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JESUS WASHING HIS DISCIPLES' FEET
REV. C. BENSON, A.M.
ST. MARY-LE-STRAND, MAY 22, 1836 *.
"So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you."-JOHN, xiii. 12—15.
AMONG the various incidents which are recorded by the evangelist as having occurred during the night which immediately preceded the crucifixion of our Lord, there is not one which is introduced with more particular solemnity than the washing of the apostles' feet, "Now before the feast of the passover," says St. John," when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end. And supper being ended, the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him; Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; he riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded." Such is the impressive manner in which the evangelist brings before our consideration this simple action of our Saviour; and such the minute particularity with which he describes the circumstances that accompanied it.
Nor is this all. We may remark, as equally singular, the importance which our Lord himself appears to have attached to the transaction; and the mysterious language which he addressed to Peter, when he would have resisted in his own case the performance of the rite. Now when Jesus came to Peter for the purpose of washing him, " Peter said to him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet? Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter. Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me. Simon Peter saith to him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head. Jesus saith to him, He that is washed needeth not, save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit." Struck with the extraordinary solemnity, and the apparent mystery of this whole transaction, and pressed by the difficulty of explaining it satisfactorily upon the mere supposition of its being intended to give an example of Christian humility in its ordinary sense, individuals have
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endeavoured to raise the act itself to a degree of importance commensurate with the dignity with which it is introduced.
Some have therefore conceived, that the Saviour intended the ceremony of washing the apostles' feet to be regarded as emblematical of his cleansing the souls and bodies of his disciples from all sin, by the washing of that mingled water and blood which flowed from his side when it was poured out for transgression upon the cross. This opinion is principally supported by the conversation which has been already quoted as having taken place between our Lord and St. Peter. Now it is clear that the only light in which Jesus himself has taught us to look on the incident, is as a motive to go and do likewise: "I have given you' says he, "an example, that ye should do as I have done to you." This, at least, is the only instruction he has openly delivered; and it shews, upon a careful review, that the whole circumstances of the case may be satisfactorily explained, without having recourse to any mystical allusion to his own propiciatory sacrifice. Jesus came, as we have seen, to Peter, and Peter, knowing both his own unworthiness and his Master's divine dignity said unto him, "Dost thou wash my feet?" That is, "Is it meet that an office of such degradation should be performed by the everlasting Son of God to one of the lowliest of the sons of men?" "Jesus answered and said, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter. As yet thou art ignorant of the reasons which have induced me to adopt this course; but as soon as I have done what it is my purpose to do, then shalt thou be made acquainted with the cause.' Not satisfied to submit, or not aware of our Lord's meaning, Peter still more vehemently replied, "Thou shalt never wash my feet: Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me." In other words; "If, in disobedience to my expressed will, thou refusest to permit me to do that which I desire to do, and wilt not, without a previous explanation of the reason of my conduct, bend to my authority and be washed, thy presumption and disobedience too plainly shew that thou hast no part in me in that submissive dispensation in which I have ever been ready to follow the will of my heavenly Father, which thou, as my disciple, ought ever to be ready to follow mine."
Struck by this rebuke, St. Peter passed at once from obstinacy to excess of zeal, and said unto his Lord, "Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head. Jesus saith to him, He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit." "He that is already cleansed, whether from the filthiness of the flesh or the spirit, does not require for the end that I have now in view, to submit to more from me than the washing of his feet; for by his previous cleansing he is already purified. Obey, therefore, in what I desire, and give me an opportunity of doing neither more nor less to thee than that which my own wisdom sees meet.'
It is evident, then, that there is nothing in the statement of our Lord to his apostles which may not be explained without allusion to the efficacy of his blood in purging and washing away the sins of all mankind. Such a secret and mystical reasoning is unnecessary to elucidate the language of Jesus. As it is, therefore, a needless, so is it also an unnatural course to assume such a mystical reference, in order to account for the circumstances under which, in the particular case of the text, the washing of the apostles' feet was performed.
