In the UK a few years back a group of church leaders used a Maundy Thursday church service to do something extraordinary. As people entered the church for the Thursday gathering of Holy Week, elders greeted them on their knees in the entryway. Every attendee was invited to sit, and there, in the entrance of the church, the elders removed shoes and socks and washed the reluctant feet of every stunned attendee.
Maundy Thursday is like that — it shocks.
The term maundy in Maundy Thursday comes to us from the Latin root mandatum, or commandment, from Jesus’s words in John 13:34:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.
Jesus had just finished washing the disciples feet. But what Jesus instituted here points to a sacrificial love of eternal significance.
Slavery and Foot Washing
For the sandal-wearing disciples, washing feet was a common cultural practice, as common in their day as brushing teeth is for us. And while proper hospitality called for a basin of water to be made available for guests, the guests in your home were expected to wash their own feet. Washing the dirt off someone else’s feet was a task reserved for only the lowest-ranking Gentile servants, and Jewish slaves were exempted from the task. In a household without a low-ranking Gentile slave, everyone was expected to was his or her own feet.
It is meant to startle us when Jesus drops to his knees to the position of an extra-low slave in John 13:1–20. We hear the shock in the voices of the disciples who were at first embarrassed by his act of humility. There is no record in either Jewish or Greco-Roman sources of a superior washing the feet of an inferior. Never.
When Simon Peter refused to have his feet washed, Jesus said, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand” (John 13:7). Whatever the meaning of the foot washing, it was not immediately evident to the disciples. The washing provided an example of love towards one another (John 13:12–17), but it also forecasted something.
Hold that thought for a moment.
Slaves and Crucifixion
If foot washing was a task reserved for lowlife slaves, public crucifixion was a unique threat to lowlife slaves.
[Read the rest of the article at Desiring God.]