My daughter lives in the old Italian neighborhood of South Philadelphia. Like all urban areas, the demographics are changing, but there’s still a vibrant Italian outdoor market and restaurants and delis which sell the best Italian food this side of Rome.
She has a friend who works in a bar and restaurant in the area. Like similar establishments in this COVID era, his workplace has sometimes been closed, sometimes at reduced capacity, sometimes only open for carryout. For a while, they were allowed to serve alcoholic beverages for outdoor consumption, but only if they also served food.
This led, as it did in many cities, to the proliferation of tables out on the sidewalk, makeshift “patios.”
One morning at this bar, the staff was setting up outside. Out came the tables, the salt and pepper shakers, the menus. By ten o’clock, the first customer had arrived. But there was a problem: she was naked.
A waiter spoke to her; she claimed her clothing had been stolen. They called 911 while she sat at the table. Soon, other customers came, seemingly undeterred by the naked lady. Occasionally, someone would quietly point at her table and ask a waiter discreetly, “Are you doing anything about that?” But in the nature of big cities, especially on the East Coast, everyone minded their own business.
Except for one person. Before police arrived, a young woman came home to her apartment above the little bar. Immediately, the woman told the staff, “I’ll go upstairs and get her some clothes.”
Whatever she grabbed from her wardrobe was obviously something she would never see again, but her concern was with the dignity of the woman at the table. However, the naked lady declined her generosity and was eventually taken off by first responders in her birthday suit. Mental breakdown? Drugs? Who knows?
This morning, I was looking at Matthew 25:31-46. You know – the one about the final judgment and the sheep and the goats. It reminded me of the woman who proffered her clothing. I know absolutely nothing about her – her religious affiliation, her political beliefs, where she works – but I had this sense, based on the words in Matthew, that she’d be ushered into the kingdom.
“I was naked and you clothed me.”
It’s not often that we get a chance to literally do as Christ suggested. But perhaps we would do so more often if we paid attention. The Jesuit Daniel Berrigan said of Dorothy Day, “She lived her life as if the truth were true.” Do we?
The woman saw a need and immediately responded. In Matthew, the word “see” figures prominently. The people in the Gospel seem confused. When did we see you hungry? See you thirsty? See you naked?
Most of us attempt to feed the hungry, especially this year when food banks are swamped. We write our checks and donate to charity. Of course, we save our receipts for our records and sometimes give more right at the end of the year with the tax man in mind. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it often means we’re giving at arm’s length.
But Matthew is challenging us to keep our eyes open, to “see” need and act more spontaneously. If we choose to “see,” we may glimpse, as Mother Teresa said, Christ “in his most distressing disguise.”
So maybe a Lenten practice would be to focus, daily, on seeing – the lonely neighbor, the person struggling to pay at the grocery, the sorrow on someone’s face, the stranger who feels unwelcome, or Christ, perhaps, disguised at the next table.