Saturday, February 17, 2018

All That Remains

Ear wax is a good thing.

(No, Microsoft Word’s autocorrect function is not playing havoc with my posts again; this is precisely how I intended to start this one, though I quite understand if you’re confused.)

Ear wax really is a good thing. We are unbelievably well designed, and everything that happens naturally in our bodies is in service of one purpose or another. Cerumen, as it is more formally known, is about 50% fat and serves to moisten the ear canal, fight off infection and help keep dust, dirt and debris from getting deep inside your ear.

Mind you, it IS possible too have too much of a good thing.

Say What?

Why on earth does this matter? you may well ask.

Well, the word perisseia was used by first century Greeks to describe … wait for it … excess ear wax.

At least so says the Blue Letter Bible, a supremely handy little online tool incorporating Strong’s Concordance, Vine’s Expository Dictionary and Thayer’s Greek Lexicon all in one location.

That’s a useful fact to have at our disposal when we read the book of James. He says:
“Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant [perisseia] wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”
That’s the ESV, in case you’re wondering.

No Punches Pulled

Now, James is a bit hard-nosed, admittedly. As one of the earliest and most stereotypically Jewish of the New Testament writers, he doesn’t pull any punches, and sometimes he sounds like he’s addressing the rawest of raw pagans rather than brother and sister Jews with whom he shared a common faith.

“Filthiness” is external. It’s dirt that accumulates on the exterior. “Wickedness”, or “malice”, as some translations put it, comes out of the heart. It reflects what is characteristic. We must ask ourselves how likely it is that James is addressing genuinely “rampant” wickedness (or, as the King James puts it so exquisitely, “superfluity of naughtiness”) in a Christian audience. My guess is not very.

To put it in perspective, Mark uses a related word to describe the leftovers (seven baskets) after the feeding of the four thousand. Seven large baskets might feed several hundred hungry people, but it would certainly come nowhere near feeding four thousand men plus women and children. What was provided was not double or triple what was actually needed, but merely sufficient excess to demonstrate that the Lord had fully and satisfactorily met the need.

One Step Too Far

That’s the idea of perisseia, I think: the overflow; that little bit more than you require. Thus I much prefer the understated work of the NASB translation team in this particular instance:
“Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of [perisseia] wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.”
“All that remains” just works better for me. I suspect that rather than accusing his fellow believers of all kinds of vile behavior, James is simply addressing that little extra expression of “self” in the believer that threatens to turn godly discipline into spite, or exhortation into self-serving pedantry, or affection into lust, or good clean fun into course jesting, or concern for looking presentable into narcissism. You know the sort of thing: the ghost of Old Me taking what is normally a good impulse and pushing it so far that the net effect is malicious, wicked and counterproductive rather than edifying.

That little bit of excess ear wax that makes you go hunting for a Q-tip®.

For the Christian, the wickedness problem has been addressed once and for all at the cross. No true believer is driven, consumed or characterized by malice and vice. All that remains to be addressed is, well, the remains: the stale residue of what we once were that, left unchecked, contaminates testimony, mutes joy and blunts the sense of purpose the believer would otherwise enjoy in Christ.

The Soul Saved

This is why we — consistently, repeatedly and even daily — need the washing of the Word. “Receive with meekness the implanted word,” James counsels, “which is able to save your souls.”

I don’t think James is talking about salvation from hell, by the way. The word James uses here is psychÄ“, which is indeed employed in the New Testament to describe the life-force of an individual being, but also gets regular use describing the seat of our emotions, desires, affections and aversions. “My soul is very sorrowful,” said the Lord Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your soul,” he says in Matthew, quoting the Old Testament. I think James is saying that the implanted word of God can save your very person in this life; changing your desires, reining in your emotions, transforming your affections.

This interpretation is more consistent with an audience of disciples, I think. In the upper room, upon hearing that it was necessary to be washed by his Master, Peter cries out in his enthusiasm, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” The Lord Jesus replies, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean …”

Rubber and Road

Just so. We have been washed by the Spirit, as the disciples were washed by the Lord Jesus himself. But we still must go out and come in contact with the world in order to be of any use, and we are bound to get dirty from time to time where the rubber meets the road. Left unaddressed, those contaminants we have picked up along the way can easily trigger the return of old habits — of “all that remains of wickedness”.

We find ourselves quickly in need of a bath.

I keep my Bible by my bed at night lately, though I don’t do all my reading there. There are times after a busy day when I pull the sheets up and commit myself to the Lord, and for one reason or another, my spirit just does not feel quite right. It may be a reaction something I watched on TV, or an inappropriate emotional response to an unpleasant conversation I couldn’t avoid, or simply a too-narrow escape from the “sin which clings so”.

There’s nothing like spending a few needed minutes in the word of God to clear that feeling right up. That’s what it’s there for, after all.

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