Why Do Preachers Make Jesus’ Foot-Washing Lesson Seem So Weird?

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The streak continues. I heard another sermon this week on John 13, which opens with Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that passage preached. I’ve never heard it done with the full context it needs. I wish preachers wouldn’t make Jesus’ foot-washing seem so weird.

The Object Lesson in Jesus’ Foot-Washing

You know the story. It’s Jesus’ last night with his disciples before his betrayal, trial, and crucifixion. He knows they’ve had squabbles among them over which was the greatest. (Amazingly, that continues even into the same evening — see Luke 22:24-27.)

He wants to teach them that greatness and leadership are both about serving others. So he gets up, puts a towel around his waist, and starts washing their feet. It’s a dirty, menial service, one that only slaves and servants usually did.

It’s a huge object lesson: To be great, be a servant. That’s the part every preacher I’ve heard on it has gotten right.

Spoiling the Lesson

But then they go and spoil it. They omit essential context. You see, this whole deal of foot-washing is really quite weird to all of us in the 21st century. The last preacher I heard on it compared it to getting a pedicure — not something most men will relate to, and definitely not what Jesus had in mind. But it wasn’t weird when Jesus did it, and he didn’t intend us to take it that way now.

The mistake gets multiplied when churches hold foot-washing services. It’s supposed to be some kind of lesson in serving others. It isn’t. Why? Because no one needs their feet washed. There’s no service there, just wet feet you have to dry really, really carefully before you roll your pants down and put your socks and shoes on again.

So here’s the missing context: When Jesus washed their feet, he was doing something normal. Something they were used to. Something they needed, because their feet were dirty from the roads, and because it was customary to get them cleaned when entering a home. Jesus was doing something they wanted and appreciated. He was serving a real need. That’s what this was about.

A Real-Life Experience of the Real Thing

Sara and I were both staff with Campus Crusade for Christ (now “Cru”), and also newlyweds back in 1987. We were traveling across country, and took a side trip into Manhattan, Kansas, to see a friend. We pulled up at the hotel, and were surprised to see Bill Bright standing there. He was the founder and president of Campus Crusade, the leader of a global movement with thousands of staff in almost every country of the world.

He saw us, recognized Sara, since she’d worked with him, and he said, “May I help carry your luggage?” We could see he really meant the offer. We were really quite blown away by it. Thirty-two years later, it’s still unforgettable.

What Jesus Would Want Us to Learn Today — and How He’d Teach It

That’s the kind of servant leadership Jesus wanted us to learn from his John 13 example. It’s the kind of thing he’d have done for an object lesson, if he were doing it today.

Or if he were teaching at a midweek meal-and-message service today, you can be very sure he wouldn’t meet the guests at the door with a towel and a basin, telling them to kick off their shoes and socks. No, he’d be standing at the dinner serving line, scooping up mashed potatoes for all who came. Then when time came for the message, he’d stand up and explain the example he’d just set.

Peter would still object: “Not you, Jesus! You’re the star here; you should be getting star treatment!” And Jesus would say (borrowing from John 13:6-9), “If I don’t carry your bags, Peter, or serve you these potatoes, then you have no share with me.”

There’d still be something strange in what you’d see there, but it wouldn’t be the uncomfortable mental image of wet squishy toes. It would be the idea of the superstar being the one who serves others’ needs — their very real, everyday, ordinary needs.

Image Credit(s): Ford Maddox Brown.

2 Responses

  1. Clark Coleman says:

    The real difficulty in teaching this passage today is the attitude “That task is only done by servants” which most people will not relate to. This attitude is reflected in some ancient writers by a general disdain for manual labor, which was common in many cultures in human history and helped produce slavery. Most Bible readers today cannot think of something that “is only done by servants” and need to get into that mindset in order to really see the meaning of the passage.

  2. BillT says:

    It’s my understanding that in those times foot washing was so objectionable that it was even forbidden to ask your servant or slave to do for you. So yes, it’s something that was needed that no one had even had anyone else do for them before.

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