By: Dr. Emily Kahm
On Maundy Thursday, we read again about the Last Supper – but this portion of the text isn’t about the meal; rather, it’s about the foot washing. In fact, there really isn’t much description of the meal at all. Instead, Jesus gets up, washes feet, predicts the future, and recites quite a few sermons before they leave. At least in Matthew’s gospel, it sounds like he got a few bites to eat!
In John’s gospel, here and throughout, Jesus is especially divine-seeming and prescient, soothsaying and sometimes distant. One gets the sense that his mind is so preoccupied with things yet-to-come that he almost floats above the ground rather than walking on it. He seems like a helium balloon, only lightly tethered to the mortal plane of existence.
This is one reason that it’s rather shocking (and gratifying) to have a moment where Jesus gets so physical with his disciples, washing their (presumably) gross feet, serving them bodily in a way that’s humble and intimate and kind. It’s not a comfortable experience for all of them – Simon Peter tries to wriggle his way out of it, and then goes overboard trying to take it back when Jesus reacts poorly, which tells us a lot about how unsettled the guy must have been. They’re friends, obviously, but there’s a power distance between them and Simon Peter feels it acutely.
It’s also interesting how before the foot washing begins, the text reminds us that Jesus was perfectly aware of Judas’ inevitable betrayal. Nothing he was about to do, no great preaching moment or act of service, was going to turn aside his fate or change Judas’ actions. Still, he crouches on the floor with some water and a towel and washes his betrayer’s feet anyway. Why? I can only assume it’s because whoever Judas is, whatever choices he has made, this is just who Jesus is. He can’t bring himself to exclude someone he loves, despite how badly he is hurt by them.
It’s this inconvenient truth that keeps me encouraging students who have fallen behind in my courses, even when I know there’s nearly no chance they’ll keep all their enthusiastic promises to turn in late work and stay on top of readings and study hard. It’s why I offer pep talks and affirmations and help them construct detailed catch-up plans, knowing it’s probably going to make no difference for this particular semester. I don’t shy away from offering my assessment of their chances, and I never offer false hope, but if they insist they want to try, I give them every opportunity in the world to succeed. At some level, it doesn’t really matter if I doubt they’ll keep their promises; the kind of teacher I want to be is one who’s engaged and encouraging, who is willing to let students set their own goals and even endure their own failures. It’s not about who they are; it’s about who I’m trying to be. It’s okay if it doesn’t change anything that I can see.
Judas never found his way back to experiencing Jesus’ mercy, at least not that we’re told in the Bible, but one has to wonder if that foot washing moment came back to the other disciples later. “He knew Judas would betray him… but he treated him with kindness anyway.” How much could that example have inspired and convicted those first leaders of Christianity, whose message was so frequently received with derision or confusion? Would Christianity have survived at all if they hadn’t kept with the hard work of evangelism, knowing that their efforts might not produce much that they’d get to see?
As much as it can be a drudgery, I find wisdom in the idea of doing it anyway; living into our values even when they gain us nothing, being true to ourselves even when others will dismiss us, doing the hard, minimally satisfying work that is our best despite knowing it won’t be recognized. Ultimately, we are the person we are when we least expect to be rewarded for it. And who knows? There might be new life or growth that finds its beginnings in the icky, foot wash-y moments of doing it anyway.
Dr. Emily Kahm is an Assistant Professor of Theology at the College of St. Mary in Omaha, Nebraska. She lives with her spouse, Chris, their son, Xavier, rabbit, Hildegard, and as-yet-unnamed new child due in May of 2021.