The collect and readings for Maundy Thursday may be found here. The appointed gospel is John 13:1-17, 31-35, Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 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.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Peter knows that servants wash the feet of their master. Masters do not wash the feet of their servants. Teachers do not sit at the feet of their students. Employers don’t serve employees. And certainly the Messiah does not touch the feet of disciples.
Peter’s world is structured by domination, power, and hierarchy. Foot washing revealed the societal pecking order. It was usually done by slaves, children, and women, those who had no standing in society. The lower class washed the upper class. Our world is not so different from Peter’s. Those who have power, wealth, intelligence, beauty, position are washed. Those who don’t are the washers.
But this night is different, this foot washing is different. Once again Jesus is breaking the rules and the social order is being realigned. In the middle of supper Jesus gets up from the table, removes his outer robe, ties a towel around himself, pours water into a basin, and begins to wash the disciples’ feet.
Turmoil fills the room. Peter’s world is being changed and he doesn’t like it. He doesn’t understand it. Think about the last time your world changed or threatened to change. Even when it’s for our own good we often resist, get angry, fight back. At a minimum we grumble under our breath or vent to a trusted friend.
“You will never wash my feet,” Peter responds. “I am hanging on to what I know, to what I have. I don’t want you messing with my world.” Today in the church we might respond – “We’ve never done it like this before and we’re not real interested in starting now.”
Jesus is always setting before us one example after another of what God’s life in the world looks like. And for Peter it looks like nothing he has ever seen or done before. It looks like a basin of water and bare feet.
Perhaps Peter is wondering, “If this is how the Messiah acts, what will be expected of the Messiah’s disciples? Whose feet might I be asked to wash for the love of Christ?” Jesus’ answer? Everyone’s.
“You also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master.” Jesus has set before us an example of love. He has washed away the old ways of domination and hierarchy. He has replaced those with communion and love. There are no feet excluded from love. There are no feet unworthy of being washed. Even Judas’s feet were washed.
Think of all the feet that pass through our lives in a day, a month, a year, a lifetime. What have we done with those feet? What will we do with them? Maybe we ignore them. Maybe we have stepped on them. Maybe we have received them into our life.
So many feet. Young, old, tired, lost, angry, hurt. There are all sorts of feet. Feet that have walked through the muck of life. Feet that have trespassed into places they shouldn’t have gone. Feet that have stood on holy ground. Feet that have carried the message of good news. Feet that dance to a different beat or walk a path different from ours.
Those are the very feet Jesus washed. They are the feet of the world. They are the ones he commands us to wash. They are really no different from our own feet. We too have walked through the muck of life. Our feet have trespassed into places they shouldn’t have gone. Our feet have stood on holy ground. Our feet have carried the message of good news. Our feet have sometimes walked a unique, if not strange, path.
But you see it’s not simply about toes, ankles, and heels. It’s about the life of God in this world. Somehow through the mystery, the sacrament, of receiving and washing the world’s feet we move from being spectators of Jesus’ life to participants in Jesus’ life. To separate ourselves from one another’s feet is to reject our share, our heritage, in Christ.
I have repeatedly been moved and challenged by your Holy Week messages; they touch me “where Iive!”. Thank you, Dear Michael.
I loved this post. I love the meaning of foot washing. Both your post and Richard Rohr’s meditation have a focus that is both challenging and inspirational. Thank you.