Reflections on Jesus’ Washing Feet.

Since today is Maundy Thursday, I thought I would post an essay I wrote a few years ago (sans footnotes) on the Footwashing Scene in John 13 – the Last Supper. This is easily one of my favourite passages in all of scripture, and one that continually challenges me.

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            The footwashing scene of John 13: 1-17 is a well-known passage that has inspired Christians for centuries. It is the account of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet, and then commissioning them to follow the example that he set (v. 15). Since that occasion diverse groups of Christians have followed this practice of footwashing. However, many scholars do not believe that Jesus was instituting a new sacrament, and that his command to wash each others’ feet is not meant in a literal sense.

If this is the case, in what sense did Jesus mean for it to be understood? John Christopher Thomas, in his landmark book Footwashing in John 13 and the Johannine Community (JSOT, 1991), lists seven different ways this passage has been interpreted by a wide range of theologians (pp. 11-17). A brief summary of his survey will suffice here, and consists of footwashing: as an example of humility; as a symbol of baptism; as a symbol for the cleansing or forgiveness of sin; as a sacrament separate from baptism or the Eucharist;  as a soteriological sign; and as a polemic against baptism or ritual purification. Thomas notes that while some of these views are mutually exclusive (such as foot washing as a symbol of baptism and foot washing as a polemic against baptism), most of them contain complementary themes found in the passage and are equally valid insights.

A textual question about the passage is raised by Thomas over differences in manuscripts surrounding four words in v. 10: εἰ μὴ τοὺς πόδας. The differences affect the interpretation of the whole pericope, and beg the question of whether the four words should be included as part of the original text. Thomas points out seven different versions of the verse as found in the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament, but notes that six of the variations are minor and do not change the text significantly. The one version that is quite different (and is quoted by Tertullian and Origen) essentially has the verse say “the one who has bathed has no other need to wash, but is wholly clean…” making the passage a straightforward example set by Jesus and removing any question of its relation to baptism or even post-salvation forgiveness of sins.  Thomas examines the internal and external evidence for including the words in the verse, and concludes that they should be considered as in the original text.

The question becomes then, what are the interpretive meanings of this passage? Specifically, what did Jesus mean by his actions and how did John intend his readers to understand it? The answers to this question will lead to an examination of how the Church throughout history has understood and attempted to apply these verses, especially as cultures moved away from the practice of footwashing. Finally they will lead to an examination of what the implications of these answers are for Christians trying to live the text faithfully in North America today.

On one level, the whole account of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet can be taken at face-value. There are things which can be learned by doing so. However, as is true with much of John’s gospel, there is much more going on below the surface events. This is evident through John’s normal tendency of commentating on the action, as he does in 12:33 when he comments that Jesus was referring to his death when he said “when I am lifted up I will draw all people to me.” John makes a comment like this right at the beginning of chapter 13, by saying that Jesus knew “that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father.” The theme of ‘Jesus’ hour’ runs throughout the book of John, from the wedding at Cana to Jesus’ prayer just before his arrest, where he declares “Father, the hour as come.” In the first part of John, the “book of signs,” things do not happen because Jesus’ hour “has not yet come.” Beginning in 12:23 this changes as Jesus proclaims “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” By John explaining this again at the beginning of chapter 13, it increases the significance of Jesus’ act of washing his disciples’ feet. Even though he knew that he would shortly be glorified and that God “had given all things into his hands,” he still took on the role of a humble servant. John says, in part at least, it was because he loved his disciples “to the end.”

This phrase “to the end” can be translated in two ways; either “to the uttermost” (the NIV has “he showed them the full extent of his love”), or “until the very end,” meaning to the end of his life. Since there is ambiguity here, it is likely that John means both. There is a clear connection between this phrase (εἰς τέλος) and Jesus’ saying “it is finished” while on the cross in John 19 (Τετέλεσται), both using the same root.

The other explanation for Jesus’ actions, apart from his love (yet fully springing from it), is fleshed out by Paul in Philippians 2: 5-11. The Incarnation is described in terms of Jesus “emptying” himself, and taking on the form of a servant. While he is still the Lord and Master that the disciples have been following, he is also the servant who humbles himself in obedience to God – even to the cross. The example in John 13 is an example of how he humbles himself.  “People normally washed their own feet or had them washed by a slave. Free people did not wash the feet of others.”

