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, which is good for nothing. For as the loincloth clings to one’s loins, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, says the Lord, in order that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory. But they would not listen. – Jeremiah 13:1-11
Jeremiah was a prophet (not a bullfrog). As such, he listened to God and did what he was told, no matter what. Sometimes God tells prophets to do strange things, like taking a journey they did not want to take or preach to very sinful people who would inevitably turn back to God when the downright angry prophet wanted them punished. God told one prophet to run around town stark naked, nakedness being forbidden to all but madmen. The story of Jeremiah’s underwear is another story about doing God’s will, no matter how weird it sounded.
Loincloths very possibly were among the first articles of clothing worn by humankind – suggested in Genesis when Adam used the fig leaf. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs show men wearing them, from pharaohs to enslaved people. Primitive tribes often used soft bark or tanned leather instead of cotton. Mahatma Gandhi wove his own from linen and even sent one to Queen Elizabeth II on the occasion of her coronation. Loincloths are still worn today, especially in hot and humid countries. They are even available from multiple sources on the internet.
Back to Jeremiah. God told him to go and buy a new linen loincloth and put it on, being careful not to dip it in water. I can understand buying something new and putting it on, but why not dip it in water or even wash it before wearing it, like we are so often told to do with new articles of clothing? At any rate, Jeremiah was obedient and did it. But God had more for him to do: take that loincloth to the river and hide it between two rocks. I wonder – did he take his old one with him to wear back home? At any rate, Jeremiah was told several days later to retrieve the newer piece of material from the rocks. The formerly new and briefly worn linen was ruined, stained by organic matter in the water, bits of dead plants and fish (and other things, no doubt), and abraded by the motion of the water and the rocks.
The point of the story is that things can quickly become unusable. God used that as a metaphor for the people of Judah and Jerusalem. God had created them to be as close to Godself as a piece of linen against the skin. Still, they had gone off, turned away, and become as useless as a piece of soggy, filthy cloth of no use to anyone, especially God. They were supposed to be God’s glory, his chosen people, and obedient to God’s every command. In internet terms, they would be considered as a FAIL.
Of course, God would forgive them and take them back if they would only see the larger picture, that of sin, repentance, and redemption, three of the big lessons of Lent. We should be doing this on a daily, if not weekly, basis. But punishment would be meted out if we needed a harsh lesson like the Judaeans and the Jerusalemites. God would prefer us to understand and make the necessary changes to prevent our becoming like ruined clothes. Punishment will come if we do not listen to Jeremiah and the other prophets, both Biblical and contemporary.
We all sin, but we can all repent and be redeemed. It is simply a matter of listening, paying attention, and doing the right thing. It is much more important than giving up chocolate, coffee, pastry, or anything else we might think would be sufficient.
Image: Cristo Crucificado, by Diego Velazquez (1632). From the Museo del Prado. Found at Wikimedia Commons
Linda Ryan is an Education for Ministry mentor, an avid reader, a Baroque and Renaissance music lover, and a fumbling knitter. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter and lives with her cat, Phoebe, near Phoenix, Arizona.