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Footwashing as an act of building community.
 
By Jeff Neuman-Lee

Read John 13: 1-17

When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, something very unusual occurred. In fact, scholars have poured over the ancient texts of that age and have found nothing similar; so we might say that when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, something unique occurred for the first time.
In ancient Israel, as well as in ancient Greece and Rome, clean feet were expected, they were a sign that one was prepared to be with others. And so, washing feet was a common-place event. If you attended a feast, for instance, you needed to have clean feet. However, unless you washed your own feet, which was common practice if there were no slaves around, then indeed, someone of a lower rank, mainly a slave, would wash your feet for you. It was clearly a designation of who was more important and who was less so. Slaves washed feet. Slaves were the people of the basin and the towel.
     There was a rare exception to this rule. That exception was an expression of great, deeply held love between equals. Namely, it could occur that one man could demonstrate his love to another by washing the other's feet. However, this happened only if that other person were of the same class. Thus if Jesus, who was classed as a teacher, were to wash the feet of another teacher, rather than washing the feet of his disciples, he would have been seen as doing a rather magnanimous, though possible, act.
     What Jesus did was radical and singular. He, the "better" person, washed the feet of those who were of a "lower" class. In so doing, Jesus revolutionized the human community. For since he, the Lord of the Universe would deign to wash the feet of "lesser" beings, he established a pattern for all who would be strong, for all who would lead, for any who would hold high their head. He smashed the artificial, contrived human definitions of who is "better" and who is "worse." And he calls all people to more the realistic standards of God who sees all humanity in our floundering weakness.
     And in this revolutionary act, Jesus also established the basis of true human community. The washing of feet is the lowering of oneself before the others in one's community. Unreasonable self-denigration is not what God is after. God doesn't want us to fear the use of our power. However, when power is used in mutual community – a community of the basin and towel – then strong men and strong women, can be freed of the bonds of their egos and allow themselves to be harnessed together for the work of God.
     Jesus showed them foot washing. It was the night before he was to die at the same meal at which he showed them communion. Jesus gave to his followers the pattern that would give them God's holy way of living their lives together. Foot washing as a tradition was an important way that Jesus communicated not just with the disciples who met him face to face but for all of us who would follow after him. In showing them, Jesus shows us.
The mere act of foot washing instructs. Whether giving or receiving this act, one has something to learn of one’s own humility, one’s power and place in the community of Jesus. And, if we know the work of Jesus upon the cross, then we can see in our hands washing another’s dirty feet his very cleansing of their sin, and then we can see in their hands washing our feet our own sin sponged away at the hands of the Lord.


Much material from :
Thomas, John Christopher; Footwashing in John 13 and the Johannine Community, JSOT Press, Sheffield, 1991

 

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Last modified: 10/07/03