There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
(John testified to him and cried out,”This was he of whom I said, ˜He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Deuteronomy 25: 5When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, 6and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. 7But if the man has no desire to marry his brother’s widow, then his brother’s widow shall go up to the elders at the gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.” 8Then the elders of his town shall summon him and speak to him. If he persists, saying, “I have no desire to marry her,” 9then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and declare, “This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.” 10Throughout Israel his family shall be known as “the house of him whose sandal was pulled off.
Ruth 4 : 5Then Boaz said, “The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance.” 6At this, the next-of-kin said, “I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.” 7Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one took off a sandal and gave it to the other; this was the manner of attesting in Israel. 8So when the next-of-kin said to Boaz, “Acquire it for yourself,” he took off his sandal.
9Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. 10I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance, in order that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his kindred and from the gate of his native place; today you are witnesses.” 11Then all the people who were at the gate, along with the elders, said, “We are witnesses.
Strange things, these sandals.
“In ancient times men generally went barefoot indoors but outside they protected their feet with a sandal usually made of a simple sole of untanned leather, tied on with straps or latchets (Genesis 14:23; Mark 1:7). A sandal was the cheapest thing one could imagine (Amos 2:6) ”only the shoe-strap was worth less (Genesis 14:23).” (http://www.bible-archaeology.info/clothes.htm)
From the above readings the most obvious interpretation of John the Baptizer saying, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal” means that John sees himself as a far more lowly person than the one whose coming he is proclaiming.
It reminds me of a custom in India where a form of greeting usually of younger persons to elders, will be by touching the feet. This in turn places the greeter’s head at the level of the elder’s hands which then bless touch the bowed head and offer a blessing of long life upon the supplicant.
There is also a wonderful Indian tradition that has found its way into our Christian Hymnals, namely sweeping the dust off the Guru’s (Teacher’s/Rabbi’s) feet. The hymn goes like this:
One who is all unfit to count
As scholar in Thy school,
Thou of Thy love hast named a friend
O kindness wonderful!
So weak I am, O gracious Lord,
So all unworthy Thee,
That even the dust upon Thy feet
Outweighs me utterly.
An Indian website explains the Eastern Custom:
Touching the Guru’s feet, then, is an act of respect and reverence, but also of learning. We facilitate our own spiritual progress when we learn to be humble. Humility puts us in a place of learning. After all, when we accept a Guru, regardless of whether they are a diksha (initiatory) or shiksha (learning) Guru, we do so because we wish to emulate that Guru. By touching their feet, we demonstrate not only that we are ready to listen to them, but also that we are ready to transform and strengthen ourselves. (http://kamakhyamandir.org/culture-and-history/why-do-we-touch-a-gurus-feet/)
So it is clear that John’s reference to the sandals of Jesus is a reference to his own humility.
But to leave the metaphor there would be to miss another important dimension of John’s words.
The reference in Ruth above and the reference to the Deuteronomy passage regarding dynastic succession and deal making using sandals,has relevance for our understanding of the relationship of the herald John, to the master Jesus.
Before unpacking this let me remind us that John the Baptiser is a wonderful arche-type for the Christian Disciple. He is the one who builds up a successful ministry in the South Jordan, so much so, that people travel from Jerusalem and surrounding regions to come and hear him and to be baptised by him. This very successful operation is just as quickly dissolved by John at the appearance of Jesus. He even goes so far as to send some of his own disciples off to follow Jesus with those magnificent words that have found a resting place in the Eucharistic liturgy, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”.
Oh, how the church could have benefitted from more pliable egos like John’s ego in the history of Christendom!
So back to the sandals. I would like you to consider that by proclaiming that he was not worthy to touch the sandals of Jesus, (not even the lowly thongs that tied the sandals) John was acknowledging that he wasn’t in a position to make deals and contracts with the coming one that he was preparing the way for.
No genealogical appeal from John who was a relative, and thus no genealogical claim from anyone.
Don’t forget that it is also John who said,to the Pharisees, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “˜We have Abraham as our ancestor; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3)
This is an example we would do well to follow as we prepare once again this year for the coming of the Christ.
We who are the way preparers. We who are the Freeway construction crew. We would have to remember what John is saying to us.
Like John, we can only prepare the way. Just as we are not worthy to untie his sandals, and to gather the dust off Jesus’ feet, so we are not in a position to assume that we can negotiate and argue the terms of his coming. Jesus will come to us and to the world on his own terms and in his own way. All that remains for us is to be as surprised as John was.
So let us keep our hands off his sandals and our egos at his feet.