Dirty Feet

Jesus uses a "Living Parable" to teach His apostles about brotherly love.
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My lesson this evening is about washing dirty feet and taken from the passage in John's gospel where Jesus washed His disciples feet. Before we draw lessons from this act, I want us to go back and review what happened that night when Jesus gathered with His chosen Apostles to eat the Passover meal. This story actually begins in Luke's Gospel where Jesus sends Peter and John to prepare the Passover meal.

7 Then came the Day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover must be killed. 8 And He sent Peter and John, saying, "Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat." 9 So they said to Him, "Where do You want us to prepare?" 10 And He said to them, "Behold, when you have entered the city, a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him into the house which he enters. 11 Then you shall say to the master of the house, 'The Teacher says to you, "Where is the guest room where I may eat the Passover with My disciples?"' 12 Then he will show you a large, furnished upper room; there make ready." 13 So they went and found it just as He had said to them, and they prepared the Passover.
- Luke 22:7-13

The fact that John and Peter actually set up the meal will have bearing on what happens later that night. Now, we have a misconception about the Passover meal because of a famous painting. In Leonardo Da Vinci's painting, we see Jesus and His Apostles sitting on chairs at a rectangular table with the Lord at the center and the Apostles on either side. This painting is well-known but historically inaccurate for the custom of the times.

The Jews of the First Century did not sit in chairs, but rather reclined on cushions on the floor resting on their left elbow and eating with their right hands around a U-shaped or half-moon shaped low table. They all reclined on only one side of the table to allow easy access for servers. This also explains how the woman who Luke says was behind Jesus began to anoint His feet (Luke 7:38). Otherwise, she would have had to be under the table to do so, if we used Da Vinci's painting as a guide.

Another important element was the seating arrangement customs at that time. Normally, the host had the first spot at the right of the table to be able to serve and defend the eldest or leader that sat next to him. The father or leader would be next. Next to him would be an honored guest, usually chosen by the leader. Then all of the other spots in descending order of age or importance. The last spot on the left was also reserved for someone of importance.

So according to this information, and what John and the other Apostles describe, this is what the seating arrangement probably looked like. Beginning on the right, John takes the host position next to Jesus, the leader, teacher. We know this because in John 13: 25 it says John leaned on Jesus' breast and asked Him a question. John could only do that if he were positioned next to Jesus.

On the other side of Jesus was Judas. Whether Jesus chose him or he took the seat himself, we don't know. We know this because Jesus Himself handed Judas a morsel of food. Again, not possible unless he was next to Him. (It was custom at the time for the leader to give the first morsel of food to the honored guest.)

The others were seated around the rest of the table until the last spot and one of honor went to Peter. Again, we know this because Peter had to gesture to John to ask Jesus who the traitor was, suggesting he was some distance away.

Also, John says that Jesus came to Peter last when washing the Apostles' feet. This would put him at the other end of the table.

Now I mention this seating arrangement because it explains how the argument among the Apostles began. Luke records that a dispute arose among the Apostles as to who among them was the greatest while they ate.

Now there was also a dispute among them, as to which of them should be considered the greatest.
- Luke 22:24

If this seating arrangement is accurate, we can readily see why the other Apostles were upset.

Peter and John who were sent to set up the meal reserved two honored spots on the seating chart for themselves. And Judas (who was already suspected of theft) is sitting next to the Lord in the spot for the honored guest. There is jealousy, bitterness, and dispute that erupts into an open argument.

In the midst of all of this, Jesus calms their anger and deflates their bruised egos by washing some dirty feet.

Washing Dirty Feet

And so, the Passover meal and seating arrangements have been prepared by Peter and John. One other item was there, probably left by the owner of the house, and that was a basin of water and an apron or towel for the purpose of washing the feet of the guests as they arrived. This was not some kind of ceremony, but simply a common courtesy practiced at that time. Roads were dusty, dirty and people wore sandals. Usually, the youngest slave was assigned to wash the feet of guests as a gesture of welcome and hospitality by the host.

Imagine the scene as each Apostle entered the room and spied the basin and water, but not wanting to lower themselves to wash their own feet let alone the feet of their fellow Apostles. They entered the room and took their places at the table. This was beneath those who were interested in "position."

What's truly amazing about their behavior is that no one thought of even washing Jesus' feet! As I said before, once they are seated, their dispute about who is the greatest begins and it is at this point that Jesus gets up from His favored seat to wash their feet.

3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, 4 rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself. 5 After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.
- John 13:3-5

I want you to note that even if none of them thought of washing each other's feet, or Jesus' feet, none of them thought to jump up and take on this menial task from Jesus. Jesus, knowing who He was and what He was sent to do, and where He would return, accepted this humble task never-the-less. He even washed Judas' feet! Note what happens when He gets to Peter.

6 Then He came to Simon Peter. And Peter said to Him, "Lord, are You washing my feet?" 7 Jesus answered and said to him, "What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this." 8 Peter said to Him, "You shall never wash my feet!" Jesus answered him, "If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me." 9 Simon Peter said to Him, "Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!" 10 Jesus said to him, "He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you." 11 For He knew who would betray Him; therefore He said, "You are not all clean."
- John 13:6-11

What Peter says here is reminiscent of what John the Baptist said to Jesus when Jesus came to be baptized. In Matthew 3:14, John the Baptist said,

And John tried to prevent Him, saying, "I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?"

