By R.W. Davis
This morning I read John 13:1-17 about Jesus' washing the 12 Disciples feet. I think this is one of those "context matters (even) more than the subtleties of language" passages in the NT. Like much of John's Gospel, the language is simple, but the meaning--to a 21st Century Westerner--is obscure.
First off, what's with this washing of just the feet? Huh? Well, it's important to know, in 1st Century Israel--like most successful civilizations throughout history--personal hygiene was a public concern. There's no need for a hermit to bathe regularly--except for his own health and enjoyment (which often, with hermits is purposely neglected)--but, when people live together--as we do, 99% of the time, reducing body odor, and the prevention of disease are socially important.
The ancient Jews--from the center of civilization's fertile crescent (bounded by the civilizations connected to the Euphrates river in the East--and, the fruit of the Nile, Egypt, in the South-West)--were no exception: They knew personal hygiene by bathing in water....was important. So important that orthodox Judaism from biblical times to today--has religious/moral purity attached to bodily cleanliness. As the saying goes, "Cleanliness is next to godliness" and God's chosen people of the Old Testament applied this very literally.
Due to a hot, dusty climate in Palestine--and wearing of sandles, foot washing was needed, whenever one came indoors--and as a nasty, dirty job, it was reserved for their lowest of the low servants. (And as in the developing world today--servants were used in all aspects of life--as there was no welfare system--and servitude was how poor people survived.)
Greco-Roman culture too valued bathing, more than any previous civilization, with the Romans of Jesus day bringing bathing to a new level of sophistication. Major cities today in Europe--like Bath England, or any of the Bad-Such-and-such's of Germany, were named--for their fabulous, elaborate, multi-stage public baths. The Romans even invented soap, in the 1st Century actually. To this day a "Turkish bath" is actually one that the Turks had copied (or preserved) from when Turkey was major part of the Roman empire.
Of course Jewish people in the 1st Century were distinct from Romans--and their civilization, and bathing patterns, were much older than Rome's. Since there was no soap, olive oil--rubbed into the skin before and after immersion in water-- was used in ways not dissimilar to our use of soap. Key though to Jewish bathing--is that much of it was for religious ritual (and religion & daily life were totally inter-twined)--and the Baptism of John, was not an original religious rite to John, by any means--rather it was deeply rooted in ancient Jewish tradition--starting at least with Moses. Ritual hand washing, foot washing, and oil anointment were a part of Torah-obedient religion, that is what Moses had commanded in writing 1500 years before Jesus--and essential to hospitality. This is why Jesus reprimanded the Pharisee for not having His feet washed or His head anointed at a dinner they invited Him to (Luke 7)--such acts of hospitality--by a host's servants...were a minimum token of hospitality to guests. To forget them--was a serious insult on its face. It would be like you or I holding a party and not greeting our guests and offering a place for their coats--except even worse, as hospitality is of utmost importance to Middle Eastern cultures.
My point in all of this...is the CULTURAL/RITUAL/RELIGIOUS aspect of Jesus' washing His disciples feet should not be lost. Every sermon I've heard about this text, points out how important humble service to others is essential in the Christian life. Of course that is true...but is that the center and sum of this particular passage? I don't think so.
In the textual context Jesus had only just reprimanded Judas for his disapproval of Mary's worship of Jesus--washing His feet (with her hair no less!)-- with fantastically expensive cologne (John 12:1-11). The Gospel of John is a very carefully crafted book--so the placement of Mary's washing of Jesus feet--just a short passage away from Jesus' washing the disciples' feet is not coincidence. Comparing John to the synoptic Gospels--John is not always chronological (histories of people in the 1st Century were not expected to be chronological--as a modern biography is expected to be) but he is very careful. This is NOT to say, that John isn't writing historically true events, rather that his is a collection of true stories--arranged in a particular way, for particular emphases. Mary's tearful foot washing was clearly an act of repentance, humility, devotion, and worship--which Jesus said pointed to His "burial" --that is our salvation, through Jesus bearing our sins to the grave.
