The Ragman, The Ragman, The Christ

Several years ago, a professor read this poem in class just before Easter. I never forgot about it. Set aside a few minutes to read this poem set in modern street-wise prose and pray and weep with joyful tears for what Christ has done for you. By faith and repentance of sins, he has taken all your sorrows upon himself and has beautifully dressed you for all eternity, clothed in his righteousness.

The Ragman, the Ragman, the Christ!
by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

I saw a strange sight. I stumbled upon a story most strange like nothing my life,
my street sense, my sly tongue had even prepared me for. Hush, child. Hush now and I will tell it to you.

Even before the dawn one Friday morning I noticed a young man,
handsome and strong, walking the alleys of our city.
He was pulling an old cart filled with clothes both bright and new,
and he was calling in a clear, tenor voice: “Rags!”
Ah, the air was foul and the first light filthy to be crossed by such sweet music.
“Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags! Rags!”
“Now, this is a wonder,” I thought to myself,
for the man stood six- feet-four,
and his arms were like tree limbs, hard and muscular,
and his eyes flashed intelligence.
Could he find no better job than this, to be a ragman in the inner city?
So I followed him. My curiosity drove me. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Soon the Ragman saw a woman sitting on her back porch.
She was sobbing into a handkerchief,
sighing, and shedding a thousand tears.
Her knees and elbows made a sad X.
Her shoulders shook. Her heart was breaking.
The Ragman stopped his cart.
Quietly, he walked to the woman,
stepping round tin cans, dead toys and Pampers.
“Give me your rag,” he said so gently,
“and I’ll give you another.”
He slipped the handkerchief from her eyes.
She looked up and he laid across her palm
a linen cloth so clean and new that it shined.
She blinked from the gift to the giver.
Then, as he began to pull his cart again,
the Ragman did a strange thing:
he put her stained handkerchief to his own face;
and then he began to weep,
to sob as grievously as she had done,
he shoulders shaking.
Yet she was left without a tear.

“This is a wonder,” I breathed to myself,
and I followed the sobbing Ragman
like a child who cannot turn away a mystery.

“Rags! Rags! New rags for old!”
In a little while,
when the sky showed grey behind the rooftops
and I could see the shredded curtains hanging out black windows,
the Ragman came upon a girl whose head was wrapped in a bandage, eyes were empty.
Blood soaked her bandage.
A single line of blood ran down her cheek.
Now the tall Ragman looked upon this child with pity,
and he drew a lovely yellow bonnet from his cart.
“Give me your rag,” he said,
tracing his own line on her cheek,
“and I’ll give you mine.”

The child could only gaze at him while he loosened the bandage,
removed it, and tied it to his own head.
The bonnet he set on hers. And I gasped at what I saw:
for with bandage went the wound!
Against his brow it ran a darker,
more substantial blood-his own!
“Rags! Rags! I take old rags!” cried the sobbing,
bleeding, strong, intelligent Ragman.
The sun hurt both the sky, now, and my eyes;
the Ragman seemed more and more to hurry.
“Are you going to work?” he asked a man leaned against a telephone pole.
The man shook his head.
The Ragman pressed him: “Do you have a job?”
“Are you crazy?” sneered the other.
He pulled away from the pole, revealing the right sleeve of his jacket – flat, the cuff stuffed into the pocket.
He had no arm.
“So,” said the Ragman. “Give me your jacket,
and I’ll give you mine.”
Such quiet authority in his voice!
The one-armed man took off his jacket.
So did the Ragman –
and I trembled at what I saw:
for the Ragman’s arm stayed in its sleeve,
and when the other put it on he had two good arms,
thick as tree limbs: but the Ragman had only one.
“Go to work,” he said.
After that he found a drunk,
lying unconscious beneath an army blanket,
an old man hunched, wizened, and sick.
He took that blanket and wrapped it round himself,
but for the drunk he left new clothes.

And now I had to run to keep up with the Ragman.
Though he was weeping uncontrollably,
and bleeding freely at the forehead,
pulling his cart with one arm,
stumbling for drunkenness, falling again and again,
exhausted, old, old, and sick,
yet he went with terrible speed.
On spider’s legs he skittered through the alleys of the City,
this mile and the next, until he came to its limits,
and then he rushed beyond.
I wept to see the changes in this man.
I hurt to see his sorrow.
And yet I needed to see where he was going in such haste,
perhaps to know what drove him so.
The little old Ragman – he came to a landfill.
He came to the garbage pits.
And then I wanted to help him in what he did,
but I hung back, hiding.
He climbed a hill.
With tormented labour he cleared a little space on that hill.
Then he sighed.
He lay down.
He pillowed his head on a handkerchief and a jacket.
He covered his bones with an army blanket. And he died.
Oh, how I cried to witness that death!

