The Gospel account of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples is widely known among Christians. Some churches re-enact it on Maundy Thursday. Yet it is not always recognised quite how subversive this was.
Hierarchy based on gender, class and other factors has been a feature of numerous human societies since ancient times. Rigid roles, though oppressive (especially for those at the lower levels), offer a certain security, and people can react with anger and even violence if others fail to comply. The alternative way offered by Jesus as depicted in the gospels is challenging even today.
“Do you know what I have done to you?”
The footwashing scene occurs only in John’s gospel, though Matthew, Mark and Luke also depict the ‘last supper’. By this point, Jesus has gathered a large following, especially among the marginalised and dispossessed, but become a focus for the hostility for much of the religious and political elite.
Though, highly unusually for a Jewish man of that era, there is no indication that he ever married, some of his followers form an alternative type of family. John 11-12 describes his love for the members of a household in Bethany, Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, for whom he weeps and then raises from the dead.
In Luke 10, Mary has annoyed her sister by sitting at Jesus’ feet listening, as male disciples of rabbis often did, rather than joining in the housework. John 12 describes how they give a dinner for him at which Mary anoints Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair, to the annoyance of Judas Iscariot, the apostle who will betray him. The atmosphere is sombre as Jesus, defending Mary, refers to his own impending death.
John 13 tells how, during Jesus’ final supper with his followers before his betrayal, arrest and crucifixion:
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table,took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.’ 1For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘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.'
Later he tells them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
John 15 elaborates on this: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”
The duties of a wife
It is often pointed out that footwashing was the duty of a servant (or slave) and so it was an act of great humility on the part of Jesus which others, especially leaders, should emulate. This is true. Peter’s reaction – first to refuse, then to go to the other extreme and ask that his hands and head be washed too – is sometimes attributed to his flawed understanding and impulsive nature, which is not entirely fair.
Obviously not every Jewish man, especially from a poorer background, had domestic servants, but almost all were part of a patriarchal family system which gave them certain privileges over their wives and children. Indeed in the book of Genesis, the first form of human inequality which arises from humankind’s fall from grace is women’s subservience to men.
As the 1906 Jewish Encyclopaedia (now online) explains, in rabbinical literature washing feet “was a service which the wife was expected to render her husband (Yer. Ket. v. 30a); according to Rab Huna, it was one of the personal attentions to which her husband was entitled, no matter how many maids she may have had; likewise, according to the Babylonian Talmud (Ket. 61a), besides preparing his drink and bed, the wife had to wash her husband's face and feet (comp. Maimonides, ‘Yad,’ Ishut, xxi. 3; Shul?an 'Aruk, Eben ha-'Ezer, 80, 4).”
Footwashing was connected not only with status but also intimacy.
The story of Joseph and Aseneth is an imaginative rendering of the marriage of Joseph (who has become an important figure in Egypt) to the daughter of a pagan priest in Genesis 41. It is thought to have been written between the first century BCE and second century CE. In this, the upper-class Aseneth is at first appalled at the notion of being married off to a former shepherd and slave of another race.
Then she sees Joseph and falls heavily in love with him. After the barriers to their marriage are overcome and they have embraced, she brings water to wash his feet. At first he urges that one of her maids do this instead, but she insists, “"No, my lord, for my hands are your hands, and your feet my feet, and no one else shall wash your feet" (HFD Sparks version).
Unsurprisingly for Peter (who may be used to having his feet washed by his wife, if at all), it is profoundly disconcerting when he finds Jesus kneeling at his feet. And when he volunteers, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” this indicates that he has grasped what his teacher and redeemer is trying to convey.
The footwashing helps to bind together a new type of family brought together not by ancestry but through the Holy Spirit, a community intimately linked not only with one another but also with Christ and the heavenly Father with whom he is one. They are still fallible humans, but part of the nucleus of a transformed humanity.
Beyond the ‘destiny’ of gender and social status
Even in movements for change with egalitarian ideals, it is easy to reproduce old ways of relating, in which God or Truth is at the top, mediated through a ruling class or central leadership through a set of intermediaries down to those at the bottom. There may be limited opportunities for advancement for members of the ‘lower orders’ who are especially talented or ambitious as long as the system remains intact.
Even a home where there is love may instil gender and other norms in a way that allows no scope for deviation, acting as a training ground for a world in which people know their place. Yet this ethos is called into question in the gospels, particularly at the footwashing.
In the first few verses of John’s gospel, God is depicted as beyond human-made categories such as gender. The universal Christ is identified with the Word who was with God, and was God, from the beginning. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. Those who accept that life which is the light of all people, which shines in the darkness, are given power to become children of God. At the last supper, Christ’s followers are urged to remain as branches of this true vine.
This newness of life is more than a metaphysical concept which allows oppressive relationships to continue while people take comfort in the fact that, at some level, they are more free than they appear to be. Throughout all the gospels, Jesus constantly overturns expectations of how society is supposed to function and indeed what God is like.
In John’s gospel, the day after Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he is condemned by the secular and religious authorities and crucified. His mother and the disciple Jesus loves in a special way, who lay against his breast during supper, are standing by. He tells them, “Woman, here is your son”, and ”Here is your mother”, after which the disciple takes her into his own home, joined in a family linked through love and faith not birth. And, though society does not greatly value women’s testimony, on the third day it is another woman, Mary of Magdala, who is chosen to be the first witness of the resurrection.
The way of love, where food and drink are shared with the physically hungry and God’s own self is offered as spiritual nourishment, is profoundly challenging. Following this path may involve straying far outside one’s comfort zone, even risking one’s life. Yet it leads to hope, and – Christians believe – triumph over death itself.
*The Jewish Encyclopedia: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/
* Easter reflections from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/Easter
© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.