[Jesus] poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet”
Position. Rank. Status. Significance. Importance. Prestige.
For the people in the time and culture of Jesus, public meals could become less about food than it was about place (Luke 14:7-11). Where you sat reflected your rank in the social pecking order. People would jockey to be seated in a place of importance. So, when Jesus left his place at the table with his disciples, took off his outer garment, and wrapped a towel around his waist, they were confused. When he began to wash their feet, they became extremely uncomfortable.
Jesus was their Lord and Teacher. If there were no servants present to do foot washing at this important meal, then they should have done this for Jesus. However, Jesus was doing this menial act of service and hospitality for them. When Jesus came to Peter, this leader among the apostles strongly objected: “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” The tone and Peter’s follow-up objection to Jesus’ loving act of menial service makes clear that Peter’s question was really a strong objection. His words meaning something like: “Lord, do you really think I’m going to allow you to wash my feet? I doubt it! There’s no way I can let that happen. That is simply not appropriate.”
Peter’s unwillingness to admit his need for Jesus’ lowly, sacrificial, and menial service reveals that Peter has a problem: his unwillingness to acknowledge his need for grace. Unfortunately, this attitude can also be at the heart of our problem with Jesus as well. Peter and the apostles are not alone in their struggle to secure their place and position of importance. Whether we’re talking about ministers at a convention, junior high kids in social situations, or managers in the marketplace, we can find ourselves jockeying for position. We can preen, prance, talk, drop names, chat each other up, exaggerate stories, and stretch the truth in our bios trying to advance our place in the social pecking order.
This very human desire to be first, to have the most important place in social standing, leads us to two sins against Jesus. Jesus did all he could to dismantle place and put value on those who are willing to serve. In fact, he calls those who serve the greatest in his family, not those jockeying for what they think is their proper place (Matthew 18:1-4; Matthew 23:11). Unfortunately, our insecurities and our desires to be viewed as important can foster these same two sins in us today.
Peter’s actions show us this first sin. His words and actions are symptoms of false humility. Peter had a habit of trying to “one-up” the other disciples. They might allow Jesus to wash their feet, but he certainly wasn’t. He adamantly refused. His refusal was not based on his desire to serve, but in his brash and act-before-thinking personality. Peter’s refusal of Jesus’ kind offer of grace is consistent with some of his other failings.
When Jesus came to the disciples through the storm, Peter asked to walk on the water. He rebuked Jesus when the Lord said he must suffer. Peter tried to be first, best, and loudest with everything. His refusal to let Jesus serve him amounted to an unwillingness to recognize his need for Jesus’ mercy, care, service, sacrifice, and love. Without gladly acknowledging his need and openly receiving these gifts from Jesus’ grace — symbolically, without allowing Jesus to wash his feet — Peter could have no part in who Jesus is and what the Lord wanted to do in Peter’s life (John 13:6-9, 33-38).
The disciples’ unwillingness to wash each other’s feet is the second sin against Jesus. After Jesus had washed their feet, he returned to his proper place. He makes clear the sin of each of his disciples at the table. Now, after seeing the Lord and Teacher wash their feet, they must recognize the importance of serving each other rather than reaching for a higher place in the pecking order. The blessing they longed to receive wasn’t going to come to one in the highest position, but to one who would serve his or her fellow disciples (John 13:12-17).
In the middle of the powerful events of his Passion, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. His loving acts of humility, sacrifice, and service confront us. They remind us what is truly important to our Savior — serving each other and welcoming his grace. So, as we journey through this week in anticipation of Jesus’ resurrection, let’s remember what was most important to our Lord.
Each of us needs his grace. Each needs his sacrifice. Without his gift of grace, we are not only unclean, we are rejecting his sacrifice and grace. We are refusing a gift each of us so desperately needs (Romans 5:6-11).
If the Lord could serve those so undeserving of his tenderness in his hour of need, how dare we not serve our brothers and sisters in Christ today whether they are deserving or not? We must recognize that the gift of grace that Jesus has shared with each of us, must not find its destination in us. As those who claim to follow Jesus, we must serve those whom Jesus loves and who love Jesus. Being a follower of the Master is not about place. He alone has the right to place and honor, yet he gave up every vestige of his rightful place to serve us (Philippians 2:5-11).
Holy Week only becomes holy for us when we welcome Jesus’ sacrificial gift of grace with open hands and then turn and share that grace by serving others. We come to the table of Jesus’ mercy with dirty feet to receive his cleansing. We leave with hands full of grace we’re ready to share with others through loving service.