“It’s the welfare bums, people on the dole, single mothers and their kids, the homeless and the street people who are bleeding our tax dollars! It’s not fair, not right. Nobody is entitled to a free meal!”

We might well want to examine how we feel about the category of persons just named, as we ponder Jesus’ command to clothe the naked.

There are many ways of being naked, different forms of being without clothing, even physically. To be naked is to be vulnerable, exposed, powerless, and usually in a shameful position. It is no accident that the first thing which Adam and Eve did after sin broke their initial paradise was to put on clothing. Nakedness save for being in paradise or in the pure innocence of child or within a uniquely committed sexual intimacy is a situation from which we need to protect ourselves. And this is not a question of prudishness, but of health. In this life, we need the protection of clothing, clothing of all sorts.

And we need, as Jesus enjoins us, to not only clothe ourselves but to make sure that everyone else too has clothing. This mandate, to clothe the naked, like the other corporal works of mercy, should never be spiritualized. It needs to be taken in a physical, even if not literal, sense.

What is implied here, physical but not literal?

Straight physical nakedness is not a major problem in the world today, even in those parts which are economically the most dis-privileged. Few people, literally, do not have clothing to wear. However, while literal nakedness is not a big issue, physical nakedness is. Many people are naked in that they stand physically vulnerable, exposed, helpless, and in some shame before the rest of us. Who are these people?

The prophets of the ancient Israel named them already some 800 years before Jesus was born. All the great prophets of scripture taught a single truth: The quality of faith depends upon the character of justice in the land and the character justice in the land depends directly upon how we treat the most physically vulnerable in the land. Simply put, this means we stand before God exactly as we stand before those who are most economically disadvantaged. For the prophets, this category was made up of three groups: widows, orphans and foreigners. And their criterion for self-assessment was clear: We should judge the quality of our faith in direct relationship to how these groups fare in society. If they fare well, we have a strong faith. If they fare badly, we have a weak faith.

And they picked these groups because, in their day, they were the most vulnerable and helpless, in essence, the most naked. It is interesting how little has changed in 2800 years. In Western society, these groups, now joined by a few others, still remain the most vulnerable and helpless. In today’s world, they are the naked. Hence to clothe the naked today implies a number of things: At its core, it means that as a society we must ensure that there is always a sufficient safety net so that those who fall into the category of the naked – single mothers and their children, welfare recipients, displaced persons, runaway youth, street people, and all those others who, for whatever reason, cannot avail themselves of normal economic opportunity are provided not only with the basics of food and shelter, but, as well, with access to the essentials for health and education.

Beyond trying to ensure that our governments, at all levels, do this, there are too some major things we are called upon to do as individuals. First off, we should begin by judging ourselves by that prophetic standard, namely, the quality of our faith and the nobility of our character is to be measured against the concrete situation within which single mothers and their children, welfare recipients, displaced persons, runaway youth, street people, and other such persons find themselves. How, in fact, are they faring? Our faith and virtue depend upon that answer.

But economics is only one part of this. Attitude is the other. As long as we are judgmental of these people, seeing them as getting a free ride from our work and our tax dollars, we have neither understood nor indeed begun to live out what is implied in clothing the naked. We owe to those who find themselves naked and this is not a question of charity, but of faith and justice.