Foot Washing as a Means of Grace
By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal
Then [Jesus] poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.-- John 13:5 NRSV
Have you ever given much attention to your own feet? I have mine. It’s a sad thing that we cover them up in socks and shoes and almost never bring them out for show … they’re truly interesting, fascinating, awe-inspiring appendages. It may just be my opinion, but I think that God really produced an incredible work of art when feet came off the drawing board and went into production.
Next time you have a chance, take a close look at your feet. Hold your breath if you must, but give them a good looking over; you may be surprised at what you’ll find. Did you know that each foot has a total of 26 bones? There are seven anklebones … imagine that! There are also five bones that make up your instep, which includes your heel bone. And as if this wasn’t enough, you’ve also got a total of fourteen toe bones! That’s a lot of bones! These are all held together and enabled to function by a vast array of interesting muscles and ligaments, principle of which is your long plantar ligament. With all of these bones, ligaments, and muscles, it’s no wonder our feet hurt so much after having been walked on all day long!
Feet become tired and achy, they become hot and sweaty, they become dirty and stinky. Even today, with regular baths and socks and shoes to keep out the dirt, our feet become somewhat less than attractive. And, so, we want to keep them hidden. Can you imagine, then, what it must have been like back during the days of Jesus, when most people didn’t wear any kind of hosiery and frequently went around either barefoot or in sandals? Feet must have really hurt then … and if we think our feet are ugly, dirty, and stinky today, just think about what your feet would have been like had you lived in a time when they went most of the day unprotected from the elements!
It is only logical that the practice of foot washing was both important for personal hygiene and popular for comfort; it is also logical that such a task was usually given over to the lowliest of servants. It certainly wasn’t something that the master of a wealthy household would normally do; washing feet was menial labor that only those servants with no other skills were relegated to doing. And this is why it was such a great surprise to the disciples that Jesus would stoop to wash their feet.
St. John’s Gospel tells us that on the night before Jesus was crucified, he had a meal with his disciples. This meal is also described in the Synoptic Gospels, however in John instead of instituting the sacrament of Holy Communion, Jesus does something remarkably different. After the supper he:
We dare not be too hard on Peter, for we can easily understand his reluctance to have Jesus wash his feet. Like Peter, we know that we are the ones who should be serving our Lord; we should be washing his feet, not the other way around. To have the King of kings and the Lord of lords stooping down before us to perform a lowly act of self-abasing service runs contrary to our expectations and our sense of propriety. Deep down inside, in the very depths of our souls, we know that we should be washing our Lord’s feet; it is our place, our duty, our proper role, to serve our Master. And yet, Jesus changed this natural order when he knelt down to wash his Disciples feet, took the role of a slave, and reached out to cleanse us and make us whole.
…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. He 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!" (John 13:4-9 NRSV)
Indeed, this is an image of the very incarnation itself, where God becomes one of us in order to bridge the gap of sin that we have created. Paul reflects on this fundamental theological proclamation of the Christian faith when he recites the wonderful words of the "Christ Hymn" in the course of his letter to the church in Philippi:
Jesus became human not to be served, but to serve; he was born to be humbled and to die in our place. Rather than clinging onto the glory of position due him as God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity "emptied himself" of always reflecting that position in order to take upon himself our human nature, one that could and would die for our sins. Just as, in his incarnation, Jesus stripped himself of the visible glory of God, while still remaining God, and appeared among us as a human being, so also, just before the Last Supper, Jesus stripped himself of his garment and washed his disciples’ feet as both a symbol and an expression of the whole gospel. Indeed, this simple act of service made evident the nature of his presence and the life changing character of his death. In washing his disciples feet, Jesus was performing a sacramental act which makes understandable what it means for him to wash us clean of our sins through his own self-giving on the cross. It is, in short, an encapsulated representation of the Substitutionary Atonement.
[Jesus] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:7-8 NRSV)
Washing feet was not something that one’s master does; it was an act of lowly service, of loving service, of self-giving service. At its very core as an act of caring, it reflects the grace of God’s never-ending, unconditional love and, as such, its observance is surely a means of grace with exceedingly strong sacramental characteristics. These characteristics are no more clearly expressed than in what Jesus said after he washed the disciples’ feet:
This commandment of the Lord is very similar to those which we have for celebrating the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. In this passage we, like the disciples, are told that we are to "wash one another’s feet." If we take this literally, as we take literally the directive to baptize and celebrate Communion, then we really should be washing each others’ feet, on a regular basis. The directive is not an option; Jesus didn’t say: "if you want, you can wash one another’s feet." No, Jesus’ words were very clear. We are to wash one another’s feet as an act of loving, self-giving service, and in so doing we will be expressing the love of God and the saving, cleansing grace of our savior Jesus Christ to each other.
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. (John 13:12-14 NRSV)
In short, the act of foot washing has all of the characteristics of a Christian sacrament:
- It is a simple act of faith
- It is expressed through the common, everyday element of water, applied in humble service
- Through this element of water the cleansing of our Lord’s grace is symbolized
- Through the means of service the grace of Jesus is offered to those who respond in faith
- The recipient is passive, receiving the action, and then is invited to actively respond by doing the same for others
- Jesus instituted the act with his disciples
Each point is important. We are called to act in faith in the washing of each other’s feet. We are to use simple water, and to perform this act of service humbly kneeling before our brothers and sisters in Christ. In so doing, we express the self-giving love and grace of God in terms that reflect the incarnation, death, and resurrection of our Savior. And, we are called to do this because Jesus told us to do so.
Yet it is not merely a good work, or an ordinance, which we do just because Jesus ordered us to. It is a means of grace for the person who does the washing as well as a means of grace for the one who receives it. It is a means of grace when we wash, for in our washing of our fellow disciples’ feet we learn what it means for us to serve as Jesus served, to give of ourselves in order to provide cleansing for our sisters and brothers in Christ. When we wash another’s feet, we experience just a little bit of the self-giving love that Jesus had in great abundance for everyone, and it is this love that we are called to express to others by washing their feet.
It is also a means of grace when we receive the washing; for through it we experience anew the humbling reality that Jesus, who didn’t have to kneel and serve, who didn’t have to give himself to cleanse us of our sins, nevertheless did. He gave himself up in our place, as an eternal act of self-giving service, so that we might be washed clean and made whole. When our brother or sister kneels before us in humble service, washing our stinky feet, we experience the grace of discovery, the grace of realization, that God loves us even despite our stinky feet. Jesus expresses this love to us, even though we do not deserve it, and so we are called to express this love to others.
© 2000 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved
As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.