Changing Perspectives: Give the Shirt Off Your Back

Let’s go streaking! Or not. I mean, it depends on how confident you feel about yourself when you’re naked. We live in a body-shaming culture, creating an atmosphere where most people would be embarrassed to shed their clothes. Outside of strip clubs and nudist resorts, bared skin and exposed bits tend to generate feelings of shame. So, if you do not like the idea of being seen wearing nothing, then streaking isn’t something you would enjoy.

Americans have an awkward relationship with nudity. It is at once glorified and demonized. We seek it out for our own titillation yet treat the object of our lusts with hostility. By American standards, if I see you naked, you should be humiliated, not me. However, in biblical times, people had an opposite reaction to nakedness. Back then, I would feel ashamed to see you naked – not the other way around. We see this evidenced in the life of King David. When we study his stories, we can see how he reacted to ogling and being ogled.

The first example is in 1 Chronicles 15 and 16. The ark of the covenant had been stored in the home of Obed-Edom for three months. His whole household was blessed during that time and David wanted to bring it back to Jerusalem where it belonged. He gathered the temple guards and servants to help carry the ark and returned to Obed-Edom’s home to retrieve it. When David and the Levites returned to Jerusalem with the ark, it was a time of celebration. There was a parade, music, singing, and dancing. David got caught up in the moment and stripped down to nothing but his linen ephod. He bared his body and partied hard.

Saul’s daughter, Michal, was watching all of this. She was not impressed. According to scripture, she “despised him in her heart.” That is a strong reaction to seeing someone dressed in less than appropriate. This story is repeated in 2 Samuel 6. In this passage, David returns home after the celebration where an angry Michal was waiting. She greeted him with a “how dare you” speech. She complained about how he was “going around half-naked in full view of the slave girls.” She called him vulgar. From Michal’s perspective, she was ashamed to see her husband dancing naked in public. Michal believed the servants and slaves should also feel the same embarrassment from witnessing David’s indecent display.

Later, in 2 Samuel 11, the roles were reversed. Instead of women seeing David nearly naked, David was peeping on a bathing neighbor. Scripture makes it clear that David was not where he should be; it was the time of year when kings went off to war, yet David was chilling at home. One night, while taking a walk on the palace roof, he noticed a sexy lady taking a bath. He was literally creeping on the girl next door. Multiple bad choices followed; the subsequent verses tell of an affair, attempts at fraud, and a murder conspiracy. The next chapter, a prophet named Nathan visits and rebukes David. The shame for seeing Bathsheba naked belonged to David. The guilt of the affair was David’s. And the penalty of killing Bathsheba’s husband also fell on David. As David finally realized the weight of all he had done, he said, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

When Jewish audiences listened to Jesus preach, this was their understanding of nudity. In their history, Michal was ashamed to see David naked, but David was shamed for seeing Bathsheba naked. Nudity humiliated the viewer, not the nude person. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus was speaking to a crowd with these sensibilities. When he told the crowds, “if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well,” they had a different perspective than we do.

To fully understand what Jesus wanted to convey, we need to talk about first century fashion in the Middle East. Average citizens would have dressed in two layers. The tunic (usually translated into English as a shirt) covered the body as the inner layer. Over the tunic, they wore a cloak or mantle which we translate to mean coat. This dual layer is a foreign concept to us because in the modern world, we only wear coats when it is cold outside.

Jesus addressed people losing their shirt in a lawsuit. The only reason you would be sued for the shirt off your back is if you didn’t have the financial means to be sued for currency. When the collector came to take your shirt (or rather, tunic) they were taking a piece of your dignity. It was as if they were saying, “You can’t even afford to pay your debts, so I am taking your most basic article of clothing.” There is something cruel about this situation. How embarrassing would it be today if the IRS raided your closet to satisfy your tax debt? How awkward would it be if casinos insisted you removed an article of clothing every time you lost a hand of blackjack?

But we as Americans are callous. We read this scripture and think, “they took your tunic, at least you still have your cloak.” Yet Jesus urged his listeners to give that up too. They took your tunic, let them have your cloak. With Jewish fashion, if you gave away your cloak and tunic, you’d either be naked or stripped to your chonies. This is the biblical call to go streaking.

In our western view of shame and nudity, this would be humiliating for us - like that bad dream where you show up to work or school completely naked; everyone points at you and laughs. But Jesus' contemporaries didn’t think like we do. Ancient Jews were more embarrassed to see a naked person than they were to be naked.

There is only one reason a collector would sue to take your shirt: to disgrace you. How would you ever be able to reclaim your dignity? Give the collector your cloak too. Now they have all your clothes and you’re butt naked. For Jesus’ original audience, they would know such a subversive act would cause the collector to feel shame. The collector would suffer the humiliation they intended to inflict upon you.

Which reminds me of David’s response when Michal protested his revealing dance. He said, “I will become even more undignified than this.”

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