Foot Washing: A Call to Practice Incarnational Living

Posted: April 7, 2012 in Discipleship
Tags: , , , , ,

Early in the Fourth Gospel the disciples sought Jesus—more precisely, they sought the place where he dwelt.  They inquired, “Rabbi, where do you dwell (meno)?  Jesus answered, “Come and see.”  It is the genius of John that he is able to craft a narrative that not only allows the readers to join the disciples on their journey to “go and see where the master dwells,” but opens the doors and invites them into that dwelling.  John’s gospel is essentially mystical and contemplative, giving rise to a theology that is very little concerned with institution and very much concerned with union and life in the household of God.  The invitation to “come and see” takes on particular clarity and fervor in the Passion Narrative.

To the casual reader, John 13 is vaguely recognizable as an account of “The Last Supper.”  The events, as narrated by the Fourth Evangelist, parallel only slightly, and differ significantly from the events as related by the Synoptic authors and the Pauline epistles.  The temporal context is “during supper” (13:2b).  But, in John, the Last Supper is not a Passover meal (13:1a, 29) as it is in the Synoptics.  Nor is it the Lord’s Supper of Paul’s epistles and of church tradition (1 Cor. 11:23-26; Matt. 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-26; Luke 22:7-23).  There is no mention of “apostles” or of “the twelve,” no command to “do this in remembrance of me.”  Instead, John depicts an intimate supper at which Jesus, by wordless enactment of a symbol of lowly service, prepares his disciples to stay together as a community of faith even when he is no longer physically present among them.[1]

“(Jesus) knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands,

and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from

the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.

Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’

feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.” [2]

The actual event, itself, occupies two short verses (13:4-5).  The movement of action develops in narrative time and is embellished by absence of dialogue.  With countless words at his disposal, the writer could have interjected dialogue and lengthy explanations as clarification to aid in the reader’s understanding of the passage.  But, like a director well versed and confident in his craft, the writer dispensed with the spoken word and allowed the scene to unfold in silence, thereby creating a sense of awe and giving an enigmatic quality to the pericope.  A more literal translation more clearly expresses the beauty of the movement present in the text:

(Jesus) “doth rise from the supper,

and doth lay down his garments,

and having taken a towel,

he girded himself;

afterward he putteth water into the basin,

and began to wash the feet of the disciples,

and to wipe with the towel with which he was being girded.”[3]

The movement of rising and laying, taking, girding and putting is followed by an implied movement downward to the disciple’s feet where the act of washing takes place.  The movement of narrative in this passage skillfully reflects the movement ad extra of the Triune God.  This echoes John 1:14 and supports the theological theme of descent and ascent that permeates the gospel and enforces the Johannine Christology of incarnation.

John Calvin used the language of accommodation to describe the movement of the Triune God toward humanity.  Karl Barth said the incarnation was an “extravagant condescension,” a movement downward that outweighs even the inconceivability of the divine majesty of God.  “Flesh, all that we are and exactly like us even in our opposition to Him.  It is because of this that he makes contact with us and is accessible for us.”[4]  In keeping with the commonly held interpretation of foot washing as an example of lowering oneself to a servant position, like the physical movement of the act itself, the metaphorical movement of humbling oneself is a movement downward.  The symbolism is striking and the comparison compelling.  The silent action described as foot washing in John 13:4-5 is exemplary of the extravagant condescension.  But, as we will explore later, the movement is more than a good example in humility.

Prior to the movement downward to a position where Jesus could wash the disciples’ feet, he disrobed.  Some translations indicate he removed only his outer garment.  However, himatia used in 13:4 is in the accusative plural form.  Jesus lay aside more than his outer garment.  In all probability, it was a complete disrobing.  Jesus got naked, took a towel and girt himself.  In doing so, he abandoned the appearance of a “Master” and “Rabbi” and took on the physical appearance of a slave.  Here, John 13:4-5 echoes the Apostle Paul’s description of the incarnation.  “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he become poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”[5]  In making the journey to the “far distant country”, the second person of the Trinity laid aside his heavenly garments and slipped into the flesh of a naked newborn.  His mother girt him in a piece of cloth and placed him in a feeding trough.  The significance of God taking on human flesh cannot be overstated.  Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man; not a mixture of the two, not a spiritual mode, nor a mythological marvel and certainly not a super human being.  Likewise, in the movement downward to wash the disciples’ feet, Jesus did not become less Master or Teacher, but took on the appearance of a slave and became a humble servant.

