Feet Washing

According to John’s gospel, at the Last Supper, Jesus washed the feet of His disciples. Why did He do this? Was it a common practice in the time of Jesus? The answer to this question is Yes and No. Why Yes? Because during the time of Jesus, it was a common practice for a host to wash the feet of his guests. Who actually did this? If the host was wealthy usually he arranged for it to be done by a slave. But otherwise, he did it himself.

There was an understandable reason for this custom in the Middle East. The Middle East was a dry land with a lot of dust. When occasionally it rained it became muddy. In either case, it was necessary for people to wash their feet before they entered a house. When Jesus took His last supper with His disciples, it was necessary for someone to undertake the foot-washing. Jesus and His disciples were not rich enough to have a slave. So who would do it? The disciples had been arguing which among them was the greatest. Or in effect, who was going to be the next leader after Jesus? Do you remember how Jesus told them that the first must be last? In other words, they should not put themselves forward but practice humility.

In Eastern countries, disciples washed the feet of gurus or teachers but not vice versa. This is still the case. Even today in Sri Lanka if you invite Buddhist monks for Dhana or a meal it is necessary to wash their feet before they enter the house. Jesus washed the feet of His disciples in this particular tradition. But Peter, being a sensitive man, protested a great deal before he allowed Jesus to wash his feet.

When Jesus washed the feet of His disciples he was acting out a parable. He had a tradition for this, from the prophets of the Old Testament. According to the book of Isaiah the prophet travelled without shoes and clothes to warn people of forthcoming troubles and tribulations. Jesus came from this tradition. In a way, Jesus’ death on the cross also came from this tradition.

Therefore this act of Jesus is not just a symbolic one. It is sacramental. This foot-washing has a powerful inner meaning in a world where everybody seems to be craving to become masters. For them, Jesus’ message was: If you want to be a master first of all you must be a servant.

In the Anglican Church in Sri Lanka, this is the first public act by Bishops soon after their consecration. Nine out of ten people who are not Christians understand this act, even if they don’t understand the other ceremonies of the bishop’s consecration.

In the seminary where I teach in Sri Lanka, we send our students out on their ministry by washing their feet and giving them the basin and towel asking them to wash the feet of others. We tell them that they are called to a feet-washing ministry.

Today as we commemorate this act of Jesus, let us remember that this is an integral part of the gospel that we are called on to proclaim. We are called to proclaim the gospel of repentance with humility, not with power and prestige.

Let us hope and pray that Christians throughout the world will be able to grasp this message of Jesus, a message that is of real importance to our world. May God bless you! Amen.