lying in the Cathedral is enough. But,” the preacher observed, “to know John was to know his Lord.”
That is what washing feet is all about.
Many will serve and do good works. Many will be vulnerable, accessible, humble, and giving.
But our lives and those characteristics are meant to be inspired and shaped by having “a share” in Jesus — by a life of intimacy with our Lord and a journey into his Kingdom.
The epitaph by which any of us should be remembered are the words, “To know him — to know her — was to know her Lord — his Lord — your Lord — mine.” Beginning to end, from head to toe.
And that is what foot washing is all about.