In the text, the silence is broken, the beauty of the movement is temporarily interrupted and the writer divulges a dialogue between Peter and Jesus. (John 13:6-11)  Only Peter speaks, but he may have very well voiced the discomfort of the whole group.  “Master, you wash my feet?”[6]  Peter’s protest reflect humanity’s protests to a God who comes near to us and reveals God’s self through accommodation.  So, the indignity for the disciples, in the “now” of the text (13:1-20), resides in their teacher’s disarming initiative to touch them in this way, to bring himself so near and naked to their need, to apply himself to their private rankness, to cleanse for them what they would prefer almost anyone else to cleanse.  Peter is much more comfortable being militant than he is being broken.   After all, he signed up to follow a revolutionary.  He thought Jesus who would overthrow the oppressive empire and set the Jewish nation free.  Is it any wonder that the burley fisherman broke the silence of the moment and protested?[7]  After the exchange between Jesus and Peter in verses 6-11, speed of motion in the text accelerates.  Jesus finishes the task, puts on his clothes, returns to the table and asks and answers a question, “Do you know what I have done to you?”  Jesus interprets his own action for the disciples (and readers).  “For an example I gave to you, that, according as I did to you, ye also may do.”[8]

Historical records indicate foot washing was practiced on specific occasions within New Testament culture.  However, pedilavium does not appear in any other New Testament texts.  Its absence from those texts does not mean it did not occur.  Church historians deduce it did not take a place of prominence as an action within the institution and most likely was not practiced with any regularity among the early church communities.

Saint Chrysostom in a homily on John equated the humble service exemplified in the act of foot washing to that of forgiving those who trespass against us.  He concluded his homily on foot washing with these words, “For God hath made us debtors one to another, having first so done Himself, and hath made us debtors of a less amount.  Knowing all which things, let us forgive our neighbors their trespasses, and repay them by deeds of an opposite kind, that we too may obtain mercy from God, through the grace and loving kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and dominion forever and ever.”[9]  Saint Augustine encouraged Christians to imitate the actions of Jesus in John 13, and as is apparent in his words, he understood foot washing to be a form of sanctification.  He preached, “Wash our feet, that were formerly cleansed, but have again been defiled in our walking through the earth to open unto Thee.”[10]  Saint Ambrose gently chided the Church in Rome for discontinuing the act of foot washing.  He so noted that they may have declined the practice on account of the massive numbers of people involved in the practice.

“Tertullian indicated a knowledge of foot washing, noting it was a part of Christian worship (De cor. 8).  Origen also advocated foot washing (In Gen. hom. 4.2).  The Synod of Toledo (694) declared that foot washing should be observed on Maundy Thursday.  Throughout the Middle Ages the Roman churches observed the practice on that day of Holy Week.  The Greek church recognized foot washing as a sacrament but seldom practiced it.  In the 11th and 12th centuries the Albigenses and Waldenses observed foot washing as a religious rite.  The Bohemian Brethren also practiced it in the 16th century.  Martin Luther opposed foot washing, but it practiced by the Anabaptists and some Pietists.”[11]

According to Sir Edward Hoskyns, “The Pedilavium was originally both an example of Christian humility and a means of post-baptismal sanctification.  The two elements were so closely interwoven that the one was never entirely dissociated from the other.  But both Christian humility and Christian sanctification were conditioned, primarily not by the washing of the disciples’ feet by Christ, but the humiliation of the Son of God in the incarnation and in the Passion, so that the Pedilavium was in point of fact a parable of the humiliation of the Son of God and of the effects of the humiliation.[12]

How then can there be resolution between the “do as I have done to you” imperative of Christ in John 13:15 with regard to foot washing and the confusion over it implication and the seemingly non-existence of the act within the early church?   Most commentators and scholars agree, “The text itself appears to offer two different interpretations.”[13]  The first indicates that the act of foot washing was proleptic of Jesus’ death and functioned metaphorically to enable the disciples to participate in his death.  The second and most commonly held interpretation reveals the act as an example of humble service to be modeled by the disciples; an “acted parable of the Lord’s humiliation unto death.”

