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Holy Thursday: Washing Away our Daily Sins (John 13:1-15)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The cultural setting for Jesus washing his disciples’ feet is that people washed or bathed thoroughly and so were principally clean. Then, on arrival at a guest’s house they just needed to have their feet washed, these having got dirty in the course of the everyday task of travel and getting to one’s destination on dusty roads. This task was assigned to the most lowly of house slaves.

The washing of the feet by Jesus is, no doubt, a symbolic act, but to what is it mainly intended to refer? I have puzzled over this and though it is commonly presented as principally being about the need for leadership to be exercised in a spirit of humble service much of the detail of the passage does not really sit well with this line of interpretation. Charles Talbert (Reading John, SPCK,1991) suggests it is mainly addressing the problem of post-baptismal (daily) sin and this seems to me to be an attractive reading.

Interpreted this way, the main line of narrative is that Jesus recognises our daily sins and their seriousness, symbolised by the dirty feet, and he wants to wash them away and then tells us to do the same in regards to the sins others have committed against us. As God works a fuller work of reconciliation with each of us, we are to seek a full reconciliation with our brothers and sisters (see vv 12-15).

Peter does not understand the action at the time but his dialogue with Jesus brings out details that support this line of interpretation. Peter, and the disciples in general, have been made clean in a more general way by faith in Jesus and by the word the grace of incorporation into Christ as his disciples: Jesus talks of a person who has taken a bath not needing to repeat it (see v 10). This image also seems to allude to the rite and sacrament of baptism. But as a person still gets dirty feet as they travel the road, so we still sin and become impure in the course of our daily lives. Jesus recognises this reality and says this needs dealing with as well. Hence our feet need to be washed – both by God, and by each other and we should do it for each other. Without this ongoing forgiveness and purification we can actually fall away from God until the point we have ‘no share’ with Christ (v 8). Since this scene is placed at the beginning of the Passover meal (v 2, depending on how the Greek is translated), it can be seen as referring also to the necessary preparation for worthily participating in the Eucharist. We could perhaps also see in the passage a connection with the sacrament of reconciliation – though our text’s application is broader and also addresses the wider issue of us also being reconciled to each other.
Peter’s attitude to having his feet washed by Jesus is interesting: he thinks it demeans Jesus. Do we think that forgiving sins demeans God? Interestingly, Jesus senses something of the issue and insists that he is and remains Lord and Master ‘despite’ forgiving sins (v 14). He goes on to stress that we must never think it is beyond or beneath our dignity or even duty to forgive the sins of others. Indeed, one might suggest, we are encouraged to be zealous in seeking opportunities to wash the feet of others, so building up the unity and purity of God’s people, so extending the work of reconciliation achieved by Christ, from whose pierced side flowed water to wash away all sin (Jn 19:34-35).

Andrew Brookes OP


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