Longing for the Divine

Beautiful Feet

The Adulterous Woman at Jesus’ feet (Andrey Mironov).

When you hear the word “gospel,” what image comes to mind? Although the word “gospel” (euangelion) is translated from the New Testament, the concept of “good news” finds its expression in the Old Testament. The Biblical picture is that of a messenger traveling by foot over mountain passes and valleys to bring good news to a discouraged people.

When Jerusalem’s armies were defeated by Babylon, the conquered people were taken into Babylon. Those who survived and remained faithful were left wondering if God had abandoned them. Completely dependent on God, they relied on messengers to bring them important news in these dangerous times. Through the prophet Isaiah, God gave them an announcement. He poetically sent a special messenger to bring encouragement to those waiting for God’s salvation. The messenger ran over mountains to bring this message of God’s intervention and compassion to the longing captives.

We read in Isaiah 52:7:

How beautiful upon the mountains
Are the feet of him who brings good news,
Who proclaims peace,
Who brings glad tidings of good things,
Who proclaims salvation,
Who says to Zion,
“Your God reigns!”

NKJV

Don’t miss the reference to this messenger’s feet. Under normal circumstances, feet were not considered beautiful—in fact they were considered an inferior body part and like sandals, extremely unclean (Psalm 108:9; Mark 1:7; John 18;13). Furthermore, because he has traveled far, his feet are sore and dirty. He has traveled many miles over rough roads, rocky mountains, sandy deserts, and some very unclean conditions. The good news is expressed in terms of beautiful feet. The herald is exclaiming, “Your God reigns!” The message is one of peace, good news, and salvation. God is returning to His city, and the people rejoice. To them, there is no sight more beautiful than these dirty feet carrying the news of God’s victory.

When Jesus came and proclaimed the gospel, He linked it with the kingdom of God. It is possible that Jesus understood His mission in light of and in fulfillment of Isaiah 52:7. Jesus was the special agent bringing God’s good news—carrying a beautiful message about the nearness of the kingdom. God was returning to His people in Jesus. The good news is rooted in the texts of the Hebrew Bible and includes more than believing that Jesus would die on the cross for our sins. It is about the very beautiful feet of the herald bringing the good news that God still reigns.

Luke, the gospel writer, invites us into the life of a woman named Mary who was publicly known as a sinner (Luke 7:36–50). She felt shame about her past, but when she looked at Jesus, she saw only goodness and love. Jesus had touched her life with the beauty of God’s forgiveness, and it affected her so profoundly that she offered to Jesus the most precious and costly thing she had as an expression of gratitude.

Overcome with emotion, Mary quietly entered the home of Simon, a Pharisee who had publicly invited Jesus to dine at his home. Sitting behind Jesus, who was reclining at the table with His feet extended, she started to weep. She knelt there, moistening Jesus’ feet with her tears. Mary had been forgiven and loved Jesus deeply, which is why she showed such affection. She cherished His forgiveness and love with an overwhelmed heart. Mary had been set free from her past, and in that freedom, she offered expressions of thanks in the only way she knew—with her tears. Furthermore, she assumed the place of a servant, sitting at her master’s feet.

Dr. Kenneth E. Bailey, a lecturer in Middle Eastern New Testament studies, explains that ancient customs dictated specific behaviors when guests arrived at a home. Because they walked in sandals on dusty streets, their dirty feet were washed with water. By way of welcome, the host would greet guests with kisses and possibly anoint them with oil to show honor. In Mary’s story, however, Simon neglected to do any of these things. In fact, the standard welcome rituals weren’t just overlooked but refused. 

Mary must have noticed Simon’s refusal to provide water to wash Jesus’ feet. After washing them with her tears, she wanted to dry them, but she had no towel. The folds of her dress gathered before her could have been used as a towel, so why did she instead let her long, flowing hair down and dry Jesus’ feet with it?

In traditional Middle Eastern society, a bride lets down her hair on her wedding night, allowing her husband to see it for the first time. Mary, therefore, mimicked the behavior of a bride on her wedding night (Song of Songs 4:1; 6:5), and no one in the room missed the overtones of this gesture. By unloosing her long beautiful hair, Mary made the ultimate pledge of unconditional loyalty to Jesus. She accepted Jesus’ message of forgiveness, and in her act of ultimate devotion, there was a merging—a complete fusion—of spirit (John 13:8). She washed the very feet that brought her the most beautiful message about God. Jesus’ costly love then reigned in her heart. Her actions say to those around her, “I am deeply loved, and that love now defines me!” 

For many of us, like Simon, sin has simply disappeared as a concern—has fallen into grace, as it were. Even those of us who know something about God’s goodness and salvation can miss recognizing that we need forgiveness. When our sin doesn’t matter so much to us, it affects the way we see ourselves and others. Apathy about sin and ignorance of its impact on our lives weaken our relationships with God and one another. Mary had no presumption of God’s grace; her heart was filled with gratitude for the love Jesus had already extended to her. Mary’s heart had found love and acceptance in the message of Jesus. She experienced God’s salvation through the extravagance of her thankful heart.

By contrast, Simon seemed to say through his actions, “I don’t need forgiveness. I don’t need to be saved from my sins like that woman. I am fine just the way I am, thank you.” The story urges us to approach Jesus’ unexpected love the way Mary did and to live and love extravagantly. Jesus’ description of God’s reign—as an upside-down kingdom of unexpected and extravagant love—is surprising. Jesus invites us to consider the love of a broken woman as a model of what the gospel means for the world. Jesus does not reprove or shame but looks compassionately at Mary. He speaks to the Simon in each us: “See how she loves me? I invite you into that kind of extreme relationship with me.” 

Jesus says that Mary’s washing His feet was not shameful but beautiful. Her act has become part of what the gospel means in the outworking of God’s redemptive love for the world (Matthew 26:6–13). Jesus would soon repeat Mary’s example through the extravagant demonstration of His self-sacrificing love, and the cross would become an extension of the self-emptying costly love that belongs to God’s way of ruling. Can we see Jesus as the special messenger of God’s forgiving love? As beautiful feet caring a very beautiful message of God’s unexpected reign of love for the world (Romans 10:15)? This is what the gospel means!

Craig Ashton Jr.

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