But it is two contemporary female theologians, Sandra Schneiders and Mary Coloe, that encourage us to find resolution in the symbolic nature of the sensible reality of foot washing as a transforming experience of a transcendent mystery.  “Consequently, the primary question posed to the interpreter by the episode of the foot washing in John is not, did Jesus actually wash his disciples’ feet or actually speak the discourse that follows in the text?  But rather, what interpretation of life and relationships does the text present?”[14]

Mary Coloe, in her highly original contribution to the understanding of the Fourth Gospel, gently set aside the common interpretations and presented a well-crafted argument in the context of the “now” and “later” of the Johannine narrative that offered the washing of feet as a gesture of welcome that pointed ahead, in John’s understanding, to the crucifixion as the creation of God’s household.  As early as the prologue, the Fourth Evangelist began to lay the foundation for familial imagery that would thread its way through the gospel and culminate in the Passion Narrative.  Klaus Scholtissek understood the familiar imagery as John’s “family metaphor” and designated it the semantic axis of the gospel.

“Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name,

he gave the right to become children of God—children born

not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s

will, but born of God.” (John 1:12b-13)

As evidenced by the proclamations of Jesus in chapter 2, the house (oikon) shifted from the Jerusalem temple to the living flesh of Jesus.  Mary Coloe proposed that the term household is a more accurate expression of the Johannine theology within its cultural context.  “The closest expression in the MT to what we understand as family is “father’s house” or in the LXX, oikia tou patrou.  This terminology is culturally more accurate and is also found twice in the Fourth Gospel (2:16 & 14:2).”[15]

Jesus predicted his death and framed it in terms of being exalted or lifted up.  (3:14; 8:28; 12:32)  The act of lifting up in 3:14 designated the means by which eternal life would be made available to those who believe in Jesus.  In 8:28, exaltation is a sign of validation of the God-son relationship (familial imagery).  In the same discourse, 8:35, the word oikia is used to designate the rightful place of a son (child), and in 12:32, the act of lifting up is representative of the type of death Jesus will experience.  John unequivocally relates the death of Jesus in terms of the paschal lamb (John 19:36).  That connection echoes the Exodus narrative (Exodus 1-20) and highlights the thematic symbolism of a new community.  The crucifixion of Jesus is an act of exaltation whereby the “Father’s house” is enlarged to accommodate all of those who believe in the son.  Many cite Jesus’ declaration and the beloved disciple’s subsequent action, found only in John 19:25-28, as John’s fulfillment of the familial imagery he began in the prologue.

Particularly in his farewell discourse, Jesus refers to aspects of his relationship with God as a model for human relationships:  “holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me so that they may be one as we are one” (17:11): “that they may all be one.  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us” (17:21-22); this explicit comparison with the divine world provides a hermeneutic for examining household not in reference to Jewish/Greco-Roman patriarchal models, but using the relationships between the Father, Jesus, and Spirit as the social context of the gospel, it must be understood in a symbolic sense as referring to people in relationship with God and each other.  Its reference is to a household “not of this world.”[16]

Further, although there is no explicit mention of Abraham in the Johannine foot washing, Ms. Coloe’s interpretive offering reverberates with a “echoing” of Genesis 18:4.  Foot washing had a particular religious significance within Judaism as it recalled the hospitality shown by Abraham in welcoming his divine guests under the oaks of Mamre.  Mary Coloe explains, while the original Hebrew text portrayed Abraham merely providing water for his guests to wash their own feet, the Septuagint suggests that someone else washes their feet.  By the first century this tradition, as evidenced in the Testament of Abraham, had developed to present Abraham, himself, washing the feet of the guests as an act of gracious hospitality.  “Then Abraham went forward and washed the feet of the Commander-in-chief, Michael.  Abraham’s heart was moved and he wept over the stranger.[17]

Foot washing had a cultic purpose as well.  It was necessary to wash one’s feet before entering the precincts of the Temple.  In discussing foot washing as a gesture of welcome into a house and also as the prelude to entering the Temple, the artistry of the Fourth Evangelist is apparent.  The two aspects of “house” and “Temple” come together in Johannine theology.  “Following the foot washing in chapter 13, Jesus acts as the one sent and authorized by the Father to welcome his disciples into “my Father’s household” (John 14:2).  Since the term “my Father’s house” carries the earlier sense of “Temple” from chapter 2:16, it is doubly appropriate that he disciples’ feet are washed prior to entry.[18]

