12 January 2008

Bauckham: Footwashing

If I then, 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 to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. --John 13:13-17

In the next few days I'll review Richard Bauckham's most recent book, a very helpful study of John's Gospel called The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John (Baker, 2007). In the meantime here is a fascinating quote as he illumines for us the staggering degree of love and the breathtaking example of service of John 13.

For the ancients, footwashing was as necessary and regular a chore as brushing teeth is for most modern people. Feet were protected by no more than open sandals, and so, after walking in the heat and in the dust and dirt of country roads or town streets, washing feet was necessary both for comfort and for cleanliness, especially before sitting down to a meal. Footwashing appears in the literature . . . as a duty of hospitality, either to expcted guests or to passing strangers. . . . But it was certainly not a host's duty to wash his guests' feet himself. Either a slave or a servant would do it, or the host would provide a basin of water and a towel for the guests to wash their own feet. Washing someone else's feet was an unpleasant task, which no one except a servant or slave could be expected to do. So menial a task was it that in a household with a hierarchy of slaves and servants, it would be the duty of the slaves, not of the servants who performed less demeaning tasks such as waiting at table. It was, in fact, the quintessentially servile task, the one thing that no one else would do. In a household without servants, everyone washed their own feet. . . .

Even when the person washing the feet is not actually a servant or slave, the social significance of the act remains the same. In a society highly conscious of relative status, it would be unthinkable for this uniquely servile act to be performed for an inferior by a superior in the social scale. Exceptionally an inferior who is not actually a servant or slave may perform the act as a kind of extravagant expression of their willingness to be subject to the superior, but for a superior to perform the act for an inferior would be an incomprehensible contradiction of their social relationship. (192-93)

I find myself rebuked. The implication for us is unavoidable: what kinds of lowly things might we regularly do that would please the Lord (as an already approved child would seek to please his father out of love, not as an employee-on-the-ropes would seek to please his boss out of anxiety)? How might we follow his example, as Jesus exhorts? For most of us, we would do well to start in our marriages and in our homes, in acts of service that will receive no human accolades or attention, but will serve others, please God, and, doubtless, surprise us with a new and fresh joy.


Gavin Ortlund said...

hey Dane,

wow, great quote. I'm trying to think of modern day examples of foot-washing, but I can't think of anything - I am still working on taking out the trash when its full! Something tells me I can do better than that! What do you think some practical ways of foot-washing are?

I always love reading your posts.

Dane Ortlund said...

thanks Gav. Bauckham points out that whatever we think is beneath us, that's precisely what Jesus is talking about, as a service to others. For me something like changing a diaper or giving S a head-rub (don't ask) would probably fit. I suppose getting my heart in the right place is the fundamental thing; fruits or manifestations of that will become obvious as I go thru my day, asking the Lord to show me how to serve others?

Still so far to go! But so much forgiven.