I ran across a fascinating statement by Ben Witherington on James 1:21:
Christians are to clean out their ears and listen. Rhyparia in a metaphorical sense can mean moral filth or avarice (Jas 2:2; 1 Pe 3:21), but Joseph Mayor notes that it literally refers to earwax.”
(Witherington, p. 441) (What student of the word would pass up the opportunity to run the references for proof of that!)
I found nothing in Walter Bauer’s or Thayer’s lexicon to corroborate the point, but I found something in The Dictionary of New Testament Theology. The word rhyparia (Gk.) is in a family of words, the root being rhypos (Gk.). Rhypos is the word for “dirt” or “filth.” The word in James 1:21 is translated “filthiness” (NKJV).
Another handy book I purchased when I was in school is The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament: Illustrated from the Papyri and Other Non-Literary Sources by Moulton and Milligan. I looked up rhypos and found it translated “filth” as in 1 Pet. 3:21. It was also used of “ear-wax” of a female mule. I initially thought that Mr. Witherington was simply stretching the use of the word for its novelty, but now I think he has a point.
No translation I am aware of renders the word rhyparia as “ear wax.” They typically go with the general idea of filthiness (NKJV, ASV, ESV). But, without intending to press this beyond reason, consider Mr. Witherington’s reference to Joseph Mayers suggestion that the word literally refers to earwax. I am not in the academic position to restrict the meaning to such, but even if there is a remote connection consider how well it fits into the context of James’ use of the term.
Some argue that James 1:19-27 is the main proposition of the book—that it does no good to profess one thing when the deeds of your life profess another. Notice the emphasis on hearing. In v. 19, he urges every man to be “swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” In v 21, the reader is urged to “lay aside all filthiness and overflowing of wickedness,” —two essentials for receiving with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save our souls. And what follows is a paragraph on being “doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” A person who only hears the word but does not do it is engaged in the most beguiling deception of all—self-deception. A hearer who is not a doer has wax build up.
“Christians are to clean out their ears and listen” (Witherington, p. 441). To receive the word as it was intended to be heard, one must get rid of the filthiness (ear-wax) and the abundance of wickedness that hinders the implanted word from being received. This word “is able to save your souls” (1:21).