In the same way, Jesus answers Peter's objection. Not by saying this foot washing fulfills righteousness, which is what He said to John the Baptist. Rather He tells Peter that he will understand later about what Jesus is doing this night. Once He dies and resurrects, Peter will put all of Jesus' words and actions into proper context.

Peter (more brash than John the Baptist) makes yet another comment. He will not allow Jesus to be humble in this way. It makes him cringe to have his Lord humble Himself like this. For example, a teacher or coach you admire working at a carwash and cleaning your car for tips or delivering pizza to your house. You're embarrassed for them. Jesus responds that those not cleansed (washed) by Him have no part with Him.

This time, Jesus' response is like the one He gave to Nicodemus about being born again, as Nicodemus struggled with the idea that one had to be renewed in water and spirit in order to be part of the kingdom. For example, Nicodemus was speaking on human terms (and a person returning to the womb) and Jesus was speaking on spiritual terms (born again/saved spiritually).

In this case, Peter is still talking about foot washing and how this action by Jesus lowered His prestige and positions. Jesus responds on the spiritual level saying unless He washed you (makes you clean spiritually) you can never be clean/righteous/saved. (And, the price Jesus was willing to pay to accomplish this was greater than washing feet.)

Peter, sensing that his reluctance to allow Jesus to do this, may somehow separate him from the Lord and he goes completely to the other extreme. Don't just wash my feet, my head and hands also. Again, very much like Nicodemus, Jesus assures Peter that if he has been washed (purified/saved) by Christ, he only needs to submit to the foot washing at hand. The very thing Jesus had asked to do for them in the first place. Not only Peter, but all the Apostles would, as Jesus said to Peter, understand what was taking place when all the event of the next few days would be complete. This act of washing their dirty feet was a living parable that pointed to what was to come.

The Lord, Teacher, Messiah not only humbling Himself to wash their dirty feed, but that same Lord, Teacher, Messiah submitting to torture and death in order to cleanse their dirty lives. Only after His death and resurrection would they see and understand the parallel between this service and His cross.

Dirty Feet Lessons

I call this episode a "living parable" because instead of teaching the apostles a parable about humility, He acted the parable out in a real life/real time situation.

So what are some lessons we can draw today from this parable of the dirty feet?

1. Be Careful Not to Ritualize What is Supposed to be Practical

There are many religious groups and denominations that have taken this event and created a "ritual" out of it. For example, Maundy Thursday — Part of Holy Week practiced among Catholics and others who continue the ritual of foot washing to this day.

Ritualizing the practice dilutes the actual purpose and result of Jesus' teaching on the subject and leads to division as groups argue over how and when to do it , etc. In the passage, Jesus tells Peter that he will understand later on the significance of the foot washing. Later on when Jesus explained how Peter was to die (a martyr) and that he was charged to "feed the flock," Peter saw the way Jesus had set for his own life of foot washing experiences.

But nowhere in his writings or the Apostles teachings do we see them teaching, commanding, or ritualizing this custom for religious purposes. If the Apostles did not continue this practice in a religious context, we should not as well.

2. Realize That The Foot Washing Lesson is Really About Washing Dirty Feet

Let's permit Jesus to explain:

12 So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. 16 Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
- John 13:12-17

Jesus is very clear here as He explains His living parable:

  • If I, your Lord and Teacher, can humble myself to wash your dirty feet, then you, who are less than I in position and knowledge, can certainly do the same.
  • What I have done, I've done to teach you how to treat one another, not create a religious ritual.
  • If you follow my example, you will be blessed. How? With harmony, peace, love, joy among yourselves.

On the eve of His crucifixion, and in the midst of a heated debate among His Apostles concerning who was important and who was the greatest…

Jesus leaves them with a vivid example of how to maintain peace and harmony among those charged withe establishing His church. The lesson of the dirty feet is as much for us today as it was for the Apostles.

These are still the sins of pride and selfish ambition that exist in the church today. These cause anger, resentment, division, competition among members. We are still called upon by the Lord to wash dirty feet, not create a foot washing ritual…

But rather emulate the Spirit of Christ when faced with the "Dirty Feet" of others. The dirty feet represent what may be repugnant or offensive in our brother or sister. Could be their appearance; their attitude; their sins and weaknesses; maybe the way they've treated you. Making the effort to serve their best interests; overlooking their faults; forgiving their offenses against you, loving them despite their dirty feet, this is the action modeled by Christ with that basin and towel in the upper room on that night long ago. If you have been washed by Him, then washing dirty feet is the way to follow Him.

Two questions immediately come to mind based on this passage:

  1. Have you been washed by Him? He's washed you clean of sin and death, if you've confessed His name, repented of your sins, and been cleansed in the waters of baptism.
  2. Whose dirty feet has Jesus asked you to wash lately? Have you responded like the Apostles, too proud too lower yourself, humble yourself, die to yourself?

Or have you followed the way of the Master by taking the basin and the towel in love and service. Jesus said a little later in that room on that same evening,

By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.
- John 13:35

He could as easily have said, "…In the way you wash the dirty feet of one another." If you need to be washed clean or prayer to better take up the basin and the towel, please come as we stand and sing.

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