The Unashamed Washing of Feet

“For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” 1 Samuel 16:7

Growing up in concrete paved suburbia, I never really understood the significance of feet washing in the Bible. Maybe my feet didn’t always smell the best and could have tolerated more frequent washing, but for the most part they just got washed whenever the rest of my body did, and that is all they really needed. 

The roads I live on now still aren’t quite how I imagine the roads Jesus walked on were like, but they are closer than what I’ve experienced before. My walk to school is a short one, but it is on a very dusty dirt road. If it hasn’t rained recently, then every step taken releases a small puff of dust from the Earth below my foot. So, although I don’t go far, by the end of the day my feet are decently filthy, and I have to wash them before I can get into my bed. Sometimes, enough of the dust accumulates in our house that even just walking around indoors can make the bottoms of my feet black and in need of another wash. Due to all these factors, I have found myself washing my feet multiple times a day for the first time in my life. 

In church the other week we read the story of Mary Magdalene washing Jesus’ feet with her hair and her tears. Even though I have read this story many times before, this was the first time hearing it where the significance of this moment finally clicked for me in a way it never had before. 

The image of me washing my own feet became clear in my mind, as I imagined this woman at the feet of the Saviour. It is written that she was “weeping, [and] she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head” (Luke 7:38). Before I knew how much water it takes to wash dirt that is caked onto feet, I didn’t visualize the extent to which she must have been crying. The word “weeping” is used intentionally because in order for her to be able to wet his feet enough to clean them, she had to be producing a significant amount of tears. 

In the past, the image I had developed around this story was a quiet one. One where she was moving slowly, silently, and not disturbing anyone as she cleaned his feet. But the image that comes into view for me now is one that is unashamedly disruptive. Anyone who has weeped to the extent that Mary Magdalene had to have been to clean Jesus’ feet knows that you cannot cry like that and be quiet. This was not a mute, closed lipped, controlled cry. This was a full body, heavy breathing, open mouth, repentant wail. Not only that, but she follows this by pouring a flask of perfume onto his feet. If you have ever been around a middle school boy, you know how potent excessive body spray can be. I’m assuming she was not using AXE body spray on his feet, but regardless of the brand, it was likely a strong scent that would overpower any other scents in the room. There is no way that this could have been an unnoticed act. 

Something God has been placing on my heart and mind recently is the concept of performative religion: behaviors or practices that we engage in for the sake of others and not for His sake. When I was younger, I often found myself wanting to memorize verses to impress others at youth group, or to say beautiful prayers to be perceived in a particular way by those hearing them. I even had to postpone my first baptism when it became obvious that I was just doing it because some of my peers were doing it, and not because I was actually prepared to make that declaration of faith. Church, and much of my life outside of church, became centered around others and what they thought about me. As I have begun to revitalize my faith these past few years, I would often be driven to tears during worship and sermons. Yet, I would try to stifle them and hide the emotions I was experiencing from those around me. So for me to see this woman being so completely engulfed with the presence of Jesus that she doesn’t even attempt to minimize her behaviour, or accomodate the others in the room, is incredibly powerful. In order to do what she was doing, she couldn’t be thinking about anything other than being with and worshipping Jesus. She couldn’t be thinking about what the other men in the room must think of her, or how disgusting her hair is going to be when she wipes the filth from his feet, or even how expensive the ointment she was pouring was. 

When I read Bible stories, my initial reaction is to think that I am represented by the faithful and the just. That if I was a character in this story I would be Mary Magdalene, throwing the entirety of my self at the feet of Jesus. Yet, I know deep in my heart that if I was really a character in this story I would be Simon, judging her in her display of affection towards Jesus. I know I would be Simon because I have been Simon many times before. I have seen people speak and behave in ways that proved their faith, and I judged them for it. As if that is not exactly what we are each called to do. I can recognize now that my judgement stems from my discomfort in witnessing others behave in ways that seemed so unreachable for me. It isn’t something that can be faked, and that level of honesty and vulnerability is only achievable with the assistance of the Spirit. I can’t transform from Simon into Mary Magdalene by my own abilities, and I think by trying to for so long I was missing the whole point.

I can look like her, but I can never be like her until I stop caring so much what my faith looks like to others and focus more on what my heart looks like to God. What my faith looks like means nothing if my heart doesn’t match it. I am learning to let go of the perception of others, and rest in the freedom of the Lord.

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