Why did Peter refuse to let Jesus wash his feet? One possibility is that Peter was embarrassed for Jesus. He didn’t want to see his rabbi, his master, take such a humiliating role. Maybe he was trying to protect Jesus from his own undignified behavior. That is one possibility, but I don’t think it’s the correct one.
Jesus tells Peter, “If I do not wash you, you have no place with me.” This extreme statement indicates there’s more than filthy feet at stake here. Jesus recognizes Peter’s core identity is what is being challenged by his undignified act of service. We must remember that the rabbi-disciple relationship was a powerful and intimate one in the ancient world. A disciple’s entire identity was defined by his master’s reputation. When Peter made the decision to leave his fishing business and follow Jesus he was saying, “From now on I am linking my identity and reputation to Rabbi Jesus,” and that seemed like a pretty good trade. After all, Jesus performed miracles and raised the dead.
But now Peter’s master had stripped naked, wrapped a towel around himself, and was washing manure off of feet. By doing this Jesus was not only humiliating himself but also dismantling his disciples’ pride and self-importance. A servant, after all, is not greater than his master. By rejecting him, Peter was not protecting Jesus’ reputation as much as his own.
Like Peter, we want a powerful Jesus, an attractive Jesus, and a respectable Jesus because we want those qualities to be true of us. We want our stock in the world to rise because of our association with Christ. So we can diminish, or outright reject, those parts of Jesus we don’t like—his poverty, humility, and unpopularity. As a result, a great chasm can emerge between the Jesus who is and the Jesus we want. Which Jesus are you seeking today?