Other than an essential act of hospitality, performed by the lowest servant...what specifically did foot-washing mean to religious Jews in the 1st Century? What did it mean to the 12 disciples in the Upper Room there with Jesus that night? We have a hint in Peter's reaction to Jesus' exquisite humility--by his telling Jesus “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” (v. 9) If Jesus were JUST playing the part of a servant--and the main point of His example was humble service to others--as preachers typically tell us--this exchange makes no sense.
Culturally/ritually speaking, Peter is saying "Lord you're too great to do such a dirty, lowly, nasty job, and besides, I need ritual cleansing totally--like a re-baptism--not just my feet being washed!"
Jesus reply redirects and makes clear what is going one--behind the Jewish ritual: "'Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.'”
St. John's own comment to Jesus words reinforces that meaning: "For He knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean." Before following Jesus all of the disciples had been ritually washed in baptism by John-the-Baptist--and they'd been spiritually "washed" (Heb 10:22) by living, learning and walking with the Word incarnate for 3 years.
So the "clean" that 11 of the 12 had, which Jesus mentioned, was spiritual... by faith, in sincerely following Jesus, signified and sealed in their baptism at first--and confirmed in their following, obedience and sacrifice for Him over 3 years time. It was NOT merely of a physical nature--as would be expected if Jesus' example of a servant...was merely of a physical nature. Judas' was a false, lying faith, as John had told us a chapter ago--Judas was a liar and thief all along (in spite of this Jesus does clean Judas' feet--Judas only leaving to sell out Jesus later). (It is fashionable to portray Judas as a frustrated revolutionary...sincere at first--but upon realizing Jesus wasn't going to foment political revolution--becoming disillusioned. John paints a different picture by his asides--of a man of false faith--looking out just for himself, a liar and pilferer all along.) Therefore somehow Jesus cleansing of their feet then--was ultimately of spiritual benefit...even while simultaneously being of physical benefit.
Now ALL of Jesus disciples--fulfilling prophecy, and showing the weakness of their Holy Spirit-less (at this time...before Pentecost) nature--were, within hours, to ALL fall away--cowardly--by either betraying Jesus in word (as in Peter's case) or just remaining silent during Jesus trial (in John's case...for after all he knew the High Priest, and could of spoken up...), or just running away to avoid arrest...ALL were scattered for their (later) ultimate humility's sake--and knowledge of their utter dependence on the grace of God.
So what was Jesus doing--besides showing an example of ultimate humility and giving them physically clean feet?
I think Jesus first off-- was showing the love of forgiveness ahead of time...of their running away (on those same feet) in their weak and cowardly betrayal of Him, just a few hours later. And since our Lord also instructed them to follow His example with "one another," He was teaching them--by example, that we too must each be humble servants of each other (that is specifically to the body-of-believers...our brothers and sisters in Christ) --by forgiveness proven through humble love and service--of our brothers of their sinful and weak nature--even before they betray us (in usually relatively minor ways...).
This is a call for US to perform as it were...ritual cleansing of each other, in humble acts of service.... not only in tolerantly loving one another, despite our faults... but in helping each other to see and repent of those same faults....the little daily sin patterns we practice (and will...in the future practice); helping eachother to repent....by our demonstrated love for one another. Jesus' service WAS cleansing after all, in a sacramental way--that is BOTH physically AND spiritually--so too we should, in little, totally humble, even unseen, ways....seek to spiritually cleanse our brothers, in their public (visible) life anyway--as feet are (and were) public. Iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17) so one man sharpens another. This works both intellectually--and in regard to maturing in Christ, that is in godly spirituality.
How did God love us? By humbly coming as a servant--to live so humbly in love, in the most dignified, kind-to-us way.... teaching us by example, even while a servant...and ultimately dying for our sins--and rising for our justification (Romans 4:25).