The Works of Mercy: Admonish the Sinner

Of all the works of mercy, probably the most thankless and despised is admonishing the sinner. Nobody wants to do it (except human toothaches and people who never get invited to parties) and nobody wants it done to them.

“Repent!” is one of those words that eats at the heart of all but the most egotistical jerk. “Who the hell are you, you great hypocritical gasbag, to go all John the Baptist on people?” And that’s not the target of the admonishment speaking. That’s your own conscience. Here you are, riddled with a thousand sins and vices that leave you in no position to mind anybody else’s business. But then something happens that sticks in your craw and the Holy Spirit won’t let you rest.

You can’t bear the way that guy humiliates his wife and kids in public and verbally abuses them in your own living room. What’s the matter with him? Somebody needs to make him knock it off, as much for his own good as for that of his family! He’s gonna wind up bitter, lonely and old with a huge alimony bill and children that won’t be bothered to come to his funeral! What he’s doing is just wrong!

You watch the news and hear some politician lie through his teeth about the graft you know for a fact is happening down at city hall. Somebody should set that guy straight and demand he stop treating voters like idiots. What he’s doing is just wrong!

The woman you work with seems like a nice enough lady. She’s given treats to your kids when they’ve visited you at the office and always had a kind word. You’ve always thought well of her. But one day, in the lunchroom, she confidentially leans across the table to you and says, “Did you know Marge in accounting is dating a nigger? I consider myself a tolerant person but, well, you know what they are like.” She’s an older lady. Grew up in the South where it was part of the water you drank from the whites only fountains a little more than a generation ago. Your shoulder angel is looking at you with a cocked eyebrow and saying, “Well? You gonna let that stand?”

Again and again, we find ourselves in the position of facing an evil—sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle—and not quite knowing what to do about it. That’s because there is another imperative drilled into us, not just by our Christian background, but by our relativist culture that treats only one passage in Scripture as divinely inspired and rides it for all it is worth in the defense of the Dictatorship of Relativism: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” (Matthew 7:1)

The problem with invoking this saying of Jesus as the Only Thing He Ever Said is that it just isn’t the only thing he ever said. Still less was it ever intended by him as a commandment to not think, to not make moral evaluations of ideas and deeds, or to not speak in the face of grave and obvious evil. The proof of this is Jesus himself, who not only makes moral judgments frequently, but (surprise!) urges his disciples to do the same:

Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” (John 5:24)

The commandment against judging is not an exhortation to become an imbecile unable to make moral judgments (a feat that is, in any case, impossible for the human organism to perform). It is, rather, an exhortation to remember that, though we are creatures who by nature make moral judgments, we must always recall that such judgments are provisional since we are not God. We can (and should) say that a woman who beats her child black and blue is doing an evil act. But we cannot say for certain what lies in the heart of such a woman, what terrible demons, sickness or suffering may be the genesis of her crime, what her interior freedom was as she acted, nor what her eternal destiny may be. Instead of setting ourselves up as her superiors and lovelessly and pridefully gloating over her fate ., we had best be praying for her, warning her away from such evil, taking the appropriate steps to stop her (including calling the cops) and hoping against hope that she will know the healing love of God.

Admonishing the sinner then, is not an act of cold Pharisaic pride, but an act of genuine Christian love. It is always ordered toward hoping for the best, even when there is, to the mortal eye, nothing left to hope for. And that is often the case with the prophets. Here, for example, is the rather deflating mission statement which God gives to Isaiah at the beginning of his ministry:

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.” And he said, “Go, and say to this people: ‘Hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people fat, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without men, and the land is utterly desolate, and the LORD removes men far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains standing when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump. (Isaiah 6:8-13)

“You will do your best and you will fail!” is not the message most of us want to hear. But it’s the bitterly realistic message Isaiah is given at the inauguration of his work. Being told that the overwhelming majority of your audience is going to ignore you and perish, that the ones who don’t perish will also ignore you and then “be burned again” and that, finally, some tiny stump will be left—well, that not the Successful Vision Statement that most of us want to hear when signing on for the Big Mission of admonishing the sinner.

