What Would Jesus Wear? Attempting Theological Reflection on Sartorial Elegance

An earlier post on Stylish Clergymen elicited a number of responses.  Many were warm and positive. Others were less so. One respondent asked what would Jesus wear. Another asked whether there might be a theological basis for sartorial elegance.

Both of these set me thinking.  What would Jesus wear?  And might there be a theological basis for sartorial elegance?  The issue is of course more than a factual one.  Whatever Jesus wore was, I presume, typical of his day.  Whether he wore it with any greater style than his peers is impossible to tell. The question that I am really interested in, and which I think lies behind the questions posed to me, is whether any of this would have mattered to Jesus.

Stained Glass at Spring Gardens, Antigua’s oldest Moravian Church

Style surely would have been mere frippery to someone like Jesus, and if he did happen to wear his clothes with greater style than his peers that was probably because he was effortlessly awesome. It is unlikely to be because Jesus wasted any of his time on matters as frivolous as style.

Moreover, Jesus is not recorded as saying very much about clothing; what little is there is often negative.  In Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount there is no beatitude which says blessed are the style makers….  However, Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount does instruct his hearers not to worry about what they will wear (Matt 6.25;31).

Elsewhere in the Sermon Jesus warns against storing up treasure which moths can consume (clearly at least a reference to valuable fabrics if not to clothing), Matt 6.20.

Jesus also teaches that external appearances matter little; it is the heart which matters most to God. It is one of the reasons that Jesus teaches that we need to be like innocent children. Here, as in many places Jesus’ teaching merely amplifies Old Testament thought.

Beautiful children at Antigua’s beautiful Nonsuch Bay Resort

There is a great story in 1 Samuel 7 in which Samuel the prophet is directed to anoint one of the sons of Jesse to be the next king of Israel. When Samuel meets Eliab, Jesse’s first born, he is sure that he has found The One.  God’s response to Samuel is to say do not look at his appearance; mortals look at the outward appearance but God looks at the heart (1 Sam 7.7).

Moreover, some will surely argue that sartorial elegance is merely a polite way of describing the narcissistic and vain. This feels to me to ring true to experience. All the stylish men I know, myself included, also appear to be at least a little bit vain (some more than a little bit).

Vanity is not an insignificant issue for those who wish to follow the teachings of Jesus. At its heart, vanity is an excessive orientation towards the self which is the polar opposite of Jesus’ approach which rejected such self centred orientation and urged his followers to do the same.  This is a man who offered himself for others, and taught his followers to love their enemies and their neighbours as themselves.

So it is an open and shut case then.  What would Jesus wear?  He wouldn’t give a fig.  He had bigger things and more important things to think about.

Of course that is but one side of the argument.  There is another.

This argument takes as its starting point that human creativity and human yearning for beauty, order, and aesthetics is rooted in God and is the outcome of being created in the image of a creator and creative God.

I am sitting in Antigua as I write this, a place of outstanding natural beauty. Whether we think of a picture perfect sunset, starlit sky, azure sea, or rolling landscape, coral reefs or solar flare, these are all examples of spectacular natural beauty, all of which, according to Christianity, are created by God. The heavens declare the glory of God, proclaims the psalmist.

If it is true that the God who creates the beauty of the universe also created humans in his image then it is that same God who inspires artists and musicians, architects and artisans, potters, and sculptors, and tailors too.

Galley Bay, one of Antigua’s 365 beaches

For those who might be more than happy to affirm the creative energies of God but who would nonetheless argue that there is unlikely to be divine interest in frivolous things like colours and fabrics they might like to read the Old Testament story of the building and furnishing of the Tabernacle, the precursor to the Israelite Temple, in Exodus chapters 25–28.

There, God is portrayed as giving specific direction about the materials and colours that were to be used in the tabernacle. (God appears to have a fondness for fabrics in blue, purple and the occasional scarlet).  Moreover, the dimensions, material, colour schemes, and interior and exterior design are all attributed to God.

Clearly there are multiple ways in which such ancient texts might be interpreted and construed. What they do demonstrate, however they are construed, is that in Christian scripture God is consistently portrayed as one who is sees an intrinsic value in beauty and the aesthetic.  With regard to humans God has particular concern that such beauty is not merely external, but matched by internal beauty of integrity, forgiveness, goodness and love.

If it is true that God sees intrinsic value in beauty, then those who value beauty, creativity, aesthetics and order embody values which are rooted in the very nature of God in the same way as do those who embody integrity, forgiveness, goodness and love.  And if that is true, we might expect this to be especially the case for Jesus who most clearly reflected what God is like.

Sienna & Lisa. Beautiful

This is not an argument to suggest that Jesus only bought his robes from the Jerusalem equivalent of Savile Row.  However, it is an argument that that if socks had been invented in the first century Jesus would probably have known better than to wear them with his sandals….

The question of course is not what would Jesus wear. Rather it is whether followers of Jesus should be concerned with matters as frivolous as what they wear. My view is that beauty is a divine gift designed to lift the human spirit and that humans created in God’s image naturally have an eye for aesthetics.

Appreciation for well-designed clothing is one particular expression of this universal human appreciation of beauty, by means of which those who are spiritually attuned express something of their desire to honour God in all things. Others may seek to achieve similar ends by means of a well-tended garden, a beautifully designed place of worship, or some other artistic expression.

This not to suggest, of course, that those who have no particular eye for the aesthetic are somehow less spiritually attuned. Rather it is an attempt to say that those who love beauty, including beautiful clothing, do not necessarily do so primarily out of vanity.  Nonetheless it is everywhere evident that humanity’s challenge has always been how to avoid corrupting God’s good gifts through human vanity.

So what would Jesus wear? Of course I have no idea. Nonetheless, I imagine that the Son of God is likely to have been none too shabby….

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