It must have been incredibly shocking.
I have to wonder if at first they even noticed what exactly was happening. The way people dined back then, there is at least a chance these men were used to not paying attention to whomever was behind them performing this task. The way they sat – reclining on their elbows, their legs stretched out behind them, focused on the food in front of them, holding conversation, seeing only the other faces at the table – it could very well have been that their master had made it halfway around the table before anyone even noticed he was the one washing their feet.
When Jesus got up from the table, perhaps they didn’t pay him much mind. Maybe they thought he was just excusing himself to the privy. Maybe in their periphery they noticed him messing with the wash basin and assumed he was performing a thorough wash before the main course began. And since the act of foot-washing was typically performed by the lowest of slaves – Gentiles, girls, or Gentile girls – it probably wasn’t customary to pay much attention to the one cleaning the dust of Judaea roads from your feet.
John doesn’t record who first noticed what Jesus was up to. He does, however, put the audible reaction in Peter’s mouth, one of the more outspoken members of the group (a trait that would soon bring him to his lowest point, and not long after raise him to his highest). The way Peter speaks when a stripped-down Jesus draws near to him with the water basin and soiled towel, you would think he is not merely scandalized by this role-reversal but is going so far as to swear an oath; he insists he will never permit his esteemed rabbi to persist in the humiliation of touching another man’s dirt-ridden feet. Granted, Peter had a habit of refusing Jesus of things, though his intentions were usually noble.
“I have to do this,” Jesus tells him. “Otherwise, you will have no share in what is coming.” It’s a puzzling statement to our modern ears, but not to a first-century Jew following a man they believe to be the promised Messiah. Being included in Jesus’ “share” no doubt evoked images of glory and affluence, of being a part of the newly crowned king’s inner circle. Peter wasn’t the only one interested in this future. The Gospel writers occasionally point out that debates regarding rank and status came up now and again. James and John thought about it often. It is very likely Judas Iscariot was just as interested in this outcome, and when he didn’t see it going the way he envisioned, he either sold-out to the establishment, or he arranged a plan with the establishment in hopes of provoking his master to finally, at long last, take the bull by the horns. One way or another, to have a “share” with Jesus was a chief concern of the Twelve.
“Then wash everything!” says Peter. “Do my head and hands. Do it all.” Translation: I want a share more than anybody else; I’d like a share greater than everyone else; include me in your plans more integrally than anyone else.
You have to wonder if Jesus smiled at that point. Or maybe he even laughed. It was a night in which he was no doubt experiencing a creeping melancholy because of what he had perceived was coming, but this moment of intimacy among men with which he had spent so much time over the past several years was something he had been looking forward to for a long while. Maybe he chuckled before he said to Peter, “That won’t be necessary. Now give me the other foot.”
And so the disciples watched their rabbi – the one they called Messiah, Savior, Lord, etc., and the one who called himself the eschatological “Son of Man,” divinely related to the one true God, whom he called Father – wipe away the gunk and grime from their well-traveled feet. They felt his hands guide the towel between their toes, scraping them clean. They saw beads of sweat form on his forehead and temples because he was not pretending to wash their feet, he was actually washing them, scrubbing them back to a presentable, hygienic purity.
James and John watched him, and they thought about how Jesus had responded to one of their recent arguments: “Whoever wishes to be the best among the group must act as the slave of everyone else.”
Peter watched him, and thought about the time Jesus had spoken about being watchful for the master’s return: “Blessed are the slaves the master finds still waiting up for him; the master will be so happy that he’ll cook dinner for them.”
Judas watched him and struggled. He remembered the day Jesus had sat down on the hilltop and taught a gathered throng: “No one can be a slave of two different masters. It’s only natural that he’ll refuse one and obey the other.”
They all struggled. It was a shocking illustration, and even though they were used to their rabbi shirking propriety for the sake of making his point, to feel his hands on their feet – hands that had touched unseeing eyes, held leprous hands, lifted up lame bodies – was a sensation difficult to appreciate. It was also, of course, a sensation that would remain vividly in memory for many years to come.
So there they sat, around the table, feeling their master wash their feet.
Watching him do the work of a slave on their behalf.
Letting the Son of Man serve them.