Sometimes people have dreams of being naked in public, and in the dream feel the embarrassment that would go with that. I almost wrote, “…would naturally go with that” – but that would be a mistake: What we feel about nakedness in public isn’t “natural,” it’s cultural. We learned to feel that way because we grew up in this culture. It’s not inevitable. We know that because we know of cultures (if only from National Geographic magazine) in which social nudity is a non-event. But more to the point of this particular Holy Work, public nakedness in Jesus’ culture didn’t mean what it does in ours. For the people of Jesus’ time, it was more embarrassing to see a naked person than to be seen naked. So this particular Holy Work – to clothe the naked – is more a service to the onlooker than to the person him/herself. What would that mean today?
Think of it this way: What do we want to “turn our eyes away from” just the way people of Jesus’ time would turn their eyes away from a naked person? What is it embarrassing to us to see, or to admit to ourselves?
If we look at our society without blinders, we might see that our country does embarrassingly badly in infant mortality (we’re #46 in world rankings). “Clothing the naked” isn’t just a matter of providing diapers; we need to see what we’re embarrassed to see, so that we can change it. (Analysts believe that the reason the U.S. does so badly in saving infants from dying is twofold: economic inequality and poverty. If we want to keep more babies alive, those are the things that need to change.)
Similarly, we might look at the rate of abortion in this culture. Putting aside the politics, about 765,000 pregnancies are ended this way each year. (For context, there are about 3.9 million live births.) Perhaps few of us look as clearly as we should at that, because we’re made uncomfortable by it – embarrassed. Bringing the number of abortions down is “clothing the naked” so we won’t have this to shield our eyes and awareness from.
We also, as a culture, tend to shield our eyes from the costs of our military enterprises. The budget for our military – about $640 billion dollars a year – is greater than the next eight countries combined. The cost of the new war against ISIS/ISIL is estimated to be $780 million or more as I write – and, of course, growing each day. That’s money not used for schools, health care, and other pressing needs. The cost of the past decade-plus of wars – the veterans suffering physical and psychological and spiritual wounds to this day – is also something too many of us shield our eyes from. Congressional Budget Office estimates indicate that it will cost over $2 billion (up to perhaps $5.4 billion) to treat returning veterans of recent wars (this is separate from ongoing care for other veterans). The human costs – in pain, damaged families, broken spirits – is more. (The VA estimates that each day 22 veterans commit suicide.)
“To clothe the naked” means to look at what we’d prefer to turn away from, so that we no longer have to be embarrassed by certain uncomfortable things. To see clearly is the first step toward change. That’s why it’s a Work of Mercy. Until next week, peace,