Pastor John Ortberg shares an amusing illustration (which I'm told is a true story from the University of Georgia) about a college ornithology class. The students have thoroughly studied birds from every angle all semester, but as they walk into the lecture hall for the final exam, they see that their professor has set up twenty-five pictures in the front of the class… all of birds’ feet. Their exam will consist entirely of identifying birds by order, family, and genus by using only their feet for identification.
One student loses it. Overwhelmed and angry, he stands up in the middle of the lecture hall and yells, “This is impossible. I’m not doing it! I’m not playing your stupid bird-feet games!”
The professor calmly replies, “You have to, or you fail the exam.”
“Go ahead and fail me, I’m not doing this!”
And as the student storms out of the room, the professor pulls out the class roster and says, “OK, son, you’ve failed. What’s your name?”
The student pulls up his pant leg and points at his sandal. “Why don’t YOU tell ME?!”
The student didn’t know birds by their feet, and the professor didn’t know his students by their feet, but isn’t it amazing that we have a savior who knows us by our feet?
In John 13, on his last night before the Cross, and fully aware that the full power of the universe belonged to him, Jesus took up a towel and a basin of water. It was customary at social events to make available a servant at the door, to provide a greeting and a foot-washing. This was a reality-TV-worthy “dirty job” considered by rabbinic codes to be too demeaning even for a disciple, let alone a teacher. But in the apparent absence of a servant, and with the meal well underway, we read these astounding words:
“He got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” (John 13:4-5)
As shocking as this would have been, it’s actually no more shocking than the entire purpose for which Jesus came. He had been stooping low from the beginning of the story, and he would go still lower; “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). All his ministry has been the same ongoing commitment of setting aside his garment, taking the nature of a servant, and pouring himself out (Philippians 2:5-11).
(As an aside, and if you have a particularly difficult time with that whole "love your enemy" thing, consider for a moment that Jesus washed Judas' feet too. When Judas went to the chief priests to collect his thirty pieces of silver, he went with clean feet.)
Peter speaks for many of us when he resists. In essence, he says the same thing he said the day he first met Jesus; “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8) Lord, my feet are oh-so dirty. Remember that these roads were dusty, sanitation wasn’t modernized, and their sandals came without odor-eater insoles. Those grimy feet are a picture of all the unattractiveness of our hearts, the things we’d prefer to keep hidden for fear of being found out. It is a scary thing to admit our dirt, and our need for cleansing.
In one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite series, The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson, a character with a deeply shameful secret is forced to come clean, revealing all the heart-deep evil of his former life. His family and friends are all present as this shocking admission comes to light, the stench of dirty feet exposed. Stunning grace follows, amazing acceptance, deep unconditional love. In the next chapter, Peterson describes the outcome: “He moved through the days with peace and wonder, for his whole story had been told for the first time, and he found that he was still loved.”
If you are known but not loved, that will feel like hurtful rejection. If you are loved but not known, that will feel like inauthentic shallowness. But Jesus could offer the disciples — and offer us — the gift of being both fully known and fully loved: to see the filth between our toes and still to lay down his life for his friends, to “love them to the end” (John 13:1). Jesus in his great mercy draws close enough to spotlight all of our unflattering hypocrisy, rebellion, failure, and idolatry. And then he washes our feet, a picture of a greater “pouring out” he will provide as a once-for-all cleansing from sin. The work of the Cross, applied to us by faith, takes our sin and gives us his righteousness, and we can hear him say the same words he said to Peter that night:
“You are clean.”
Isn’t it astounding that we have a savior who knows us by our feet?
In honor of the Ortberg illustration, here’s some bird feet for you to identify. Use the comments to try on your ornithological smarty-pants. The answers are below.
Here are the answers... click to reveal.
1. Snowy Owl: Notice the thick feathered feet that provide extra insulation for those cold Arctic temperatures. Snowy owls have the longest toe feathers of any owl. It’s like he’s wearing bunny slippers (except that he’s actually using his slippers to kill the bunnies).
2. Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo: If you said “parrot” that’s close enough. Notice the toes are in two opposable pairs (called zygodactyl if you want to be fancy about it), which allows for that amazing parrot dexterity. Most perching birds’ toes are in a three-forward, one-back arrangement (anisodactyl for you sciency-types). Read Cockatoo.
4. African Jacana: Those crazy feet spread the bird’s weight over a wide surface area and allow it to walk lightly across lilypads. In fact, the jacana’s nickname is “lily-trotter.”
5. Snowy Egret: This is one of my favorites. Those bright yellow feet on black legs (often with a slight yellow racing stripe up the side) are the telltale way to differentiate the Snowy from the other white waders here on the East coast. Of course, its feet are often uncooperatively submerged in the water, so it helps to know the other I.D. markers as well.
6. Ostrich: You can tell those feet are built for running. Its two massive toes function almost like a hoof, and help the bird reach speeds of up to 45 miles per hour. God thought this was cool enough to mention to Job: “When she spreads her feathers to run, she laughs at horse and rider.” (Job 39:18)
7. Gentoo Penguin: “Penguin” would be close enough. Those webbed feet act as a sort of rudder underwater. They’re also thick enough to provide the necessary insulation for standing around on ice, and they’re sturdy enough to make that impressive penguin march every year.
8. Cassowary: This bird is the stuff of nightmares. Its legs are probably the closest thing to Jurassic Park you’ll find in the real world, and cassowaries have been labeled the planet’s most dangerous bird. The second of their three toes has a daggerlike claw up to five inches long, and yes, they know how to use it.
9. Bald Eagle: Clearly built for hunting, those talons can grab prey with a pressure of up to 1000 psi, impressively strong even among other raptors. The Bald Eagle’s feet, by the way, are as big or bigger than a human hand.
10. Belted Kingfisher: The giveaway on this I.D. is that partial fusion of the third and fourth toes (the orientation is called syndactyl). It’s great for comfortable motionless perching as the kingfisher scans the water for prey, but not so good for walking around on branches; you’ll probably see this bird hold its position once it perches. Read Kingfisher.
11. American Coot: These feet are among the craziest in the bird world. But those lobed feet, which shine an iridescent yellow-green especially underwater, are amazing for swimming. It’s like strapping on multiple sets of scuba flippers.
Honestly, the feet are usually the last place you look when trying to get field markings to identify a bird. I recommend starting top-down, not bottom-up. But form follows function, and you can often tell a lot about what a bird was made to do by looking at their feet.
And in case you’re wondering what your feet were made for, consider this one:
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7)