Keeping the Faith

Humility. Where it came from and the significance of stinky feet.

PICTURE for a moment the person you most respect. This person inspires you, they are the epitome of human character and embody your goal in life; to attain likeness in word and deed.

You’ve invited them over for a dinner party as the special guest. You sit them at the head of the table so that all your friends, who also admire and respect him, can engage in conversation easily.

But things don’t transpire as planned.

Your special guest has arrived and is seated just a few moments before he grabs a basin of water and a towel and starts washing everyone’s feet. One at a time, tenderly, meticulously.

Not what you expected at all. In fact, it’s mortifying!

I’m speaking of Jesus, of course, at the last supper. His was a bold statement of humility – one possibly lost in cultural and historical translation. Feet back then weren’t feet if they didn’t have a thick coating of dust or muck from the road. It was usually the job of the house servant to wash guests’ feet. And Jesus volunteered himself for the unflattering job.

It would be like inviting Mother Theresa ‘round for a feed only to find her scrubbing your toilet.

In his research project at Macquarie University’s Department of Ancient History, historian John Dickson explored the origins of humility as a social asset. In short, the project concluded that, “…the Western fondness for humility almost certainly derives from the peculiar impact on Europe of the Judeo-Christian worldview.”

Pre-Jesus, culture was enshrined in an honour-shame system. That is, one strived for public honour as the zenith of success and power, no matter what the cost to others. Shame was the polar opposite. To be shamed was like societal death.

When you understand this, the overarching paradigm that Jesus was born into, it brings new light to his words and example.

“When (Jesus) had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he asked them. ‘You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you’,” John 13:12-15 reads.

There’s more weight to Jesus’ words when the context is considered.

In Dickson’s subsequent book on the topic, titled Humilitas (Zondervan, 2011), he defines humility as the “willingness to hold power in service of others”. It’s a great little book that builds evidence to support the theory that truly great leaders, be it in business, community, social activism or religion, know about humility. Know about it and demonstrate it.

I could list examples and examples and examples. But you’re probably already bringing them to mind.

And the greatest example was Jesus. Even the historians agree with me on this one, crediting Jesus with a kind of “humility revolution”. These days humility is an admired characteristic. I think we all hope we’re humble, although to say definitively that we are might be an oxymoron.

Jesus’ ultimate act of humility was performed on the cross.

He held his power in our service.

And we’re eternally grateful.

As printed in The Examiner for Keeping the Faith column, Monday August 20, 2012.