Foot-washing honours humility

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 11, 2021

Now before the festival of the Passover . . . Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table,[a] 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 . . . After he had washed their feet . . . 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. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” —Gospel of John 13:1–15 NRSV

This is the fourth in our Lenten series on emulating the mind of Christ (see Feb. 18 column). As you’ll recall, this series is a reflection on the Apostle Paul’s letter to the first-century Philippian church plagued by conflicts of egos and self-interests among its members. The corrective? “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who . . . humbled himself” (Philippians 2:5ff).

Last week we considered Jesus’ intolerance of holier-than-thou attitudes. But there are other attitudes of self-importance that Jesus also had in mind.

For example, Jesus was at His last supper with His disciples before His arrest and crucifixion, and there arose a dispute among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest in the anticipated Kingdom of God (Luke 22:24–27). I mean, here were the twelve who had left their usual livelihoods to follow Jesus for the past several years as He proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of God. Certainly, there would be some high-ranking positions awaiting them in it – wouldn’t there?

Jesus responded: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? But I am among you as one who serves.”

These weren’t mere words coming from Jesus. According to the Gospel of John 13:1–15 (see the image above), He demonstrated what He meant by servant-leadership most dramatically. He got up from the table, and proceeded to wash His disciples’ feet.

Okay, sure, their feet would have been quite dirty after being on the road, and it wasn’t unusual for someone to wash a visitor’s feet. But that wouldn’t normally have been done by the most important person there. If you were visiting the Queen on a rainy day, for instance, and your hat and coat were soaking wet, you wouldn’t really expect the Queen to be the one who takes your hat and coat and hangs them up, would you? Here, however, it’s none other than Jesus Himself who washes the disciples’ dirty feet as an example, “that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Now, I know many churches practice foot-washing as a Lenten ritual. And that can be a very moving experience for those present at such services. Even to be selected as one to have one’s feet washed at such times is unforgettable.

But the ritual itself, as well as the words, carry a lifestyle message beyond the towel and basin: If we are to embrace the mind of Christ in our day-to-day relations with each other, we, too, must do so with an attitude of humility, just as Jesus, the Servant-Leader, did.

Touched by Love, we are to be instruments of Love, not of self-importance.


© 2021 Warren Harbeck

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