Adam and Eve were lucky. When they lived in the garden of Eden, and when their fig leaves got dirty, all they had to do was discard it and pick up a new one. It is not so easy anymore. We don’t use fig leaves anymore, and also finding a fig tree is hard to do. So we take our magic Maytags, Samsungs or whatever kind of washer we have and do the laundry. That’s a given in life.
People in Jeremiah’s time didn’t have the luxury of throwing laundry into a washing machine and setting it to come back later and transfer things to either a clothesline or a dryer. Clothes still needed to be washed, but they were usually laundered in a river or stream or very possibly a water source that caught rainwater. It wasn’t easy.
Jeremiah got a rather strange command from God to buy a new loincloth and put it on. Now they tell you to wash things that you buy before you wear them, but God told Jeremiah to put it on straight away and wear it. Jeremiah did as he was told, and then God came back again. This time Jeremiah was to take the loincloth to the Euphrates River and stick it in a crevice in a rock. Some days later God came back yet again. Now Jeremiah was to go back to the Euphrates and get his loincloth. Needless to say, when he had done what he had been told, Jeremiah pulled out a very dirty loincloth, possibly with mold on it, maybe with sand in it. It was no longer a piece of clothing that could be worn. It probably couldn’t even have been recycled.
God told Jeremiah that the people of Jerusalem and Judah were not listening to God, were busy doing their own thing, and even worshiping other gods. This was not the deal that God had made with the Israelite people. God told Jeremiah that Judah and Israel had been created to cling to God as a loincloth would to the body of its wearer. It was a very intimate image. Still, Israel and Judah did not listen and became like the ruined loincloth.
One of the things that God had intended from the outset was that humankind would be close to God, to cling, to be not just servants of God but intimate companions. God desired people to choose God over all things, but also gave them free will, which is like putting on a new loincloth without washing it first. People decided to drift away, and that’s when they became like dirty laundry.
“…[W]ash me, and I shall be whiter than snow (Psalm 51:7c-d, KJV).” It is a request to God to make the speaker like a new item of clothing, clean and pure. It is an admission that we, like Judah and Jerusalem, were not what we should have been or are now.
It is difficult to feel clean when people continually point fingers and remind me what a big sinner I am, especially in church, although much less in my current denomination than my previous one. I know I am a sinner; I don’t need others to expose my dirty laundry for me. God knows all about my dirt, yet I still feel God loves me even if I rolled in the mud or was covered in grass stains. Yes, God wants me to be clean, but that is why God offers forgiveness, even before I ask.
God wants me to hang on and be close. I think that’s the whole point of Jeremiah’s lesson. The laundry may get dirty from wear, but it can be washed and made clean. If it is buried or shoved behind a rock, it will rot, and then it is no use to anyone.
God wanted Jeremiah to take this lesson to the people. In a sense, God wanted Jeremiah to air the dirty linen out in public, something with which people today are becoming more and more familiar. But maybe we need to see dirty linen, and the cost of airing it. Think of subjects like slavery of all kinds, oppression, misogyny, hatred, prejudice, etc. That is what God wants to be eliminated and replaced with new, clean garments.
God wants us to be faithful, to trust, and to cling to God despite what happens in the world around us. It seems very simple, so why is it so hard to do? Why is it so hard to follow the Ten Commandments or even the simplified form of “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself”? It can’t get much more basic than that.
This week I think I will give a lot of consideration to dirty laundry. Maybe the best thing is for me to mind my own laundry and use the washing machine frequently to keep myself clean and presentable to God.
Image: Laundry hung to dry above an Italian street. Author: Joshua Sherurcij. Found at Wikimedia Commons.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is also owned by three cats.