Are You Going to Wash My Feet?
Lessons from a gritty ancient ritual
By Mike Hayes
When Jesus knelt at the Last Supper and began to wash the feet of His disciples, the disciples were dumbfounded. Washing feet was the lowest task given to a servant—some of them would even refuse to do it, leaving the matter to servants who were new to their role.
The disciples wore sandals, exposing their feet not only to the dust of the road but to animal waste as well in the open marketplace, where livestock often roamed free. Back in their time, one’s feet were likely to be an even less appealing body part to wash than they are today.
In the gospel story, Simon Peter, the brashest of all the disciples will have none of it—and who could blame him? Jesus is the proverbial elephant in the room and Peter is the only one with the guts to say what everyone in the room is thinking.
“Are you going to wash my FEET?” The one who Peter calls master and Lord is going to perform one of the vilest, filthiest jobs there was. Peter knew that his feet were filthy and he didn’t want anyone, much less, Jesus to be anywhere near them.
We can get pretty dirty feet too. But perhaps even more likely is the fact that our feet can also get us into a lot of trouble…taking us places where we know we shouldn’t go. I often run away when my parents need me to care for their needs now that they’re getting older. My feet failed to move for years when I was in relationship that was unhealthy and a job that was unfulfilling. My feet do a good job of avoiding the homeless on the city streets. And when my wife needs me to be by her side, my feet can find plenty of other places to take me instead.
Jesus knows all about feet. In this scene from John’s gospel, Jesus is in complete control and knows that he is about to die and the feet of these “friends of his” are going to head for the hills. They will run faster than ever before and when they finally stop in that upper room, they will be unable to move—locked in their own fear.
"The one who Peter calls master and Lord is going to perform one of the vilest, filthiest jobs there was. Peter knew that his feet were filthy and he didn’t want anyone, much less, Jesus to be anywhere near them."
Bare Feet in Church
In my parish we wash feet at the Holy Thursday evening Mass. The people in the pews have the option of coming forward and washing a partner’s feet after a select group are washed by the priest. One of the more touching moments for me was when my wife washed my feet. My wife knows me better than anyone else. She loves me without reservation and some days I wonder why. She knows that I’m grumpy in the morning, can be quick tempered, don’t have a whole lot of patience and get disappointed easily when things don’t go my way. She knows that sometimes I don’t want to listen or feel like talking when she needs me to be present for her. She knows that I’m a workaholic and that my ministry often takes time away from our relationship. She knows all of my struggles to simply be a good husband. And yet…she got down and washed my feet easily and without hesitation. No deals, no strings.
Learning to Care for Each Other
My wife and I both know that neither of us is perfect and because we both know our own faults, we can wash each other’s smelly feet without much embarrassment—with a certain freedom. While we never get tired of saying “I love you,” marriage can be tough. We need patience for one another when times get messy and difficult, or when one of us does something to annoy the other. We know that we’re going to have to wash each other’s feet over and over for the rest of our lives.
And that is exactly how God loves each and every one of us. And He never gets tired of doing it either.
That too is the genius of Jesus. He knew that these men were going to need to pick one another up every time they fell. He knew that in order to trust their own gifts and talents to be able to wash the feet of the poor and the destitute in their pain and embarrassment and shame—without making judgments or feeling superior, they must first learn to care for each other.
We all become scarred from the bumps on the road where we have walked. And Jesus knows how hard that road is as well. His feet walked that same human journey that we do—filled with human fear and disappointment. His feet walked the road to Calvary and became broken and bloodied.
Walking with the Wounded
But the story doesn’t end there. He crossed from death to new life so that we might do the same. So, when we face pain, we stand a bit stronger the next time out. We don’t step into the same traps that we did before. When we find that we can’t always do it alone, we get help from a friend or mentor who helps us walk that journey. And when our feet take us to those uncomfortable places, where we’d rather not go—when we face something like the death of a loved one, or the loss of a job, or the break up of a special relationship, later on, after healing and licking our own wounds, we are better prepared to walk with those who are also wounded. We help them walk on their journey when they cannot walk for themselves.
It is the experience of Jesus who washed feet, that reveals to us how much our God indeed loves us and who is able to touch the most vulnerable parts of ourselves and make us whole.
And just like Saint Peter, all we have to do, is let him.
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