Don’t tell my high school literature teacher, but I’ve always thought Nathaniel Hawthorne was a little over the top when it came to symbolism. Come on, Nate, a bright red letter A over Hester’s heart? Did we really need the literary two-by-four?
But then, several years ago, I found myself in a well-to-do church in Bangkok, receiving scathing glares for being in the company of a couple of Hester Prynnes, and I felt the sting of the scarlet letter in a more personal way. Suddenly the big red A no longer seemed excessive.
After being on the streets of Thailand’s red-light district for a week as part of a short-term trip, our group had befriended several women who were trapped in the sex industry there. We invited Gun and Kim to attend a local church with us, and to my surprise, they agreed to meet us there on Sunday.
As a group of Westerners, we would have stood out like the proverbial bull in the china shop anyway. (As hard as we tried to keep our voices down, we couldn’t shake the “loud American” stereotype.) But when we showed up with several women from the streets, all eyes in the sanctuary turned conspicuously on us. I’m no expert on Thai etiquette, but I could tell immediately that our friends weren’t quite dressed in what the congregation would consider “Sunday’s best.”
As we got looks ranging from disgust to pity to judgment, I found myself experiencing conflicting emotions: first, a sense of indignation—an almost maternal protectiveness for these women I’d grown to love. Women who desperately needed love, acceptance, grace. But almost as quickly, to my shame, I felt a wave of defensiveness wash over me. I’m not one of them! I wanted to explain. I’m a good Christian, just like you!
I imagine the prostitute Rahab must have felt marked too when the Israelite spies were in her neighborhood, scouting out potential property for the Promised Land. She may not have had a literal letter on her clothing, but no doubt everyone knew who she was and felt no qualms about condemning her.
But here’s where Scripture surprises me. Although Rahab may have had the sketchiest reputation in town, she and her family were the only ones to be saved when the Israelite army besieged the city. The sign she was given—the mark to indicate to the soldiers that they should spare her home—was a red cord.
Here were her instructions:
You must leave this scarlet rope hanging from the window through which you let us down. And all your family members—your father, mother, brothers, and all your relatives—must be here inside the house.
In the span of a day, Rahab’s life was turned inside out. She went from bearing a symbol of shame to being marked with the red symbol of salvation. And that scarlet thread didn’t just spare her own family: this former prostitute was woven into the lineage of David and eventually the Messiah himself (Matthew 1:5).
Somewhere about halfway through the church service, as my mind wandered amid a sea of unfamiliar words, it hit me: I am one of “them.” I am a sinner, with a glaring red S over my heart. And I am in desperate need of grace.
There is good news for Gun and Kim, and there is good news for me. We no longer have to be defined by the scarlet mark of our sin. Because of Christ, we can hang the scarlet cord of salvation out our window, and we, too, will be saved.
I’ve taken the challenge of reading the Bible chronologically this year and tracing the thread of grace through it. These musings are prompted by my reading. I’d love to have you join me: One Year Bible reading plan.