I am both a late adapter and a thrifter, which is a dangerous combination when it comes to fashion. How this plays itself out practically can be illustrated in the following scenario.
A stylish, early adapter buys the latest outfit. He or she sets the trend for the average consumer who then purchases in suit. When both groups are officially tired of said style or outfit, they bag them up as rags to be donated to the local non-profit of their choice. At this point, I enter the scene and the thrift store. I find a super trendy steal that I prouldy wear, feeling fashionable. This confidence continues until I walk into a room of early adapters who remind me by their presence that my best red-carpet outfits are indeed last years rags.
As I have continued my study of James’ letter to the church, this theme of rags has come to the forefront.
While Paul felt called and compelled to a largely irreligious and pagan (in the most honest sense of the word) audience, James felt called and compelled to the largely religious and moral Jewish audience. In light of this context, many verses can and should be read in a different light, especially verses like James 1:21.
“Therefore, putting aside all fithiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted which is able to save your souls.”
Words like filthiness and wickedness conjure certain images in my mind. A red-light district with seedy characters and a prison with hardened criminals are leading among them. But the words used by James most likely conjured very different images in its original readers. His audience would have been raised to be more than well-acquainted with the Torah and the Prophets. For them, hearing the word “filth,” used only here in the New Testament, would have conjured up searing images from two revered prophets.
Isaiah, when trying to capture the juxtaposition between human morality and God, wrote, “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment” (Isaiah 64:6). The image for the Hebrew mind would have been that of menstrual rags. I told you the image was searing. Not an easy one to forget.
Another prophet, Zechariah, continued in a similar vein. He records a dream in which he pictures Joshua, the high priest (read: highly revered professional Christian or famous full-time minister) standing before the presence of God. “Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments and standing before the angel.”
In the Jewish tradition, the high priest was greatly revered and wore intricately detailed and delicate robes; thus the image of this high priest wearing filthy rags would have been both shocking and unsettling.
Both filthy rag images provided visual pictures of how even the most moral, religious people appear before the perfect holiness of God. For it’s original readers, James’ admonition to put aside the moral filth and wickedness could not have been ignored and written off as being intended for those people over there doing those things.
While they most likely did not need to put aside sexual seediness or murder, James’ audience needed to set aside something more subtly subversive. They needed to set aside their own righteousness which kept them from relying upon God.
When read in this context, a verse that I would normally skip over as applying to those people, becomes a weighty call to lay down the good works and the self-reliance that lull me into a sense of complacency and false confidence before God.
I can so quickly slip into a robe of self-righteousness. Most of the time I don’t even realize I am rocking it until I am brought into the presence of the Holy One. There my robes are exposed as last years rags covered with holes and stains, completely unfit for the present company.
Like Joshua the high priest, I find myself ragged on the red carpet.
But the Christian hope has always been the same and there were hints of this hope long before Jesus was born a babe. Zechariah caught a glimpse of it in the rest of his recorded dream.
“He spoke and said to those who were standing before him, saying, ‘Remove the filthy garments from him.’ Again he said to him, ‘See, I have taken your iniquity away from you and will clothe with you festal robes” (Zechariah 3:4).
I am beyond thankful that I get to stand proudly in the presence of the Great King clothed in His borrowed robes, robes that cover the rags that are my best attempts at holiness and obedience.