The connections to the crucifixion in the pericope are strengthened by similar motifs found in John 13 and in other scenes in John’s gospel. In the pericope John details Jesus laying aside his garments (v. 4) and taking them up again (v. 12). In an earlier account, Jesus is teaching the parable of the good shepherd and finishes it by saying “For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again… I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (10: 17-18). Koester, in The Word of Life (Eerdman’s, 2008.), explains, “Connecting the footwashing to the crucifixion enables readers to see that the love Jesus shows in a preliminary way by washing feet, he gives in a definite way by laying down his life”.

An astute reader of the gospels will notice that in John’s account of the Passover meal there is no mention of the Eucharist. Jesus does not mention his body broken, or his blood spilt. Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities, explains that the reason for this is because the two (the Eucharist and footwashing) are intimately linked. In his book The Scandal of Service (Novalis, 1996.) Vanier says “Without this presence of Jesus in us, it is impossible to live out such poverty and such humility; without the Eucharist we cannot live out such a deep presence and communion of the heart with others [through footwashing]”. “Like the bread and the wine in the synoptic versions of the supper, the washing of feet is a Johannine pre-enactment of Jesus’ death.”

The Master washing the disciple’s feet is of course a subversive act, and the disciples are mortified by what Jesus is doing as he takes off his outer garments, dons a linen cloth, and begins to wash their feet. None of them protest (until Peter), and it is easy to imagine an awkward silence filling the room as Jesus proceeds down the line of disciples. The disciples, too proud to have washed Jesus’ feet (as would also have been appropriate for a disciple to his teacher), are mortified by the lack of pride in Jesus. Also, John does not omit Jesus’ washing of Judas’ feet, even though he tells us that Judas had already made the deal to betray him. Jesus’ love does not extend just to “his own,” but to the world. In this act he exemplifies his teaching to love one’s enemies, and do good to them. “Jesus’ vision for loving others includes those not necessarily in one’s family or immediate circles of friendship.”

Peter, apparently last in line to be washed is the first to speak up, objecting to his Teacher’s action. It is hard not to think of all the disciples wanting to ask Peter’s question: “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus tells Peter that he does not understand what Jesus is doing, but on the surface level Peter understands too well; Jesus is doing something scandalous in their culture, and the disciples would have all been shamed that they had not done it for him. But on another level Peter really does not understand, so as the exchange continues and Jesus says “unless I wash you, you have no share with me” Peter quickly asks for his whole body to be washed, not just his feet. His love for Jesus was such that he could not abide the idea of being separated. But Jesus’ reply must have really confused him: “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you” (v. 10). This sentence has caused probably the most speculation than anything else in verses 1-17, and scholars have interpreted it in different ways.  A plain reading would suggest Jesus was speaking about the custom of washing the guests’ feet before a meal, something that had been neglected at this Passover dinner. Or, perhaps Jesus was referring to ritual bathing in Jerusalem that would have been required before the Passover (John 11:55), and Jesus was reminding Peter that he had already done that. But there are other notable views, as Thomas noted.

One such view is that footwashing is a symbol of baptism. The Greek word for “bathe” in v. 10 is linked to the word for baptism, as the root for bathe has been used synonymously with ‘baptize’ in some texts. This view is strengthened when the Greek εἰ μὴ τοὺς πόδας is omitted from the passage. This view maintains that baptism leads to cleanliness (“you are all clean”), and footwashing represents the forgiveness needed for sins committed after baptism. While Thomas holds this view[9], Kruse, Morris, and Kostenberger, among others, dismiss the evidence presented as being too incidental for it to have been intended by either Jesus or John.

A different view is that Peter and the disciples were already clean because they believed the words that Jesus spoke about who he was (John 15:3). The initial cleansing is linked to the believer’s confession of faith in Christ, and the washing of the feet, similar to that of the baptism view, is confession post-belief. While there is no conclusive agreement on the passage’s meaning, it is clear that Jesus if referring to those who have committed to a life of following him as being “clean” while those who do not, even if amongst those who do, are not clean, as with Judas (v. 11). And just as there is disagreement over interpretations of parts of the passage, there is also no coherent understanding of how Jesus meant it to be practiced when he told them to follow his example.