I slumped in a junked car and wailed and mourned as one who has no hope –
because I had come to love the Ragman.
Every other face had faded in the wonder of this man,
and I cherished him;
but he died.
I sobbed myself to sleep.
I did not know – how could I know? —
that I slept through Friday night and Saturday and its night, too.
But then, on Sunday morning,
I was awakened by a violence.
Light – pure, hard, demanding light –
slammed against my sour face,
and I blinked, and I looked,
and I saw the last and the first wonder of all.
There was the Ragman,
folding the blanket most carefully,
a scar on his forehead,
but alive!
And, beside that, healthy!
There was no sign of sorrow nor of age,
and all the rags that he had gathered shined for cleanliness.

Well, then I lowered my head and,
trembling for all that I had seen,
I myself walked up to the Ragman.
I told him my name with shame,
for I was a sorry figure next to him.
Then I took off all my clothes in that place,
and I said to him with dear yearning in my voice:
“Dress me.”
He dressed me. My Lord,
he put new rags on me, and I am a wonder beside him.
The Ragman, the Ragman, the Christ!

Jesus never said to his bride, “Let’s go Dutch”

As we approach our Passover Worship this Friday evening, March 29, we will eat and drink at the Lord’s Table. Cost: “Paid in Full by the Groom.” When Jesus inaugurated the Passover meal (Luke 21) he not only refused our contribution to help pick up the tab, but he also became the meal. Literally, the feast was on him. To eat and drink Jesus is not cannibalism (John 6), for we do not eat transformed bread and wine. But we do eat and drink Jesus, that is, we believe that he is our life, our sustenance, our resurrection. To refuse his flesh and blood is to die. To eat and drink is to live.

I didn’t grow up using the word “dutch” as a way of saying that we each pay our own way for the meal. But my parents did. In the 1950’s  and 60’s when someone said, “let’s go dutch,” they were borrowing a derogatory statement from the British. The British had dozens of slanderous stereotypes for the Dutch people of the Netherlands – for one, they viewed them as stingy. Hence, “let’s each be stingy with our money, like the Dutch, and not pay for the other’s meal but only for our own.”

Cute.

But when it comes to the most necessary meal that one must eat, aren’t you glad that Jesus did not say, “Dear, let’s go dutch this evening”? No, Jesus alone picked up the whole tab. You and I could no more contribute to the cost of our salvation than if we had lived a thousand years of doing good works. Our money is no good at this table. Either you come bankrupt or you do not come. Either you come broken and needy or you will starve. Either you come a poor wretched beggar or you will die. Either you come with palms turned upward and open or you will go without. This table is on Christ Alone!

Oh what splendid and delicious good news this is to the hungry and thirsty of soul. As the old hymn says, “Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe. Sin had left a crimson stain. He washed it white as snow.”

Sinner, Come to the table – Jesus paid it all.

The Lamb who died for a Pig like me

                       

God created all things good (Gen. 1-2). But then he temporarily quarantined some things and called them unclean, not the same thing as calling them bad, just unclean. Like pigs. When God did this he was not calling bad what he previously called good. He was however calling some things off-limits for a time so that he might communicate the difference between holy things and unholy things. That brings us to you and me. So that Israel (God’s chosen people) might know that God has made her holy and has separated her out from among the rest of mankind, he separated pigs from Israel’s culinary and social life (Leviticus). Not because pigs were evil, but because to be unholy is to be evil, which, the ostracized animal served to make the point.

Is this arbitrary and flippant? Not anymore than a parent telling a 16 yr old to be home at 9 pm on a school night. There is nothing intrinsically and constitutionally evil about a teen staying out to 9:30 on a school night, but if dad says 9 pm, it’s now law: 9:01 is now, temporarily, “unclean” “off-limits” “don’t go there or there will be consequences.” Not because dad is being mean but because dad does believe in a good nights rest for a good day of school. He loves his son.

Later, God did recall his previous embargo against bacon, demonstrating that God wants us to share the gospel with everyone and enjoy eating all that God has made (Acts 10; 1 Tim. 4:1-5). BUT . . . God never withdrew his calling upon his people to live holy, to keep ourselves unspotted and unstained from the world’s false value system, it’s love of sin, and rejection of Christ as Lord (1 Cor. 6; James 1 & 4; 1 Peter 2:9-12). Times have changed but not God’s character and not my need of inner cleansing. I once was unclean because of my sin – I was a pig. But now I am clean – because of Christ’s cleansing of my sins. The Lamb of God died to make the unclean, clean. This is why we celebrate the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

A Healthy Look at My Ugly Past

Past failure can haunt our present thinking like a plague and cripple us for serving and loving others. D. Martyn Lloyd Jones gave this reflection after a long pastoral ministry:

The problem here is the case of those who are miserable or who are suffering from spiritual depression because of their past – either because of some particular sin in their past, or because of the particular form which sin happened to take in their case. I would say that in my experience in the ministry extending now over many years, there is no more common difficulty. It is constantly recurring and I think that I have had to deal with more people over this particular thing than over anything else.” (from Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Its Cure, p. 66).

