I have been reading Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth- Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, and found a very illuminating passage in regards to the washing of the disciples’ feet. Actually, there is a wealth of insight in this chapter, which will probably spawn some further posts, but for the time I wanted to zero in on Peter’s response to Jesus.
It is a familiar story- before the Last Supper Jesus girds himself with a towel (the garb of a servant) and begins to wash the feet of the Twelve. One by one, until he arrives at the place where Peter is sitting. Before he has a chance to complete the task, Peter, in his usual impetuous manner, essentially rebukes Jesus:
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”[1. John 13:6-8 TNIV]
Peter has always seemed to have a problem with Jesus’ tendency to take on the form of a servant. As Jesus tells him, he doesn’t yet understand that the nature of the Incarnation involves kensosis, that it is the way God has chosen to reveal himself in Jesus. Peter wants God to be obvious and powerful- none of this servant nonsense, none of this talk of an impending death. For Peter, it is uncomfortable to even fathom the idea.
Earlier when Jesus foretold his death, Peter similarly tried to change God’s mind:
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”[2. Matthew 16:21-23 TNIV]
Back to the Last Supper. The words have escaped from Peter’s lips, and are out there for everyone to hear, including Jesus. Peter was the one to make the confession of who Jesus was: he is the Son of God. How could he possibly allow the Son of God to wash his feet, to debase himself so? Perhaps there is tinge of guilt and self-questioning: would he be willing to take this role, would he be willing to take on the form of a servant? Would Peter be willing to empty himself?
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”[3. John 13:8-9 TNIV]
It could be that the words of Jesus’ earlier rebuke were still ringing in Peter’s ears; was this to be Peter’s fate, to always be a stumbling block to Jesus, to always be rebuked by the one to whom he had devoted his life? Peter realizes his mistake, and over-compensates to an extent- if he was mistaken to not allow Jesus to wash his feet, he will make up for it with a bath. One wonders if Peter is beginning to understand what Jesus is doing, what the Incarnation actually means and what following Jesus will later mean for him. Peter has been accustomed to understand God as powerful and unmistakable; does Jesus’ washing his feet begin to open his eyes?
Later on in the evening, after Judas has left to set in motion his betrayal, Jesus tells the remaining eleven that his time is short; soon, he will be gone, and they cannot follow.
Simon Peter asked him, “Lord, where are you going?”
Jesus replied, “Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.”
Peter asked, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”[4. John 13:36-37 TNIV]
Peter has grown accustomed to this kind of talk, and much as it leaves a bitter taste in his mouth, he is willing to understand that Jesus means his death is immanent. We can imagine the feeling in Peter’s soul, perhaps best expressed in the words following Jesus’ discourse on the bread of life: Lord, to whom shall we go? At this moment, Peter is ready to die too, ready to take the cross with his master. We cannot perhaps know the thoughts of Peter’s heart, but there is no reason to doubt his intention is genuine. In fact, as Jesus is arrested Peter takes up a sword and rushes into the fray, apparently ready to die in a blaze of glory and honor in a hopeless bid to save Jesus from his intended fate. Jesus though, the knower of the thoughts of the heart, perceives more deeply what is really going on in Peter:
Then Jesus answered, “Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times![5. John 13:38 TNIV]
Did these words sear into Peter’s mind worse than Jesus addressing him as Satan? One can imagine that these words are harder to bear; the rebuke in which he was called ‘Satan’ was generic, it could have been addressed to anyone. But this one- this one was personal. Did doubt begin to creep in? Was this festering uncertainty in his own devotion the catalyst for taking up the sword, an attempt to ‘prove’ Jesus wrong, to show that the one who knew everything didn’t really know everything? What does he have to do to demonstrate his love?
Benedict XVI has a penetrating insight here:
But he must learn that even martyrdom is no heroic achievement: rather, it is a grace to be able to suffer for Jesus. He must bid farewell to the heroism of personal deeds and learn the humility of a disciple. His desire to rush in- his heroism- leads to his denial. In order to secure his place by the fire in the forecourt of the high priest’s palace, and in order to keep abreast of every development in Jesus’ destiny as it happens, he claims to not know him. His heroism falls to pieces in this small-minded tactic.[6. Pope Bendict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth- Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, p. 71-72]
In Jesus’ first rebuke of Peter, Peter was chastised (in the foil of Satan) for not having in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns. Jesus’ rebuke of him in the washing of the feet is similar- Peter has not yet learned to look beyond merely human concerns and to have in mind the concerns of God. As Benedict points out, this limited perspective leads him to ultimately disown Jesus and even his own intentions. Our perspective as finite creatures is a limited one; we often cannot see any further beyond. Faith is difficult because it forces us to subsume a way of thinking we grow up accustomed to under the trust of that which is beyond our sight. Jesus asks Peter to trust him, to believe him when he says that Peter cannot follow him now, to believe him that he must really suffer and die, to believe that God really is present in the depths of human weakness and humiliation.
He must learn to await his hour. He must learn how to wait, how to persevere. He must learn the way of the disciple in order to be led, when his hour comes, to the place where he does not want to go, and to receive the grace of martyrdom. The two exchanges are essentially about the same thing: not telling God what to do, but learning to accept him as he reveals himself to us; not seeking to exalt ourselves to God’s level, but in humble service letting ourselves be slowly refashioned into God’s true image.[7. Pope Bendict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth- Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, p. 72]
Peter would eventually learn to await his hour. In this moment he was still weak, still looking at things from a human point of view, still trying to tell God what to do. His denial would lead to his greatest remorse, but would also become the source of his greatest strength, for in the depths of his weakness and failure he would come to grips with his own unworthiness and inability, come to recognize the utter frailty of his nature apart from the Holy Spirit. As St. Augustine says:
Peter promised he would die for him, and he was not even able to die with him. He had staked more, you see, than his credit could stand. He had promised more than he could fulfill, because it was in fact unfitting that he should do what he had promised. “I will lay down my life”, he said, “for you.” But that is what the Lord was going to do for the servant, not the servant for the Lord. So as he had staked more than he was worth, he was then loving in an inverted sort of way; that is why he was afraid and denied Christ. Later on, though, the Lord, after he had risen, teaches Peter how to love. While he was loving in the wrong way, he collapsed under the weight of the Christ’s passion. But when he was loving in the right way, Christ promises him a passion of his own.[8. St. Augustine, Sermon 296.1]