The Washing of Feet and the Gospel of Peace
It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted
Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
John 13:1-17 (NIV)
Why not hands? A perfectly kind way and appropriate place to touch a friend. Pragmatic, too.
Why not faces? A gentle and intimate way to observe another’s visage.
The thought of few body parts other than feet evokes such vivid sensory memories for me. When I think of feet, I think of smells. Smells I’ve never smelt outside of locker rooms, shoe drives, and shoe stores. Nowadays many cover their feet with two layers of clothing– it may be that makes them smell worse than in Jesus’ time. Keeps the dirt off, and the smell in.
I know there’s something practical about washing feet that walk dirt roads. As Jesus put it, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” I would hate to be the one who skipped a bath that day.
Why does Jesus choose something so banal to teach his disciples as one of his final teachings before being taken away? Weren’t they all gathering regularly before this, and wouldn’t he have had many opportunities to wash his disciples’ feet? Was he in the habit already and the other gospel writers just forgot to mention it?
I wonder if when Jesus washed those feet, he wasn’t thinking about the dirt or the potential smell. I wonder if he was thinking about more than the cultural role he performed. I wonder what feet meant to Jesus.
Today’s feet often symbolize dirtiness. Muslims often remove shoes before entering a home or mosque as a sign of respect and to preserve the space’s cleanliness. Footwashing is part of the pre-prayer ablutions/ ritual cleaning. The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) reportedly said that cleanliness/ purity is half of faith. Throughout much of the Middle East, showing the soles of one’s feet can be offensive.
One foot connotation in the Hebrew scriptures is authority. The psalmist praises the Lord for making humans “rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet” (Ps 8:6); John also notes that “Jesus knew the Father had put all things under his power” (John 13:2). In illustrating the authority of the Messiah, Jesus quoted Psalm 110: “The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.” (Matthew 22:44). The author of Ephesians echoes this connotation when describing Jesus’ authority: “God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church.” (Eph 1:22).
Jesus and his followers supplement another connotation for feet: peace. In sending out his disciples, Jesus instructs: “But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you. Yet be sure of this: The Kingdom of God is near.’” (Luke 10:10-11). The letter to the Ephesians encourages believers to “stand firm… with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.” (Eph 6:15).
In this foot-washing, Jesus showed his disciples the full extent of his love (John 13:1), and the scene appears to conclude with the words, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:17). Jesus sent his disciples with his authority to bring peace to the world.
At CMEP we try to walk in this authority, speaking out against injustices to people in positions of power. We believe peace can be achieved if it becomes the world’s top priority (that’s why we advocate). We believe local churches and their denominations are uniquely obliged to seek peace because of the vision of God’s Kingdom the Hebrew Scriptures declared and which Jesus continued teaching (that’s why we educate our partners and elevate the voices of those working towards peace).
In washing, Jesus fitted his disciples’ feet with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace, so they could continue to make level paths and bring peace wherever they went– wherever Jesus was to go next. He loved his disciples by commissioning them, letting them partake in the Kingdom of God, inviting them to join his lasting work. In this spirit, we pray these words from the Scriptures:
“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7)
May you also “burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem” (Isaiah 52:9). May the peace that surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus as you declare Jerusalem’s redemption, even as we wait for its peace and redemption, “for the Lord will go before you, the God of Israel will be your rear guard” (Isaiah 52:12). Amen.
Kevin Vollrath is CMEP’s Manager of Middle East Partnerships. Kevin is a Ph.D. candidate in Religion and Society at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he also earned an M.Div. His research focuses on the relationship between the Israeli occupation of Palestine and Palestinians with disabilities, and how the occupation produces disability. In joining CMEP, he is excited to complement his research with advocacy work.