What if the Foot Washing Jesus performed in John 13:1-17 was completely misunderstood by later generations?
What if it was actually a commissioning rite for the Apostles specifically and a lesson for them to perpetuate Apostolic Ministry into the future?
Christians around the world gather on Holy Thursday to commemorate the events of the Night on which our Lord was betrayed.
In the Lutheran Church of my nurture, this day was called “Maundy Thursday,” after the Latin word mandatum (commandment)--“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another” (John 13:34).
This evening also recognizes the institution of the Eucharist (1 Cor 11:23-26; Matthew 26:26-30; Mark 14: 22-24; Luke 22:14-23).
But many churches around the world will also practice a reenactment of the foot washing that Jesus performed in John 13:1-17. And this ritual is generally understood to a lesson in humility and mutual service.
As such, in 2013, on his first Holy Thursday as Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, famously washed the feet of a group of young men and women at ajuvenile detention center in Rome.
Ever pushing the envelope of the openness and humility that this ritual is supposed to signify, the Pope last year included refugees in theceremony, including Hindus, Muslims, and Copts.
Foot Washing in the Early Church: Just Not There!
At face value, it looks as if Jesus intended Foot Washing to be a regular observance by Christians. Indeed, after performing this ritual he states:
“If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14).
“I have given you an example to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (John 13:15).
But the problem is that there is no evidence that Foot Washing was practiced ritually on any common level by the Early Church. To be sure, people did wash each other’s feet in the course of general hospitality (1 Timothy 5:10).
Cryptic allusions to Foot Washing by Tertullian (De Corona 8) and St. Augustine (2nd Letter to Januarius 18.33) are sometimes cited as proof that the practice was taking place.
But this needs to be compared to the clear and abundant references to, for instance, the celebration of the Eucharist every Sunday in the Early Church (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 11:20; Didache 14.
If Foot Washing really was a thing, it should have been referred to regularly in the earliest Christian literature. It’s just not there. It seems that it may have been sporadically instituted here and there by well-intentioned people. But it was not continually practiced as an ordinance of the Church.
And if we really choose to believe that Jesus intended it to be practiced but the earliest Church dropped the ball, we are claiming a Great Apostasy that is contradicted by Scripture itself, which states that the Church is the “Pillar and Bulwark of the Truth” (1 Tim 3:15).
The Possible Point of the Foot Washing Ritual
Centuries and generations seem to have misunderstood the Foot Washing in John 13 because they did not read the entire thing in light of Jesus’ final statement in the account:
“Whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me” (John 13:20).
The Foot Washing, then, has something to do with the fact that the Apostles have been officially sent by Jesus and represent him to the world.
This teaching--that the Apostles truly and fully represent Jesus (who in turn represents God the Father)--is found also in Matthew 10:40:
“Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”
After the resurrection, Jesus repeats this statement and delegates to the Apostles the forgiveness of sin itself:
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:21-23).
Based on how the account ends, we would safely assume that this Foot Washing somehow was a commissioning ceremony of Apostleship. But why would washing their feet be a fitting ritual for that?
The Apostles and their Feet
A clue to the actual purpose of the Foot Washing Ritual can be found in the curious connection between Feet and Apostleship elsewhere in the New Testament.
In Acts 4:35, people sold their property and brought the proceeds and “put them at the feet of the apostles” (παρα τους ποδας των αποστολων).
When Jesus sent the Apostles out to preach in his name, he instructed them, in the event that a house does not receive them or listen to them, they were to:
“Shake off the dust from your feet.”
εκτιναξατε τον κονιορτον των ποδων υμων (Matthew 10:14)
The same verb which means “shake off” (εκτιναξατε/ektinaxate) is also used in the ancient Greek translation (the Septuagint) of the Old Testament, in Isaiah 52:2:
“Shake off (εκτιναξαι/ektinaxai) the dust.”
And that makes it all the more intriguing that a few verses later in that very same chapter of Isaiah, we find the following:
“How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news”
מַה-נָּאווּ עַל-הֶהָרִים רַגְלֵי מְבַשֵּׂר
The Septuagint translating here reads:
“feet of the one bringing good news/evangelizing”
ποδες ευαγγελιζομενου/podes euangelizomenou
Jesus washes their feet to “beautify” them, in preparation for their upcoming mission as his official representatives bringing the Gospel--the Good News.
The Apostles are to Repeat the Substance of the Ritual, Not its Form
Jesus certainly had elsewhere and previously explained to his Apostles that humility and mutual service were values:
“Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant (diakonos). Whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served (diakonethenai) but to serve (diakonesai) and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45)
And it will be no coincidence that when the Apostles decide they need to enlist more people to assist them in Apostolic Ministry, the title for this new minister will be “servant” (diakonos)--deacon (Acts 6:1-6).
Indeed, the rationale for instituting the diaconate was the fact that:
“It is not proper for us to neglect the Word of God to serve tables (διακονειν τραπεζαις/diakonein trapezais).” (Acts 6:2)
After he had washed their feet, Jesus said:
“No Slave is Greater than his Master, nor any Apostle Greater than the One who Sent him.” (John 13:16).
Why does Jesus state the obvious here? Of course no slave is greater than his master. The answer to this question is found in what he says immediately following:
“If you understand this, blessed are you if you do it” (John 13:17).
Do what exactly? The answer is not that they are supposed to ask a few parishioners to get their feet washed on Holy Thursday once a year.
What they are supposed to do is precisely that thing that would mean they, as Apostles, are not greater than the One who sent them--they are to also designate official representatives who will perpetuate Apostolic Authority.
Jesus was sent from the Father. And Jesus in turn sends the Apostles. And they carry the fullness of his sacramental authority. And if they don’t enlist others into that ministry, it dies when they die.
And that is exactly what St Clement, Bishop of Rome, writing in the 1st century AD to the Church in Corinth, describes happening when the Apostles spread the Good News:
“The Apostles received the Good News (euengelisthesan) for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ was sent forth from God.” (1 Clement 42:1)
“So preaching everywhere in country and town, they appointed their first fruits, when they had proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons unto them that should believe.” (1 Clement 42:4)
“For this cause therefore, having received complete foreknowledge, they appointed the aforesaid persons, and afterwards they provided a continuance, that if these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed to their ministration. (1 Clement 44:2)
On the night in which he was betrayed, Our Lord symbolically prepared the Apostles for their mission by washing--beautifying their feet in fulfillment of Isaiah 52:7. And when he told them, “As I have done for you, you should also do,” (John 13:15) he meant them to understand that, just as he was sent from the Father, and they were sent from him, so also they must send still others, until the Good News has been preached to all nations.