An interesting and unusual news item came out of Holy Week this year: the new Pope Francis made headlines—and caused some controversy—by washing the feet of 12 young people at a juvenile detention center.
What was he getting at? We won’t go into the theology or internal politics of the Roman Catholic church, but the religious act of washing feet has Biblical significance. Here are some questions and answers to consider.
Q. Was Pope Francis’ feet-washing a reference to something in the Bible?
A. Yes, it was a clear reference to Jesus’ startling act at the Last Supper, shortly before his arrest and execution. One of Jesus’ last acts with his disciples before his arrest was to wash their feet. The Gospel of John recounts the event:
[Jesus] got up from supper, laid aside His robe, took a towel, and tied it around Himself. Next, He poured water into a basin and began to wash His disciples’ feet and to dry them with the towel tied around Him.
He came to Simon Peter, who asked Him, “Lord, are You going to wash my feet?”
Jesus answered him, “What I’m doing you don’t understand now, but afterward you will know.”
“You will never wash my feet—ever!” Peter said.
Jesus replied, “If I don’t wash you, you have no part with Me.”
Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.”
“One who has bathed,” Jesus told him, “doesn’t need to wash anything except his feet, but he is completely clean. You are clean, but not all of you.” For He knew who would betray Him. This is why He said, “You are not all clean.”
When Jesus had washed their feet and put on His robe, He reclined again and said to them, “Do you know what I have done for you? You call Me Teacher and Lord. This is well said, for I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example that you also should do just as I have done for you.
“I assure you: A slave is not greater than his master, and a messenger is not greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” — John 13:1-17 (HCSB)
Q. What was the significance of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet?
A. As with many of Jesus’ actions during his ministry, this was a seemingly simple act that sent a powerful message to those who witnessed it. Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet was (and is) noteworthy for several reasons.
As Jesus himself notes in the passage above, his washing of the disciples’ feet acts as a symbol for the spiritual cleansing that his sacrificial death and resurrection—just hours away at the time—offer believers.
This was also a vivid demonstration of the level of humility and service that should characterize the life of a Jesus-follower. Jesus expects his followers to serve others, even when doing so requires setting aside dignity or pride. Here, Jesus set aside his role as teacher and leader do a humbling task that would normally be carried out by a servant or slave. Just a few hours later, he would humble himself even further by submitting to a terrible and undeserved death.
Jesus’ act also calls to mind a related concept from his teaching: in God’s kingdom, human rules and expectations about status are often confounded and reversed: the humble are exalted, and the exalted are humbled!
Bible readers have gleaned many insights from this incident; Jesus’ simple act resonates in different ways with different readers. Try reading carefully through the story yourself and making use of the commentaries and reference materials on Bible Gateway to see what you can learn.
Q. Is foot washing still practiced today?
A. Generally speaking, foot washing of this sort isn’t practiced in the modern world. Some churches do observe a tradition of foot washing (often during Lent)—and if you’ve never done it, it’s a very humbling experience.
You may never have your feet washed in this manner—but as a thought exercise, what do you think the modern-day equivalent of foot-washing might be?