Have you ever said to yourself, “I just want to forget the past. I wish it would all go away, I’m so ashamed, I have so many regrets”? Some turn to drug and alcohol abuse or some other addiction to dull the pain of past failures, and some make normal ordinary things like eating, shopping, and hobbies into inordinate comforts or discomforts to ease the pain of the past. Overindulgence even in honest things like work, play, and rest are used to suppress sorrow.

How can God redeem recurring memories of past sin, regrets, and shame?

Listen to Paul as he allows the gospel to inform and shape his evaluation of an ugly past:

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”1 Timothy 1:12-17

Notice that Paul does not hide his sinful past nor does he have a flippant attitude that says, “so what”? Rather, he presents a biblical interpretation of it. He doesn’t avoid, hide, revise, or forget his past; he doesn’t smirk, sneer, or joke about the past. He looks at it through God’s lens.

1. By honestly looking at our past, God deepens our gratitude for His grace.

Can you say with Paul, “although I did . . ., and was . . ., I was shown mercy and grace”?

Viewed with the lens of redemption, our sin displays God’s mercy like a night sky displays the stars! How great would God’s mercy and grace be magnified if Paul had merely said, “Although I chewed gum in class, forgot to hang my coat up, and burped at the table, I was shown mercy and grace”? That’s right: not much.

2. By honestly looking at our past, God humbles us and cancels pride.
Paul’s sinful past is redeemed because he sees that God was there and yet God called him. (See also Luke 7:36-50 – The woman’s honesty about her sinful past and Jesus’ forgiveness of her deep sins is what brings forth great humility and love for Jesus).

The Apostle does not wallow in the past, he lets his past highlight God’s grace. When Paul says that he is presently the worst of sinners, it is because he sees his past failure and sins in light of God’s grace – and he is thrilled to give glory to God (verse 17). We don’t fixate on our shameful past but neither do we deny it or revise it.

3. By honestly looking at our past, God Expands our Sphere of Influence.
(Verse 16)
If you sugarcoat, deny, or revise your past failures and sins, you steal hope away from others. We are to hold out our lives as evidence of God’s redeeming love. We don’t dredge up the past to minimize the sorrow of it, but neither do we permit the past to have a strangle-hold on our present and future. Our sins did not end our lives. There are no throw-away lives, not at the cross of Christ.

               Use your ugly past to show others that there is hope in Christ.

We Are Merit-Mongers By Nature

If God’s mercies are new to me this morning (Lam. 3:22-23), yesterdays hard work for him did not merit any favor. That’s too bad; by nature, my heart loves to earn favor with God by standing out in the crowd – just a little in front of the rest. But this is how the gospel informs and shapes my thinking about my relationship with a holy and merciful God who sent his son as an atonement for my sins. Orthodox Christianity is the only religion on the planet that will not allow man to get ahead of Christ and gain any favor with God by working hard. Mercy is counter-intuitive to how we think but it is God’s way.

This past Sunday, as I am preaching through 1 & 2 Timothy on Sunday mornings, we saw that Paul prays that God would have mercy on Onesiphorus and his household (2 Tim. 1:15-18). Onesiphorus ministered to Paul while in Ephesus – where Timothy is now an elder. But when Paul was arrested and taken to Rome, Onesiphorus risked his life searching for Paul and also risked his life refreshing Paul again and again as the old and beaten apostle languished alone in prison. You would then think that mercy is not what Onesiphorus needed from the Lord but rather a paycheck for all the hard work that he did for Paul. But the gospel shapes Paul’s prayer: No matter how hard you work you are still in need of mercy from the Lord, not because your work doesn’t matter – it does, but because your work does not obligate God to be good to you. At the end of the long work day for the Lord, you and I are still saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”

This is one reason why I believe the Bible to be God’s Word. No sane man would write like this. Either you’re a grade A nut-job or you really are an apostle writing the very words of God. There is no religious document in the world that talks this way about man’s work in relation to God’s character of mercy. There is not a human on the planet that naturally gravitates to mercy. We are by nature, Merit-Mongers. We are blood-thirsty for approval based upon our works. In fact, I find myself wanting to do a good work right after I have sinned to off-set my trespass. Have you ever skipped your devotions and then thought, “I’ll read double today to make up for my failure yesterday?” Have you ever gone to church to impress God? Have you ever talked about what right and good things you have done without giving thanks to God, or saying, “God has been merciful to me”? Have you ever compared yourself to someone else’s sin and failure and the slightest infraction, only to put distance between you and the poor beggar so that all can see how better you are? Have you ever minimized your sin in front of your accuser? Have you ever kept embarrassing information about yourself out of the story-line and then slightly embellished the good stuff about you?

