The corporal work of mercy, to clothe the naked, seems rather straightforward. One would think that it simply means to give clothes to someone who doesn’t have any. While that certainly is an aspect of this work of mercy, it does not paint the whole picture. Jesus challenges us to be much more active than that.
Both Jesus and the Church ask us to “clothe” the naked and not simply drop off our excess wardrobe at a thrift store or the clothing box in the Memorial Hall parking lot, which surely is good to do. God wants us to be active in our works of mercy and to touch the lives of individual people, each in our own way and in the capacity that we all can.
But of course, the hard question is how? We get one insight as we read the Gospel today – in the familiar story of the landowner and the workers.
We are usually tempted to see the landowner in God-like terms because he is powerful, he hires workers all day long and pays them all equally, and he declares his own goodness and justice. We should remember, however, that at the end of the day, the workers are all as vulnerable and powerless as they were at the beginning of the day, except that, we will see, they have lost their dignity and probably their unity. The injustices are intensified, not overturned. Day laborers constituted a limitless and disposable fuel — bodies to be burned up — that made the ancient economy run.
Today, our world is again full of such bodies, who make our clothes, produce our food, and assemble our electronic gizmos, yet never gain enough traction to be able to join the world of consumers. There is a fascinating book on the topic entitled The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David K. Shipler if you want to read more on this. Today’s parable thus pulls back the curtain on the ways our own world works, as it would have for Jesus’ audience.
It is true that, at one level, the landowner treats the workers with equality. He goes hunting for workers throughout the day, and they keep showing up until the very end. It is the landowner’s dream market. He pays everyone what they had agreed to be paid and, in the case of those hired at the end, even more than they might have expected.
All this apparent justice is, however, cast into question by the landowner’s actions and words from the point the payments begin to be made. He stipulates that those hired last will be paid first. Why? This arrangement serves no evident purpose but to make his gesture of “equality” evident to those who worked all day. If the goal is really to create equality among the workers, the landowner could do so without making a public display. Apparently, he intends to provoke a reaction.
He uses his interaction with first-hired, last-paid workers to declare his own justness and goodness. After all, he is paying those who worked all day just what they had agreed to be paid. He is also only doing what is his right “with what belongs to me.” The implicit message in these words is that it all belongs to him, including the workers, with whom he can do what he pleases.
He addresses one of them as “friend,” … which sounds nice … but we should hear it pronounced with a sneer. In Matthew, “friend” is consistently employed ironically:
· Matthew 22:12, a king uses it to address a man he is about to have bound hand and foot and booted into outer darkness because he had come improperly dressed to the wedding feast.
· Jesus himself calls Judas “friend” as he comes to betray Jesus in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:50).
The landowner’s apparent graciousness and justice are, in fact, viciousness in disguise — a pretty package with a bomb in it. He has been “generous,” but only with some and in a way that means to incite “envy.” We should hope that this is not the way God acts.
I bet over the years, in homilies and reflections, you have only heard the preacher make this landowner into a God-figure. So often, we think that the power figures — whether kings, landowners, or fathers — represent divine authority. Clearly, in this passage and in so many others, we need to dig deeper. The parable teaches us to read our world critically and to look behind the facades – there is usually more, sometimes much more, to the story.
So back to our theme of clothing the naked … it’s a real call for us NOT to be like the landowner, NOT to presume that everything belongs to us, and NOT to use people for our own advantage. Instead, it begs the opposite.
One of the most famous modern-day examples of someone who “clothed” the naked was Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Each morning she would go out into the streets to find men and women too sick to care for themselves. After carrying them back to the hospice, Mother Teresa would bathe, clothe, and feed them. She believed everyone deserves to be treated with great dignity and actively helped the poor in her community for the rest of her life.
Obviously, not all of us are called to minister to the needs of the homeless in Calcutta. That is why Mother Teresa would often say,
Stay where you are. Find your own Calcutta. Find the sick, the suffering, and the lonely right there where you are — in your own homes and in your own families, in your workplaces, and in your schools. … You can find Calcutta all over the world if you have the eyes to see.
Everywhere, wherever you go, you find people who are unwanted, unloved, uncared for, just rejected by society — completely forgotten, completely left alone.
When we search out the “naked” of our local community, and we do have them here in Summit and our surrounding communities, we shouldn’t only be looking for those without clothes. We should also look for those who are rejected, alone, and forgotten. They, too, are “naked,” without friends or family, stripped of all meaningful human relationships.
There are numerous people in our community, and sometimes even in our own family, who are stripped of everything in their lives. They often feel invisible and think that no one cares about them. It is our duty as Christians to comfort, console, and “clothe” them. We may not have to give them actual clothes, but we certainly can give them our love, time, and presence.
What can you do today? What can we do as a parish? This is not Calcutta, but there is surely a need all around us …