The ball is going to bounce around a bit today, so buckle your seatbelts and return your tray to its upright, locked position.1
A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were watching a lightweight heist TV show when suddenly the lead character starts talking about chicken sexing. (Don’t leave off the suffix, that would have been an entirely different show.) We were rather dubious about what he was spouting, but in the wonderful age in which we live, we can Duck2 that kind of nonsense while the character is still talking. It turns out chicken sexing really is a thing3, and reading a bit further led me to a book.
The book, about the brain and how much goes on in it outside of our awareness, happened to be available online from our library, so I checked it out. And one of the other things it talks about is that our brains are wired to take in only the broad strokes of what we see, leaving the details for when we actually need them. This is why crime scene accounts vary so much, for example; people don’t notice the details until after everything is over, at which point it’s too late.
I’m now blaming this for why it’s so easy to read a Bible passage a hundred times and still be surprised by something in it on the hundred and first.4 This week’s example is John 13. The chapter transitions from the focus on Jesus' ministry of the first twelve chapters to the time Jesus spends with the disciples on the last night before his capture in the next four. It begins with one of the most well-known episodes in John — Jesus washing his disciples feet.
The U.S. is a relatively low power distance country (although it’s been getting higher the last few years). We believe anyone can be President, either of the company or the U.S. itself.5 We like bosses who are “one of us” and not “uppity.” As a consequence, we have a difficult time appreciating how big a deal it was that Jesus would wash their feet. But in the high power distance of that culture, it was unthinkable for a leader, a teacher, a Rabbi, to perform a servant’s task. Not only a servant’s task, but one that was even considered by many to be beneath Hebrew servants; only Gentile servants need apply.
We also live in a culture where we take care of our own hygiene, so touching our feet has an intimacy to it that didn’t exist in their culture. They had their feet washed by others fairly regularly. Thus, having someone else washing your feet wasn’t a problem, as long as that someone was “beneath” you.6
But in verse 3, John gives us a wonderful preface, and maybe explanation, to what Jesus is about to do:
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God…
I think the bold portion is the key to this whole episode. It was unthinkable for a rabbi to wash the feet of his students, and Jesus was far more than a rabbi, even if His students hadn’t fully figured that out yet. But He had things to teach them this night, and humility and serving those “beneath” you was one of them. Teaching humility and actually being humble, though, are two very different things, as a number of 80’s televangelists learned the hard way.
Why was Jesus able to wash his disciples' feet without blinking an eye? Because He knew He came from God, and He was going back to Him. When you know that, you’re freed from having to assert yourself here on earth. If I know, really know, that I came from God and am going back to Him, I can have enough confidence in myself to not worry about appearances, or power, or class, or what’s beneath (or above) me.
Do you know where you came from? Genesis tells us three different times that we were created in the image of God.7 We all came from Him, whether we acknowledge it or not.
Do you know where you’re going? We only have two possible destinations: we can join Jesus, or we can live outside His presence. Fortunately, joining Him is as simple as trusting in Him, of forsaking our own ways and seeking His. Not joining Him … well, it wasn’t made for you8, but God will reluctantly give you want you want.
So, if we know we came from Him, and we know we’re going back to Him, then we ought to be able to live like Him — humble, serving others including those perceived to be beneath us. (Jesus' lesson here was that no one was beneath us.) When we don’t do those things, it’s usually because we’ve forgotten where we came from, or where we’re going.
(I would like to think that the thing you’ll take with you about this post is remembering where you’re going. But I suspect it will be the chicken sexing.)
It’s not unusual that the ball bounces around a lot here, but it is unusual that I warn you about it. It’s spring, I’m feeling benevolent. ↩
DuckDuckGo, the search engine you should be using instead of the one that decided several years ago to expunge the “Dont'” from their “Don’t Be Evil” motto. Yes, you’ve heard about them here before, and you’ll hear about them again. Privacy matters. ↩
You can, too — “chicken sexing” and “Japan”. ↩
The ball is tired, it’s going to rest for a while. ↩
Whether anyone should be is a discussion for another time… ↩
Thus, Peter’s reaction isn’t nearly as unreasonable as most pastors paint it. He was only voicing what everyone else around the table was thinking — “You’re going to do what?? I don’t think so!” ↩
Genesis 1:26, 27, and 9:6. ↩
Matthew 25:41. ↩