Reflection for Maundy Thursday

Reflection for Maundy Thursday

Jesus Getting Down and Dirty

by William Willimon

(Originally Published on March 8, 2013 at

Feet are literally the lowest, earthiest part of the body. “To put under the feet” was a humiliating gesture of the victor over the vanquished (Ps. 8:6). In the ancient world, feet got dirty on dusty roads (Mark 6:11). Washing a guest’s feet was an act of highest hospitality (Genesis 18:4; Luke 7:44). Moses removed his shoes in a holy place in order not to defile (Ex. 3:5). To “fall at the feet” of someone is an act of humility and self-abasement (1 Sam. 25:24; Mk. 5:22). Just a few days before Maundy Thursday Mary anointed Jesus’ feet (Jn. 12:1-8).

It’s a touching gesture, washing of feet. It’s nice to see the Pope kneel and wash the feet of a young priest Maundy Thursday at the Vatican. But when Jesus arrives at the feet of Judas, I react with revulsion. Amid all of Jesus’ high sounding and loving words at the table, I almost forgot. At the table with the Twelve, there was Judas who a short time from now will by a kiss send Jesus off to a diabolical death.

In scripture, vanquished enemies are put under the victors’ feet (Josh. 10:24; Mal. 4:3). Here at table, Jesus does a shocking reversal, placing himself under the feet of his worst enemy who also happens to be one of his good friends.

How much easier this gesture if it had been offered to the rest of the Twelve but not to Judas, if Jesus had drawn the line between the passive acquiesce with evil of the Eleven and the active betrayal of Judas. At least the others got not a dime from their disloyalty of their master. We wish that Jesus had waited until Judas made his exit before Jesus knelt and washed his disciples’ feet.

No, there’s Jesus tenderly caressing the feet of Judas as if he were the Beloved Disciple at his bosom. Judas will shortly use those same feet to walk from the meal to sell out his Savior. Is the foot washing John’s version of Jesus’ abrasive command to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44)? Or it’s John’s way of having Jesus say, as he says elsewhere, “I’ve come to seek and to save the lost”? (Luke 15) How much easier for us, the remaining Eleven, if Jesus had not given his life (only) for sinners and if he had not stooped down and lovingly washed the feet of Judas Iscariot.

When the Alabama legislature passed a law that penalized our citizens for giving aid, comfort, food, housing, jobs or transportation to undocumented immigrants, many churches of Alabama knew that the immigration law as an attack upon our Christ-assigned work.

As I argued with the governor (and a retired Methodist pastor turned politician who shamelessly defended the law), “Unfortunately, Jesus doesn’t allow his people choose between the deserving and the undeserving poor, the documented and the undocumented homeless and hungry. He commands us actively to love all those in need.”

Some legislators replied, “But these people are illegal. The church shouldn’t be aiding and abetting law breakers.”

Hey, before Jesus Christ, so far as our relationship to God was concerned, we were all illegal! His New Covenant, given at table, documented a bunch of illicit sinners as God’s beloved. At the time I was dooking it out with our right wing, ill-advised Governor I didn’t think about this Judas-foot-washing episode from John 13, but I wish I had. If Jesus had reason to wash Judas’ feet, in effect aiding and abetting his own murderer, harboring the worst of criminals at his own table, well, he’ll wash anybody’s feet. Anybody’s — even mine, even the Governor’s, even yours, no matter where your dirty feet have taken you.

Judas receives more attention (13:1-30) than any other person in the story other than Jesus. Is this a warning to contemporary disciples? Thus that great Catholic apologist for the faith, G. K. Chesterton dared to call Judas the very first Christian: “Judas Iscariot was one of the very earliest of all possible early Christians. And the whole point about him was that his hand was in the same dish; the traitor is always a friend, or he could never be a foe.” Sorry, if your idea of “Christian” is someone who has overcome the problem of sin and now sits at Jesus’ table with clean hands and a spotless conscience. Watch Jesus wash Judas’ feet and repeat after me: Jesus Christ came to seek and to save sinners, only sinners.

If Judas can be thought of as the first Christian, then that also makes this supper our earliest glimpse of the church.