Father James Martin: What the washing of the feet teaches us about Jesus
An excerpt from "Jesus: A Pilgrimage"
The Gospel of John situates the story slightly earlier that the Synoptics do: “Now before the festival of the Passover,” he begins. At the Last Supper, he tells us, Jesus “knew that his hour had come.” At this point Judas has already decided to betray Jesus. Again, John portrays Jesus in command, and possessing full knowledge of what is about to happen. The supper in John is not, strictly speaking, a Passover feast: it lacks the paschal lamb. In John there is also no focus on the familiar bread and wine. And in John’s account, before the meal, Jesus does something striking.
He takes off or “lays aside” his outer robe, ties a towel around himself, pours water into a basin and begins to wash the disciples’ feet and wipe them with the towel. At the time, foot-washing was seen as a mark of hospitality, but also a menial task often performed by slaves to welcome a dignitary hosted by the slave’s master. To the disciples it would have been an unmistakable demonstration of humility, something an inferior would do for the superior. In his book The Death of the Messiah, Raymond Brown, S.S., calls it a “loving act of abasement.”
Jesus’s odd gesture offers the disciples a symbol of service and self-gift, prefiguring the total act of service and self-gift that comes with his death. Indeed the Greek used for Jesus’s “laying aside” (tithēsin) his outer robe is the same used—several times—when Jesus earlier speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd who “lays down” his life for his flock. Jesus lays everything down for others in service to God—his outer garment and, then, his inner garment: his body.
You don’t need to know any Greek to anticipate the disciples’ shock: their master is acting like a servant, a slave. According to the New Testament scholar Gerhard Lohfink, it was also the opposite of the custom of students of the day. Rabbinic traditions list 48 ways through which knowledge of the Torah is acquired; one is “serving the wise,” which Lohfink calls in his book Jesus of Nazareth “a very beautiful and moving tradition” of providing personal service for the rabbis. Among these duties are serving at table, cleaning house, and washing the feet. Thus, the normal expectations are upended once again by Jesus.
When he approaches Peter to wash his feet, Peter expresses confusion. “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” he asks. Jesus says that while Peter may not understand what he is doing now, it will become clear later. Still, Peter protests: “You will never wash my feet!” That response has always seemed to me infinitely sad; knowing that Jesus may die, Peter is consumed with sorrow, perhaps thinking: Lord, how much will you abase yourself? At least avoid this degradation. Peter’s comment is not a command as much as a loving plea. It’s similar to watching a friend doing things that seem humiliating. To give it a contemporary spin, imagine going to a wedding and seeing the bride and groom being having to clean up an over-turned trash can at their wedding reception, because no one else will. We would say, like Peter: “Don’t do that!”
Perhaps it’s even more radical than that. In her book Written That You May Believe, Sandra Schneiders, I.H.M., a New Testament scholar, suggests another possible meaning. She believes that in John’s Gospel, the footwashing is more about the mutual service of friendship, a mutual sharing of gifts that in no way implies any sort of domination. The message is not so much that the master has become the slave, but that all are on the same level. In the footwashing, Jesus challenges his disciples to do the same for each other, and to see that all are equal friends in the kingdom; nobody is above or below in any way.
Schneiders objects to an overemphasis on "humble service" in the footwashing because of the power dynamics this interpretation may suggest. There is no domination by anyone, but rather an invitation to equality. This may help to explain Peter’s strong reaction: he sees that this requires, as Schneiders says, “a radical reinterpretation of his own life-world, a genuine conversion of some kind which he was not prepared to undergo.”
Peter’s response may also betoken an overall lack of openness to the unusual ways of God. Most of the time, not surprisingly, we are resistant to negative change. “This is not the way it’s supposed to be,” we say. Even in our spiritual lives, we can be resistant to the actions of God. We tend to box God in, saying, “This cannot be the action of God.” We may want to create a God in our image, when God wants to create us in his. Peter may be similarly inclined, “I don’t want a God who serves.” Or “I don’t want to be asked by God to serve in this way.”
A darker reason for Peter’s hesitancy came to me one time in prayer: perhaps Peter already knew that he wouldn’t be able to accompany Jesus until the end, and that recognition made him feel doubly unworthy.
Jesus gives Peter an opaque answer: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Scripture scholars suggest that this comment may relate to baptism, a practice that had already taken hold in the community for whom John wrote. If you are not cleansed from your sins, then you cannot be disciples. More to the point, Jesus seems to be telling Peter that humble service is a way his disciples can take part in him, in his ministry of total self-giving. Or perhaps it is a way of saying that to love other people you must first accept love—in whatever form it comes. And notice that Jesus calmly continues his symbolic action, in the midst of confusion and doubt among the disciples. It does not trouble him that people don’t understand his gift. They will.
