Thus said the Lord to me, ‘Go and buy yourself a linen loincloth, and put it on your loins, but do not dip it in water.’ So I bought a loincloth according to the word of the Lord, and put it on my loins. And the word of the Lord came to me a second time, saying, ‘Take the loincloth that you bought and are wearing, and go now to the Euphrates, and hide it there in a cleft of the rock.’ So I went, and hid it by the Euphrates, as the Lord commanded me. And after many days the Lord said to me, ‘Go now to the Euphrates, and take from there the loincloth that I commanded you to hide there.’ Then I went to the Euphrates, and dug, and I took the loincloth from the place where I had hidden it. But now the loincloth was ruined; it was good for nothing.
Then the word of the Lord came to me: Thus says the Lord: Just so I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own will and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be like this loincloth. — Jeremiah 13:1-11 NRSV
The life of a prophet is never easy. People ask you for information and heaven help you if you get it wrong. The prophets of God have even a harder job; they get orders to do all kinds of odd, not to say weird things like giving their kids goofy names, walking around the marketplace with a yoke around their neck, or strolling around naked. Now that was a particularly nasty thing since the Jewish laws expressly forbade nudity, especially in public. No, working for God was often very difficult business but then, God was pretty selective in hiring prophets and pretty specific in giving orders to those prophets.
Jeremiah’s orders in this particular reading were to buy some new underwear and then to put them on. Jeremiah was told not to wash it before wearing, but why? A good washing might remove any grit or sand or tiny particles that might scratch or otherwise cause discomfort but God said “Don’t wash it” so Jeremiah did just that. Now I don’t think anyone knows with any certainty how long someone would actually wear such garments between washings, maybe a day, maybe longer, so who knows how long he had it on, but after some period of time God told him to go hide it by the river. After another unspecified amount of time God told him to go get it and, naturally, it was completely ruined. The whole exercise, it appears, was to serve as a visual expression of what happened when the garment was separated from its owner and left to its own devices, just as Israel would be in the near future.
Underwear is a rather intimate thing, despite the visibility due to low-rise pants and shorts among the younger people which often show almost as much as they cover. Underwear lies between sensitive skin and outer clothing which might be rough and scratchy. Let’s face it, Downy is a fairly new concept, fine linen was and still is very expensive and perhaps not all that soft, especially at first. At a deeper level, however, it’s the intimacy factor that seems important in this reading from Jeremiah.
God chose Israel as God’s own people. God initiated not only a covenantal relationship but an intimate one, one that only God seemed to cherish. The words God spoke to Jeremiah had anger in them, but when I read it I hear a lot of heartbreak too. Israel had been unfaithful time and time again, and each time they repented God took them back — until the next time. I don’t want to stretch the analogy too far, but in a way the Israelites seemed to treat God the way they would old underwear to be discarded as no good to anyone while they chased after what was new and, perhaps more tangible and seemingly more accessible and desirable. That was their mistake, and what God promised was the consequences of their mistake. And yet, during and after those consequences, they returned to God — until the next time.
Underwear is nothing much to us (and some of it is literally nothing much). It gets old, it gets worn, we pitch it and go to the store for a new package. The new underwear is a bit stiffer with the sizing in it unless it’s washed first, but even then it takes time for it to get really broken in. Eventually, though, it has to be replaced, no matter how soft and comfortable it has gotten. What’s that got to do with relationships, though? Other than as a metaphor?
The connector is intimacy — both underwear and relationships deal with intimacy, at different levels, mind you, but still a connection between them. God used Jeremiah’s underwear to make a point. God had sought an intimate relationship with Israel just as God seeks one with us, one that is closer to us than skin. It can be a soft, comfortable relationship but it can also be a slightly scratchy one, it depends on us, not God.
So in my musing, I have to ask myself is how close do I let God get, and how much do I pay attention to the messages, whether or not they are metaphors and whether or not it seems I am being given instructions to do something that seems a bit goofy. Maybe a deeper question is what is it I need to do to make that relationship closer, more intimate and more fulfilling — because God wants it to be that way. The biggest question is what’s holding me back? Waiting for a sale on Downy, maybe?
Meanwhile, God is waiting — patiently.