To this day in parts of the Middle East it is still considered a serious insult to show anyone the soles of your shoes or the bottom of your feet. Even if you don’t mean it that way—even if you accidentally cross your legs in your friend’s house and prop your foot up on your knee or an ottoman, even if you have the cleanest, newest shoes and there’s nothing gross sticking to them—letting someone see the bottom of your feet is a big no-no. And to this day, even though it’s been almost 15 years since I lived in Cairo, I still struggle with what to do with my feet in meetings when there’s no table to hide behind. This past week I met with one ministry team in the parlor where there are just chairs and sofas and no conference tables and as I got relaxed and started to pick my feet up off the floor, I had this twinge of worry that one of the team members would find me rude.
It’s not just that in Arab culture the bottom of the foot or the sole of the shoe is considered the dirtiest part of the body. It’s the fact that the foot is the lowest part of the body and by showing someone the bottom of it you are essentially sending the message, “You are beneath me. You are lower than whatever status I am.” I got busted on this several times when I was over there, and I guess it has just lodged itself in my subconscious. So now, if you see me fidget awkwardly in a meeting, please don’t take it personally. I’m just trying to make sure you don’t think I’m insulting you.
I’m not really sure that there is anything comparable here in American culture. I can’t think of a gesture or public action that someone would use to suggest to another person that that person is beneath them or lesser than them. In fact, we are in a particular period of history in our country where we are being challenged to think about systems of privilege that exist and possibly how to dismantle them or at least be aware of them.
In Jesus’ day in the ancient Middle East, things were very different. Society was based on a very hierarchical structure of privilege that almost everyone played by. Of all the gospel writers, Luke is the keenest to point this out for us. Like an archaeologist or anthropologist, Luke lets this system of honor and shame, as they call it, come through in the stories of Jesus he tells. Perhaps no other story illustrates this quite as much as this one where Jesus has an encounter with a centurion. No one in the account shows anyone else the bottoms of his or her feet, but we do see a clear distinction being made as to hierarchy and authority.
In Roman culture the centurion was basically at the top of the social ladder. They were actively serving in the military and their rank was fairly high. They were in charge of battalions of troops and they also commanded a nice salary. They also likely owned a number of slaves, although the way slavery took shape in the ancient world was not exactly how it took shape in this country prior to the Civil War. We can see from this morning’s story that strong bonds of love and even tenderness could form between a slave and his owner. Centurions, because of their status and wealth, often were key members of a community. They donated funds for public buildings and festivals. They were responsible for keeping people safe and protected. That, too, seems to be the case in this story. We know that the centurion has contributed towards the building campaign of the local synagogue.
All of these social arrangements were based on trying to make people your “clients.” Those toward the top of the social ladder were due the most honor and respect and had the biggest number of clients. The way you worked yourself higher in this system was by getting people to come into your debt in some way, and one of the most common ways that happened was by having people to dinner in your house. If you invited someone and they accepted, then they were acknowledging your power and authority over them, that they were your client and you were their patron.
The other way this system was reinforced was by seeking favors. By asking a favor of someone—perhaps you needed a donation to a building project or protection from a threatening neighbor—you acknowledged they were higher than you. And by granting that favor that person took on the role of patron (and you were their client). Historians tell us that in Jesus’ time, daily life was almost a constant game of that system of privilege and honor, of patron and client, which is probably why the issue of showing the bottoms of one’s feet is still lingering today. People were constantly trying to work their way up as a patron by inviting people over to their house or by showing that they could grant favors to other people. Remember…the New Testament is filled with people eating meals with each other.
Knowing that background, we can better understand what’s happening here. The centurion, who is in a position to offer favors to many people, asks Jesus for a favor to heal his servant. And when Jesus, always willing to humble himself, takes that as an invitation to be a guest at the centurion’s house and essentially become the centurion’s client, the centurion stops him. Two different times the centurion attempts to show he thinks Jesus is a superior. Two different times the centurion uses this patron-client system to display respect and a type of allegiance to Jesus. And two different times Jesus upends it. God is not going to play by the typical rules of dominance and control that humans are so often enamored with.
|"Healing the Centurion's Servant" (Paolo Veronese, 16th cent.)|
The centurion is impressed with the authority that Jesus commands, and as such he kind of stands out as a character of faith, even above the Jewish leaders that the centurion first sends to speak with him. What is not known, of course, is if the centurion will ultimately be impressed with the way that Jesus displays his authority and uses his power. Being a great healer and restoring life with just one word of command is one thing. Dying on the cross is another. Further down the road, Jesus will seem to hand over his authority and have it mocked by people like the centurion. Jesus will lay down his life, his words all but gone, in order to heal all our divisions, to raise to new life those dead in sin.
I’m pretty sure that we don’t have the same type of patron-client system Jesus dealt with anymore. No one but me is worrying about showing shoe soles and foot bottoms, but yet we do still tend to give a lot of authority and power to people and things who impress us. Celebrities get a lot of worship and attention these days, and we prostrate ourselves at the altar of technology and science and medicine. Favors are sought from people like Mark Zuckerberg and the leaders of Apple. We absolutely idolize those who excel in sports. The most popular movies are filled with all the traditional examples of how to use power and authority. The two superhero movies that were released this spring, “Batman v Superman,” and “Captain America: Civil War” have already grossed more than $2 billion combined. While they may be entertaining, they all still a variation on the same old story: ultimate good must overpower evil with evil’s own tactics in order to win.
In the midst of all of this, I’m not sure we can ever fully grasp just how unimpressive the cross of Jesus really is, even as we worship around it each week. In the midst of all this, I think we all bear a tendency to long for a God who will just dominate, who will come up with a fair and just system of crushing the opponent and outsmarting our enemies, just in a cooler and more novel way than the last, that we can get God just to say a word and everything will be OK.
But that would be, as Paul says to the Galatians, a different gospel. That would still be a way of seeking human approval, of playing client to a divine patron, thinking that if I just do everything right, all will be well.
So, then, just as a reminder, here’s the gospel, the only one: God does not find ways to place us in his debt so that we serve him like clients. Rather, In Jesus, God finds a way to pay our debt so that we may be free. God not find ways to show us the bottom of his feet so that we know where we stand on the ladder of status. Rather, In Jesus, God stoops to wash our feet and shower us with grace and love and forgiveness. God does not seek ways to impress us and dazzle us with his power. Rather, in Jesus, God seeks ways to love us. God seeks ways to display the unsurpassable value of laying power aside, of letting humility do the talking, of laying down one’s life for one’s friends, and of even laying down one’s life for a stranger.
That’s the gospel, the good news. The central force that created this universe and will redeem it is not one based on accruing honor or assigning shame. It is one of self-sacrifice and compassion, mercy and generosity. In fact, it’s not even a force that is trying to gather us, but a particular person. A particular person it is who loves us and wants a relationship with us, and no matter where you feel you fall on the ladder of life, no matter how many times people have shown you the bottom of their feet, that person—the Christ of Nazarath—he gathers us all here, at the foot…of his cross. That, my friends, authority.
And here’s irony. When you come up to receive him today, you’ll kneel in respect and admiration and, in the process, show everyone behind you the soles of your shoes!
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.