Today, we invite you to explore the Gospel story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, with biblical ethicist William Spohn; engage with ideas of labor justice by considering the devaluation of labor and its connections to gender and race; and embody Jesus’s call to “do unto others” through loving service to those whom society often considers “dirty,” with the example of Pope Francis washing prisoners’ feet, and the Felician Sisters of North America.
YHWH said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt,
“This month will be the first of all months for you.
You will count it as the first month of the year.
Tell the whole community of Israel:
On the tenth day of this month
every family in Israel will take a lamb from the flock, one for each household.
If the household is too small for the whole lamb,
it will join its neighbor as the number of persons requires.
You must take into account what each can eat
in deciding the number for the animal.
The lamb must be a yearling without blemish.
You may take it from either the sheep or the goats.
You must keep it until the fourteenth day of the month,
then the whole community of the congregation of Israel is to slaughter it in the evening.
Some of the blood must then be taken and applied to the two doorposts
and the lintel of every house where the lamb is eaten.
That night they will eat the roasted flesh
with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.
“This is how you are to eat it:
with your loins girded, sandals on your feet,
and a staff in your hand; you are to eat it in haste.
It is the Passover of YHWH.
For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night
and strike down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt,
both humans and animals.
I will execute this judgment on all the gods of Egypt: I am YHWH!
The blood will mark the houses where you live.
When I see the blood, I will pass over you
and you will escape destruction when I strike the land of Egypt.
“This day will be for you a memorial day,
and you must celebrate it as a feast in YHWH’s honor.
All generations are to observe it forever as a feast day.”
Response: Our blessing-cup is a communion with the blood of Christ
What return can I make to Our God / for all this goodness to me?
I will offer libations to my savior, / invoking the Name of the Most High.
R: Our blessing-cup is a communion with the blood of Christ
The death of the devout / is precious in Your eyes.
Adonai, I am your faithful one, / your faithful one,
Born of a pious mother: / you undo my fetters.
R: Our blessing-cup is a communion with the blood of Christ
I will offer You the thanksgiving sacrifice, / invoking Your Name, Adonai.
I will pay what I vowed to You; / may the whole nation be present.
R: Our blessing-cup is a communion with the blood of Christ.
What I have passed on to you, I received from Christ
— that on the night he was betrayed,
our Savior Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, saying,
“This is my body, which is broken for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way, after supper, he took the cup and said,
“This cup is the New Covenant in my blood.
Whenever you drink it, do it in remembrance of me.”
For every time you eat this bread and drink this cup,
you proclaim Jesus’ death until Christ comes.
It was before the Feast of Passover,
and Jesus realized that the hour had come for him
to pass from this world to Abba God.
He had always loved his own in this world,
but now he showed how perfect this love was.
The Devil had already convinced Judas Iscariot, begot of Simon, to betray Jesus.
So during supper, Jesus
— knowing that God had put all things into his own hands,
and that he had come from God and was returning to God —
rose from the table, took off his clothes
and wrapped a towel around his waist.
He then poured water into a basin,
and began to wash the disciples’ feet,
and dry them with the towel that was around his waist.
When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said,
“Rabbi, you are not going to wash my feet, are you?”
“You do not realize what I am doing right now,
but later you will understand.”
Peter replied, “You will never wash my feet!”
Jesus answered, “If I do not wash you,
you have no part with me.”
Simon Peter said to Jesus,
“Then, Rabbi, not only my feet, but my hands and my head as well!”
“Any who have taken a bath are clean all over
and only need to wash their feet
— and you are clean, though not every one of you.”
For Jesus knew who was to betray him.
That is why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
After washing their feet, Jesus put his clothes back on and returned to the table.
He said to them,
“Do you understand what I have done for you?
You call me “Teacher” and “Sovereign” — and rightly, for so I am.
If I, then — your Teacher and Sovereign —
have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet.
I have given you an example,
that you should do as I have done to you.”
The Inclusive Lectionary © 2022 FutureChurch. All rights reserved.
The inclusive language psalms:
Leach, Maureen, O.S.F. and Schreck, Nancy, O.S.F., Psalms Anew: A Non-sexist Edition
(Dubuque, IA: The Sisters of St. Francis, 1984).
Used with permission.
