All cultures have a hospitality practice. For some it involves food, for others drinks and for others the washing of hands. Often when someone comes to visit us the first thing we ask them is ‘tea or coffee’? My personal favourite visitor is one who wants a coffee and I get to sit them in the kitchen as I crank up the espresso maker and spend 5-10mins making them a hand made latté. All cultures have these practices, even when they are unspoken and not recognized.

In the Middle East a traveller could have walked long distances to get to you in the sweltering heat. A mixture of dust, sand or dirt often left people’s feet stained from walking in their sandals. If it was a particularly long route, or on a well-travelled path, a person could very easily end up with camel or donkey dung squished around their toes. It was because of this that the Jews had a strict hospitality code. When arriving at a home you would be invited to sit while either the slave, wife or child of the house owner washed your feet. Never would the house owner or meal host wash the feet of the guests. If they were to wash the feet then it would put into question their authority to even host the meal. The table was a place of blessing and community, but most importantly had become a place where the head of the house revealed his importance and stature.

This is what makes Jesus’ visit to the house of the Pharisee so interesting (Luke 7:36). Jesus claims that no one washed his feet. Jesus had been invited to a meal but the host had placed his own dignity above that of his guests and the visitors had sat with their feet covered in dust. This unspoken statement communicated the heart of the Pharisee.
His importance was important to him.

So arriving in the home it would be expected that a slave, a women or a child would wash your feet. Often the slave could be wearing nothing but a towel around their waist that would also cover their private areas. This towel would wrap around the waist and would be used to dry feet when washing. Over time this image of a towel around a waist had become synonymous with the image of separation between dignity and slavery.

In John 13 we read about another meal. In this meal we presume that yet again no one has washed the visitors’ feet. But this time the host gets up from the head of the table, takes off his outer coat leaving him in his under clothing- essentially his underwear- and wraps a towel around his waist. By wrapping the towel around his waist he is publicly renouncing his dignity and accepting the separation between him and those at the table. He is publicly placing himself below those he is hosting the meal for.
Jesus is the host of this meal and he is also the slave who washes the feet.

Jesus is the host of the meal but also places himself on a par with slaves, women and children.
Jesus takes off his outer garments and takes on the towel of the slave.

Lets think about this image for a moment. The position of the foot washer compared to the position of those having their feet washed. There are a few noticeable things in the slave’s posture. Firstly this position of washing feet is also about loving someone intimately. When you have someone’s foot in your hands you can’t help but notice that this is a vulnerable object. You see the damage done by life to the feet, but also notice how intimate and delicate it is.

Secondly washing the foot, being knelt before the other, forces us to focus more on them than ourselves. They become our focus- our attention is fully on them. And thirdly, this position widens our perspective. This position makes us small as we realize the greatness of the person we are serving.

There are few things in this life that are such great equalizers. The world is built on an upward spiral of success and status. The great and small, the rich and poor, the educated and the unschooled all find the same thing in Jesus. What Jesus does is communicate a simple message of ‘equals’.  There is no one so important that they don’t wash another human’s feet.
By washing feet our attention is widened on others and decreased upon ourselves.

When we wash feet we openly give people back their humanity.

What Jesus does here by washing feet is to create a tangible engagement with his people in intimate and practical ways.

We no longer wash feet- we might allow someone to wash his or her hands before we serve a meal, but this foot washing isn’t a practice we do anymore. But the reality is that it isn’t the actual washing of feet that Jesus is teaching us here. What he is showing us is that the gospel has to be intimate and tangible. Jesus washes feet, others serve food to the homeless, and some run playgroups for young first mums. What Jesus is revealing is that the gospel is practical as well as spiritual. It’s the involvement of ourselves in the lives of others. It’s the intimate engagement in the areas of life that others can’t manage themselves.

We need to be a church that is more than having a high spiritual aspiration. The church needs to be getting involved with those who need their feet washing. It’s about getting on our knees and serving them, by loving intimately and having our perspectives widened.

It’s about becoming a church that serves each other and our community even to the point of losing our dignity.

Jesus takes off his outer garments and takes on the towel of the slave.

We too need to take off our outer garments- our pride and self-importance- as we too take on the towel of the servant.