But though we have thus explained the conversation between our Lord and St. Peter, it still remains to us to assign some reasons for that great solemnity with which the narrative is introduced to our notice by St. John. To account for this, then, there are some who would persuade us, that the mere act of washing the disciples' feet was intended to be an everlasting ordinance in the Christian church. As the Lord's supper was ordained to be celebrated in continual remembrance of Christ, so do they maintain that this act of wisdom should also be done in perpetual imitation of Christ. They imagine, that to give greater weight to the duty, the most awful period of our Saviour's life, even the night before he was crucified, was chosen for its institution, as well as for that of the great sacrament of the Gospel. In pursuance of this notion, the prelates and great men of the Roman church, are accustomed, year by year, in the week in which they commemorate the death of the Redeemer, to repeat the act of washing the feet of the poor, when they vainly suppose, that by that outward deed alone they have accomplished all that is necessary to the fulfi!. ment of the precept of Christ, by doing to others as he himself did to his disciples. But, surely, such a meagre and limited view of the subject is altogether unworthy of the divine wisdom of our Lord. The sacrament of the Lord's supper, is for the remission of sins; it is an ordinance appointed for the strengthening and refreshing of our souls, even as our bodies are by the bread and wine but the mere momentary washing a poor brother's feet at a fixed period on each returning year, is utterly vain and valueless, except as an example of that entire and uninterrupted course of kindness which we should shew to all who are placed in the same relative situation to us, in which our blessed Saviour stood to the apostles whom he had chosen. Had this ceremony been performed by the apostles with the same regularity with which they almost daily celebrated the supper of the Lord; had they commended it to the observance of the universal church, or even implied it in their writings, that they deemed it binding in its literal sense, we might have admitted it as a Christian rite. But there is one only allusion to it throughout the whole remainder of the New Testament; and that one in 1 Timothy, v. 10. It is clear that St. Paul, in describing the good works of the widow he approves, intended under the particular expression of washing the feet of the saints, of designating the general custom of performing the requisite services of hospitality to those Christians whom we receive as guests under our roof.
It remains, therefore, that we reject this modern practice as the unauthorized invention of man, and consider the washing the apostles' feet as a particular instance exemplifying some general virtue. It declares, that herein he has given us an example, that we should do as he had done to his disciples. His conduct is to be, therefore, a model for our's. The same disposition which he exhibited to his followers should be exhibited to our brethren. Acts of a similar nature to perform, and to transfuse the spirit of his conduct on this particular occasion into our own.
What then was the mind which Christ on this particular occasion displayed? and what is the nature of those acts of Christ, of those virtues, which in following his example, wheu he washed his apostles' feet, we also should be led to perform? In answering this question, it is usually said, that the virtue which this lowly act of our Lord recommends, is that of Christian humility. Humility, it is remarked is the leading characteristic of the Gospel of Christ
the paramount feature of this particular ceremony. It is therefore inferred, that this is the grace of which our Saviour meant to signify the beauty and the excellence by his own example. It is, indeed, impossible to deny, that the most admirable humility was, in a high degree, exhibited, when washing the apostles' feet; but so also it was in every portion of our Lord's earthly pilgrimage, and seen more conspicuously when it was inculcated by his ignominious death for us upon the cross; more so, even, than in that ceremony which is now under our review. It is not easy, therefore, if the purpose is merely to recommend the duty of humility, to account for the selection of so simple an act, when it was about to be still more powerfully inculcated by the still more impressive and humiliating sufferings of our Saviour's death. It would rather have been, that some special form and kind of humility was designed to be enjoined, and was, in fact, signified, by the very nature of the act represented under the image of washing the apostles' feet.
Let us examine, then, into the nature of this act, and from that examination let us see if we cannot ascertain the particular species of humility it was intended to recommend, and explain, at the same time, both why it was left to this period, and why it is introduced to our notice with so much of solemn earnestness.