Foot Washing: Upending the Status Quo
As we enter the Easter Triduum – Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday – we await the resurrection with reflection on our place as disciples of Jesus of Nazareth. Biblical ethicist William Spohn writes that we must engage the Gospel with a Catholic imagination to discover what being a disciple means in our world. What does it mean to have our feet washed by Christ? What does it mean to do for others as he has done for us?
Our reading from John opens with two statements about the inner world of Jesus: First, he knows what is about to happen. He has read the writing on the wall and knows that his death is imminent. Second, the gospel writer tells us that Jesus dearly loves his friends, the disciples, until the very end. We enter this familiar scene with Jesus knowing that he has very limited time left with his friends, that now is his last chance to show that he loves them and to teach them what they need to know. What would we do if we knew we had one last night with the people we love, I wonder? Within the celebration of Passover (whose roots we find in the reading from Exodus), Jesus shows his friends radical love, choosing to upend social expectations once more by crouching down and doing the work of a servant.
Spohn relates that foot-washing in first-century Palestine was generally done by Gentile servants because of the dirt associated with the task. Peter objects to Jesus washing his feet because he sees it as humiliating for his teacher. Jesus is radically upending the status quo here. When he instructs his disciples, and by extension us, to do this for others, we are asked to upend the status quo as well. Who is tasked with today’s “dirty jobs” or low-status jobs? Spohn offers three examples of how a Holy Thursday foot-washing ritual might make Jesus’s actions present in our world. In the first, a pope washes twelve people’s feet in St. Peter’s Basilica, all of whom are laymen or male seminary students. In the second, a parish community begins the ritual with the priest washing a woman’s feet, who then washes his in return. They together wash the feet of twelve others, and then those twelve begin washing the feet of the whole parish community. Each person has their feet washed, then turns and washes the feet of the next person in line. In the third example, an Irish-American priest in an inner-city parish shines the shoes of twelve elderly Black men. Spohn asks: How do each of these examples mirror the Gospel? Which one best maintains fidelity to the heart of the Gospel?
To reflect upon these questions, we need to do something we might not always associate with religious practice: use our imaginations. The center of the Christian faith is not a list of moral behaviors to follow, but the person of Jesus. As such, narrative is our guide. What themes emerge from John 13? Spohn suggests that these may include role reversal, humility, service, equality, and tangible compassion, among others. He also notes that the themes of Jesus’s work we highlight will vary depending on our own personal contexts, and thus how we express those in ritual. For example the differences between the parish foot washing and the Irish-American priest shoe shining. Our faithfulness to the gospel must include reflection on how our actions in our world are similar to Jesus’s actions in his world. With that in mind, we can consider which of the above three scenarios expresses the gospel best, as well as moving further in imagining what other elements of foot-washing rituals might be appropriate to our own particular contexts and lives.
William Spohn (1944-2005) is well-known for his work on scripture and ethics. He was a professor at Santa Clara University from 1992 to 2004, and prior to that was part of the faculty at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. For further reading:
- William Spohn, Go and Do Likewise: Jesus and Ethics (New York: Continuum, 2007)
- William Spohn, What Are They Saying About Scripture and Ethics? (Fully Revised and Expanded Edition) (New York: Paulist Press, 1995)
Commentary by Taylor Ott
Engage Catholic Social Teaching
In today’s gospel, we see Jesus doing a task that dealt with dirt and grime. Though today’s “dirty jobs” don’t generally include washing dirt from your guests’ feet, there is still work to be done with the “dirt” produced by everyday living – largely household chores, cooking, and care work. Thinking with Catholic Social Teaching’s long tradition of reflection on labor, theological ethicist Christine Firer Hinze reminds us in her book Glass Ceilings and Dirt Floors: Women, Work, and the Global Economy, that the economic systems that society uses to deal with bodily dirt have deep ethical implications. Hinze notes that some of the lowest-paying jobs in our economy are those that are connected to dirt, especially bodily dirt. This kind of dirt that results from embodied living is not only considered disgusting and its visibility improper for society, but is also feminized as women tend to be associated with tasks like cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, and caring for elderly persons (in contrast to “masculine” dirty labor like mining, farming, or car repair that tend to be more highly regarded and given higher economic value).
