So I was at work the other day and my feet were really hurting. The old phrase, “My dogs are barking,” might be cliché but there’s no better way to describe my state. We all know this feeling of being on our feet too long, the dull pain accompanying each step, the conscious effort required to lift the foot for the next. It was in this condition, sweltering beside the pool on an oppressive Saturday afternoon at Poplar Springs, the water of my salvation so close yet unobtainable, counting the seconds until work was over, that I began to think about Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.
Why I began thinking about this, I cannot quite say. I assume it was born of the combination of my feet hurting so, the beautiful taunting water right in front of me, and a little heat-inspired delirium as well. I thought of what a great guy Jesus was for washing the feet of his friends. To the people that called him their teacher, savior, and messiah, Jesus physically put himself below them, to ground level, and purified their feet of earth and grime. It would be like me taking me shoes off, dipping my legs in the water, and then a spa patron, most likely a just massaged and facial-ed and mani-ed and pedi-ed cougar swims over and starts giving me a foot massage!
It’s important to remember that feet were the primary source of transportation in the times of Jesus. He and his vagabond troupe hoofed it around the Holy Land, walking through desert and forest terrain to reach their destinations. Simple sandals were their only footwear. The smell of their dogs is only the beginning as we can be pretty certain that blisters, corns, bunions, bug and spider bites and maybe occasional scorpion stings were the norm. It was common then for a host to show hospitality to a newly arrived by having one of his servants wash their feet.
But this was not the servant washing the feet of the master but the exact opposite. Why would he do this? What was he trying to tell them and us? This simple act shows us the true root of the teaching of Jesus. He is teaching not just humility but that we must throw away all our labels and ideas about who we are if we want to approach his spirit. The definitions between master and student mean nothing now. The master has placed himself below the student in order to teach. All past labels were similarly cast off by the disciples of Jesus, whether they be sinner, prophet, tax collector, thief, or whore, when they joined his circle.
Jesus embraces what most would avoid by nearly any means. He equates himself with the lowest of the low. It shows the intimacy he has with his followers, and the intimacy he has with the world around him. He encounters the sand, dirt and blood on these feet directly. He cleans their feet without hesitation or any sign of unwillingness. He places himself in supplication in front of his disciplines, completely vulnerable and at their mercy. His selfless love and kindness make the disciples ashamed and embarrassed. They are not ready for the intensity of his love.
Touching another person’s feet is a very intimate act. However, intimate doesn’t necessarily mean sexual. It reminds me of the scene in Pulp Fiction where Vince and Jules are discussing the fate of an unfortunate man whose crime was giving a foot massage to the boss’s wife. Jules thinks it was an overreaction while Vince understands the reaction. Jules insists that there’s nothing sexual about a foot massage and that he gives his mother foot massages. Vince responds by asking if he would give a man a foot massage. The argument is over.
The acts of washing the feet or giving a foot massage are a deep expression of love. It can be love for a lover, or a friend, or for family. It doesn’t matter where the love comes from, the love must be there to be able to humble yourself before another in such a manner. The prospect of doing this to a man leaves Jules as befuddled as the disciples nervously watching Jesus, awaiting their turn for their living god to bow to them. The act is inconceivable. Although he has already pronounced himself “the foot fuckin’ master,” the character Jules knows giving a foot massage to a man would be impossible. To give a man a foot massage would damage his reputation and lead others in his circle to question his sexuality. In his world, weakness is exploited and any vulnerability, real or even imagined, could lead to his death.
It’s easy and pleasant to share in this intimacy to someone we love. Something as simple as a foot massage is a selfless gesture with the sole intent being to give the other person some small degree of comfort. But Jesus shows us that we should not just do this to our loved ones, but to everybody! We must feel this love and intimacy with not just all other people but with the dirt we clean from between their toes! His love is not directed just toward his disciples, in fact, it is not directed at all. It is universal love radiating in every direction from his body.
Another story from the Gospels further shows the importance of this lesson. Mary, possibly Mary Magdalene, nonetheless identified as a sinner, perhaps a prostitute, washes the feet of Jesus with her tears, dries them with her hair, and even goes as far as to kiss the savior’s little piggies. His host had not washed his feet, had not even set a bowl of water out for Jesus, but this tainted woman accomplishes the task without needing anything external from her body.
The friends of Jesus are shocked that he would let such a woman touch him in such a way, but the woman is forgiven of her sins completely by Jesus instead for her deed. Why does Jesus favor this woman so? It is because she is able to come before Jesus naked of all pretence or apprehension. She acts only out of pure love, so absorbed in the task that she forgets her own body using her own tears, lips and hair to clean the feet of Jesus. The disciples are still stuck in their world of convention. They are not ready to bear their souls in front of Jesus and throw away any concern of what other people think of them. They cannot be purified through the act of purification as she can.
Jesus is showing us that we all walk on this common ground. More than that, we are essentially no different from the dirt that makes up this ground. By becoming the lowliest of lowly and telling us to follow his example when he is gone, he is pointing to this truth. We should all drop everything we know about ourselves and kneel at the feet of others with the pure intent to help and serve. Jesus taught us to treat strangers as we would treat our mother, our wife or husband, or even he himself. Until we do this, salvation will always be out of reach.