Forming Faith Blog

The Context of Footwashing (February 25, 2018)

Bible Readings: John 13:1-17

Free Resources: Not One Is Greater (Youth Game)

Lenten Theme 1 (February 18—March 4): Following Jesus

Jesus washes a disciple's feet

For this Second Sunday of Lent, we’ve skipped past Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in chapter 12 (an event we will pick up on Palm Sunday) and moved to chapter 13. The religious leaders have already decided that they should arrest Jesus and put him to death; the journey to the cross has begun in earnest. Within the context of his coming death, Jesus outlines what it means to be his followers. Becoming a follower of Jesus does not lead us on the path of power, but the path of service. Jesus calls his disciples to follow his lead and become the lowliest of servants.

Context of Familiarity

Within the church, this is a well-known story. In fact, many congregations have a foot-washing ritual based on it. It is also probably the passage that church-goers know the most historical and cultural context on. Foot-washing is not a common social act, at least not in recent times in the Western world. So, to make sense of this story, faith formation leaders must include certain facts.

  • Due to filthy roads and people’s sandals, feet got quite dirty.
  • People often reclined for meals, and therefore their feet would be close to the food.
  • Hosts either had a slave (or wife) wash the guests’ feet or provided the water and towel for guests to do this themselves.
  • Someone of higher status would never perform this humiliating task on anyone, much less someone of lesser status.
Necessity of Context

However, many people are not taught that the context of every passage throughout the whole of Scripture is important to know in order to understand and interpret their meaning. A teacher wouldn’t ask students to read Shakespeare’s King Lear and expect them to understand it all without any footnotes or explanations. Students don’t know the context that Shakespeare’s original audience lived in. Even though Shakespeare wrote in English, a lot has changed in the 400 years since then.

Now, at the very least, the Bible has been translated into modern English. The books of the Bible were written thousands of years ago in a different part of the world than most of us are from. If we need help reading Shakespeare, don’t we need more help reading Scripture? But, in some traditions, leaders recommend that new Christians read the Bible at home by themselves.

Resources on Context

Fortunately, there are many resources available explaining the contexts of Scripture, or at least to the best of our scholars’ knowledge. How do we get these resources into the hands of the laity? How do we teach people how to use them? This is why our work as faith formation leaders is so important! Within our particular ministry, we need to learn a passage’s context and sharing that information with others. And, when people ask us a question that we don’t know the answer to, we need to say perhaps the most important sentence in studying the Bible: “I don’t know, but let’s look it up”!

To help busy faith formation leaders, we have created a product called Contexts & Connections, which provides background notes and connection suggestions for each passage in the Narrative Lectionary. It’s not a substitute for in-depth research, but it gives the basic information you need in a short period of time, and citations if you want to learn more.

Free Resource

Getting back to our passage at hand, our free resource of the week is a fun game about status that can help drive home the point that “Not One Is Greater” than anyone else! This activity comes from our Living the Word: Youth curriculum and can be adapted to many different settings.

In Christ,

-Gregory Rawn (Publisher)


For more great ideas on how to engage participants of all ages in the story of God’s love, check out our Living the Word series for elementary students, youth, adults, and intergenerational settings!

Be sure to download our free Narrative Lectionary Planning Tool and Scope & Sequence to help in your preparation! 2018-2019 Planning Tool and Scope & Sequence coming soon!

Image Copyright: ginosphotos / 123RF Stock Photo

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