The success of second and third-wave feminism was partly that it gave women a chance to disconnect themselves from this kind of dirty work, but in reality, this was mostly a success for white women that left behind or came at the expense of women of color. The model of a high-powered career woman (usually white) was made possible by the women of color doing the dirty work of housekeeping and taking care of children, who are generally underpaid and often erased from social consciousness. Further, the worldviews of white colonialist cultures tend to cast entire groups of people who make up the populations of the subaltern as “dirty.” In other words, people of color, especially women of color, migrants, and people experiencing poverty are seen as particularly suited to doing dirty work because they are themselves considered inferior within racist and sexist ideologies.
Labor involving bodily dirt, then, tends to signify and reinforce unjust social boundaries that consider some people as properly “in” society while others are more identified with being on the “outside” of society. By reconceptualizing the scene of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet as Jesus doing a kind of labor to clean bodily dirt, we can more closely imagine the social shock of his actions. What if instead, Jesus was changing diapers, or washing the floor? Catholic social teaching calls us to move beyond this shock, though, to a deeper understanding of embodied life and the value of care work and reproductive labor. Rather than seeing Jesus as debased by dirty labor, we might instead imagine care work being elevated to its appropriate value as something essential to our lives and deeply relational. How might our perspective shift if we thought of a housekeeper or nanny as doing work that is worthy of the divine?
A Contemplative Exercise
Holy Thursday offers us an exercise in humility as we contemplate what it is to clean and be cleaned. For some of us, it might be more difficult to accept someone else doing an act of service for us than it is to do service for others. Think of a time when someone showed you mercy or grace, especially if you could not repay it. How did it feel? Disquieting, relieving, moving? This experience is just a taste of the grace that God shows us, symbolized in washing the disciples’ feet.
Jesus instructs the disciples that, “As I have done for you, so you should do for others.” How can we make the love of God present to others? Like Jesus shows his love for his close friends, how might we demonstrate our love for the people we most care about through acts of loving service? If you had one last night with them, what would you make sure they knew? Expanding our view, who are those around us who do the “dirty jobs” that sustain our communities? Have we perhaps become used to not acknowledging them and the work they do? How might we embody the same loving service to the people at the margins of our communities?
Today, we needn’t venture far from the Vatican to encounter someone who embodies a spirituality of service and social justice. On each Holy Thursday, Pope Francis washes the feet of some of the most marginalized people in society. In 2022, the pope traveled to a prison to celebrate mass and wash the feet of twelve inmates, both men and women. In prior years, he has celebrated this important ritual at a center for asylum seekers, a center for people with disabilities, and other prisons, including a youth detention center. Francis embodies Jesus’s actions of upsetting social hierarchies by spending this special holy day – the Mass of the Last Supper – with people on the “outside” of society, and moreover, by being present with them in the places they inhabit. Francis’s actions model for us that no matter who we are, we will never do anything greater than the loving service we do for those who are most despised by society.
The Felician Sisters of North America continue the work of their founder, who cared for abandoned children and houseless people on the streets of 19th-century Warsaw. Inspired by the Franciscans, the sisters take on a contemplative-active life in which they direct their spirituality toward taking care of vulnerable persons. Today, they have many ministries that do the “dirty labor” of caring for the elderly, terminally ill, people who are houseless or experiencing poverty, children, inmates, and people with disabilities. For instance, the sisters at the Angela Spirituality Center in Pomona, CA go to the places that houseless people live once a week to speak and pray with anyone who wants to, to be present, and to distribute necessities. These sisters demonstrate loving service and the Felician contemplative-active life by serving the spiritual, material, and human needs of this vulnerable population, as well as mirroring the meaning of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet by enacting embodied connection. Likewise, in Detroit the sisters quite literally get their hands dirty by maintaining a community garden that serves people who are experiencing poverty, bringing together care for the earth and care for vulnerable people.
The creators of the film Bruce Almighty were onto something when they depicted God (played by Morgan Freeman) as a custodian mopping the floor.
Image description: In a scene from the movie Bruce Almighty, Morgan Freeman, playing God, stands in an empty school gym mopping the floor. He wears a janitor’s uniform, a gray button down top and pants, and a ball cap. To his left stands a silver mop bucket with long handles sticking out. He looks out to his right.