One common theme seen in the teaching and deeds of Jesus in the Gospels is subversion. Blessed are the poor, the first shall be last, and the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.
And perhaps as a surprise, that last one doesn’t even appear here in this story. Which, maybe is not a surprise to you, but it was to me, that this statement actually comes from Matthew’s Gospel, as a response to the two disciples who asked Jesus to be granted to sit at his right hand and his left hand in his Kingdom. To which Jesus then tells them,
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
And that is why Jesus humbles himself in their presence and washes their feet. An act which was beneath the dignity of Jesus to do.
And why is that? In that culture, where sandals, dusty roads, and more lax hygienic practices were the norm, washing feet world like this: either you washed your own feet, or the host of the gathering had their servants do it. It was seen as an undignified thing to wash another person’s feet.
So, when Peter sees his Rabbi and Teacher coming to wash his feet, he protests. “You will never wash my feet!”
And that is Peter saying that to his Rabbi, not at all taking into consideration that there may be more to this man whom he had been following and learning from all these years.
But to Jesus, this is the point. That the love of God is so great and stretches so far, that this is not beneath the dignity of God to stoop so low to come to the aid of wayward humankind.
It’s also a lesson to us, and one of the things of which we are to go and do likewise. In one way we take Jesus’ words very literally — “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.”
And so we come together each year on Maundy Thursday and engage in the ritual of footwashing.
But it’s also a metaphor, that we should follow the example of Jesus who put no boundaries around what he was willing to do to show love and kindness to another, helping in their deepest needs. Because no matter who he met or what they had done, Jesus showed kindness to the broken-hearted, the destitute, and the outcast. He cured their illness, forgave their sins, and proclaimed the favor of the Lord to them.
Now that is a subversive message. And one that the Church took to heart. So much so that in the early history of the Church, the Christians were marveled at, and sometimes mocked, when they showed equal concern for men and women, free persons and slaves, and with no regard to wealth, status, or nationality. All were cared for, welcomed, and loved.
That is the point of why we come together to wash one another’s feet.