Just as the Bible itself was a community project, so also God invites us to interpret Scripture in community. Yet anybody who has been in church for five minutes knows Christians disagree on how to apply the Bible in everyday life.
Some of the friction comes when we don’t appreciate how God is working uniquely in each generation or particular social location. Most often tension comes when the Bible is used to advance self-interests at the expense of others. We need humility — “an orientation toward a community of self-giving love.” This involves listening to each other and dialoguing from our different places to help expose blind spots.
Amid our diversity, God is inviting us to invest together in a common goal.
I wrote my book, The Word of a Humble God, because I want to equip Bible readers to handle Scripture in a way that is congruent with God’s good intentions for it. I am concerned that lack of understanding about the Bible’s origins — its contextual, communal, dynamic, and varied nature — has contributed to the misinterpretation of Scripture. In other words, my hope is that this book will help us know how to better apply the Bible in daily life.
God’s humility, and our embodiment of that, is the hermeneutical key for reading the Bible. As we learned in the previous chapter, wayward communal interpretations can cause major systemic harm. Such misuse of Scripture tends to involve the following:
- Self-preservation at the expense of other people (particularly those outside your social group)
- Aversion to difference (in skin color, culture, church denomination)
- Overconfidence in your own perspective
- Use of power to enforce an interpretation that in some way restricts or makes life more difficult for others but not for you
- Lack of awareness of how your social location informs what you see in Scripture
- Belief that the Bible is easy to understand, resulting in superficial interpretations
Humility invites us to welcome how another person’s life experiences might help expose our own blind spots.
“The key to interpretation is humility. Or to put it another way, it’s the use of personal agency to serve and empower others.”
A variety of interpretive methods can result in either useful or harmful outcomes. A literal or an allegorical reading can be used for good or ill. The key to interpretation is humility. Or to put it another way, it’s the use of personal agency to serve and empower others.
A heart with this orientation gives us eyes to see what the Spirit is showing us in Scripture. And sound interpretation will lead us to actively imitate God’s humility. As a communal project of interpretation, then, we are seeking to spiritually form our faith communities to share power and serve others.
One way we are spiritually formed is by shaping our imagination with true images of God. As we gaze upon God’s humility, our hearts and actions are changed. With that in mind, Jesus washing the feet of his disciples is an image for us to gather around. This is not the only image of divine humility in Scripture by any means. We see God’s humility from the beginning in Genesis with the creation of human beings. Yet Jesus gives us an even closer view of this humble God, so it makes sense to draw an image from his life.
The Cross is often mentioned in discussions of divine humility. And while it’s a powerful image to reflect on, it can obscure the fact that humility was always characteristic of Jesus and not only in that particular act of sacrifice. His ministry in daily life was full of self-giving love.
“A husband would imitate Christ’s sacrifice by being willing to die for his wife if an intruder came into the house. But he wouldn’t help his wife wash the dishes.”
Another concern is that Christ’s death is something many Christians are uncertain how to imitate. The Cross often becomes an abstract symbol we fill in with our own conjectures of what constitutes sacrifice. For example, in my church upbringing, it was commonly understood that a husband would imitate Christ’s sacrifice by being willing to die for his wife if an intruder came into the house. But he wouldn’t help his wife wash the dishes.
The foot washing scene is shocking in its portrayal of divine humility. We can glorify a heroic sacrificial death. But mundane, lowly tasks? Not so much. The foot washing scene is also meaningful because it occurred right before Jesus died:
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. So if l, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.
Jesus knows all things are in his hand, that he is Lord and Teacher. He knows where he is from and where he is going. It’s from this place of power and status that Jesus strips to his underpants, kneels down in front of the disciples, and washes their feet. If the scene does not make us uncomfortable, it should. Peter was confused and a bit horrified: “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
“Jesus demonstrates that humility is not passivity, powerlessness or self-deprecation.”
The power dynamics in this story are important. Jesus demonstrates that humility is not passivity, powerlessness or self-deprecation. It’s the intentional use of one’s abilities for the sake of others. Jesus isn’t simply doing a random act of kindness for the disciples; he is teaching them, by example, how to use their agency.
But this startles Peter. He naturally expects that disciples are the ones to kneel before their master, not a master to kneel before his students. Surely, God shouldn’t be doing something like this. What kind of God kneels down in front of me to wash my feet? What kind of God performs the menial tasks we normally expect someone from the lowest class to do?
This upside-down way of doing things troubles Peter. It shakes up his image of God. While he may have, theoretically, liked the thought of a God who serves, there’s something unnerving about divine humility.
You can almost hear Peter say, “But I don’t want you to see my feet. I don’t want you to see the real me. If you do, you might think less of me.” Yet it’s more than embarrassment, exposing his desire to be loved and fear that he won’t be. Jesus’ use of power puts new expectations on Peter: “So if l, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
The invitation to imitate that self-giving is unnerving too. Humility would require Peter to relinquish the use of status for self-preservation and self-importance.
In Jesus, we see God leave a place of privilege to care for the practical needs of others. God uses power to serve and lift up. But it’s not just paternalistic charity. Jesus reminds the disciples of who they are — people capable of making a difference in the world. They, too, can become foot washers.
Significantly, this is affirmed after the disciples have been exposed, the “offensive” part of them seen up close. In affirming their agency, dirty feet and all, God affirms unconditional love.
Karen R. Keen is a biblical scholar and spiritual care provider with The Redwood Center for Spiritual Care and Education. This article is excerpted from her new book, The Word of a Humble God: The Origins, Inspiration, and Interpretation of Scripture ©2022 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Reprinted here by permission of the publisher.
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 Matthew A. Wilcoxen, Divine Humility: God’s Morally Perfect Being (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2019, 70.