Our hearts are merit-mongers, seeking to be seen as worthy before man and God, seeking to be approved by our performance and hard work. But God will not share his glory with us. Our only hope is to plead mercy, look to Christ for all the perfection, performance, and righteousness that we will ever need. You see, the gospel is not something we believed at one time long ago and then got on with the hard work of being a Christian. No – the gospel is my life. It informs and conforms my life to the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ – for my eternal justification. If I had to work to keep myself in the good graces of God, I would have been tossed out long ago.

Think of it this way: On Judgment Day, would you rather point to all your hard work for entrance into the eternal Joy of the Lord, or would you rather point to Christ’s hard work for you – in your place as your substitution? I’m going with the latter. I advise the same for you. Knowing your need of daily mercy may cut against the grain of your heart, but it is the safest and sweetest and only way to stand before the Lord.

Jesus Did Not Say, “Take up your Mercedes Benz and follow Me”

The position of the Bible is that Suffering for Christ is compatible with Joy, but not the joy of Disney Land, or American Idol, or a really nice car, but the joy of the Lord, that is, the joy that comes through knowing Christ and his Father through the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we wrongly equate suffering for Christ with a joyless life. It is the sin in our hearts that blind us to see the truth that all losses in this life for Christ’s sake reap a greater joyful benefit than refusing to lose anything for Christ. The question that is put before us is this: Do you believe there is more joy in suffering for Christ than there is joy in what the world is able to give without suffering for Christ?  Jesus does not ask his followers to forsake joy, only the lesser joy of the world! His joy is better than the worlds’ but it comes by a cross. Do you believe that the cross is worth it?

Jesus said in Luke 14:26-27, 33, that “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be my disciple.” Not hate in the sense of malice, but in the sense of priority and value, we forsake the lesser for the greater.

Also in John 15:11, 18, 20, 22:

These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. . . If the world hates you, you know that it hated me before it hated you. . . if they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. . . But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know Him who sent me. . . Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. . . therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you.”

So when Jesus said, take up your cross and follow me, he did not criticize those who had wealth, per se, as I am not criticizing owning a Benz – I’d be delighted if you bought me one! But he did mean to give a clear picture of discipleship: to follow Christ is to suffer with him – it will not be easy but it will be worth it – much more than any luxury in this life.

These texts and many others in God’s Word (contact me and I’ll send you a very long printed out list) teach us that we must be willing to suffer less material possessions and less worldly status in order that we may “store up treasure in heaven” where nothing can take it away. We must be willing to suffer in radical ways in fighting against lust in our hearts so that we do not go to hell; Jesus wants us to suffer and gouge out our eye and cut off our right hand in order to not lust after a woman in our hearts. Jesus wants us to be willing to suffer and obey God rather than man, when man commands or entices us to go against God. If need be, Jesus wants us to suffer distance and broken fellowship with our family members by putting him and his gospel first, like when confronting the sinful behavior in children; verbally questioning the salvation of an older child who obviously is no longer living for Jesus; accept the disappointment and even hostility from parents and grandparents when you tell them that you and your wife along with your children are going to be missionaries in Sudan and you’re not coming home anytime soon; and witnessing to a lost family member. Jesus wants us to be conformed to his image and to have his mind so that we will be able to suffer the loss of worldly praise and honor; we do this when we love the truth and righteousness of Jesus more than the half-truths and the multiple false paths to heaven.

Jesus wants us to suffer the loss of promotions in our vocations and our very jobs if need be because we refuse to be an aid to dishonest gain, or a cover-up for illegal activity, or a sexual trophy for the boss. Jesus wants teenagers to suffer the loss of friendships with their peers by refusing to share in their foul-mouthed language, their “safe-but-free-sex” relationships, their plagiarism of on-line term papers, their obsession with fashion and prestige, their unquestioned desire for stimulation through viewing sexually arousing movies.

Jesus wants the Church to get the gospel to the ends of the earth by suffering the consequences of gospel-preaching. In Jesus’ plan, a missions-minded church is a pro-suffering church: Missions is impossible without suffering! The best Christians and the best books and songs ever written have come from those who have suffered joyfully for Christ, and then have entered into the Joy of the Lord. Suffering for Christ is not earning salvation – but it is proving that we value our salvation in Christ over this world.