Peter knows his culture. A rabbi does not do servant’s work. That’s why Jesus’ disciple Peter responds to Jesus as he does in John 13, verse 6,
“Jesus came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’”
Anyone else there should be washing Jesus’ feet. That was the custom, and custom is a powerful force. You don’t break custom. But that’s exactly what Jesus is doing.
I suspect Peter is embarrassed here, knowing that not one of the disciples volunteered to wash feet. That included him. Jesus’ act of washing feet is prophetic in that sense. A prophet’s primary job is to point out when they see wrong being done. In that room a wrong was being done. No one was stepping up to perform the customary foot washing. No one saw themselves as low enough to do such menial, shameful work. So when Jesus does the foot-washing, Peter immediately knows he, Peter, should have volunteered. Jesus’ initiative, in other words, reveals all the other disciples’ lack of initiative.
You can almost see Peter tucking his feet under his robe, so Jesus can’t reach them, as Peter asks, “Are you going to wash my feet?” Peter is saying, “Woah…wait. You’re not really going to do this, right?” What does Jesus say? Look at verse 7.
“Jesus replied, ‘You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand’.”
Yes, Jesus is really going to do this. No matter how difficult it might be for Peter to understand, Jesus wants this to happen so that they might remember later, and then they will understand. Jesus brings us back to the idea of preparing his disciples for the confusion, agony and pain that is soon coming. He wants this image of him washing their feet to be burned into their consciences, something they will always remember, because he will not always be with them. It was a visceral moment, involving touch, smell, and sound. Jesus’ hands touching their dusty, stinky feet with the splash of water. In this Jesus shows his intentional personal action of love to each of them. They would not soon forget it. And if they didn’t understand it now, they would later.
But Peter just skips right over whatever it might be that Jesus wants him to understand. Peter is fixated on the cultural embarrassment he is feeling as a disciple who has not taken the initiative to wash his rabbi’s feet. Peter feels shame as his rabbi is kneeling before him with a towel and basin of water, hands out to receive Peter’s feet. Peter, I think, tucks his feet back under his robe even further. He cannot allow this to happen, as he boldly says in verse 8, “No…you shall never wash my feet.”
Imagine how Jesus might look at Peter’s fierce eyes. Jesus loves this man who is a fireball, who often speaks before he thinks, who has great passion. Jesus knows that Peter is about to experience Jesus’ death perhaps most deeply of all the disciples. Jesus knows that Peter is leadership material, that Peter is a rock, and maybe that’s why Peter needs Jesus to wash his feet most of all. Peter needs to let go of his pride, his ideas of following cultural norms.
That can be very difficult for some of us who have personalities like Peter. I wonder how many of us, if we were at that Last Supper, might react exactly like Peter. What Jesus is showing Peter is a love that can feel very uncomfortable to many of us, especially those of us that have a strong personality or a stubborn individualistic streak. We Americans are particularly individualistic. We glorify our individualism, as if it is a virtue, that we, as the saying goes, “pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps,” we figured it out, didn’t need help. And we can get a huge high feeling off accomplishing something alone.
In this article Ted Anthony writes about “the end of The Searchers, one of John Wayne’s most renowned Westerns. [A] kidnapped girl has been rescued and a family reunited. As the closing music swells, Wayne’s character looks around at his kin — people who have other people to lean on — and then walks off toward the dusty West Texas horizon, lonesome and alone. It’s a classic example of a fundamental American tall tale — that of a nation built on notions of individualism, a male-dominated story filled with loners and ‘rugged individualists’ who suck it up, do what needs to be done, ride off into the sunset and like it that way.”
But it can also be very deceptive, this proclivity toward individualism. We can start to believe that we don’t need help, don’t need others, don’t need companions, don’t need God.
Peter needs to let Jesus wash his feet. In the rest of verse 8, Jesus says to Peter,
“Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
Jesus here is very creatively saying at least two things. First, he is saying that Peter needs to pull his feet out from under his robe and let Jesus physically wash his feet. Peter, in other words, needs to learn humility, interdependence, working together. Abiding by cultural norms is not always good. Sometimes cultural norms are wrong, not actually for our good or for the good of others. In this case, Peter needed to get rid of his pride and just let his rabbi wash his feet. It will take practice, so Peter should start right then and there.
Second, Peter needs Jesus to wash his feet symbolically referring to theological act of forgiveness of sin. Jesus is saying, “Peter, you don’t realize how much you need me to wash you.” Forgiveness is possible through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Without that, we cannot be a part of Jesus’ family and Kingdom. Of course, Peter will not understand that until he goes through the massive upheaval of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection takes place over the next few days, and after the resurrected Jesus has the chance to explain everything to the disciples. But that day will come, and Peter will understand.
What Jesus is saying is applicable to all people. He makes a way for all people to be a part of his family, which is exciting news for sure. We are people who can be symbolically washed. The stain of sin can be washed away. This is what our baptism symbolizes. If you have not been baptized and want to make that symbolic proclamation, I encourage you to talk with your pastor.
When Jesus says that unless he washes Peter’s feet, Peter has not part with him, that gets Peter’s attention. Peter has a big response, and we’ll learn about that in the next post.
Photo by Taylor Brandon on Unsplash