It seems to me that a little application of known social customs of the
period can help in teasing out the unusual footwashing that Jesus
conducted at the last supper.
I've dealt with this in my paper 'Footwashing for postmodern
Christians', Zadok Paper S104 autumn 2000 published by the Zadok
Institute for Christianity and Society, PO Box 289 Hawthorn, Victoria
In brief: before entering any house, visitors were required to remove
their footwear, douse their feet in water, dry them, and sometimes put
on slippers specially provided. Visitors were usually served in this way
by the lowest slave of the household, the youngest daughter or the wife
of the household head.
If a meal was being provided, then guests must baptise their hands
If this is the same place the synoptics say Jesus organised, then, there
being no-one else permitted to share in this meal, there was no-one
provided to carry out this entry ritual. The guests were required to
serve themselves or each other.
Not long before this, according to the synoptics, Jesus gave the
leader-as-slave model of kingdom leadership. (Mat.20:25?28; Mk.
As Jesus and the twelve arrived for this meal, they had to wonder who
should do the actual footwashing ceremony. Peter, as the
leader-as-slave, should have done so. He did not. So Jesus led them
straight in and started to dip his unwashed hands into the meal bowls.
The whole meal ritual was disrupted.
Finally, Jesus does the footwashing. But it is too late. The whole point
of the footwashing ritual has been lost. They've already brought
out-of-place dust into the room and caused disorder. Why does Jesus
bother? To make a point to Peter. He did not start with Peter, his
appointed leader of the twelve. But when he finally comes to Peter, the
whole point of reinforcing the leader-as-slave model becomes clear. Of
course Jesus makes other points as well here.
I think this explanation of the footwashing in John makes a lot more
sense when set against the customs of the day.
I also make the point that our physical footwashing of each other makes
no sense at all today. We need to find rituals that emphasise the shame
of slave-like service. No nurse or podiatrist feels any shame in washing
Ross Saunders from DownUnder.