It is this type of interpretive approach, to “engage the spirituality of the biblical text through rigorously critical study undertaken in the context of living faith” that expands the boundaries of interpretation and releases the act of foot washing from its status as an event with a single, univocal meaning coterminous with the intention of the Fourth Evangelist and/or the understanding of the original audience.  Foot washing, is an enacted parable “endlessly giving rise to reflection, generating an ever deeper understanding of the salvation it symbolizes as the horizon of the text fuses with the various horizons of generations of readers.”[19]  Symbolism is not only intrinsic to the Fourth Gospel but is “a if not the primary hermeneutical key to its interpretation.”[20]  The event of foot washing in the Gospel of John fits the parameters under which an event can be considered symbolic.[21]

In Jesus’ own interpretation of the enacted parable (13:13-17), he validated the hierarchy of the relationship he had established and maintained with his disciples throughout the first 12 chapters of John.  “You call me Rabbi and Master, and you are right, for that is what I am.”[22]  He then, immediately dismissed the cultural expectations of that relationship and created a new plausibility structure.  “So if I, your Master and Rabbi, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.  Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.  If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”[23]  Through the symbolic act of foot washing Jesus inverted the established system and issued a call for his disciples to do the same.  The plausibility structure was changed to one of mutuality.  Mutual service is generally understood quite univocally as something that one person does for someone else, intending thereby the latter’s good will.  In service the server lays aside, temporarily or even permanently, his or her own project, goal, good, or at least convenience for the sake of fostering the good of the other.  The finality of the served is allowed, at least for the moment, to take priority over the finality of the server.[24]

The new plausibility structure (mutual service and mutual responsibility) created in John 13, is further strengthened by the inversion of the Greco-Roman cultural expressions of friendship in chapter 15.  Servants become friends.  “You are my friends if you do what I command you.  I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing, but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”[25]  Mutuality is the happy response to true friendship born out of relationships of equality where the good of each is truly the other’s good.

The imperative of John 13:15 and the inversion of the established norms does not stand alone but is connected to and finds foundation in the commands of John 13:34 and 15:12.  “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  What is new, therefore, is not the commandment to love, because that commandment lies at the heart of the torah.  Rather, what is new is that the commandment to love derives from the incarnation (3:16).  The “new” turn in the commandment of 13:34 is that Jesus’ “own” are welcomed not only into the household of God, but asked to enter into the love that marks the relationship of the Father and the Son. The disciples’ participation in this relationship will be evidenced the same way that Jesus’ participation in the relationship is marked: by acts of love that join the believer to God.[26]

Jesus’ incarnational work not only created individual disciples, but called together a community of believers and gave them concrete ways to practice incarnation in his absence. And those ways became the identifying mark; agapte one for another.  Agape is intrinsically connected to actions manifested in and through mutual service and responsibility.  This, then, is the incarnation of agaph and becomes the realized narrative for the community of believers.  The imperative of 13:15 and the command of 13:34 is a call to incarnational living anchored in the mission of God and the significance of the mission of God cannot be overstated.  It dominated the mind of Christ throughout the Fourth Gospel and became the “great commission” of the Johannine narrative.  “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”[27]  The disciples have been called to practice incarnation.

John stresses that the sending of Jesus was an expression of God’s love for humankind (John 3:16).  The focal point of incarnation is that God identified with humanity in its lowest form and set about revealing God’s life-giving purposes for all of humanity through and in the person of Jesus Christ.   “He confronted the unjust and death-bringing ways of the ruling elite (2:13-22), He brought wholeness, healing and abundance (6:1-4), He effected forgiveness and release (20:23) and announced God’s loving purposes.”[28]  “God’s love is not love from a distance, but love up close, love made manifest in a culturally particular, person-to-person way.”[29]  The word send or one of its variant forms appears no less than 59 times in John’s Gospel.  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17)   Sending is central to the Johannine Christology of incarnation.  As such, incarnational living is missional at its core.  The movement is not only downward, but outward.

In John 13:1-3, Jesus is presented as acting in full awareness of his origin and destiny, that is, of his identity and of his mission as agent of God’s salvific work in the world.  That introduction to the enacted parable of foot washing makes it clear that what followed was not simply a good example in humility, but a prophetic action, divinely inspired, revelatory in content, proleptic in structure, symbolic in form and pedagogical in intent.[30]  Foot washing is symbolic of the movement that we, as followers of Christ, are called to exemplify.  “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”  “Just as the infinite Creator became incarnate as a human to reach finite people, so the divine revelation must take flesh in human languages and cultures.  Just as Christ chose to live in a particular time and setting, so we must incarnate our ministry in the contexts of the people we serve.[31]

“If the locus of the revelation of God was once in Jesus, it is now among and through the community of believers.  If you will, the community of believers displays the continuing incarnation.[32]  As a reflection of the incarnation and therefore a manifestation of the “welcome to God’s household,” the movement ad extra must be the same; downward for us and outward through us.  The implication of such a realized narrative lived cannot be dismissed.  In the least, it will be counter-cultural and in its most drastic form, it will be life expending.  Now, with fear and wonder realize the magnitude of the question Jesus asked his disciples in John 13:13, “Do you know what I have done to you?”


