Why Did Jesus Wash His Disciples’ Feet?
In this beautiful homily for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Year B, Father Hanly helps us understand why Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.
Readings for Holy Thursday, Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Year B
- First Reading: Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14
- Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 116:12-13, 15-16, 17-18
- Second Reading: First Corinthians 11:23-26
- Gospel: John 13:1-15
This is a very strange Gospel. I’m sure you must already feel how strange it is.
Now, the Passover is a great feast, a happy feast, especially this Passover at the time that Jesus brings his disciples together, because they’re celebrating something.
And what they’re celebrating, of course, is four hundred years of terrible slavery under the Egyptian heels and God Himself had freed them.
And so it is that, all the way down through the ages, a good Jew would long to celebrate the Passover, as they do today. And if you go to one of the Passover meals, if you’re invited to one of the Passover meals which are very much closed to family, you will feel kind of an inner loveliness that people sit down and celebrate and have a banquet over something that happened maybe four thousand years ago. And they celebrate it as if it’s still happening, and, of course, it is.
But Jesus does something very strange. Instead of inviting everybody in and saying a few words, he goes outside, really, and he takes the dirty water and the clean water that is used for washing the feet of guests, you see.
As you know, in that part of the world, very dusty, so if you’re walking part of the time through the dust, you come into a banquet, you need your feet – only your feet of course – to be washed. The rest of you is clean.
Anyhow, Jesus takes off this garment. He lines them all up and he begins to kneel down in front of them and begins to wash their feet.
The only people who washed feet in those days were the lowest of the lowest slaves. And this is not lost on the disciples, especially Peter who is already outraged that this is happening, that the man he loves and admires, the heart and soul of his own present, and hope against hope for a future, comes before him, puts down his jar of water, kneels down in front of him, picks up the jar of water, pours it into the basin and washes his feet.
And, of course, he says, Peter who is such a lovely character said, “You’re not washing my feet. You’ll never wash my feet.” And he gets very angry and he’s dancing around a bit.
And Jesus looks at him and smiles, and he says, “Peter, if you don’t let me wash your feet, you will never know who I am. And if you never know who I am, you will never know who you are, because I’m at the centre of what you believe in.”
Now, he doesn’t say it in those words, he just says to him, “Peter, if I cannot wash your feet, you will never know me.”
And so Peter, being such a wonderful follower, he jumps and he says, “Not only my feet, but my head and my hands and my whole body,” because the one thing that Peter did not want to lose was the love he had for Jesus.
And that is why the Last Supper is a love feast.
Why does Jesus do this? Is he putting on an act?
The first thing you think is, well he’s putting on a show. He’s the humble man and he’s the one that does the miracles and he is the famous one, and so it’s maybe just a kind of a parable in motion.
It’s not enough. It’s enough for us to put on parables in motion, tell stories, all of that. It’s another thing for the Son of God to kneel down in front of someone, Peter, who he knows will deny him three times in three short days, you see.
There’s something else, and that something else is something we should think about. And what is it we should think about?
Jesus does nothing just out of the passing moment. He means what he says.
And what do you kneel down in front of?
You kneel down in front of somebody that you respect and that you pay him honour – that’s what you kneel down in front of.
And this is what Jesus is doing. He is saying, “Peter, for all your jumps and all your backs and forth, I want you to know that I see something in you that you can’t even dream of. I see what God has made. And God only makes good and God only makes wonders and God does not make garbage.
“And when I kneel before you, I want you to know how important you are, how good you are, how you gleam with the wonder of God who creates you and loves you and cares for you and sends His only Son to kneel before you and tell you, no matter what you feel, no matter what others feel, you are a child of God, an heir of heaven, a beautiful person.”
And this is what Peter cannot accept. He can’t accept it.
And yet that is what Jesus is saying. And he goes from disciple to disciple washing their feet, not putting on a show, but as a sign that they are of such great wonder in the universe that God’s Son himself pays due honour to these twelve men who can’t even begin to believe what is happening.
This is something that we ourselves have to think about.
I use an example, every now and then, which means a lot to me, but it’s about seeing things, you see, do you see what I see, sort of.
And I think of just a few weeks earlier, Jesus was leading his little group up through a very difficult area, Jericho. The road from Jericho to Jerusalem was maybe a few hours, or a day at the most, a short road, but filled with dangers, because that’s where the robbers and thieves used to waylay people.
