For centuries, the ripping of clothing was a sign of mourning, repentance, and outrage among the Jewish people. Woven fiber torn from woven fiber. Someone’s labor on the loom lost. The weaver’s work undone. We see the purposeful ripping of cloth many times in the Old Testament. For example, Reuben plans to rescue his brother Joseph, but finds only an empty cistern after his other brothers have taken the initiative to sell Joseph into slavery. Later that day, Jacob tore his robes at the news from his sons that Joseph was dead.
Is it worth it? To ruin a perfectly good piece of clothing just to make a point? To demonstrate your inner distress with a an outward, destructive act? To let the sound of tearing fibers speak when there are no words strong enough? Sometimes, it is worth it. Sometimes it is entirely called for.
In the passion history of our Lord Jesus, we hear the ripping of cloth—the rending of garments. We hear it at times that we shouldn’t. There are other times we should hear it, but we don’t. There are times when the mournful rending of garments is entirely called for, totally worth it. There are times when something different is called for.
Listen to the Sound of Ripping Cloth, and Hear the Message of God’s Love.
It’s the wee hours of Friday morning. Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin is taking place. It was neither legal nor much of a trial; they had already decided Jesus’ fate. They needed but a way to make the verdict stick. They had tried to get him to talk; he refused. They tried bringing in false witnesses; they couldn’t get their stories straight. Finally, the high priest had had enough. If they couldn’t make any of the charges stick, they’d force Jesus to admit his guilt. Standing up, the high priest pointed at Jesus, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God” (Mt 26:63).
“‘Yes, it is as you say,’ Jesus replied. ‘But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven’” (26:64). The high priest can hardly believe it. Not only did Jesus claim to be the Son of God, but he also claimed to be equal to God himself.
The high priest could barely contain his rage. Reaching up to his ornate robes, the symbol of his office, he tore them in fury. Rip. “You have heard the blasphemy!” he called out. “What do you say?” “He is worthy of death!” they answered. We are not told this, but it wouldn’t surprise me if echoing off the Sanhedrin walls then was the sound of more ripping cloth in wretched harmony with those words, “He is worthy of death!”
Pontius Pilate saw right through the chief priests and elders. His interview of Jesus only further solidified it for him: this Jesus was innocent. In Pilate’s mind, delusions of grandeur were all Jesus was guilty of. But when Pilate went outside to announce his verdict, things had changed. What started as just some Jewish leaders was now a huge mob, a bloodthirsty one at that. There was no convincing them otherwise, and, of course, Pilate just wants to keep the peace. So Pilate decided to have Jesus flogged.
Rip. Once again, the sound of ripping cloth filled the air as the clothes were torn from Jesus’ back. Then the whip. Then the tearing of Jesus’ own flesh. The tattered cloth that hung from his shoulders was soon soaked in blood.
Pilate brought him out, bloodied and beaten, humiliated, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, but this was not enough for the crowds. “Crucify him!” they shouted. If anything, the flogging only increased their bloodlust. Did it perhaps happen then that the sound of ripping cloth rippled through the rabble as they shouted “Crucify him”? They didn’t want a whipping; they wanted a crucifixion. They wanted Jesus dead. Pilate persisted to try to set Jesus free, but finally folded. He signed the order. Jesus would be taken to the hill outside the city. There he would be crucified.
So far the ripping of clothes has been uncalled for, unjust, and unjustified. From here on out, though, any garments rent throughout the land would be right and righteous. Perhaps it happened. Perhaps Jesus’ followers and sympathizers rightly tore their clothes in anger at the injustice of it all. Perhaps they tore their clothes in frustration at their inability to do anything to help their Lord. Perhaps… No, certainly…they should’ve rent their garments in guilt over their sins that put him there. Outward destruction to demonstrate inner distress. Really, as the Lord said through his prophet Joel, it is the rending of hearts that God desires more than the rending of clothes. “Rend your heart and not your garments” (2:13). It is a broken and contrite heart that acknowledges its guilt before God.
As Jesus hung there in the middle of the day, the sky turned black. Time seemed to stand still. Hours passed. Then, he let go of his last words, entrusting his spirit to the Father. Then, he let go of his last breath. Then, eventually, hands throughout the city let go of clenched cloth and its ripping ceased…except… one last piece of material.
This is no short, curt sound of clothing being torn. This long, thick tear seems to last forever. It comes from the temple. There, hanging in the temple, from floor to ceiling, is the long, heavy curtain, separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. The Holy Place was where the priests ministered and the Most Holy Place—well, that was where God dwelt. At the moment Jesus dies, the curtain is torn in two, from top to bottom, in one long, continuous rip. This ripping of cloth was no expression of defeat or mourning or repentance. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the death of Jesus was not defeat, but victory. His death tore apart the curtain of sin that hung between us and God. No matter how hard we could try, we could never remove that barrier. It had to be Jesus. It had to his life, his suffering, his flesh torn, his death, his payment of blood for our invoice of sin. His innocence punished, for our guilt absolved. He tore down our wall of sin.
Today, Jesus wants to hear the sound of tearing from his people. He doesn’t want us to tear our clothes, but our hearts! He wants our hearts to break when we think of the times we’ve sinned against him. He wants our hearts to break as we see the ways we fail to follow his will for our lives. He wants our hearts to break as his heart breaks because of our sin. He wants us to tear down our self-centered lives and confess our sin to him. The Lord spoke through the prophet, “Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity” (2:13). It is only for the sake of his Son that the Lord relents from sending our just condemnation. He tears our sins from us and sees only the holy people of God, washed in the blood of Christ. We are cleansed and forgiven by Jesus. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our [sins] from us” (Psalm 103:12).
Listen! Hear the sounds of the Passion. Hear the sound of arrogant rending cloth that sent Jesus to his death. Hear the sound of your rending heart because your sins put him there. Hear the sound of the curtain of sin torn down by Jesus, welcoming you and me into God’s presence. So, tear yourself away from sin. Tear yourself away from the things that tear his heart to see. “Rend your heart… for [the LORD your God] is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.” Amen.