“Do as I say, not as I do.” It is the go-to directive of parents caught between their words and actions. It is evidence of a discrepancy between what we say and what we do, between expectation and reality.  

We point out the rule while side-stepping its practice. We are great enforcers of the law but poor practitioners. The Apostle Paul captured a similar struggle: I can will what is right, but I cannot do it” (Romans 7:18).

“Do as I say, not as I do” is an understood and socially accepted double-mindedness. We say one thing and do another. But when we say, “do as I say,” we prove we are not leading by example.

This expression dates back to 1654 with John Selden’s “Table Talk,” where he said, “Preachers say, ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’” It is to say, “Obey the command but don’t follow in my footsteps.”  

This has been met with the well-known expression, “Actions speak louder than words.” There is also the sad commentary: “What you do speaks so loud, I can’t hear what you say.”

Selden was merely repeating the words of Jesus, who denounced the scribes and Pharisees in the gospel of Matthew: “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’s seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it, but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach’” (23:1-3).

Known for their pride, these religious teachers tried to school Jesus on more than one occasion. But, if anyone had something to learn, it was them. Still, Jesus humbles himself, subjecting himself to their scrutiny.

The Apostle Paul masterfully and mystically captures the posture of Jesus in the hymn recorded in Philippians: “Let the same mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being found in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (2:5-8). 

Parents, Paul, Pharisees and preachers are not the only ones guilty of laying down the law while having a poor record of keeping it. We can add politicians to the list, who enact laws only to break them. But if we are honest, we are also guilty of being hypocrites, white sepulchers and a bit sanctimonious.

During this season of Lent, I am reminded of an interaction between Peter and Jesus, where we learn that Jesus means what he says. After a meal, Jesus tied a towel around his waist, poured water into a basin and prepared to wash the disciples’ feet.  

He will soon be betrayed by Judas, and I suspect that washing feet is not on anyone’s bucket list. Jesus knows he is about to die, but he doesn’t want to go sky-diving or make travel plans. Instead, he wants to spend time with his disciples, to spend his final days serving them.  

But Peter wants none of it. Whatever his reasons, whether between pedicures or believing this is not the work of the Savior, he says, “You will never wash my feet” (John 13:8).  

Peter’s words remind me of a clergy meeting where the group’s leader said she would never perform a foot-washing. I sat stunned as others chimed in with agreement. But I couldn’t.  

My faith had been formed in a small, holiness church in Foley, Alabama, and it was a common practice for us. It had been deeply moving for my pastor to wash my feet as a child. I was stunned as I had never heard anyone say that it was a disgusting practice.  

Still, she dismissed Jesus’ command because she didn’t like feet.
Afraid to speak up due to my age and ministerial inexperience at the time, I said to myself, “But I thought it was about service, about dismantling the hierarchy.” 

While many churches will only focus on his last words, I often think about the last things Jesus did with his disciples. Because Jesus said, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me. If I don’t wash you, you can’t be a part of what I’m doing” (John 13:8). 

Because Jesus is no better due to his position as teacher and he is not above the work or called only to bear witness to the “kin-dom” coming. Eager to continue with Christ, Peter said, “Scrub me from head to toe!” 

Jesus set the example as a teacher who doubles as a footwasher and says, “Do as I do,” and means it.


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