20 – Clothing & The Kingdom
The father said to his slaves,
“Quickly, bring out a robe — the best one — and put it on him….”
In the first half of the 20th century there was a preoccupation with clothing within my denomination. Sermons and Sunday School classes, magazine articles and radio broadcasts took the issue of clothing and the kingdom with great seriousness.
The church in those earlier days warned about “superfluous adornment” as churches began protesting the wearing of outlandish hats with their fruit baskets, peacock feathers and ostrich plumes. But it was not limited to hats, as other items of clothing that were considered extravagant and vain were frowned upon, along with jewelry of all kinds whether for the neck, the ears or the hand. Simplicity and frugality were applauded.
In the 1960’s the Church again became obsessed with clothing. In 1965 the Mini-Skirt was revealed to the fashion world, and the mini skirts joined the short shorts, hot pants and bikinis to shock the eyes of we who were more modest. Suddenly the various media used by the church of that day were now vocal about high hemlines and low necklines. This was a good time to be a man! The men came through this period without feeling particularly harassed.
Since those days we have passed, thankfully, away from sermons on dress. But I want to re-open the issue once more now that we are well launched into this new millennium. For there is a connection between the Kingdom of God and clothing. The father of the Prodigal knew it.
The father spots his son coming over the brow of the hill. He races down the road to meet him. Tears of relief are blinding his eyes. But not quite. He sees immediately the disrepair of his son. First comes the hugs and kisses. But even as he holds his son in tight embrace, he speaks words in tumbling haste to the gathering household servants.
“Quickly, bring out a robe — the best one — and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.” He has seen the condition of his son. His clothing is dirty, shabby and torn. Filthy rags at best.
He may have come home barefoot, having lost his shoes. Or if he has shoes on his feet at all they probably have holes in all the wrong places, with broken straps, tied together with string. They would have been stained with sweat and caked with dirt.
His hands that once sported rings are now empty. Any jewelry he had once possessed was probably long gone, sold, pawned or gambled away. But his hands are not just bare. They are now broken, cracked and calloused from menial work.
The young man is a wreck. And perhaps the father wants to have his son avoid any further embarrassment, so before he even gets to the front door of the house he has clothing brought out to him. I suspect, however, that there is more to this than meets the eye. This action of the father is not merely a replacement of clothing. There is great significance in this first gift of the Father. Let us take a longer look at this robe.
“The Best Robe” is brought to clothe the vagabond son. When I think of clothing, my mind flashes back to the book of Genesis. First of all, back to the Garden of Eden. The first couple have sinned and they wear fig leaves to cover up their shame. And the God who has come to redeem them, gives them a gift. “And the Lord made garments of skins for the man and his wife, and He clothed them.”
Later on towards the end of the book of Genesis we meet Joseph and the records tells us “That his father loved him and made him a coat of many colors”, or “a cloak with long sleeves.” or “a long robe, with sleeves”. The translations differ in the details.
Throughout the rest of the Old Testament people of significance wear these unique robes.
– The virgin daughters of the kings wore them. (II Sam. 13:18)
– The High Priest wore a special robe. (Exodus 28 & 29)
– When David killed Goliath, Jonathan gave David his own princely robe. (I Sam. 18:4)
Robes seem to indicate status. Only important people wear robes.
There is an intriguing story told in the book of Esther about her uncle Mordecai. The king wants to honor him for saving his life some time earlier. He calls in Haman to ask his advice. He asks, “What can the king do to honor the man who pleases the king?” Haman quickly answers, “Let royal robes be brought, which the king has worn, and let the king’s most important official place the robes on the man.” Haman knows that to wear the king’s robe is the ultimate honour!
But back to our main story. Did you notice what the father does not say? He does not say, “Get a robe for him.” Nor does he say, “Get his best robe.” He makes it absolute. “Get the best robe in the house and put it on him. Perhaps it is the robe he himself wore for special occasions. After all, with robes, one size fits all. And this rich robe is placed on the returnee.
What a marvelous welcome to this wanderer! He is being treated as the favored son, the person the father wants to honor. The son’s appearance as he crests the last hill reminds us of the words of the ancient prophet, “All our righteousness is filthy rags.” But the actions of the father remind us of the words of the hymn that John Wesley penned,
Jesus Thy Blood and Righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress.
Midst flaming worlds in these arrayed
With joy do I lift up my head.
And this robe is placed on him before he has had a bath. Forgiven and robed, even before we have been sanctified or cleaned up. Clothed with a robe before we have been cleansed from the filthiness of our long sinning.
President Barak Obama, in December of 2009, was honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. There was an immediate outpouring of criticism from many in the US and around the world. The complaint was that he has been in office less than a year. This award should be a life-time award based on results not promises. It was at least premature some insisted, even if not entirely undeserved. But the new president had inspired such hope in so many, that the committee felt that he had made the world safer and that peace was now more possible than had been true in a long time, and so made the award. Some said, “Just wait. We’ll see if the committee made a mistake, or not.”
But the Kingdom of God is even less cautious than the Nobel committee. The young runaway, on the day he returns, has done nothing deserving of honour. He doesn’t even show promise of doing anything remarkable. The older brother is convinced that to honour this so-called-brother of his with a party, is misguided and wrongheaded.
I write these words during the Advent season, with the words of the Virgin Mary ringing in my ears: words spoken before her son has even been born:
God has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)
St Paul is also aware of this revolution as he writes to the church in Galatia, “for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:26-29)
Honouring the returning son from the very get go is also a kingdom thing. On the day of Pentecost 3,000 people were baptized into the infant church. Who was doing quality control that day? Who was kicking the tires and checking credentials? A short while later the head count is up to 5,000 and growing. When Paul gets involved a few years later he is doing the same with gentiles, who are even more unlikely to be good candidates for such an honour. Listen to his comments about the background of some of the Corinthian members of the church: “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”
This gospel of the kingdom treats all the justified “just-as-if-we-had-never-sinned,” and grants immediate honour to all who are the children of God, with no distinction between how long ago or how recent is our return to God, not whether our back ground was scurrilous or sanitized.
In this same vein, Luke records the words of Jesus, “I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John (the Baptist); yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” And so the returning son is honoured, not because this award is earned, or ever will be, but because that is the way of the Father.
For many years, too many years, the denomination of which I am part, had two levels of church membership. Before a person could become a “full member” of a local church they were taken into “probationary membership.” At this level they still had to assure the congregational leaders that they were “born-again-Christians.” This probationary status might last between several months to several years while the applicant provided sufficient evidence of right thinking and right behaviour. This process ensured that no one was admitted as a full member unless they could certify “I don’t smoke or drink or dance or chew or go with girls that do” or variations on such themes. The inference was that a candidate must give evidence of being both justified and sanctified and growing.
How sad! We placed Christians “on probation” with the church’s leaders acting as probation officers and fruit inspectors. It operated with suspicion, like the Department of Homeland Security, trying to keep us safe from any “immigrants” who might not be quite like us. This practice reminds me more of the older brother than his father. But thanks be to God, the practice was changed, so we could say to new candidates, “Welcome! Come grow with us!” I think the Father would approve.