Do You Have Dirty Feet?
In college I took a class on the book of Isaiah. Our first assignment was to read through the entire book in one sitting. It was the first time I had read the whole book all the way through. A lot of the book was familiar to me, but when I got to chapter 20, I was shocked by what I read: “The Lord had spoken to Isaiah son of Amoz, saying, ‘Go, and loose the sackcloth from your loins and take your sandals off your feet,’ and he had done so, walking naked and barefoot.” (Isaiah 20:2)
At first I thought it was funny. Did God really just tell Isaiah to walk around barefoot and naked? While this part of the story struck me as a little weird, I remembered the concept of prophetic allegory. Examples of other prophetic allegory include Ezekiel binding himself with rope to symbolize the bondage of Israel's sin, and Jeremiah placing a yoke on his shoulders to symbolize Israel’s submission to Babylon's rule.
Isaiah was told to walk around naked and barefoot to symbolize the shame that the Egyptians would experience when Assyria would conquer them and lead them into captivity, “naked and barefoot with their buttocks uncovered" (v. 4). God was using Isaiah as a prophetic picture of what would take place in the near future.
Isaiah’s shame foreshadowed the shame. I got that. It wasn't a hard concept to grasp after a little reflection, but that was not the part of the story that really shocked me. It was verse three: “Then the Lord said, "Just as my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and portent against Egypt and Ethiopia...” For three years?! Really, God? Was it really necessary to put your prophet through that?
Jeremiah put the yoke on his neck for a brief time before it was broken and taken from him by a false prophet Hananiah (Jeremiah 27 and 28). Ezekiel was bound for 430 days, (Ezekiel 3 and 4). Not Fun, but doable...maybe. At least he was given food and water everyday. But Isaiah wandered the earth naked and barefoot for three years...for three years! “It would stink to be you, Isaiah,” I thought to myself.
That passage left a huge impression on me. I still think about Isaiah often. Imagine what it must have been like for him to wander naked and barefoot for those three years. Just for a moment, try to put yourself in his place.
Imagine Christmas Day with your family seated around the dinner table. It might be funny at first. Great shock value. You would at least have their attention. Perhaps you would take the opportunity to say something witty. No, God didn’t tell Isaiah to say anything. He was just supposed to be naked. So you sit silently. Then you begin to see your family‘s shock turn to anger. “Go get dressed!" “I can’t. God told me to be naked." That wouldn’t go over well in my home, how about yours?
How about going to school or to work naked and barefoot? I wouldn't get in the door, would you? So now you have an angry family and no job. After the shock and anger wore off, perhaps your family and friends would get concerned. They would worry that you had gone mad. They might try to get you to see a psychiatrist. “Really mom, I’m fine, God told me to take off all of my clothes and wander around.” (Not a conversation that you want to have with your mom when you are naked).
I’m sure that my mom would think. “If he is mad at least we can get him off the streets." She would offer me a place to stay. But I would wander. God said to wander. My shame must be public if it is to be prophetic. She might try to institutionalize me against. my will. All of my relationships would be strained or completely broken. (Have you ever played pool with a naked guy? Me either.) I would be friendless, jobless, homeless, and penniless.
Such was the life of lsaiah for three years. We get a very small glimpse of the shame that Isaiah must have felt in the text itself. When you read it, you realize than the story was written in third person. Someone else is telling Isaiah’s story on his behalf. The memory of those three years must have evoked such a strong response in him that he couldn’t bring himself to write of it or speak of it again.
Despite the shame that Isaiah endured, or maybe because of it, God used him in powerful ways to proclaim and shape God’s kingdom. Knowing his three year experience of going about naked and barefoot, we can read Isaiah 58 with new eyes. When Isaiah describes what authentic worship should look like in that chapter, he speaks with experiential authority. “Is not this the fast that I chose...to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:7).
Isaiah speaks as one who was hungry, homeless, poor, and naked. He knew what it was like to long for relationships that would penetrate the isolation and shame that he felt. He knew from experience that it is one thing to offer bread to a homeless man on the streets, but a completely different thing to invite that homeless man into your home, to have him wear your clothes and to share a meal at your table with your family. The first is charity. The second is an act of worship that involves true fasting and self-denial.
