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Why did Jesus wash His disciples’ feet?

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Dear Father Paul:  Why did Jesus wash his disciples feet in John 13 then say in verse 14 “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” (NIV) Was he setting up some new kind of religious ritual? — Mike

Dear Mike:  No, not necessarily, although “foot washing” has been practiced for centuries in some branches of the church, especially around Easter.

Jesus was instead establishing, by his example, a totally new order of things on planet earth … a new way for people to think and act … a new way for people to see God, see themselves and see other people.  I like to call this example of Jesus’ new order a “Kingdom of God Principle.”  Jesus established lots of these new Kingdom Principles or laws in the Bible. They take the requirements of the Christian faith far beyond merely going to church once or twice a month and putting a few dollar bills in the offering basket.  Jesus made these new Kingdom of God Principles the mark of those who are “true” Christians … and they are not at all easy to follow. In fact they are tough … very tough. I’m talking about principles like Jesus telling us we must “forgive, no matter what — bless those who curse us. Pray for our enemies, and give the man who asks for our shirt, both  the shirt, and also our coat as well.”  Easy to say, tough to do. Totally opposite of the old order.  In the old order it was “all about loving, honoring and pleasing me.” But in Jesus’ new order it is all about loving God first then our fellow man. None of it is about me.

Some background. In Jesus’s day, people ate, not sitting in chairs around tables, like we do today, but “reclining at tables” which were only about a foot tall. They ate laying on their side propped up on a cushion or an elbow. This meant that their dirty, stinky feet were in plain view, up close, for everyone to see — and smell. Remember, back then there were no shoes or socks. Everyone wore sandals, they walked everywhere and the roads were unpaved and dirty.

But it was still a huge social blunder to appear at the table with dirty, smelly, unwashed feet.  Hosts were expected to provide a servant, usually the lowest ranking, most junior servant, to wash everyone’s feet before they came to the table.

In this Passover meal, however, (a very formal meal) there were no servants to wash every man’s feet, because the meal was held in a rented upper room, not in someone’s home.

Now this is important. As the meal started, even with no servant available, not one of the disciples volunteered to “lower himself” to a servant’s level and wash all the other disciple’s and Jesus’ feet. Not a single one.  Not Peter … not John … not James.  Jesus soon noticed that nobody’s feet had been washed. So he himself, the Creator of the Universe, calmly got up from the table, got a towel and a basin of water and began washing all of the disciple’s feet. Note: Jesus even washed the feet of Judas Iscariot, whom he knew would later that same night betray him.

When Peter realized what was going on, he protested, basically saying, “Don’t lower yourself Lord, this is menial work beneath any of us, especially you.”

Jesus told Peter, “You don’t understand yet the significance of what I am doing Peter, but later you will. Unless I wash your feet, you can’t be one of my followers. I have given you an example, a new order of things.  From now on lower yourself and go and do for others as I have done for you.”

So, again, in lowering himself to the status of a junior servant, Jesus, the Lord of Creation, is setting an example of how he wants us, all of us, to relate to other people. Again, this new order he established at that Passover meal long ago is the exact opposite of what our culture today teaches us from birth, which is, “get others to serve you. Be the ‘top dog’ not the ‘bottom dog.’”  Jesus, in this wonderful story, is teaching us that, starting then, that night, in His Kingdom, things were going to be very different. Jesus is saying that, “In my Kingdom it will be far better to serve others than to be served by others. Now go and do it.”

Do you have a question?  Email your question to me at paulmassey@earthlink.net and I will try to answer your question in the paper.

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[Father Paul Massey is pastor of Church of the Holy Cross Church in Fayetteville, Georgia.  Church of the Holy Cross is a Sacramental, Evangelical and Charismatic congregation where Jesus Is Lord.  You are cordially invited to visit with us this coming Sunday.  Please see our ad on the opposite page and visit us at www.holycrosschurch.wordpress.com ]