Washing Hands, Washing Feet
Maundy Thursday • 2020
Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch
John 13: 3-15
Probably one of the most iconic scenes in scripture is this, the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. By doing this, Jesus literally does what is said about him in Philippians: he empties himself and takes the form of a slave. It was common then, in well-off ancient Middle Eastern households, for a householder to have his servant or slave wash the feet of his guests before they enter his household. It was an act of hospitality in those days when walking, often through dirty streets, was the primary mode of transportation. Especially for those who’d travelled a long way this foot-washing provided not only cleaning but sensual relief to sore feet. Probably the weary traveler did not think much about the person washing his feet except as a means to an end, and as an expression of the master’s hospitality.
Jesus is doing this on the night in which he will be arrested, less than twenty-four hours before he will be executed on the cross. He knows this, but his disciples don’t. They are mystified and confused by Jesus’ behavior. Peter begs Jesus not to wash his feet, but Jesus tells him that if he doesn’t, then Peter will have no part of him. What Peter and the other disciples don’t get is that Jesus is modelling for them the way they are to behave when he is gone. “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, then you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” This is how we’re to treat one another as Christians.
This foot washing is contrasted with something that happens just a few days before. Jesus and his disciples were at the house of Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany, when “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and washed them with her hair.” Judas is outraged and wonders why she wastes expensive perfume this way when the nard could have been sold and the money given to the poor. But Jesus says, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”
Mary’s act is especially striking because even though Jesus washes his apostles’ feet, not one of the apostles washes his feet. They may not like Jesus washing their feet, but even after Jesus teaches them that the act symbolizes their roles as servants, it doesn’t occur to a single one of them to wash his feet in return. Only Mary of Bethany understands this important lesson—that Jesus serves us, but we also serve Jesus. And she understands why we are to serve him: It’s because we have been bought with a price—namely, the death of Jesus. BECAUSE HE HAS BEEN OUR SERVANT, WE ARE CALLED TO BE HIS SERVANTS; AND WE ARE ALSO CALLED TO SERVE ONE ANOTHER.
Now we today of course are busy washing our hands virtually every moment of the day. We’re doing this because it’s the advice we’ve been given by experts of course. The main reasons for it are to keep ourselves safe from the Covid-19 virus, but also to keep others safe. There’s powerful symbolism in this that is worth noting and reflecting on. In the last few years it seems like we’ve become more and more divided—whether by political affiliation or religion or race or gender or ethnicity or sexual orientation—to the point when we feel like we have nothing in common with one another anymore. This virus has been a great equalizer in many ways, because it affects all of us without discrimination. But that would be true even if we didn’t believe it to be true. Hand-washing is a kind of ethical act—it is an acknowledgement that we are all in this together, that my health and your health are inextricably connected, that to take care of myself is to take care of others and to take care of others is to take care of ourselves. It will be interesting to see how, or whether, this kind of thinking carries over when this crisis is over. Will those of us who haven’t lost our jobs feel a bond and responsibility for those who have? Will this shared crisis make us more sensitive and responsive to the needs of people different from ourselves, so that we’ll have a more attentive ear to the concerns of African Americans or Asian Americans or trans people or even our annoying neighbor who lets his dog run loose in our yard? Will JPS, our county hospital, finally see the light and treat undocumented immigrants without charge, the way they treat other residents of our county, because they realize that the poor health of the undocumented affects the whole community? We’ll have to see.
That hand-washing reminds us of another hand-washing from scripture. We read about it only in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator in charge of Judea, caves in to pressure from the high priest to execute Jesus, but wants to make sure they know he’s not happy about it. “So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.”(Matthew 27:24).
People will often take this to mean that we should view Pilate as secretly sympathetic to Jesus and so exonerate him from guilt. But the truth is that this is a feeble attempt to literally wash his hands of responsibility, as if he is helpless before public opinion, when in fact he and he alone had the power to execute Jesus or to save him. His hand washing is an attempt to shirk responsibility, to say “This isn’t my fault!” It is actually just another of history’s countless examples of the sin of Cain in the Book of Genesis, who killed his brother Abel and then said, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
London in the late Middle Ages was besieged several times by the Bubonic Plague, the Black Death as it was known. Prominent Anglican priests fled before it in panic, running out to country estates where they hoped they could be far from the contagion. In contrast a Catholic priest, Father John Southworth, stayed in the slums and inner city of London to minister to the sick and the dying. He did this through three different outbreaks, miraculously himself never getting the plague. Southworth’s reward for this was that he was eventually arrested and executed, because to be a Catholic priest was a crime in Anglican England at that time. “My faith and my obedience are the charge against me,” Southworth is reported to have said. Later his remains were recovered by an older and wiser Anglican Church and today he is St. John Southworth and his remains are preserved in the martyr’s chapel of Westminster Cathedral in London. Here was a man who truly understood the meaning of Jesus’ teaching that “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, then you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
Jesus’ act of foot-washing is profoundly important. Foot-washing is an act of responsibility and it is a call to responsibility. By washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus is symbolically speaking for God and saying, “God takes responsibility for you.” At times like these when it is not unreasonable to ask, “Where is God?” this foot-washing is the answer we are given. In an extraordinary act of divine humility, God has become our servant in a time of crisis. By being a servant, God has offered us a different way to understand where God is in crisis. God is not always with us as we’d wish. Sometimes God isn’t healing, but simply staying by our side while we are suffering, holding our hands and wiping our brows and loving us as St. John Southworth did. And many times he is with us empowering us to be servants to one another, so that we are Jesus’ washed hands and feet. And likewise God is with us through the love and concern and care that we offer one another in this time of crisis. This is because just as God is taking responsibility for us, we are called to take responsibility for one another. We have been given the grace to be servants of the servant Lord.
Even as we’re washing our hands, let us remember to wash one another’s feet.