Looking past appearances

Sunday, March 7, 2010

In 1976, during a music competition in Ocean City, N.J., yours truly committed a fashion faux pas. Those who are familiar with the sartorial trend of the mid-1970s will recall that leisure suits once were all the rage for men. I took my leisure suit to the boardwalk competition and discovered the rules prohibited anything other than a white shirt, tie and sport coat with matching trousers. Leisure suits were not permissible. I had nothing in my suitcase that met the criteria and no money to buy an appropriate wardrobe.

A friend lent me his green sports jacket and white shirt. I bummed a tie off another competitor and wore corduroy pants to finish off the ensemble. The jacket was at least two sizes too large. Needless to say, it was one of those "American Idol" moments where talent judges like Simon Cowell look at you as if you were a bug who just crawled out of the baseboards. I finished sixth, and all three judges noted my "less than ideal attire."

This usually repressed memory came to mind as I opened a general mailer last week announcing a "Dress for Success" event in Cape Girardeau. The visual picture of another human being has an immediate effect on us, particularly if it is someone we do not know. Dressing appropriately for, say, a job interview, is of vital importance.

Jesus' attire, if memory serves, rarely comes in for praise or condemnation in the New Testament. At the Transfiguration, in a lectionary story that immediately precedes the Lenten season, Jesus is described in a laudatory way as being dressed in "dazzling white." (Luke 9:29/ESV) The only possible inference to a critique is from the Hebrew Scriptures where Isaiah, in making reference to the coming Messiah (or, literally, "the Man of Sorrows"), describes him this way: "He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him." (Isaiah 53:2/NIV)

A biblical figure who truly gets the once-over when it comes to appearance is the one who announces Jesus: John the Baptist. Both Matthew 3:4 and Mark 1:6 tell us he wore a garment of "camel hair and a leather girdle (belt?) around his waist" and that his diet consisted of "locusts and wild honey." (RSV) A firm mental picture of an impressive outdoorsman, one who lives off the land, develops here. As we read along, it becomes apparent that the time spent describing John's appearance is useful because it tells us that such a dynamic, rough-and-tumble individual was willing and eager to get out of Jesus' way.

The Bible does not make value judgments about a person's appearance. The scriptures seem only to mention clothing in order to lead us into a deeper teaching. Jesus was attractive to men and women not because of his hair, his height or his clothing, but because of what he did: healed, taught, performed miracles and went to the cross.

A certain standard of appearance is required to achieve in 21st-century America. But let's not get carried away. The words of I Samuel 16:7 (ESV) apply as well today as when first penned thousands of years ago: "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart."

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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