The congregation of which I am a part had completed the ritual of “foot-washing,” Sunday morning. We were reflecting together on John 13:1-17, and puzzling over the reaction of Peter—“Jesus, if you are going to wash me, then wash my head and hands too,”—and Jesus’ retort—“you are clean already, so you only have to have your feet washed.”

Of course, the standard explanation from a “biblical customs” point of view is that Israel or Palestine gets extraordinarily dry from May until October or November. Indeed, one person in attendance had served several years in the West Bank, and shared how computers and tape recorders must be covered up to protect them from the clinging dust that spreads everywhere. So Jesus was engaging in the servants’ task of washing the guests’ feet.

But that does not seem to fully explain Peter’s confusion. He seemed to be thinking, if I am going to be purified, then wash me properly. Apparently, as in Muslim practice for centuries, that seems to have included head, hands, and feet. Jesus’ riposte seems to means, “you don’t to be cleaned, dummy.” But then why did Jesus insist on washing the feet, when that did not appear to meet the minimal requirements for purification?

What emerged from our discussion is that Jesus was redefining “purity.” The traditional religious notion, found everywhere from indigenous American religion to Hinduism and Shinto, has been that people must be cleansed of the taint of animality if they are to converse with the gods. “Purity” separated the community from the “impure,” those who for a variety of reasons are cursed with physical conditions that “contaminate” them. A Muslim woman who is menstruating will not engage in the five daily prayers. In traditional Hinduism, the Shudras and outcastes are for this present life cut off from the status of becoming “twice-born,” of taking on the task of spiritual development.

Jesus, followed by his early community of followers, transformed purity from a concern with social rank and spiritual superiority to service. Jesus washed the disciples’ feet to say: purity is ministering to the neediest in the community, not distinguishing yourself from them.

This revolutionized ancient religion. Its consequences were world-transformative. As Rodney Stark points out in The Rise of Christianity, when the Roman Empire was hit with the plague, and everyone else ran away, the Christians stayed behind and ministered to the sick and dying. Thus, it began to grow exponentially.

This implies that in the New Testament, “impure” becomes a synonym for “selfish” or “self-serving”, as in Ephesians 5:5: “No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God (NIV).” Thus, the text covers three basic classes of actions excluded from the kingdom to be inaugurated by Jesus Christ: wrong actions in sexual behavior, social behavior, and economic behavior.