It is, however, more or less what all the prophets of Israel and the Christian martyrs, following their Lord, signed on for. And the retirement plan?:

Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated– of whom the world was not worthy– wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (Hebrews 11:35-38)

Good times, good times. As the prophets and martyrs bore witness by their blood, admonishing the sinner is a fine way to get hated, rejected, and tortured to death. The nature of pride—that is, the root of all sin—is that the more deeply enmeshed you are in it, the less you want to hear from people who are trying to call you to die to it. Thus it is that one time-honored way of responding to admonitions of repentance is not merely to snap “Don’t judge!” It’s to condemn the prophet to a particularly grisly, slow, and painful death, the better to remind other prophets not to stick their necks out with annoying moral advice.

Conversely, the nature of the truly prophetic office (as distinct from the busybody and posturer) is that the worse the sin is, the more he feels a burden to speak out against it. That burden may lead to a more terrible conflict than the one between the admonisher and the admonishee. It can lead to the torments Jeremiah describes as he chafes under 1) the burden the Lord lays on him, 2) his own frustration at the failure of his mission, 3) the enmity he receives from the sinners he rebukes, and 4) his own deepest awareness that God is trustworthy, despite all the torments he is enduring:

O LORD, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived; thou art stronger than I, and thou hast prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; every one mocks me. For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. For I hear many whispering. Terror is on every side! “Denounce him! Let us denounce him!” say all my familiar friends, watching for my fall. “Perhaps he will be deceived, then we can overcome him, and take our revenge on him.” But the LORD is with me as a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble, they will not overcome me. They will be greatly shamed, for they will not succeed. Their eternal dishonor will never be forgotten. O LORD of hosts, who triest the righteous, who seest the heart and the mind, let me see thy vengeance upon them, for to thee have I committed my cause. Sing to the LORD; praise the LORD! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hand of evildoers. Cursed be the day on which I was born! The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed! Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, “A son is born to you,” making him very glad. Let that man be like the cities which the LORD overthrew without pity; let him hear a cry in the morning and an alarm at noon, because he did not kill me in the womb; so my mother would have been my grave, and her womb for ever great. Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame? (Jeremiah 2:8-18)

And so, down through the ages, we have seen people arise who are filled with a burning-in-the-bone sense that they must speak out and admonish the sinner, for God himself requires it. Indeed, he requires it so seriously that if the prophet does not speak, he knows he himself will be held responsible for the sinner if he does not discharge his duty:

“Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you will have saved your life. Again, if a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and I lay a stumbling block before him, he shall die; because you have not warned him, he shall die for his sin, and his righteous deeds which he has done shall not be remembered; but his blood I will require at your hand. Nevertheless if you warn the righteous man not to sin, and he does not sin, he shall surely live, because he took warning; and you will have saved your life.” (Ezekiel 3:17-21)

Now, of course, along with true prophets there have always been a whole raft of pretenders, poseurs and posturers who are more than ready to shout about some human evil or other, not for the sake of the kingdom of God, nor even for the good of their neighbor, but for the sake of being a busybody, a social climber, a political adventurer, or the next tyrant. Sometimes, of course, it’s pretty easy to spot the phony. The politician profiled in “Won’t Get Fooled Again” who, say, denounces his predecessor’s war, wins the Nobel Peace Prize, and then increases the troop levels is the sort of person who fulfills the job description of the fake who is not admonishing sinners but merely making sure that old sins are a convenient stepstool to his climb to power. Similarly, the Hollywood type who denounces global warming and flies around the country in his private jet to have high profile empathy sessions with other expensively coiffed carbon consumers is not really interested in admonishing sinners. Next year, he’ll be fluttering about the world admonishing us all about the next trendy thing. The busybody, likewise, is not so much moved to demand repentance of the sinner as he is to delight in the impenitence of the sinner. If the sinner repents, what will there be to gossip about? One particularly noxious species of this sort is the Christian who urges us to “pray” for so and so—and then proceeds, not to pray, but to rehearse the sins of the sinner with a barely concealed delectation.