The history of footwashing as a sign of hospitality goes back at least to Genesis, with Abraham offering The Lord and His companions some water to wash their feet with as they passed by Abraham’s tent (Gen. 18:4). Later on their journey, the Lord is offered water by Abraham’s nephew Lot, at his home in Sodom (19:2). Other examples from Genesis include Laban offering water for footwashing to Abraham’s servant Eleazar is Gen. 24: 32, and when Joseph’s steward offers Joseph’s brothers water for their feet in Gen. 43:24. A later mention of the practice is when David takes Abigail as a wife. When she learns that he has chosen her, she replies to the messengers “Behold, your handmaid is a servant to wash the feet of the servants of my lord” (1 Sam. 25: 41). All of these examples show footwashing as more of an act of hospitality than anything else. In the New Testament there are three mentions of it besides John 13. The well-known example of a “sinful woman” anointing Jesus’ feet with a jar of alabaster (Luke 7:36-50), shows that the practice was expected in certain contexts, such as before a meal. A similar story in John 12 describes the sister of Lazarus, Mary, also anointing Jesus’ feet. Finally, the practice is mentioned in the Pauline epistle of 1 Timothy 5: 9-10, in which it is listed as part of a set of duties by widows in the early church.

Thomas points to several non-biblical ancient sources where the practice is mentioned, including the works of Lucian, Homer (especially the Odyssey), and Athenaeus. Lucian makes the comment “You must not conceive, however, that he rushed into these matters with unwashed feet, as the saying goes,” showing that it became a proverb about preparing for something well. Especially prevalent is footwashing as mentioned in the context of banquets, such as in the writings of Plutarch, Aristophanes, and again in Homer’s Odyssey. Thomas concludes that footwashing “was a widespread practice in the Graeco-Roman world. It appears in a variety of contexts, from ritual purification to personal comfort”.

The early church then, when footwashing was a more common practice, largely accepted Jesus’ example as part of the mandate to love one another. Tertullian, Ambrose, Augustine, and John Chrystosom all mention the practice of footwashing. “These references, though, frequently refer to the necessity for bishops and people of rank only to wash the feet of others in remembrance of Jesus’ act in John 13,” and has been practiced in this fashion for centuries by the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. There is a tradition told about King Louis IX of France; every year on Maundy Thursday he would wash the feet of the sick in his kingdom, and host the poor at his table. He is reputed to even have once kissed a leper on this day. Now, in many North American evangelical churches footwashing is no longer practiced, either as a right or as a sign of hospitality. While there is a push in the mainline Brethren church to adopt the practice as an ordinance, two prominent groups still do practice it: the Mennonites and the L’Arche communities.

The history of the Mennonite adoption of footwashing begins in the earliest days of the radical reformation. Pilgrim Marpeck and Dirk Phillips recognized it as an ordinance, while Menno Simons promoted the practice (though not as an ordinance). The Mennonites who practiced footwashing saw it as both a way to distinguish themselves from the non-footwashing Mennonites, and to demonstrate their own fidelity to the Bible. Through the centuries footwashing came to North America via the Anabaptists which were fleeing persecution (and still practiced it), and was especially important among the Amish. By the 1800s the practice was universal among Mennonites and Anabaptists in North America, largely to the widespread use of the Dordrecht Confession, which advocated the practice unequivocally. While the practice of footwashing in Mennonite churches has remained relatively unchanged to the present day in terms of services dedicated to the practice, a recent study found that only about 39% of Mennonites actually wash another’s feet themselves. Church historian Harold Bauman suggests a reason for the decline: “In the 1950s there began to be some changes… One was people were becoming a bit more sophisticated and the second was that we were being introduced to other ways of interpreting Scripture. So [footwashing] came to be seen as for that day—a cultural event.” In any case, one of the reasons for its tenacity in the Anabaptist churches is footwashing’s ideal embodying of the ethic of Gelassenheit.

In the L’Arche communities, footwashing is seen as a way to enter into deeper, more authentic relationship with each other, one where words and ideas cannot mask the depths within. The practice of footwashing began – not in Vanier’s house, as one would assume – but in the L’Arche community in Liverpool. The community leader there reported how “it had helped each one [of the participants] to enter more deeply into the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection.” After that, Vanier’s house in Trosly started practicing it, from where it spread to all the communities and became a “paraliturgy” for L’Arche. One of the most powerful experiences the communities’ members have had is in ecumenical settings, where not everyone can share the Eucharist with each other for theological differences. “All of us can, however, wash each other’s feet… We are beginning to discover and to live the ecumenical and inter-religious dimensions of this act.”

