Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Numbers 15:37-41) transports me to the alteration shop, where a team of busy sewers are adding a fringe tassel to each article of clothing worn by the covenant community members. Fringe is the fad, tassels the talk of the town, with a blue cord adorning everything from khakis to culottes, from blue jeans to bikinis. There is more than fashion at play here, though, as the people of faith are responding to a direct command from the Lord. The tassels are not for show; they are to serve as mnemonic devices, tailor made to help the people remember who they are and what they are supposed to do. It’s like tying a string around your finger, as a reminder to accomplish some forgettable task. The tassels and cords on the fringe are to help the people remember the commandments God has given them. It is as if God is dressing them every morning and pointing out the fringe, saying, Now children, remember who you are. Make sure and remember today, that you are not prostitutes. You are not indulgers in every lust that enters your heart. You are sons and daughters of God.
This is the background passage to Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees in Matthew 23. Those religious leaders engaged in such a predictable human thing to do, to take something fashioned for sustaining one’s faith and slowly alter it into something ill-suited for spiritual growth. The Pharisees had taken this simple memory cue and turned it into a show of superiority. Like honor society tassels at graduation, the fringes were worn proudly by the keepers of the law, a sign to all that they were people of exceedingly high rank. The irony for them is that their lust for power and prestige led them to employ their tassels for the exact opposite reason God commanded: the fringe fed their lusts and prodded them into pious prostitution.
Here’s hoping for a new season where fringe again becomes fashionable, so I can break out the old leather vest I sported many years ago, complete with fringe all round. I got it for an original play I was in when I was in fourth grade. Timmy Messer and Phil Davenport and I were all big fans of the book Squanto and the Pilgrims. One or the other of us checked it out and re-read it from the library every week. Mrs. Teague finally got the bright idea to ask us to dramatize the book for the class. Our mamas sewed us leather vests with lots of fringe. Timmy got to play Squanto, since he was the smallest. Phil played his father. I played Chief Massasoit. Reflecting back, I think reading that story so many times was a key source of my developing an awareness of injustice and oppression; Squanto helped turn my eye toward the fringes of society. My vest will no doubt need some serious alteration, so if any of you are good with needle and thread, give me a call. Sporting it again would be a great mnemonic device, helping me remember who I am, a follower of Jesus, the one who identified with the fringe element.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith?