— Andrew McKearney’s third sermon in the series on the Wounds of Christ —
Isaiah 52.7-10 and Luke 7.36-50
I think it unlikely that Jesus’ feet were particularly beautiful, despite the lovely poetry of the prophet Isaiah that we’ve just heard and the just-as-lovely hymn that we shall sing shortly! In the times that Jesus lived, most people most of the time went about on foot, going either barefoot or wearing sandals, and that way of life took its toll on your feet. And Jesus’ feet wouldn’t have been particularly clean either! Roads were essentially rough tracks used regularly by animals as well as humans, and in towns rubbish from homes was simply swept out onto the street. So as you went about, it was impossible to keep your feet clean. And there’s every reason to think that Jesus’ feet were just like everyone else’s – roughened, by all the walking that he did, and dirty, with some of the dirt inevitably ingrained. After all, complete washing was infrequent unless you lived near running water or were willing to go to Roman baths, which Jewish people on the whole refused to do. So the only parts of the body that were regularly washed were the hands, the face, and the feet – the exposed bits of the body.
But did Jesus wear sandals at all or did he go barefoot? When Jesus sent his disciples on their missionary journey, in the way that Matthew tells the story (10.10) it seems that Jesus tells his disciples not to wear sandals. If he did tell them to go barefoot it might have been to demonstrate their poverty, or the holiness of their task, or their utter dependence on God. But it then seems unlikely that Jesus himself would not have lived by the same rationale that he was asking his disciples to adopt, and go barefoot himself. We can’t know for sure.
It’s not surprising though that washing a person’s feet became part of the hospitality offered to a guest – we hear Abraham say to his three visitors in the book of Genesis (18.4):
“Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves.”
And in the Gospel reading that we’ve read, we heard Simon compared unfavourably because he had not welcomed Jesus into his home with water for his feet – at a special meal such as this one was, if people wore sandals they took them off before reclining with their feet adjacent to the other guests – foot washing was essential for enjoying your meal!
So it’s these feet of Jesus, rough and dirty, that we are thinking about today as we move from last week’s consideration of Jesus’ back, whipped and flogged, his head, battered and bruised, to this week’s consideration – his feet fixed to the cross.
How were they fixed? Most of us assume it was by nails through his feet because of the accounts of the resurrection – in the story of Jesus appearing to Thomas, Jesus mentions the mark of the nails in his hands, and we go on to suppose that his feet were also nailed (John 20.27).
This is also implied by the words of Jesus to the disciples walking to Emmaus:
“Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.” (Luke 24.39)
However we know that sometimes people were lashed to the cross rather than nailed; and in 1968 there was an intriguing archaeological discovery of the only example we have of the remains of a crucified person, a 20-year old man, dating from the first century. When this man’s body had been taken down from the cross, they were unable to remove the 4½ inch nail from his right heel bone, and so when his bones were discovered the nail had been left in this bone. A small wooden board had been nailed to the outside of his heel to prevent him from tearing his leg off the nail’s small head. In nailing the man to the cross, this nail had been bent. It couldn’t therefore be removed through the man’s body after his death, so they had cut the upright post away. What remains today is the heel bone, the nail, the small wooden board and a piece of olive wood from the upright stake of the cross. What this shows is that holding the weight of a person on a cross was made possible by the nails being hammered through the bones. It also seems likely that this man had been lashed to the crossbeam, not nailed, since there are no nail marks in the hands or arm bones.
How was Jesus’ body fixed to the cross? How many nails were used? Was there a footrest at the bottom of the cross – sometimes there was one put there so the person could raise themselves up to take the weight off their arms so they could breathe more freely? We know none of these details. But when Jesus was taken down, whatever nails had been used would need to be removed to free his body and if at all possible removed completely out of respect for his body.
So these are the feet, bloodied and wounded, that earlier on this woman had been so tender and intimate with. We heard in the Gospel reading how the woman didn’t just wash Jesus’ feet – she brought with her an alabaster jar of ointment and stood behind him at his feet weeping, and bathing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. Then she kissed them and anointed them with the ointment she’d brought.
This is the story that I am suggesting we should have in our thoughts and hearts as we reflect on the wounds of Jesus and in particular today, his feet. As we contemplate Jesus’ feet nailed or bound to the cross, this unnamed woman invites us to bathe these feet with our tears, to dry them with our hair, to kiss them with our lips, and to anoint them with the perfume of our lives transformed by love. Because that is what had brought this woman to kneel at these feet in particular – the knowledge that she was welcomed, loved and accepted totally and without reservation by God.
And so are we!
The sermon’s title comes from this piece by William Walton, which we sang as an offertory hymn at Communion together this morning.