Instead of ritually washing his hands, as tradition required before the meal, Jesus took off his outer robe, wrapped himself with a towel, poured water into the basin, and personally washed the disciple’s feet. He washed Judas of Iscariot’s feet just as lovingly as he washed John’s and all the others. When Peter, who was the most vocal about his discomfort, realized the only way to have fellowship with Jesus was to receive this act of love, he finally relented.
Do You Understand?
When he had finished, Jesus asked his disciples if they understood what he had done. No one nodded, let alone venture an answer. So Jesus explained
You all call me “The Teacher” and also “The Lord,” and you all speak well, for I am.Jesus to his disciples, John 13:13
They recognized Jesus’ position of authority. In the flowchart, Jesus was at the top. What they could never get a straight answer from him about was who came next. I imagine, with this opening sentence, they all leaned in, hoping finally, at this eleventh hour, Jesus would say.
Flowchart of Authority
This is a format you and I—and they, two thousand years ago—are really familiar with: the flowchart of who is the boss over whom. Those at the top have power, wealth, influence, and authority.
Those at the bottom have to obey.
At the top you command, you get the jobs you want, your rewards are ample, and you push down the flowchart the jobs you do not want. The farther down you go in the flowchart, the fewer choices you have, the fewer rewards you get, and the more jobs you have to do that nobody else wants to do.
Remember, the disciples had been arguing with each other about where they all were in the flow chart. Even that very evening, this argument had once again surfaced. Who was Jesus’ right hand man? Who had to be at the end of the line?
And as I began to think about those arguments, and what had just transpired with this footwashing, and what eventually happened in the first century church, something began to take form that I had never seen before.
Rank in the Graeco-Roman World
Much has been written about the importance, and complexity, of status in the first century Roman Empire. Status could be
- Inherited through noble bloodlines.
- Conferred by royal decree.
- Purchased through the building of monuments and civic improvements.
- Earned through heroic deeds.
- Recognized by supernatural fiat.
Also considered were one’s character, one’s work, and one’s patronage. If, for example, I were working in the dye business (let us say), and I were a member of the most respected dye guild, that would give me more status than someone in a less-respected, or well-known, or wealthy guild. As a woman, I would automatically have less status. Roman citizenship would give me more status, but doing lesser work than my peers would lower my status. And so it went.
Also important would be connections—a guild offered connections to those with a craft or business, and so did patrons. If the noblest, wealthiest of all patrons (let us imagine Caesar) took me as a client, that would raise my status. In fact, if I were even enslaved to Caesar, I would have a higher status than many born free, for I would have access to Caesar, live in a palace, and perhaps even have servants of my own.
So rank, status, and hierarchy were of greatest importance and affected all of life in real and concrete ways.
And remember, we are all creatures of our cultures. We have been formed since birth by the language, mores, ethics, values, and beliefs of the culture we were each raised in.
The disciples were no different.
So, imagine with me.
In the first chapter of John’s gospel, two disciples part from John the Baptist’s ministry and join Jesus. One of them was Andrew, who that very day found and brought back his brother Peter.
Who was the other one?
Well, taking in the accounts of the other gospels, it was either James or John. And again, knowing Andrew, Peter, James, and John were all called together by Jesus (on the same day), were working side by side, and John’s gospel is John’s account, it only makes sense to conjecture it was John with Andrew.
Calling of Peter
Andrew has been posited as Peter’s older brother, but I wonder about that. I think James, as the eldest son of Zebedee, had apprenticed to his father with an eye toward one day inheriting the fishing business.
And I think Peter, as a married man who was living in Capernaum and caring for his mother-in-law, was the other older brother. It was necessary for him to be working to earn a living to support his growing family. I think Andrew went to get his older brother Peter, and James came along, since they all worked together.
And I think Andrew and John were the younger brothers who had the freedom, unmarried as they were and unencumbered by the responsibilities laden on eldest sons and heirs, to become disciples of the Baptist. Now, they had begun to follow Jesus.
First Among Peers
So, these four were the first. That would partly, at least, explain why Jesus called them to him to be involved with the raising of Jairus’ daughter and the Transfiguration, as well as at the end, to pray with Jesus. They had been there from the very beginning, with Jesus the longest. And the only gospel that mentions all three of the occasions Jesus took these four aside is Peter’s account, recorded by Mark.
As Jesus added in disciples, these four would have been the veterans, the first ones, the ones who “showed the ropes” to the new recruits.
Each next disciple brought something unique into their company. Philip and Nathanael were scholars. Thomas (called Didymus, which means “twin”) was the practical one. Matthew the publican, James son Alphaeus may have brought status with him, Thaddaeus (also called Judas, or Jude) was of the Zealot party, Simon was called a Cananaean and was also a Zealot, and then, of course, Judas the Iscariot, the only one from the southern region of Judea.
But Peter and James, Andrew and John remained the first.
In each of the gospels, it is Peter who often speaks for all twelve of them. It is in Peter’s house that Jesus regularly staid, Peter’s son Jesus sat on his knee to talk about the faith of a child. Peter, the eldest brother, and the only one mentioned as married.
One of the times the argument about rank cropped up was right after the Transfiguration. Peter, James, and John descended the mountain with Jesus, and below, the other nine disciples had a mess on their hands, unable to cast out a demon. Putting all three gospel accounts together, it seems this argument about the flowchart erupted more than once, after Jesus resolved the exorcism situation, and they had begun to head back up to Capernaum.
At one point, Peter peeled off from the rest and walked the last leg alone with Jesus.
I think because he saw himself as first among them, but the other disciples did not agree. This is brought out in stark detail when the mother of James and John asked Jesus to place her sons at his right and left. Jesus had only two hands. One of those three would have to content himself with third place. She felt it should be Peter. As you can imagine, the other disciples were quite exercised about the audacity!
- In his second volume, Acts of the Apostles, Luke portrayed Peter and John together, but Peter taking the lead of their whole company of 120, as well as for the Twelve.
- In his letter to the Galatians, Paul reminded them of his confrontation with Peter. Two titans, toe-to-toe.
- Again, in his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul addressed divisions among believers who preferred the leadership of Peter (or Apollos, or Paul himself, or even Christ).
Not Patrons, Not a Guild
You can see the issue. They, too, were creatures of their culture. Christianity felt like a guild, and they wanted to be members of the best guild. And Peter, and Paul, and Apollos all felt like patrons with great spiritual wealth, authority, influence, and power. They wanted to be clients of the best.
This was exactly what Jesus intended to abolish in the Kingdom of God.