Jesus washing his disciples’ feet is a familiar story to those who attend church. For me at least, the primary interpretation and takeaway from the story has been Jesus setting an example to serve others. However, one recent morning as I was reading John 13, something jumped out to me that I’d never noticed before, and it shocked me. See if you can catch it:
3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, 4 got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. 5 Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.John 13:3-5
I’m inserting a picture here to give you a second to think about it before I tell you what leaped off the page to me. Play along. Don’t cheat and scroll down!
Now that you’ve looked at some nasty feet, here’s what stood out:
3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, 4 got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. 5 Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.
Now, don’t get angry with the messenger. It’s right there in the passage. All of a sudden, it appeared to me that Jesus had taken his clothes off. It says he first lays his garments aside and then wraps a towel around his waist. But then, he takes the towel off to wash their feet. So…um…yeah…the story instantly seemed a lot weirder.
I did a bunch of research to see what commentary I could find:
- Some translations of the Bible use the word “garments”. Others say “outer garments”. So, let’s assume he probably wore an inner garment.
- His inner garment would have been a short tunic, which was the typical dress for the poor people of the period. We can imagine it as a long tee-shirt that would have gone as far down as His knees. 
- Persons of higher rank might wear the tunic alone inside the house, but would not wear it without the outer garment outside, or when they were to receive a caller. In the Bible the term “naked” is used of men clad only with their tunic (cf. Isaiah 20:2-4; Micah 1:8; John 21:7; 1 Samuel 19:24). To be dressed in such a scanty manner was thought of as “nakedness.” 
- The Roman critic of Christianity, Celsus, writing in the second century, suggests Christ dressed “most shamefully in the sight of all.”
As we can see above, whether he was literally naked or not is not the point. Symbolically HE WAS NAKED. Even in his tunic–his inner garment–Jesus would have been viewed as naked at that time. Perhaps we can think of it like being in his underwear. He was very exposed.
Why did Jesus feel it necessary to do this? I believe he is showing us what true love requires and what is true of all of us. The outer garment is our False Self and the things our ego identifies with. Our race, our status, our successes, our possessions, our ideologies, our pride. I love how Fr. Ron Rolheiser describes the inner garment:
As John poetically describes it, his inner garment was precisely his knowledge that he had come from God, was going back to God, and that therefore all things were possible for him, including his washing the feet of someone whom he already knew had betrayed him. That is also our true inner garment, the reality that lies deeper beneath our race, gender, religion, language, politics, ideology, and personal history (with all its wounds and false pride). What is most real is that deep down, beneath these other, outer, things we nurse the dark memory, the imprint, the brand of love and truth, the inchoate knowledge that, like Jesus, we too have come from God, are returning to God, and therefore are capable of doing anything, including loving and washing the feet of someone very different from ourselves. Our inner garment is the image and likeness of God inside of us [our True Self].-Fr. Ron Rolheiser 
Jesus is demonstrating that in order to truly love ourselves and others, we must be willing to become “naked” and vulnerable…to take off our outer false selves and expose our inner true selves…ESPECIALLY to those we feel are “beneath” us.
We can see this when Peter protests Jesus washing his feet. He feels Jesus is above him, so should not be serving him. But, by taking off his garments, Jesus is being vulnerable to those “beneath” him (I’m using “beneath” in the way society would classify people). He demonstrates there is NO hierarchy.
It’s not enough to simply SERVE those in need. Jesus takes his outer garment off in front of them. He is VULNERABLE with them (Risking emotional attack or harm). Often, we can hardly be vulnerable with those we consider friends and those closest to us…much less people we view as different, less fortunate, or higher in status than us. Perhaps this is because we are terrified of feeling shame. However, exposing our shame is the ONLY way to start to love authentically. It’s the only way we can begin to separate from it and no longer identify with it. Until this happens, the ego’s function is to preserve the False Self–promoting comparison and preventing authentically selfless love for the True Self and others.
But wait…there’s more. We don’t only see Jesus being vulnerable, serving and loving others by washing their feet. In Luke, we see him allowing vulnerable people to LOVE HIM by allowing them to wash his feet.
37 And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that He was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume, 38 and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume.Luke 7:36-38
This may not seem like a big deal, but it is. We are not to only serve, but to receive service. We are not to only give love, but receive love. Jesus allows the “sinful woman” (a prostitute) to love and serve him. He then takes the same posture as the prostitute later at the last supper and loves and serves his disciples. All the postures and positions in this act of love are interchangeable and necessary. NO hierarchy.
8 Peter said to Him, “Never shall You wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.”John 13:8
In other words, if you cannot both give and receive love, it’s not love.
- Not serving/loving others but only receiving is Pride.
- Giving love/service to others without being open to receiving is Pity.
- Mutual service and love and compassion to one other is Dignity.
Many times, the church seems to elevate the second bullet point above. We are told to love and serve others. But, that is incomplete. If we cannot receive, all we are doing is pitying those we feel are less fortunate and making our egos feel warm and fuzzy because we did a “good deed”.
I like to think of love as an electrical current. Love is energy. Only when there is mutual giving and receiving can the current of love flow. If there is a disconnection from either giving or receiving, love cannot flow. Of course, we are only responsible for ourselves. Sometimes others will not be able to receive the love that we give. However, if they become ready at some point, we must be ready to engage in a giving and receiving flow of love.
What a paradigm shift it would be for a church to go on a mission trip to serve AND be served. To cook and eat meals together WITH the homeless. Many times we hear Christians talk about how they went somewhere to serve, and the people there ended up blessing them. What they are describing is the love Jesus demonstrated. But, it’s interesting to me that we often don’t approach love or service in this way. It takes us by surprise when we go to serve and end up receiving. Jesus tells us love is both/and, not either/or.
My question to you today is twofold:
- Whose feet would you have difficulty washing?
- Who would you let wash your feet?
Close your eyes and picture yourself washing the feet of a prostitute, a homeless man, an undocumented immigrant, a gay man, a transgender woman, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, someone in your family, a friend who has hurt you… Now picture these people washing your feet. Could you receive love, affection, and service from one of these “others”?
…many Christians do not like anything that looks like “carrying the cross.” (This is the huge price we have paid for just thanking Jesus for what he did on the cross, instead of actually imitating him.) The ego compels each one of us to hunker down and pretend that my status quo is entirely good, should be good for everybody, and is always “true” and even the only truth. Permanent residence in this stage tends to create naïve people and control freaks.Fr. Richard Rohr, adapted from The Universal Christ
Do you see the “others” with eyes of pride or pity? Or do you see with love that gives AND receives VULNERABLY (the only real love there is)? If you’re honest with yourself and know that you haven’t risked vulnerability with others, the first step is to find a trusted person or counselor with whom you can begin to peel that outer garment off. That’s the only way to true, abundant, merciful, unconditional, Christ-like love. And, you can’t truly love others and see them for who they actually are until you can see and love your True Self. This is what it means to “die to your [False] Self” and “carry your cross”.