Tom Gilson

Foot-Washing Today

Many churches practice a foot-washing ceremony on Maundy Thursday, following the example and command Jesus gave in John 13:1-15. We used to do that at a church we attended in Orlando. I felt pretty uncomfortable taking a basin of water to people who had removed their shoes and socks, and washing and wiping their feet. It felt strange when someone did it for me.

I wonder if these services miss the point completely.

I’m told that foot-washing was very normal and customary in first-century Palestine. A traveler or family member would enter a home from dusty streets, wearing sandals, and be greeted by a servant who would help them clean up on their way in. It was perceived, in custom at least, as a legitimate need to be met. I get the impression that having one’s feet washed was about as ordinary then as it would be now to hand your jacket to the host or hostess, for them to hang it up when you come to their house.

Jesus was not instituting a tradition of making people feel uncomfortable around each other. What he was doing was very unusual, but in a different sense. For all its customary ordinariness, foot-washing was still a menial task relegated to the servant, never the householder, as I understand it. (In this it was quite different from the host or hostess hanging up your jacket.) Jesus turned that upside down. He did an ordinary, not-strange thing, but it was strange and unordinary that we would be the one to do it. He, the teacher, washed the feet of his disciples.

Peter didn’t want to let Jesus do it. He knew it was a violation of the usual order. But Jesus said it was necessary for those who would be his followers. He closed the episode (John 13:14,15), with, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”

His point was not that we ought to sit down with basins before one another once a year and clean each other’s smelly feet. His point was that we ought to serve one another in love, to meet one another’s real, current needs, even if it’s in the lowliest of tasks—and not just once a year.

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7 thoughts on “Foot-Washing Today

  1. I actually grew up doing this in the Church I once attended on Holy Thursday. When I moved to another church when I was a little older it was actually strange for me that they weren’t doing it.

  2. Then there is the peculiar task some have taken of passing out pieces of cloth and having people wipe down each others’ shoes. No foot contact, no actual cleaning of the shoe even, but somehow supposed to be an act of worship and service…

  3. I agree, it is about serving. Today’s version of washing feet would be things such a fixing the brakes on someone’s car, doing some grocery shopping for someone else (or helping them with the bill), mowing someone else’s lawn, etc.

  4. I suppose churches are missing the point with the crosses all over the place too: we should be replacing them with electric chairs.

  5. I saw foot washing done by the bride and groom in a wedding once. It took me off-guard and was thus a significant pointer to the reality of the Gospel. I’m sure Jesus took the disciples off-guard, too. If it makes you think and makes the Gospel tangible, that’s good stuff. If it has become a meaningless ritual, then Jesus Himself probably wouldn’t like it.

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