The washing of the disciples’ feet that is recounted in tonight’s Gospel reading was a common act of hospitality. At the time, everyone but the super-wealthy traveled by foot. A guest who traveled even a short distance to attend a dinner party would have walked through dust and animal waste in the streets. A host always provided a servant, or low-status family member, to wash the feet of his guests. This act of hospitality allowed guests to partake in the meal without offending their host and fellow guests by the smells and dirt from the public roads.
This particular instance of foot washing in John’s Gospel is unusual because of both the circumstances and the agent. A host provided foot washing to a guest when the guest arrived; this act of hospitality was not delayed until during the meal. The host himself would never have washed his guests’ feet, as this was a menial act. The fact that Jesus washed this disciples’ feet, and did so during the meal, points to a metaphorical or analogical meaning rather than a literal one. This was not intended to be understood as hospitality, as Peter seems to have done. Rather, Jesus intended this act to have a metaphorical meaning.
Hebrew spirituality saw metaphorical connections between the personal world of the individual and the wider world of creation. The various parts of the human body, for example, were seen as having metaphorical and analogical correlations to the rest of the natural world. In the second biblical creation account, woman is described as having been made from a rib taken from man. (Gen 2:22) The notion of creating a woman from a man’s rib sounds strange and senseless to us, but it made perfect sense within the metaphorical world of Hebrew symbolism.
If the woman in the story had been made from the man’s head, she would have been superior to the man. If she had been made from his foot, she would have been inferior. The creation of the woman out of a rib taken from the man is a metaphorical statement about the equality of men and women. Neither is above or below the other. They are equals. Their equality is symbolized by the fact that they stand side by side, literally, rib by rib.
The human body, in Hebrew spirituality, was a microcosm of the universe. The relationships between the senses, the musculature and skeletal structure, the affections, the intellect, etc., were seen as reflections of the relationships between the various elements of the natural world.
In this symbolic interpretation of the human body, the hands and feet were metaphors for labor and other physical activities. Farming, shepherding, building and the like, were activities performed with the hands and feet. The many references in the Scriptures to “the hand of God” (Exodus 32:11), or the “finger of God” (Luke 11:20), were references to God’s activity and the exercise of God’s power.
In this symbolic interpretation of the natural world, foot washing can be seen as spiritual purification for immoral actions. The hands and feet can not only build, but they can destroy. The hands and feet are both instruments of production and instruments of sin. The feet are lower on the body than the hands, and consequently, the feet refer to lower, baser activities. When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet he was making a metaphorical reference to the forgiveness of sins that would be accomplished by his death. He was washing away the spiritual weakness and moral failure to which human nature is prone.
This metaphorical meaning is portrayed in the events that took place at the table. Judas walked away from Jesus, both literally and figuratively. Judas left the meal early; he left Jesus’ company in order to betray him. The other apostles strayed from the path of holiness by their lack of faith in Jesus. When Jesus was arrested, they ran away from him. Peter abandoned Jesus completely by denying that he knew him. When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples he was offering them forgiveness for the lack of faith that had led (and would lead), to their walking away from him and his teaching.
This unusual act of self-abasement by Jesus was a metaphorical reference to his self-sacrifice on the Cross that would provide forgiveness for our sins. As host of the dinner he was not obliged to stoop so low as to wash the feet of his guests. He did so as a reflection of the self-emptying love of God. He told Peter that this humiliating self-gift was required for membership in the cohort of disciples. He said, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” (John 13:8)
Jesus concluded the meal by addressing the disciples about the meaning of his actions. He said, “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” (John 13:12-15)
This is most often interpreted to mean that we, Jesus’ disciples’, should put ourselves at the service of one another. This is true, but in one, particular sense. Rather than a moralistic parable about serving the physical or emotional needs of others, this is a command from Jesus to serve one another’s need for forgiveness and faith.
Throughout Lent we have been preparing ourselves by fasting, almsgiving and prayer for the renewal of our baptismal vows. In the liturgy of Baptism, and in the renewal of our vows, we reject sin, and affirm our allegiance to the One, True God. Our Lenten observance will culminate at the Vigil on Holy Saturday when I ask you to reject evil and sin, and to profess your faithfulness to God the Creator, to Jesus the Redeemer and to the Holy Spirit who sanctifies and guides us.
Jesus’ command, “as I have done for you, you should also do” (John 13:12-15), requires that we give of ourselves in order to model faith and forgiveness to one another. It is not enough that we have empathetic feelings for the poor; Jesus commands that we preach the Gospel to the world. It is not enough that we live innocuous lives; Jesus commands that we give our full obedience to God. There is no virtue in giving others the same leniency to sin that we allow ourselves; Jesus calls all people to contrition and repentance. Merely walking into the lives of others in order to provide them with some wanted or needed items or services does not bring salvation; holiness of life consists of walking the path marked out by Jesus, and teaching others to do so.
Each year at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper we memorialize Jesus’ act of self-abasement in order to remind ourselves of our obligation to be the hands and feet of God who offers the world forgiveness and reconciliation. In an ideal world I would go around to each of you, and wash your feet. In the real world, it’s like pulling teeth each year to get twelve people who will sit still for this. Happily, we don’t need an ideal world. The sacramental nature of memorializing makes it possible for all the baptized to participate in this act of Jesus inviting us to have an “inheritance” with him. (John 13:8)
Those of you who will have your feet washed can come forward now. The rest of you can sit there grateful that you don’t have to do this. All of us, however, have to imitate Jesus who gave his life for our sakes. All of us are being called, at this very moment, to make our lives a public proclamation of faith in God and in Jesus, the Savior.