Clothing the Naked
In Matthew chapter 25, Jesus tells a story about some people who ministered to him and some people who didn’t. And the plot twist in that story is that what really happened was that some people ministered to those in need, and some people ignored those in need. In that story, Jesus told us that when we minister to people who are in need, we are ministering to him “in his most distressing disguise,” (as Mother Teresa liked to say).
Part of our missional strategy here at Zion is at least once per year we corporately find ways to address the priorities of Jesus in Matthew 25: Feeding the hungry, satisfying the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those in prisons. We honor the emphasis Jesus placed on offering preferential treatment for the marginalized, on doing charity. We are called to do justice, but we are also called to do charity, which is necessary because we don’t yet have justice. The first week we talked about welcoming the stranger, last week we talked about visiting the prisoners. This week we are talking about clothing the naked.
And I would like to start right off with a story from Luke chapter 3, page 1593 in your pew Bibles. Luke is one of four spiritual biographies of Jesus’ ministry. One of the fascinating things that the gospels seem to indicate is that Jesus’s cousin John the Baptizer had a really powerful ministry before Jesus did, that some people who first followed John later followed Jesus, and maybe even Jesus himself was a follower of John before his own ministry began. All the gospels present John the Baptizer as a forerunner of Jesus, someone who prepared the way of the Lord (as the prophet Isaiah says). This story actually doesn’t mention Jesus at all; it’s about John’s ministry. I’ll read a few verses from the beginning of the chapter to give us context and then we’ll pick up in chapter 3 verse 7.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore, bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What, then, should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
As the people were filled with expectation and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
A few years ago, I went looking for something in my entryway closet and discovered that I had six winter coats. I’m pretty sure I still have four. At one point I had three times as many coats as what John the Baptist said was excessive. I still have three more than he would say I need. And I bet that I’m not unusual. Maybe it’s not coats for you. Maybe it’s shoes or dresses or a particular brand of clothing. I’m just lucky he doesn’t say anything about purses or earrings.
Now I don’t say that to shame myself or anyone else. I say it to set the stage for how hard it is for most of us in this room to have a conversation about clothing the naked because we have so many clothes. Sam is truly a clothing minimalist. He has two tuxedos. That’s his only excess. But I would bet that just about all of us in this room have clothes that we don’t wear and don’t need. The racks at Goodwill are always packed. Those clothing drop off boxes are always overflowing. I have been at the Free Store when they literally couldn’t take in any more donations because the sorting room was already so full. We have access to fast fashion, which means clothes are cheap because someone in another country sewed them together for what is usually less than a living wage. We have disposable clothes. Middle-class Americans are clothing gluttons. We just are. Most of us in this room have not had the experience of needing an item of clothing that we were unable to buy.
I know you know this, but things were very different in the ancient world. When all cloth was from thread that was spun by hand and woven by hand on looms, most people did not have an excess of clothes. They had barely what they needed, and losing an article of clothing was a big deal. Especially for the people who were following Jesus: the blue-collar workers living under the thumb of the Roman Empire. If they had two cloaks they probably knew someone who had no cloak. So John the Baptizer says to share one. He encourages the people to trust in God and one another instead of trusting in stuff. If they give one cloak away, when their current cloak wears out, someone else will give them one. That’s some pretty radical minimalist living. Hard for us to imagine.
So as we think about clothing the naked this morning, I want us to think about it from two perspectives: that of the giver and that of the receiver. First the receiver: what does it mean to the person who receives the clothes. Why does it matter? What does clothing do? (Now maybe this seems obvious to you, but let’s talk about it anyway.)
First, clothing provides basic shelter. For not-rich people in the ancient world, clothing was their first line of defense against the elements. I used to wonder why Jesus didn’t include the homeless in that list of people to care for. Now I think it’s because the need for shelter is covered in this command to clothe the naked. Think about it: if so many people are already sleeping rough, living in tents, in houses where they can’t really control the temperature, it’s important to have the right clothes. To be without clothes is to be without shelter.
That was true in the ancient world and it’s true now. If people are sleeping rough, outdoors with minimal shelter, or in their cars, it’s really important to have clothes. The right clothes. Good clothes. Because if you don’t have a closet, then you can’t manage a lot of clothes. The ones you do have are precious, and they also get worn out a lot faster. It’s ironic that the people who most need the clothes are the people who have the hardest time getting the clothes. Someone who needs shoes because they have literally walked through their only pair often isn’t able to buy shoes. Part of the imbalance of our world, the injustice, the not-rightness, is that the people who are in the most needs have the hardest time meeting their needs. To clothe the naked is to provide basic shelter.
In addition to basic shelter, clothing the naked also provides people with basic dignity. It’s fascinating that all the way back at the beginning of the Bible in Genesis 2, we have a story of God creating the first human creatures and the text specifically says that they were naked and not ashamed. It is only after the choose not to trust God that they realize they are naked and feel fear and shame. For just about all humans, to be naked is to be totally vulnerable. It’s OK with some people, but not with people we don’t know and don’t trust. Thus it’s not OK in public spaces. To provide someone with clothing is to provide them with a sense of basic dignity. Basic shelter and basic dignity: that’s what’s at stake for those who receive clothing. And before I move on, let me say very clearly: we are not providing either shelter or dignity if we are “donating” clothes that are worn out, torn, filthy, or damaged. That stuff isn’t going to provide shelter or dignity. If you wouldn’t offer it proudly to Jesus himself, then don’t send it to the Free Store.
On the flip side: what happens when we give clothing? First, we are challenged to think about our own habits of consumption. How much do we have? How much do we need? Why do we have more than we need? What is it that drives us to acquire more and more and more? We have shelter; we have dignity; what other need are we actually trying to meet when we buy and buy and buy? We are not going to find personal fulfillment on the clearance rack. Amazon doesn’t sell community. When I am buying whatever it is that I always buy, what am I really trying to get? Jesus’ call to clothe the naked will challenge our own buying habits.
Finally, hopefully, clothing the naked will also change how we look at people. Clothes are one of the first things our brains use when sorting people, when figuring out who they are and where they fit in the world. Clothes are a status symbol. They always have been, in the ancient world and now. The condition they are in, the style, how they fit, whether there’s an obvious brand mark — all of those send social cues about status. People who are wearing Prada aren’t standing at the end of the exit ramp with a cardboard sign.
With assumptions about social status also come value judgments. And this is where we need to be careful. This is where we need to challenge our stereotypes, our instinct to move away or not make eye contact. Hopefully, ironically, clothing the naked may help us look past the clothing to see the shared humanity.
Clothing is a great metaphor, found throughout the Bible. Galatians chapter 3 verses 26 through 28 says, “You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” When we are baptized, we are clothed with Christ. Christ is basic shelter and dignity for all who are baptized. When we gather as Christ’s people, we are called to look past the outward stuff and honor the shared humanity. And as we practice doing that here, among God’s people, we get better at doing it out in the world with everyone else.
The 20th-century prophet and founder of the Catholic Worker movement Dorothy Day said, “If you have two coats, one belongs to the poor.” This kind of radical sharing has been a perpetual challenge to the people of God. We are continually confronted by it and continually struggle to really do it. Saint Basil the Great was a bishop in Turkey in the 300s and he said this, ““When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.” And if we are going to take Jesus seriously when he identifies with those in need, then we would say, “The bread in our cupboard belongs to Jesus. The shoes rotting in our closet belong to Jesus. The money we are hoarding belongs to Jesus. If we have two coats (and I have four), one belongs to Jesus.” May God disturb us and provoke us to that kind of radical generosity. Amen.