Thoughts for Maundy Thursday, on John 13:1-15
Footwashing was a rather more normal thing then, of course, than it is now. If you were walking in sandals on hot and dusty roads, through donkey dung and maybe worse, then your feet needed even more cleaning than even the pongiest toes amongst us nowadays. We find taking our socks and shoes off to have our feet washed in this annual ritual a bit awkward feet – few of us like our feet, so we might worry about what they look like – we worry about smelly – personally, I worry about getting cramp if my feet get cold – you might worry about being ticklish. But in Jesus’ day footwashing wasn’t an odd, awkward ritual – it was just another dirty everyday personal hygiene task. Perhaps the closest analogy for us is wiping your bottom.
In fact, thinking of it as a bit like wiping your bottom perhaps gives us an insight into why Peter reacted as he did. I have often heard from people who, as they are getting older, are fearful and resistant to becoming dependent on others for that sort of intimate, embarrassing personal hygiene assistance. In contemporary society, we tend to guard our independence fiercely, and can often imagine nothing worse than letting others do such things for us and to us as we decline and become incapable of doing them ourselves. Sometimes people even speak of a preference for suicide, hoping to take a trip to Switzerland before they get to that stage of dependency.
Peter, I’m sure, was quite used to having his feet washed by slaves or servants. Yet he refuses that help from Jesus twice, and emphatically – ‘you will NEVER wash my feet’. What he couldn’t accept was the idea of Jesus, someone he looked up and admired, someone he had recognized as the Messiah, doing something like that for him. It was a class issue as much as an issue of personal space. I recognize that, too, from conversations I’ve had. I’ve heard people who would reluctantly accept intimate assistance from a nurse, or a paid carer, express their humiliation at the thought of their spouse, or their children, or a friend having to do those things for them.
So Jesus here challenges some quite deeply held feelings – both in Peter and in many of us – about wanting our independence, and about what classes or types of persons we find it acceptable to receive help from with intimate tasks.
Jesus’s response is intriguing. He doesn’t deny that he is in a class apart, that he is someone special. Rather, he recognizes that prejudice against someone like him doing something like that and plays into it. ‘You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am’.
Jesus’s washing of the disciples’ feet comes out of a deep confidence in who he is and what his calling is. That confidence is emphasized again and again in this passage. We’re told first of all that it’s the Passover, that festival that we’ve just been exploring, with all its long historical roots of freedom and identity as a chosen and called people. Then we’re told that Jesus KNEW that his hour had come to depart - he has the confidence that comes from a deep inner conviction of the time being right. Then again, during supper, we hear that Jesus’ act of footwashing happens ‘knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God’. Again, Jesus’ confidence in his identity and calling is emphasized.
He washes their feet, has that conversation with Peter, and then returns to the table to explain what he has done. Yes, he says, ‘you call me Lord and Teacher, and rightly, for that is who 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’.
Out of Jesus confidence in his identity and calling comes this astonishing commandment, to wash one another’s feet. To both give and accept loving, intimate, personal service, in humility and interdependence.
In the other gospels, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, the instruction that Jesus gives at this point is to celebrate communion – ‘do this is remembrance of me’. That has proved a much easier instruction for followers of Jesus to put into practice over the centuries. Here in John’s gospel, though, which is so often about the meaning behind the symbols, the instruction John emphasizes is to wash one another’s feet. The point of communion, John’s version seems to say, is not just to eat together, or to remember that last supper of Jesus, or even to make a sacramental communion with Jesus. The point is what it will enable us to become. To become, like Jesus, confident in our own identity and calling - so confident that we become able not just to serve others in humility, but even to accept our own humiliating interdependence.