First, then, the act of washing the feet was one which in the countries in which our Saviour dwelt was usually performed by servants to their masters, as a point of duty, or by inferiors to superiors as a mark of respect. In the present instance the whole proceeding was reversed. Here the heavenly and almighty Master of the universe performed it for his earthly and dependant servants. Here the Lord, who is above all, God blessed for ever, performed for those who are among the meanest and least esteemed of weak and miserable mortals.
Secondly, the washing of the apostles' feet was not an act essential to the supply of their necessary wants, or calculated to relieve any of their urgent distresses, or to remove from them the calamities of sickness or even of death. It is one, which, estimated at the highest, may be said to be no more than a compliance with custom, and contributing to the ordinary comforts of life.
Thirdly, it was a personal service by the Lord himself. His works were effected, either by the power of his word, or by the ministry of those whom he sent forth, with a commission to heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, and cast out devils in his name. But the washing of the apostles' feet was the work of his own hands; a lowly labour in which he employed his own body, and not the result of the authority with which as Messiah he was endued; but as the strength which he as man received in common with the whole family of Adam.
Lastly, the washing of the apostles' feet was not a duty which lay in the usual course of our Saviour's ministry, or to which he was usually called by the character of Redeemer, or Preacher of Righteousness in which he appeared. On the contrary, it was one in which the relative position in which he stood towards his apostles in order to perform. He had to become a servant, instead of prophet, priest, or king. The duty was one which demanded that he should strip himself of his usual raiment, and descend from the tone of his general pre-eminence, to take a lower order and humiliating form before his inferiors, to perform.
Such was the act: and having so noticed and ascertained its nature, we may easily perceive, both what it was intended to inculcate upon us, and why it was deferred to an especial period, and introduced by the solemn preface given to it by St. John. That form of humility which this act so especially commands, is that of personal service performed by superiors to inferiors, and that not merely for the relief of the essential necessities, or the removal of piercing pains, but for their ordinary comforts and conveniences, and advantages in life.
The importance of such lessons is apparent. What are acts of patronage and protection, though they spring from the compassion of the soul? They still mark the pre-eminence of the Christian. Charity and generosity equally shew the superior rank in which we stand towards our brethren; they add almost to the feeling of importance we entertain: they often give us great credit in the world, and they are such that gather round us many friends and suppliants to participate in the bounty we bestow. These are acts, therefore, which it is comparatively easy to perform; more easy than half the other duties of the Christian. For acts of charity and alms-giving are generally done with that degree of moderation and regard to the circumstances in which we stand to the world, that they neither entail upon us diminution of splendour, loss of enjoyment, or even the abatement of a single comfort. But when we are obliged to labour with our own bodily powers for the good of others, when those for whom we labour are our inferiors, when we are called to lay aside our outward marks of distinction, and mingle with these inferiors and dependants, and act to them as their servants; when we are told to minister to them with our own hands, and, in fact, to reverse the relative situations in which we stand to them-and when we do this, not for what is essential to continue their existence but only desirable for their comfort and convenience; then the difficulty arises; then it is that the Christian begins to feel his repugnance to the office of charitable love; then it is that we experience that there is some hardness in the demands of Christ; then it is that we are tempted to shrink, and to trust to others what we are unwilling to undertake ourselves. Most necessary, therefore, was it, that our Lord should give us a pregnant example of his desire, that we should perform such personal service, and in the feeling of humility submit to the action inculcated.
But this is not all. Not only are we unwilling to do such service, but we may add, thut such personal services are in fact actions which most of all affect the great principle of charity; I mean, the increase of brotherly love between the various orders of society. The poor think, often (perhaps they justly think), that what is done for them by the rich in alms-giving, is done merely out of that superabundance with which it has pleased God to bless them. They see that it entails upon themselves no loss of luxury, plenty, comfort, or splendour. The poor, therefore, regarding such alms-giving as no sacrifice, as the mere performance of a bounden duty, too often feel little of that gratitude, which the ostentatiously charitable man deems his best reward. But the poor know the value of personal services: they know the value of labour given for another's welfare by their own experience, by their own station in life; they can measure the sacrifice which a Christian man, when he descends to work with his own hands for their benefit, or to give the power of his faculties to assist them.