Anyhow they were going to Jerusalem, and Jesus knew at this time that he was dying.
But something else happened. There was a little man, Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus, he was the tax collector for Jericho, a very rich man.
Now a tax collector is somebody who really goes to the Romans and says, “I want to be a tax collector.” That means “I will go and collect your taxes and you pay me.”
And they say to him, “Zacchaeus, what you do is you find all the people in this part of Jericho and you take all the money you want out of them. And we want $30,000 from that group and anything you make after that, don’t worry, you can keep it all. And if anybody protests, I will send Roman soldiers down and they will make sure that everybody pays as much as they… “
Well, this man is the most hated man in Jericho. And he’s Jewish. That means he betrays them to the Romans. Nobody would go near him. And yet he was the richest man in Jericho.
And the poor little guy, because he was small, he couldn’t see Jesus. And he wanted to see Jesus, because he’d heard so much about Jesus and he wanted to see him.
So what he did was, very cleverly, he ran down in front in the street, climbed up a tree and hung from the top of the tree down, looking at Jesus as he was passing by.
And Jesus is walking by and he looks up and he looks at Zacchaeus and he says, “Zacchaeus, come down. Today, I must eat in your house.”
Well, this is incredible. This is the worst person. No asking him to do some wonderful deed of virtue, no asking him to be sorry for his way of life, he just looks up at the little man who wanted so much to see him.
And he’s looking down, and what does he see?
He sees Jesus smiling at him and saying, “Come down. Of all the people in Jericho, I want to eat in your house tonight.”
So they go to the house. And Zacchaeus, he’s so happy, he’s dancing around. And he says…
The other people are outside, because nobody goes near someone like Zacchaeus, none of the good Jewish people.
And he recognises, he says, “Lord, if there’s anybody in this whole city that I have cheated, I want them to come to me and I will pay them five-fold, fifty-fold of what they have lost.”
And this is kind of not just bragging, but he is actually going to do that. And he says, “If there is anyone that I have wronged, I will right it.”
And Jesus looks at him and he says, “Zacchaeus, healing has come to this house. Salvation has come to this house.”
Now, what has this got to do with the Gospel?
It has everything to do with the Gospel. Because what Zacchaeus sees in Jesus is someone who will heal him, will save him and will make him whole again, and it doesn’t matter how he came there or what he has done or what his history is.
And then Zacchaeus says in his heart, “I wonder what he sees in me, that I see in him?”
And, of course, Jesus sees Zacchaeus through right to the centre of his heart.
And Jesus says, he doesn’t say but in a way he does say, in a very strong way he does say, he says, “I see you as you really are. And I am going to show you who you really are, because I am going to make you one of my members and we will walk together, and you will learn who you are.
“And you will no longer see yourself as a crummy little tax collector. You will no longer look upon yourself as someone not worth anybody’s time. But you have power and money and meaning, and it’s going to all dissolve before you.”
Because Zacchaeus will see, in the eyes of Jesus, what Jesus sees in Zacchaeus.
This is the beginning of Holy Week. It is a time for all of us to look upon ourselves with great wonder and great thanksgiving. We were created to know him, to love him, to serve him, to walk with him.
We were created to walk with him so that together we could create a better world, a kinder world, a world of forgiving people, a world of caring people, a world where there’s no such thing as selfishness anymore, where all of these…
Is it possible?
If Zacchaeus could do it, we all can do it.
The meaning of Holy Week is not that we are holy. The meaning of Holy Week is it is an opportunity to come and see Jesus, today, tomorrow and the next day, as he leads us through fear and into glory. He leads us and he knows that we indeed will love him and follow him all the days of his life, even to the end of time.
So have a nice Easter.
The story of Easter is a story of love. It is God so loved the world, He sent Jesus. Jesus so loves us that he brings us closer to the Father and into a whole new world.
It is all about love.
It is all about (if you look in the back there (Father indicates the picture below)) Jesus washing, Jesus is washing people’s feet so that they may understand that they are holy to God, loved by God, and they are born to live with God and to be happy with each other for all the days of their life.
The picture mentioned in the homily of Jesus washing Peter’s feet.