When Isaiah rebukes his audience, he does so as a homeless man who experienced the shame of nakedness and longing for community. He wants his audience to fast, not from food, but from the security and comfort that reinforce the isolation and shame of poverty. He is asking us to enter into a new world and a new way of thinking. He is asking us to think differently about worship and community. He is asking us to reevaluate the concepts of risk and comfort and safety in light of our relationship to God. He is asking us to put at risk our assets, our family, our way of life for the sake of worshipping God through companionship with the poor.
God promises that by living life according to the words of the prophet, by embracing the risks associated with radical obedience, we will bring life and restoration to others. Such a life will restore broken cities and relationships for multiple generations.
"...If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your fight will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your flame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fill. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old Foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings" (Isaiah 58:10-12)
Many, if not all of us in the CCHF community, desire to live the life described by Isaiah, spending ourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfying the needs of the oppressed in personal, tangible, and at times imprudent ways. But what does such a life look like? In many ways I am still trying to answer that question, but God has given me glimpses of what a life of risk taking obedience might look like.
When I was in seminary I shared a house with two other seminary students in downtown Lexington, KY. We intentionally moved into a transitional community to live among the poor and to open our home to the homeless. We had a homeless man named Scott stay with us for a while. Although I have no medical training, I am fairly certain that he suffered from multiple mental disorders.
I woke up one morning to discover that during the night Scott had unraveled all of the toilet paper in our bathroom, placed all of our silverware in the bathtub, and rearranged the kitchen. I was irate. I questioned the wisdom of God. Did God really say to invite the homeless poor into our house? Weren’t there shelters in town that were better equipped to work with Scott? It had only been a few days and I was ready for Scott to leave.
Despite my agitation we did share our lives together over common meals. Scott did most of the talking during our times together. He told my roommates and I stories of how he had played hockey for the Minnesota Stars, and how he had thousands of dollars in the bank, but “The Man” would not let him have his money. I blew off Scott’s stories as byproducts of his mental disorders, but one of my roommates, Billy, listened to Scott and decided to investigate. Billy believed that God brought Scott across our path for a reason and he was determined to find out why.
"ls not this the fast that I choose...to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?" (Isaiah 58:7).
The hockey story never checked out, but it turned out that Scott really did have thousands of dollars in the bank from unclaimed disability checks. Scott could not access his money without a custodian to cosign on his account and take responsibility for helping him to manage his money. Billy took on the responsibility of being Scott’s custodian and Scott was again able to access his account.
Some people might argue that it was imprudent for my roommates and l to expose ourselves to the inherent dangers associated with opening our home to a man who was homeless and mentally ill. I certainly thought so myself at times. None of us were trained in psychiatry or knew how to connect Scott to the social services that he needed. Initially we did not really know how to help Scott at all. We only had Isaiah as our guide, trusting - albeit with some fear and trepidation - that God would uphold his word and bring restoration through his grace and our feeble attempt at sacrificial obedience.
Satisfying the needs of the oppressed will look differently for each of us, but I imagine that as we take seriously the words of Isaiah, to open our homes to the poor, there will be a common element of moving beyond our professional client/provider relationships, to sharing a common life together.
The term, “Dirty feet,” symbolizes our desire to stand in solidarity with the life and prophetic message of Isaiah. Like Isaiah, we desire to endure the shame of the world for the sake of honoring God through radical risk, taking obedience. We desire to abandon our “entitlement” to comfort and safety for the sake of entering into meaningful, redemptive relationships with those the world, and at times even the church, have abandoned. We desire to follow Jesus to the ends of the earth to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the salvation that is available in his name. Although our feet are dirty, they will be beautiful, as we share the good news of Salvation in Jesus Christ and as we work to establish communities of faith that worship God in the manner prescribed by his prophet Isaiah.
How will you respond to God’s call upon your life for radical, risk-taking obedience?
Nathan Cook lives with his wife, Kim and son Caleb in an inner-city neighborhood in Memphis where he serves as an elder in a house church called Christ Community Church. Nathan also serves as the director of Christ Community Ministries, which sponsors medical missions into the 10/40 window.