Old Rags & Worn Clothes

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Thursday in the week of Proper 23, Year 1 (Pentecost 20, 2015)

Jeremiah 38:11-13 ~ Ebed-melech took the men with him and went to the house of the king, to a wardrobe of the storehouse, and took from there old rags and worn-out clothes, which he let down to Jeremiah in the cistern by ropes. Then Ebed-melech the Ethiopian said to Jeremiah, “Just put the rags and clothes between your armpits and the ropes.” Jeremiah did so. Then they drew Jeremiah up by the ropes and pulled him out of the cistern.

About a half-century ago, I dropped out of college and went to work as a janitor in a small Southern California hospital. Not too long after being hired, I found myself invited to become an orderly in the facility, an invitation I accepted and went to work primarily in the radiology and emergency departments. In that position, I had opportunity observe situations in which rescues had resulted in injuries that the patient would otherwise not have suffered.

I remember one instance in which a surfer had been knocked out by his own surfboard. Because of inept handling by the rescue crew, he suffered a broken leg and a broken arm while unconscious. That surfer came to mind as I read today’s story of the rescue of Jeremiah the prophet from the cistern of Malchiah.

I’m sure there are greater lessons to learn from the tale of Jeremiah’s cistern imprisonment and rescue, but what impresses me today is the care taken by the eunuch Ebed-melech to insure that Jeremiah is not injured by the ropes during the rescue. There’s a lesson there about ministry, especially our “rescue ministries,” our food pantries, soup kitchens, clothing cabinets, and other “handout” programs. We must ask ourselves whether we are doing more harm than good; are the ropes of these programs chafing those we rescue?

The surfer suffered those fractures because his rescuers, getting him out of the water and off the rocks of the beach, weren’t sufficiently careful; they failed to make use of “old rags and worn clothes” to protect the subject of their beneficence. How often do we do the same? How often do we foster dependence or cause greater injury by our handouts and our rescue ministries?

We’ve all heard the old saw about giving a hand-up, not a handout. Usually, we hear this from those who want curtail both hand-ups and handouts, to cut off all social services and so-called “entitlements” from government funding. However, there is some validity to the notion that our rescue missions should encourage self-determination and independence rather than foster dependence; whether a hand-up or a handout, our actions should not further harm those rescued. Again, we must ask whether the ropes of our programs are chafing those we rescue and, if so, make use of the “old rags and worn clothes” to prevent that.