Only God can turn your filthy rags into good deeds

Judy Brandon

I’m sure I share many growing-up experiences with other baby boomers my age. When it came to buying clothes, no doubt my sister Susie and I stood alongside the other millions of children in the 1950s.
On those times when Mother would buy Susie or myself a new outfit, we started out by wearing that outfit on Sunday or for other dress-up occasions. Only very special times qualified as dress-up occasions, and Mother was the ultimate authority on deciding what qualified as an occasion to wear our best. Only events such as Sunday morning church, weddings, a piano recital or something closely akin to those qualified.
When we would get a new outfit, Susie and I prudently wore those outfits for special circumstances and then took great care of the outfit between times. We did so because those clothes were reserved for special affairs. That way we got much wear out of every ensemble, thereby assuring Mother that we always looked appropriate for the situation.
Yet with time, those once-new clothes would become worn-looking. That’s when they were relegated to school wear. Sometimes I would wear an outfit that once was my best to school or on some other occasion not considered a dress-up affair. Because an outfit was no longer nice enough to use on special occasions, it was moved to the No. 2 slot.
But that wasn’t all. Finally when all the wear had gone out, Mother had Susie and me use those clothes to play in. It didn’t matter if we got grass stains on them because they were usually tattered or frayed. She was not alarmed if we spilled grape juice all over the front of some old blouse; we weren’t going to wear it anyplace but around the house. Nothing had to match, and it made no difference if it was ironed or not. They just suited us as comfortable old play clothes.
Finally, there was one more degree of use for those clothes because Mother made use of everything. When those clothes got so worn out we would not wear them, Mother tore them up and used them for rags. That was before we had paper towels and polyester. We used rags for everything because they could be washed time and time again.
Yet, sometimes even those rags were so far gone they could not be used again. When my father changed the oil in the car, those old oil rags were thrown into the trash. When Daddy shined his shoes for Sunday morning, those old rags with black shoe polish went into the garbage under the kitchen sink. When Daddy worked on the lawnmower, those oily rags were trashbound. Then occasionally when he had the chance to go fishing, Daddy would use rags in his clean up, and those fishy rags were taken to the Dumpster in the alley. For all tasks such as these, Daddy would always discard the rags.
The rags were so filthy they could not be cleaned up. They were useless because the filth they held could not be washed out for them to be used again for any dependable purpose.
Perhaps this rag incident of my childhood has a lesson for us today. Jesus warned the Pharisees: “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).
The old prophet Isaiah was more blunt. He said that our righteousness is like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).
Knowing that Christ saves us not because of what we do but only because of his mercy for us is the vital issue. No matter what our lot in life, none of us is set apart to be better than someone else. Our own personal works will not save us. In God’s eyes, we all need help, and anything we do or claim to be is of no real consequence unless we have given God the honor as the source of our actions.
God gave his Son to the world because we all needed him equally. Jesus is the way by which any of us can be saved. Moreover, he is the only standard by which we can measure our words and deeds. Otherwise, all our good works are as filthy rags indeed.
Judy Brandon is an instructor at Clovis Community College.