While both Mennonite groups and L’Arche take Jesus’ imperative at face value (while still recognizing the full implications of his message), many Christians today would be hesitant to wash another’s feet. Perhaps this is due to pride, or perhaps it is because the cultural practice of footwashing is no longer relevant to our culture. While likely both are true to a degree, if the latter is correct, what meaning can Jesus’ command “you also ought to wash one another’s feet” have for the modern church? It would be easy to speculate on various tasks which may be transpositions of washing feet, but that would relegate Jesus’ teaching to the mundane. Rather, it would be more helpful to examine the type of attitude, or heart, that Jesus is calling for.

As mentioned, John makes clear from the beginning of the chapter that Jesus’ actions are based on love. This love was so great that he took on the form of a servant, as Philippians says, and washed the disciples’ feet (even Judas’) like a slave. In this way, he is teaching his followers to empty themselves of ‘Self’ in order to love and serve those around them. Vanier suggests that “Jesus invites his friends to lay down the garments which give them a special status… to present themselves to others humbly, vulnerably, with all their poverty”. It is in this act of laying down one’s life that the follower of Jesus faithfully responds to his call to “come and follow,” for as Bonhoeffer has famously said “when Jesus bids a person come and follow, he bids him come and die.” This means for the follower that no act of love can be below them, whether it be washing feet or kissing a leper. It means that no act of service is too base, or that no person is too excluded for the follower of Christ to love. “The life, death, and resurrected life of Jesus is an example of the cruciform life in action, a life that says to God and others, “I am among you as one who serves.” Jesus has now handed his cross-shaped ministry of reconciliation over to us, saying “you also should do just as I have done to you.”

Finally, Jesus’ followers are not left to serve in their own strength alone either. Later in John’s gospel Jesus promises that when he leaves he will send another, the Spirit of truth, who will “guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). Some writers believe that this is what Jesus meant when he told Peter “you will understand later.” That is, Peter would understand at Pentecost when he received the empowering of the Holy Spirit.

While footwashing today is by no means a controversial issue in the church, it is definitely a neglected issue. Like many biblical topics, there is no unanimous decision amongst theologians on whether it is to be practiced by the whole church according to its plain meaning. However, the mandate for Christians to love one another in the love that Jesus did is still relevant and still required of his Church today. While some believers still practice the literal act of washing each other’s feet, all believers are called to incarnate Jesus in laying down our lives, positions of privilege, and pride, in order to love others ‘to the end.’

 Bibliography:

Belsterling, Ron. “The mentoring approach of Jesus as demonstrated in John 13.” Journal Of Youth Ministry 5, no. 1 (September 1, 2006): 77-92. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed February 23, 2012).

Bergen, Jeremy M. “Origen on the authorial intention of Scripture.”Conrad Grebel Review 23, no. 3 (September 1, 2005): 85-96.ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed February 23, 2012).

Brenneman, Bob. 2009. “Embodied forgiveness: Yoder and the (body) politics of footwashing.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 83, no. 1: 7-28. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost(accessed March 15, 2012).

Chennattu, Rekha. Johannine Discipleship As A Covenant Relationship. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006.

Coloe, Mary. 2004. “Welcome into the household of God: the footwashing in John 13.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 66, no. 3: 400-415. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost(accessed March 18, 2012).

Davis, Jimmy. Cruciform: Living the Cross-Shaped Life. Adelphi, Maryland: Cruciform Press, 2011.

Duke, Paul D. 1995. “John 13:1-17,31b-35.” Interpretation 49, no. 4: 398-400. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed March 09, 2012).

Friedell, Val. “A community of friends: John 13:1-17.” Brethren Life And Thought 53, no. 3 (June 1, 2008): 23-32. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed February 23, 2012).

Koester, Craig R. The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008.

Kruse, Colin. John. Vo. 4, Tyndale New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003.

Thomas, John Christopher. Footwashing in John 13 and the Johannine community. Sheffield: JSOT, 1991.

Vanier, Jean. The Scandal of Service: Jesus Washes Our Feet. Toronto: Novalis, 1996.

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