Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
A Linen Belt
1This is what the Lord said to me: “Go and buy a linen belt and put it around your waist, but do not let it touch water.” 2 So I bought a belt, as the Lord directed, and put it around my waist.
3 Then the word of the Lord came to me a second time: 4 “Take the belt you bought and are wearing around your waist, and go now to Perath and hide it there in a crevice in the rocks.” 5 So I went and hid it at Perath, as the Lord told me.
6 Many days later the Lord said to me, “Go now to Perath and get the belt I told you to hide there.” 7 So I went to Perath and dug up the belt and took it from the place where I had hidden it, but now it was ruined and completely useless.
8 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 9 “This is what the Lord says: ‘In the same way I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. 10 These wicked people, who refuse to listen to my words, who follow the stubbornness of their hearts and go after other gods to serve and worship them, will be like this belt—completely useless! 11 For as a belt is bound around the waist, so I bound all the people of Israel and all the people of Judah to me,’ declares the Lord, ‘to be my people for my renown and praise and honor. But they have not listened.’
It’s probably just my weird sense of humor, but I can’t help getting a huge kick out of this story. Most followers of Jesus don’t spend that much time studying the book of the prophet Jeremiah, I’m sure, but this particular story appeals to me so much that when it comes up in the lectionary every two years, I can’t help devoting a day’s Reflection to it. Mostly, I guess, it appeals to me because in the story, God uses a really striking metaphor – actually, a comical metaphor – to illustrate our relationship with him.
I suppose in part, it’s the comic relief after the readings we’ve been thinking about. Some of them have been from Romans, which is theologically dense and dripping with the apostle Paul’s terminal seriousness. The other recent readings have been coming from the Gospel of John, which kind of takes a lot of deep theological reflection to make sense of. But here’s a story in which God revealed a sense of humor as he pointed out the sins of the Hebrew people.
Jeremiah’s ministry took place in the heartland of the Hebrew people – in and around Jerusalem. A lot of that ministry took place during the reign of King Josiah, who was maybe the most faithful king and reformer since David himself. Josiah led the covenant people in a period of reform and purification, when they got rid of their foreign idols for a while and went back to worshipping God.
But after Josiah died, the country went back to idol-worship. Not long afterward, Judea was invaded and Jerusalem was besieged by the Babylonians. During the siege, Jeremiah walked around the city preaching that it was destined to fall to the Babylonians as punishment for the sins of the people. Not surprisingly, Jeremiah was considered an ‘enemy of the state’ – a morale problem for the authorities.
The story we’re thinking about today seems to have taken place sometime after the reign of Josiah but before the Babylonian conquest.
There are translation issues to work through to get the real ‘gist’ of the story. Our NIV Bible text says God told Jeremiah to go buy “a linen belt” and put it on. But many Old Testament scholars think the phrase that’s translated as “linen belt” actually referred to a loincloth – basically underwear.
So God tells Jeremiah buy this underwear and put it on. Then, after some unspecified period of time, God tells Jeremiah to go to Perath. The scholars aren’t sure where Perath was. But wherever it was, Jeremiah is ordered to take off this underwear and bury it in the rocks there.
Later, God tells Jeremiah to go dig up the underwear, which by this time is pretty gross from being buried in the ground. And Jeremiah is commanded to use the underwear as a symbol of God’s relationship with the chosen people.
The point is that nothing is closer to God than the covenant people. They’re as close to God as underwear. But when the people refuse to obey God’s laws, when they lead sinful lives and worship idols, they become so foul in God’s eyes that they become like underwear that’s been buried in the ground.
Who in their right mind would want to put on underwear that had been buried in the ground? (I’ve suggested in the past that you could try this as a Lenten discipline if you want but, shockingly, no one has ever taken me up on it.) But the point is clear, isn’t it? Why would God want to have people close to himself after they had chosen to make themselves so foul?
It seems to me this is a really interesting and effective example of an “enacted parable.” You don’t have to be a theologian to get the point – it’s easy to understand and literally ‘gritty.’ You might remember me saying that God’s “friends” cause him a lot more distress than his enemies, and this story seems to illustrate that point in an unforgettable way.
Thinking about this story from the perspective of those of us who follow Jesus, maybe the truth is that our sins are just as gritty and gross to God as the sins of the people of Judah. But because of the death of Jesus, we are made clean again in God’s eyes – clean enough that God is willing to have us close to him again.
Let’s pray. Lord, you know that we sometimes fail to think about how gross and disgusting our sins must seem to you, and how much discomfort we cause you by our disobedience. Thank you for providing a way in Jesus for us to be made clean enough to be close to you again. Amen.
Have a great weekend! Worship joyfully on Sunday!
(The listed readings for today are Psalms 22 and 148; Jeremiah 11:1-17; Romans 6:1-11; and John 8:33-47. Our readings come from the NIV Bible, as posted on Biblica.com, the website of the International Bible Society.)