Today is Maundy Thursday, the day on which we remember Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. And while the origin of the word Maundy is debatable, it’s clear that the night of the foot washing included the new commandment to the disciples from Jesus to love one another as He loved them. In the spirit of that commandment, it’s a moment commemorated at some churches with an actual foot washing ceremony every Maundy Thursday, although it seems to me that most of the meaning of a foot washing has long since departed our culture.
To that end, I wanted to write a blog post detailing some ways to show a similar level of humble service in our 21st Century context – a list of alternate ways to serve, if you will. Unfortunately, I couldn’t. Every idea I had proved – upon further reflection – to lack at least one vital parallel with Jesus’ great act of service. For that reason, and also because everybody likes lists, instead I present to you a list of reasons why there’s no substitute for foot washing.
1) Washing feet is intensely personal. The closest parallel I could find for a foot-washing in our culture was to wash someone’s car for them. It’s practical, it has to be done regularly, and it isn’t a form of service that feels like a strange imposition on our cultural patterns (Also, just in case, mine’s the silver Mazda that looks 6ish weeks overdue for a washing. And don’t forget the side-view mirrors; they often get overlooked). But washing my car is nothing like washing my feet, because it’s a kindness that benefits my possession as much as it benefits me – sure it saves me the trouble of doing it myself, but it also preserves the life of my car by removing salt and forestalling rust. What’s more, it’s something you can do for me, but not to me. Which brings us to point #2:
2) Hands to yourself, man! Our culture is pretty touch-averse; in Jesus’ day it wasn’t unusual to greet someone with a kiss, but if you do that in America today – and you aren’t a freshly-arrive European – you’re gambling on a slap or worse. So while it might not have been normal for Jesus to touch anybody’s feet, it wasn’t unthinkable that he would touch people. If, on the other hand, I mention a modern spiritual leader has been touching people, your mind is probably going to go to either fraudulent faith healers pushing people over, or – more likely – to priests and altar boys. So yeah. I’m gonna say touching your disciples is a bit of a stretch for our culture. After all, when was the last time you saw two non-evangelicals side-hugging? We don’t really do touch, which makes a personal substitute to foot-washing hard to find.
3) Shame? What’s that? In the Middle East, both then and now, considerable amounts of shame are associated with feet. Remember when that Iraqi threw his shoes at President W? It was a cultural expression of extreme contempt. Even today you don’t sit with the soles of your feet pointing towards a person – that communicates that the person is lower than your feet. So we need to bear in mind that while we may feel some revulsion at touching a person’s sweaty feet, it’s an interaction far more loaded than our culture really grasps. If you read my blog regularly, you’ll know that I think American obliviousness to shame habitually obscures the nuances of scripture; this is another example of that, and it means that there’s a symbolism from Middle Eastern foot-washing that can’t be replicated in the USA.
4) This is the land of self-reliance, buddy! Another problem in trying to find a modern substitute for the foot-washing ceremony is that those of us who aren’t on a Real Housewives franchise aren’t used to having domestic help. The occasional cleaning service aside, Americans do everything for ourselves. Which makes it hard to identify any way to serve someone else that won’t immediately seem a little staged.
5) Our hygiene rules are pretty fixed. Have you ever shown up to a dinner party with any portion of your anatomy sweaty, muddy, covered with possible poo fragments, and in need of a wash? No. No you have not, at least not since your mother potty-trained you. Our culture’s hygiene expectations dictate that you show up to a dinner party as need-free as can be achieved; although you may not expect to be seated the minute you come through the door, you are supposed to be ready, right? The answer is yes, so there’s no comparable act of service that can help ready you for dinner upon your arrival.
6) Showering showers. Piggybacking off of #5, do you realize how much simpler showers make hygiene? Washing feet without running water took time, and there probably wasn’t a direct expectation that all washing would be done in the same small room in which one privately expels bodily waste. Now, it all happens in the bathroom, and if you’re not a young woman using a public facility, our culture frowns on the whole “bring a friend to the bathroom” thing. So running water – and the advent of showers – was a game changer. We don’t wash body parts in public anymore.
7) I don’t owe you anything! If there’s one part of American culture that I never recognized until I took a college anthropology course, it is the fact that Americans are among worst people on earth at accepting favors. If someone has you over to their house for dinner, you return the favor. If someone loans you money, you feel compelled to pay it back, and if you don’t, the relationship will never be the same; in fact, you’ll probably avoid them. This is not universal. There are parts of the world where a gift is a gift, and it creates no cultural expectation that you will do anything for (or repay) the giver for it.
At any rate, with respect to American culture, if you do a favor or a service for someone, they have to respond in kind. Ever been to a foot-washing ceremony/service in which there was no reciprocity? That’s exactly what happens in John and it’s common in many other parts of the world, but not as common in America. We’re hard-wired to reciprocate, but it means that if you do me a favor, rather than simply receiving it as love, I’m likely to feel like I owe you, and I might even resent you for putting me in your debt. That’s the American way, but it can make acts of service seem ultimately self-serving.
As I said, there’s no substitute for foot-washing. So if you’re one of the many people weirded out by it, bear in mind that there aren’t exactly a host of better options. When in doubt, stick with tradition and do what Jesus did.
So, what did I miss? Feel free to try something new by leaving a comment!