Peter was horrified by what he saw Jesus doing. When Jesus approached him, he had to ask, even though by this time Jesus’ intentions must have been obvious. Lord, are you going to wash my feet??!? It completely outraged his sense of what was proper, what was appropriate to the relationship between the person Peter was and the person Jesus was. He flatly refused. No. Never. You will never wash my feet. This time, Jesus had gone too far. Peter was well and truly scandalized.
Jesus didn’t rise to the bait, as so many of us would. He didn’t try to prove that Peter was wrong. He didn’t assert his own authority, his right to determine what was proper and what was not. He didn’t get hooked in to Peter’s scandal, nor did he simply ignore Peter’s refusal and proceed anyway.
Instead, he peacefully placed Peter’s outrage in conversation with Peter’s desire. Did you want to be with me, to share in my work and in my inheritance? Because if you refuse this, you refuse that.
Faced with that question, Peter realized that his desire to follow Jesus was stronger, more important, than his outrage. He retracts his refusal… but he doesn’t stop there. He asks, then, to be washed 3 times over, feet and hands and head as well.
I’ve always loved Peter’s over-enthusiasms, especially when he gets it wrong and then immediately moves over-enthusiastically to get it right without bothering with any shame or humiliation along the way.
But this time, it occurred to me, Peter’s overly enthusiastic demand for extra washing is another form of refusal. He does what so many of us so easily do: he tries to earn what he wants, instead of peacefully receiving what Jesus wants to give him.
Accepting a gift requires humility — a difficult word because it is so easily misunderstood, but it is the word that came to me tonight. The humility to accept what the other person wants to give you; to accept that they do, in fact, want to give it to you; to refrain from putting up your own desire over against theirs, and simply receive both their gift and their desire for you, letting it be what it is, neither more nor less.
Peter doesn’t seem to be too good at that. But Jesus talked him down, notably by addressing his insecurities. You are already clean. You don’t need all that extra washing. Relax. Relax into our relationship.
Then, after all that, after he’d washed the feet of all the disciples, he finally gets around to addressing the cause of Peter’s outrage, and explaining that he had quite deliberately invoked it in order to subvert it. His shocking act was intended to recolonize their imaginations about the relationship between authority and humility.
Jesus, our teacher and our Lord,
stooped to wash the feet of his disciples,
and he told them, “This is an example.
Just as I have done, so you must do.”
— Marty Haugen, “So You Must Do”