'You will never wash my feet!'

OSV News
(Feb 23, 2024) Faith-Inspiration

Should we spend more time regarding the foot to be washed than simply doing a charitable act? (iStock/francescoch)

Soon enough, we will be celebrating Holy Thursday, also known as the Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper. The Gospel reading for that Mass is John 13:1-15, which is not specifically about the Last Supper itself as it is in the other three Gospels. Rather, it is about the washing of the feet of the apostles by the Lord.

In dusty Palestine, the washing of one's feet was a necessary hospitality, but a humbling, even humiliating, task delegated to slaves. At this dramatic moment, the Master, the Teacher, the Son of God, is stooping to perform such a task. This explains why Peter resists so strenuously: "You will never wash my feet."

Peter, as was often the case, was slow to get the point. Jesus explains: "If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow so that as I have done for you, you should also do."

Which brings me to the Superbowl.

In the midst of athletic prowess and celebrity ads, there was a 60-second spot that showed a series of images of individuals washing another person's feet. It was the images themselves that were so arresting: The pairings were intended to appear at first oppositional: A cop and a young black man. A young woman and an older woman outside an abortion clinic with pro-life protesters. A cleric and a young, apparently L.G.B.T.Q. man. A white woman and an immigrant. The message of the ad: "Jesus didn’t teach hate. He washed feet." It was sponsored by a group called He Gets Us. (You can watch the ad on YouTube.)

This group has run similar ads, often involving social justice themes, but always stressing that "Jesus gets us."

According to the group’s website: "With an upcoming election year that will be filled with division and derision, we decided to focus on one of the most important directives given by Jesus — Love Your Neighbor."

True to expectations in an election year, the ad was viewed as hugely controversial in some quarters. The left has criticized it, with Americans United for Separation of Church and State calling it "a front for Christian nationalism."

Daniel Walden writing in the Catholic magazine Commonweal lambasts the ads as "insufficiently revolutionary," criticizes the funders (which include the founder of Hobby Lobby), and says the messaging "fails to wound us."

This may come as news to some folks on the right who were equally offended by the ad, even calling it heretical. "Putting out an ad that invites narcissistic, prideful, unrepentant sinners to come and get their feet washed is bad…and also completely unbiblical," tweeted Matt Walsh.

Matt may have forgotten that Jesus washed Judas' feet. Jesus apparently forgot to add a footnote explaining that his example did not apply to the narcissistic and prideful.

So, insufficiently revolutionary or completely unbiblical — take your pick.

In fact, in our highly polarized society that has divided everyone into "us" and "them," the apparent incompatibility of the washer and the washee is exactly the point of the ad. Father Robert Wessman, in his book "The Church's Mission in a Polarized World," says discipleship means crossing over to the other, and that this is the challenge now facing us as Christians. We don't need more ideological debate. We need to reach out to the leper, the hypocrite, the tax collector — the other — just as Jesus did.

The New York Times columnist and conservative Christian David French summed up the ad’s impact on himself and others: "We asked ourselves if we were adequately loving and serving our neighbors."

And who is our neighbor? Well, Jesus answers that question too. It's everyone.

Greg Erlandson is an OSV staff columnist.

Holy Thursday, Superbowl ad, Washing feet, Catholic polarity, trending-english