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What is foot washing and what does it symbolize?

3 min

All of the images in this gallery were shot by international fine art photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten.

When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he set an example of how we should treat one another, even those people with whom we don’t see eye to eye. Jesus had washed Peter’s feet, a loyal friend who would publicly deny that he knew Jesus later that very night. And even more astoundingly, Jesus washed Judas Iscariot’s feet, the one who would betray him for 30 pieces of silver.
So why did Jesus wash the feet of both friends and foes? What was he teaching them then and us today?

In ancient times, many travelers traveled by foot in sandals or even barefoot. The dusty roads and rocky trails left their feet coated with grime or caked with mud. Upon arrival at their destination, a host would often bring a basin of water to wash the weary travelers’ feet. It was a gesture of welcome and kindness, not to mention a practical means to keep dirt out of the home. And in the homes of the wealthy or powerful, it was most likely done by a servant, a slave, or the wife of the host.

But Jesus took it one step further. During his last meal with his closest followers, the 12 disciples, Jesus retrieved a bowl, filled it with water, and began washing their feet with a rag. But this wasn’t a traditional cleaning after a road trip. Jesus was using foot washing to emphasize a larger point — a symbol for all of his followers to see how they should treat one another.

The disciples considered Jesus not only to be their master or religious leader but also, most even revered him as the promised Messiah — a long-awaited king who would, according to their prophecy, deliver Israel from its oppressors, in this time period, the Romans. When Jesus offered to wash his disciples’ feet, it was so antithetical to their way of thinking that some initially declined his offer. But Jesus explained, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should wash one another’s feet.” John 13:14. Not only was Jesus teaching them that a true leader should be willing to humble himself or herself and serve all, but also that they should be willing to wash one another’s feet. Foot washing required humility on the part of both parties: the one willing to wash another’s feet and also the one willing to have their feet washed. It was an act of mutual admiration. Jesus was shedding any notion of rank or caste among his disciples.

Foot washing requires one to lower themselves, even kneel before another person. While the posture seems subservient at first, it truly represents an act of kindness and generosity that makes the actions of the foot washer noble. That was always the way of Jesus — put others first and himself last. He had previously taught, “The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Matthew 23:11-12. He was now putting that very teaching into practice.

It was these words and actions of Jesus that inspired us. We began to imagine a world where ideological others were willing to set their differences aside and wash one another’s feet. How would that look? How would our contentious world change if we washed one another’s feet, not literally, but figuratively? Figurative foot washing can be as simple as giving a compliment to a co-worker or paying for a stranger’s lunch. It can also be as difficult as not responding to someone who’s criticizing you or reaching out to an estranged family member. Acts of kindness done out of humility and respect for another person could be considered the equivalent of foot washing.

Honestly, images of people washing each other’s feet look a little strange and disconcerting because it’s not part of our modern-day customs. But there’s also something beautiful and profound in each image. Our hope is that our latest commercials will stimulate both societal discussion and individual self-reflection about “who is my neighbor?” and how each of us can love our neighbor even as we have differences and serve one another with more kindness and respect.

Scripture References: John 13:1-17, Matthew 23:11-12, Luke 7:37-50