Everyone gathered around the low table and took their positions, stretched out on the cushions, reclining on their left sides with their heads near the table and their legs stretched out toward the walls behind them. It was the position of royalty, and something the slaves in Egypt did during that very first Passover seder long ago to symbolize their coming change in status.
The head of the family, or host, would recline in the center position, say the ritual prayers, and perform the same actions that were performed every year. After a brief welcome and greeting, servants would come into the room carrying bowls of water and towels, and would slowly move along the wall behind the table, pausing to carefully wash the feet of each guest and then gently dry them with their towel. It was partly symbolic, and partly just a good idea. The act was a symbolic message from the host that each guest was welcomed into the place and that everything would be done to make them feel comfortable as an honored guest. Additionally, since everyone had spent their day walking the dusty roads and streets of Jerusalem, a good foot washing was an act promoting good hygiene.
After the ritual of washing the feet, the host of the meal would begin the ceremony itself. There were several prayers, stories, and recitations by everyone at the table. It included the eating of specific foods, herbs, and spices, each recalling a taste or smell that rekindled memories of the Passover story, along with several glasses of wine, also representing important elements of the story. As they found their comfortable spot on the cushions, we can hear them all chatting in anticipation of the familiar experience they were undertaking together.
Then Jesus walked into the room, carrying a large bowl of water. His outer robe was gone, and he had a towel tied around his waist. What was happening here? This was not how the ritual went. The foot washing was a job for the servants, those people who weren’t sitting at the table, and whose primary reason for being there was to serve everyone else. To think that anyone with the privilege of having a place at the table would even think of giving it up to act like a servant was unheard of. And to think that the host himself was doing that! No — it made no sense at all.
Then Jesus came to Peter. If Peter had a thought on his mind he spoke it, even if that thought was better left unspoken. In this case, as Jesus moved to pour his handful of water onto Peter’s feet, Peter did not just pull his legs away, but he sat up from the table and asked, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” (v. 6). Jesus calmly replied that he realized Peter did not understand what was happening but assured him that he would understand everything later. In the quietness of that moment, Peter almost shouted at Jesus: “You will never wash my feet!” (v. 8).
All eyes were on Jesus, to see how he would respond.
Rather than argue, or try to complete the act against Peter’s will, Jesus calmly looked him in the eye and said, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (v. 8). So Peter gave in.
After leaving to change again, and then returning to the room and his place as the host of the seder meal, Jesus asked if they knew what it was that he had just done. The disciples glanced at one another, trying to imagine actually having to take the step of physically washing each other’s feet. It was a rather difficult thing for them to imagine doing. Jesus apparently saw their hesitation and tried to help clear away the symbolism of what he had done by simply explaining that even though he is their Lord and Teacher, he is still a servant of God. And a part of the role of God’s servant is to serve others too, even if that sometimes means giving up your seat as host at the table and taking on the role of the lowest person in the room. Then he said, “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (v. 17).
And that’s where all of the trouble begins, does it not?
Sometimes we’re pretty hard on Peter and some of the other disciples. We remember stories like these that point out the sometimes-foolish and self-serving things that Peter said and did, and we remember how he eventually will run away and deny even knowing who Jesus was. In fact, they all end up running away. After all of their time with Jesus, they end up not being able to take the heat, and they run away.
When I start feeling too strongly about their actions, it helps me to be honest with myself. There are a lot of feet out there that I would simply refuse to wash myself. As Jesus said, I know these are things I should do, but I just won’t do them. There are some people out there who’s feet I am just not willing to touch.
Let’s be clear. We’re not talking about taking a bowl of water, a towel, and some perfume and being brave enough to wash someone’s feet with it. As difficult as that act is for some of us, it’s nowhere near what Jesus was actually talking about. While washing someone’s feet can be a humbling, and a very serving act, it’s not that kind of physical servant act that Jesus was describing that night in the room filled with cushions. He was talking about something more than physical.
What Jesus was challenging his disciples to understand was that the ones who will “have a share with him” are the ones who will treat all other people as having more value than they have themselves. It means that the disciples will set aside their position, and care for those with the lowest, or even no position. Jesus took the role of the lowest in the room and challenges us to do the same.
When I am being honest with myself, I have to admit that I’m no better at this than Peter or any of the other disciples were. There are people I just do not want to serve. I simply can’t bring myself to do it. Most of us spend a significant amount of our time and energy attempting to improve our position, and the idea of doing the opposite makes as little sense to us as it did to Peter. Much of our day is defined by our position. Who we associate with, who we agree with, and who we want nothing to do with is greatly defined by our position and theirs. Is Jesus actually expecting us to take off the external robe we have spent so much time crafting and actually pick up the pieces of the position of those who are so far and different from us, who may believe things that we do not, and see ourselves as their servant? Seriously?
“If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (v. 17).
Try this. Create a picture in your mind of someone who is a problem for you, someone you don’t like, or don’t agree with. Think of someone whose life and life choices are so different from yours it just drives you crazy.
If someone asked you to wash that person’s feet, it might be a difficult thing to do, but maybe if you closed your eyes, and tried really hard, you could get it done. You might not look them in the eyes before, during, or afterward and might never admit later that you did it, but you could do it.
But what if you were asked to take that same person and to honestly consider them as someone worth serving? What if you were asked to look at that person as someone with all the same rights and opportunities as you or anyone else? What if you were asked to accept the fact that they have exactly the same value as you? What if you were asked to care about them? And for them?
Sometimes, that’s where it all comes to an end, isn’t it?
Peter was a strong man and strong in his beliefs. He sat through the rest of that seder meal trying to imagine just how in the world he could ever bring himself to serve a Gentile, let alone a Roman. Like Peter, I am beginning to understand just how difficult it is to actually have a share of what Jesus offered.