Peter—confused, anguished, impetuous—leaps to the challenge. As it often is, it’s all or nothing for the fisherman from Galilee. “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” he says. Jesus may have smiled inwardly, touched by Peter’s enthusiasm. Anything for you, Lord! But Jesus gently tells him that this is not necessary: “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean.” The word used for “who is bathed” is ho leloumenos, and implies a total immersion, perhaps another nod to baptism.
There is an magnificent rendition of this precise moment by the English Pre-Raphaelite artist Ford Madox Brown, who painted “Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet” (1852-1856). Jesus kneels on the floor, clad in a grasshopper-green robe, a dun-colored towel tightly gathered around his waist. He firmly grasps the right foot of Peter, who is seated higher than Jesus, head sunk onto his chin, looking intently at his master. Peter’s left foot dangles in a basin of water. The look on Peter’s face perfectly illustrates the Gospel: at once embarrassed, downcast and above all uncomfortable. Behind them, at table, sit the disciples: one loosens the thongs of his sandals, readying for his washing; another peers over Peter to see what is going on; another holds his anguished face in his hands. Some disciples are easily seen; others recede into the gloom of the space. Brown painted several of his friends into the scene, adding to the tenderness of the moment.
What captivates me about this image is the force with which Jesus holds onto Peter’s feet. This is not a merely symbolic washing; he takes a firm grip, vigorously wiping off the fisherman’s dirty feet. Peter is clearly appalled by what Jesus is doing.
A preliminary version painted by Brown, still seen in an extant watercolor, depicts Jesus only partially clad, with a bare torso, a loincloth and the towel tied around his waist. The display of the painting caused an outcry, and Brown later clothed his Jesus. Besides the usual Victorian proprieties, the idea of an utterly human Jesus washing feet still may have been too much for viewers to accept.
Once finished with the ablutions, Jesus clothes himself and resumes his place with the disciples. And now he explains things to them, in case there is any doubt. Rather than summarizing let me share what he says in John’s Gospel in full:
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. (Ei tauta oidate, makarioi este, ean poiēte auta.)
Thus, Jesus asks them to move from knowledge to action. It takes the form of a command: Jesus is speaking as Teacher and Lord, from a position of authority. So the disciples are expected to heed his message: it’s not enough to have knowledge of Christ, you must let it inform your life’s decisions. Blessedness comes not only from words and thoughts but also from deeds. Or as St. Ignatius Loyola wrote, “Love shows itself more in actions than in words.”
Whenever I hear this reading proclaimed on Holy Thursday, I never fail to think how different Christian churches would be if, in addition to our weekly celebrations of the Eucharist we celebrated the Footwashing. It may sound crazy, and it would be terribly complicated to arrange every Sunday—all those basins of waters and towels and shoes and socks!
But imagine the symbolism if every week the presider laid aside his vestments and got down on his hands and knees to scrub the feet of his parishioners. What a reminder it would be to all of us—priests included—that this is what Christ asked us to do in addition to the celebration of the Eucharist. After all, what he says about the Eucharist, “Do this in memory of me” at the Last Supper in the Synoptics, he also says about the footwashing in John: “If you know these things, are you blessed if you do them.”
Seen every Sunday, over and over, the washing of the feet might help us see how power is more intimately linked to service.
How different would our churches be if we modeled a ministry of humble service on Sundays—or at critical moments when forgiveness is demanded? At the beginning of the sexual abuse crisis that rocked the Catholic Church, someone suggested to me that in addition to removing priests from ministry, holding bishops accountable, making restitution to victims and implementing programs to prevent abuse from happening, a foot-washing of victims might be a powerful symbol of humility. Several bishops did this in fact, but more would have been better.
Early in Pope Francis’s pontificate, when it was announced that he would spend Holy Thursday not in the great St. Peter’s Basilica or the grand Basilica of St. John Lateran as was the custom but at a juvenile detention center, people responded with surprise and admiration. How striking it seemed that this pope, the first to take the name of Francis, the apostle of humility, was going down on his hands and knees to minister to troubled youth.
How striking yet how appropriate: a chord was struck in many people’s hearts because they knew instinctively that it represented what Jesus meant when he asked us to do precisely these things, in memory of him.
From Jesus: A Pilgrimage.
Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator
James T. Keane
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