Today’s post is heavily inspired by the discussion and debate that developed in Reality Versus Reason. At issue is the following passage from the Gospel of John:
Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 And during supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. 5 Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded. 6 He came to Simon Peter; and Peter said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”
The part in bold is the main focus of the inquiry today. You see, I asserted that Jesus, when He washed His disciple’s feet, was trying to teach them a lesson. And a major part of that lesson was submission. My [poorly worded and organized] specific argument was that Jesus was showing the apostles that they should trust Him to always do what was right, and so should always submit to His wishes. Peter, by telling Jesus “You shall never wash my feet,” was actively rebelling against God. In other words, he was refusing to submit- motivated, in my view, by a lack of trust in Jesus. The general argument that I was trying to make was this: “Even when, and perhaps especially when we do something out of love for another, the one we love can and will still rebel against it.” [You can find the start of the debate here.]
Mrs. C. disagreed with my assessment. She offered her thoughts:
Peter’s statement was one of shock, not rebellion, at the thought of letting his God wash his feet. It was an acknowledgement of his humility towards Christ but Christ wanted to teach him that to lead is to serve, which is why when Christ explained if you don’t do this, you can’t be a part of me, then Peter eagerly replied “also my hands and my head.”
I replied that shock or surprise doesn’t change the substance of Peter’s response:
The cause of the rebellion, whether shock or disbelief, is irrelevant. Peter shouldn’t have needed to have had Jesus explain to him why He did what He did. Peter should have accepted and obeyed. This gets to the heart of submission- we are to submit, whether or not we understand. A general doesn’t have to explain everything to a subordinate, and a parent doesn’t have to explain everything to a child. Understanding may be nice, but it isn’t required for us to submit.
There was some more back and forth on the matter, and eventually I decided that it was time to look to some authority on the matter. I looked to see what the early fathers of the Church had to say about this passage. Here is what St. John Chrysostom, Doctor of the Church, had to say on this passage from John 13 (and in particular, that part):
When therefore He came to Peter, he saith unto Him, “Lord, dost Thou wash my feet?”
Ver. 7. “He saith unto him, What I do thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know here after.”
That is “thou shalt know how great is the gain from this, the profit of the lesson, and how it is able to guide us into all humblemindedness.” What then doth Peter? He still hinders Him, and saith,
Ver. 8. “Thou shalt never wash my feet.” “What doest thou, Peter? Rememberest thou not those former words? Saidst thou not, ‘Be merciful to Thyself,’1981 and heardest thou not in return, ‘Get thee behind Me, Satan’? ( Matt. xvi. 22.) Art thou not even so sobered, but art thou yet vehement?” “Yea,” he saith, “for what is being done is a great matter, and full of amazement.” Since then he did this from exceeding love, Christ in turn subdueth him by the same; and as there He effected this by sharply rebuking him, and saying, “Thou art an offense unto Me,” so here also by saying,
“If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with Me.” What then saith that hot and burning one?
Ver. 9. “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.”
Vehement in deprecation, he becometh yet more vehement in acquiescence; but both from love. For why said He not wherefore He did this, instead of adding a threat? Because Peter would not have been persuaded. For had He said, “Suffer it, for by this I persuade you to be humbleminded,” Peter would have promised it ten thousand times, in order that his Master might not do this thing. But now what saith He? He speaketh of that which Peter most feared and dreaded, the being separated from Him; for it is he who continually asks, “Whither goest Thou?” ( Ver. 36.) Wherefore also he said, “I will give1982 even my life for Thee.” ( Ver. 37.) And if, after hearing, “What I do thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter,” he still persisted, much more would he have done so had he learnt (the meaning of the action). Therefore said He, “but thou shalt know hereafter,” as being aware, that should he learn it immediately he would still resist. And Peter said not, “Tell me, that I may suffer Thee,” but (which was much more vehement) he did not even endure to learn, but withstands Him,1983257 saying, “Thou shalt never wash my feet.” But as soon as He threatened, he straightway relaxed his tone.
St. Ambrose, Doctor of the Church, in his letter on the Mysteries of the Church, said this:
For our Lord Jesus Christ in the Gospel washed the feet of His disciples. When He came to Simon Peter, Peter said:You shall never wash my feet.John 13:8 He did not perceive the mystery, and therefore he refused the service, for he thought that the humility of the servant would be injured, if he patiently allowed the Lord to minister to him. And the Lord answered him:If I wash not your feet, you will have no part with Me.Peter, hearing this, replies:Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.The Lord answered:He that is washed needs not save to wash his feet but is clean every whit.John 13:9-10
Here is what St. Augustine, Doctor of the Church, had to say:
When the Lord was washing the disciples’ feet,He comes to Simon Peter; and Peter says unto Him, Lord, dost Thou wash my feet?For who would not be filled with fear at having his feet washed by the Son of God? Although, therefore, it was a piece of the greatest audacity for the servant to contradict his Lord, the creature his God; yet Peter preferred doing this to the suffering of his feet to be washed by his Lord and God. Nor ought we to think that Peter was one among others who so expressed their fear and refusal, seeing that others before him had suffered it to be done to themselves with cheerfulness and equanimity. For it is easier so to understand the words of the Gospel, because that, after saying,He began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith He was girded,it is then added,Then comes He to Simon Peter,as if He had already washed the feet of some, and after them had now come to the first of them all. For who can fail to know that the most blessed Peter was the first of the apostles? But we are not so to understand it, that it was after some others that He came to him; but that He began with him. When, therefore, He began to wash the disciples’ feet, He came to him with whom He began, namely, to Peter; and then Peter took fright at what any one of them might have been frightened, and said,Lord, dost Thou wash my feet?What is implied in thisThou? And what inmy? These are subjects for thought rather than for speech; lest perchance any adequate conception the soul may have formed of such words may fail of explanation in the utterance.
2. ButJesus answered and said unto him, What I do you know not now, but you shall know hereafter.And not even yet, terrified as he was by the sublimity of the Lord’s action, does he allow it to be done, while ignorant of its purpose; but is unwilling to see, unable to endure, that Christ should thus humble Himself to his very feet.You shall never,he says,wash my feet.What is thisnever[in æternum]? I will never endure, never suffer, never permit it: that is, a thing is not donein æternumwhich is never done. Then the Saviour, to terrify His reluctant patient with the danger of his own salvation, says,If I wash you not, you shall have no part with me.He speaks in this way,If I wash you not,when He was referring only to his feet; just as it is customary to say, You are trampling on me, when it is only the foot that is trampled on. And now the other, in a perturbation of love and fear, and more frightened at the thought that Christ should be withheld from him, than even to see Him humbled at his feet, exclaims,Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.Since this, indeed, is Your threat, that my bodily members must be washed by You, not only do I no longer withhold the lowest, but I lay the foremost also at Your disposal. Deny me not having a part with You, and I deny You not any part of my body to be washed.
I stopped at those three sources, owing to my limited time and because I was having trouble easily finding more.
As for whom was more in the right, on first blush it seems to me that we both were sort of right and sort of wrong. All acknowledge that Peter was in the wrong, although generally agree that his reasons were noble, if misplaced. But rather than service and leaders as service being the message, baptism and the remission of sins seems to be their central concern. At the same time, none of them mention submission or learning to submit to God’s will either. So I’ll leave it to my readers to properly judge which of us was more in accord, and to offer their own thoughts on the matter.