Attridge, Harold W., Editor. Harper Collins Study Bible / New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco: Harper One, 1989.

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics I.II. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956.

Biilings, J. Todd. “Incarnational Ministry and Christology: A Reappropriate of the Way of Lowliness.” Missiology: An International Review, Vol. XXXii, No. 2, 2004.

Billings, J. Todd. “Incarnational Ministry and Christology: A Reappropriate of the Way of Lowliness.” Missiology: An International Review, Vol. XXXii, No. 2, 2004.

Billings, J. Tood. “What Makes A Church Missional?” Christianity Today, March 3, 2008:

Brown, Raymond. The Gospel according to John: Introduction. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998.

Carter, Warren. John: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2006.

Coloe, Mary L. Welcome into the Household of God: The Foot Washing in John 13. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2007.

Coloe, Mary L. “Welcome into the Household of God: The Foot Washing in John 13.” 400-415.

Duke, Paul D. “John 13:1-17, 31b-35.” Interpretation. 49(4) , 1995: 398-400,402. .

Fahlbusch, Erwin. The Encyclopedia of Christianity, Volume 2.

Hiebert, Paul G., and Eloise Hiebert Meneses. Incarnational Ministry; Planting Churches in Band, Tribal, Peasant, and Urban Societies. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995.

Hoskyns, Sir Edward. The Fourth Gospel. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1947.

Keck, Leander E. New Interpreter’s Bible Volume IX. Nashville: Abingdon, 1995.

Keck, Leander E.(editor). The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume I. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.

Kysar, Robert. John the Maverick Gospel. Louiseville: Westminster John Knox, 2007.

Meeks, Wayne A. Harper Collins Study Bible / New Revised Standard Version. New York: Harper Collins, 1989.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. Intimacy. New York: Harper Collins, 1969.

Schneiders, Sandra M. Written That You May Believe. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2003.

Taylor, Barbara Brown. “Our bodies, our Faith.” Christian Century, January 27, 2009: 24-29.

Williamson, Jr., Lamar. Preaching the Gospel of John. Louiseville: Westminster John Knox, 2004.

[1] (Williamson 2004) pp. 164

[2] (Attridge 1989) NRSV John 13:3-5

[3] John 13:4-5 YLT

[4] (Barth 1956) pp. 157

[5] (Attridge 1989) NRSV II Corinthians 8:9

[6] (Attridge 1989) NRSV John 13:6

[7] (Duke 1995)

[8] John 13:15 YLT

[10] (The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation Volume 44.  Saint Ambrose Theological 7 Dogmatic Works) pp. 291-292.

[11] (Fahlbusch n.d.) pp. 322

[12] (Hoskyns 1947) pp. 446

[13] (Brown 1998) pp. 558-562

[14] (Schneiders, Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel 2003) pp. 187

[15] (Coloe, Welcome into the Household of God: The Foot Washing in John 13 2007)

[16] (Coloe, Welcome into the Household of God: The Foot Washing in John 13 2007) pp. 13.

[17] Testament of Abraham 2:9

[18] (Coloe, Welcome into the Household of God: The Foot Washing in John 13 2007) pp. 134.

[19] (Schneiders, Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel 2003) pp. 188

[20]  Ibid  pp. 63

[21]  Ibid. pp 66.   Symbol can be defined as (1) a sensible reality (2) which renders present to and (3) involves a      person subjectively in (4) a transforming experience of (5) transcendent mystery.

[22] (Attridge 1989) John 13:13

[23]  Ibid. John 13:14-17

[24] (Schneiders, Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel 2003) pp. 191

[25] (Attridge 1989) John 15:14-15

[26] (Keck, Leander E. 1995) pp. 733

[27] (Attridge 1989) NRSV John 20:21b

[28] (Carter 2006) pp. 212

[29] (J. T. Billings 2004)

[30] (Schneiders, Written That You May Believe 2003) pp. 189.

[31] (Hiebert and Meneses 1995) pp. 370

[32] (Kysar 2007) pp. 135


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