Another cognate of this sort of thing (though with a somewhat more redeeming quality) is the guy who plays at “admonishing the sinner” and even imagines he is being bravely “prophetic” as he stays safely ensconced at his keyboard, blogging about Them (whoever They are), or remains safely cocooned in his little peer group, all while issuing thundering denunciations of people he has never met, will not communicate with, and, very often, knows little about. All this sort of preaching to the choir while striking a brave posture is not “admonishing the sinner”. It is performance art in the service of unit cohesion. Now, there’s a place for bucking up the Home Team with reminders that the preferred sins of Those People Over There are bad. Allied propaganda which reminded our citizenry that the Axis powers advocated bad things was not wrong. But it was not “brave” and it was not, strictly speaking, admonishing the sinner. It was reinforcement. But, of course, on the other hand, not everybody is the Axis and not every disagreement is World War II. So it follows that not every attempt to boost unit cohesion is always automatically good. The proof of this is that the Axis powers did it too.

Admonishing the sinner means confronting the sinner, not talking about him behind his back. Moreover, for the Catholic, it means confronting the sinner on the basis of Christ’s revelation. That is, it means confronting the sinner in hope that the sinner is capable of moral reasoning and repentance by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our civilization is well on the way to completely abandoning the power to conceive that this is even possible. Everywhere our manufacturers of culture—left and right—tend to address disagreements as though those on the opposing—or merely differing—side of an ever-widening variety of arguments can only be motivated by a sort of sub-human stupidity or malice that is impervious to moral reasoning. Liberals and conservatives in pop media routinely talk about each other as though they are crypto-Nazis or animals who have forfeited their humanity. Godwin’s Law states the iron truth of internet discourse that “”As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” And so we observe the spectacle of everybody from pundits to Lefties to Righties to (appallingly) bishops of Holy Church freely labeling somebody who disagrees with them on some matter of policy as Nazis.

This lazy tendency to indulge in tribal vilification instead of admonition is, of course, nothing new. In the New Testament Jesus has to speak and act against such attitudes not only from his enemies, but from his friends. He breaks social and cultural barriers constantly, and amazes or appalls both the Pharisees and the apostles. He eats with tax collectors, a people as warmly beloved as child molesters or former concentration camp guards are today. He talks, not only with Samaritans, but Samaritan women of extremely shady repute—an act that is roughly as well received by his countrymen as seating the local trailer park skank with a pet ferret and lots of Goth tattoos as a guest of honor as a fundraiser dinner for the Mayor. He talks to Roman soldiers, an act as popular as proposing a joint barbecue between Friends of Israel and the Justice for Palestine Committee. He consorts with lepers, takes former terrorists like Simon the Zealot as his disciples, and makes friends with dodgy women with unpromising psychological profiles such as Mary Magdalene, “from whom he had cast out seven demons” (Mark 16:9). It’s therefore not surprising that the spiritual laziness of the Pharisees—which was rigorous about trivial gnats like hand-washings and lazy about big camels like love, justice, mercy, and compassion—was supremely lazy in its harsh judgments against him. He was friends with tax collectors and sinners. Nuff said. There was nobody there for the Pharisees to know: just an enemy to be ignored and, now that he was daring to rebuke them, kill.

In addition to the old-fashioned laziness and cowardice that can lie behind the tribal impulse to denounce rather than admonish, it is also worth noting that post-modernity has contributed something new. Another very significant (and paradoxical) reason for the abandonment of admonition is that, in attempting to reject the notion of sin, we have ended up abandoning the hope of repentance instead. When you reject the idea of common truth, you reject the basis for reason and argument, but you don’t (and can’t) reject the possibility of anger over sin. For, of course, you can’t ignore it when, say, somebody stabs a child. But you can pretend that the evil of the act was attributable to an irrational animal acting solely due to genes or environment and not to sinful choices of which he can repent. So we treat grave sinners as we treat animals: diagnosing them like diseases or treating them like rabid dogs, but never talking about sin or repentance. The old idea of the penitentiary is almost entirely gone. It is no longer, as the name suggests, a place for penance. It is a state-run warehouse (and slaughterhouse) for human animals who have, as the saying goes, forfeited their humanity.

It is, of course, possible to laugh that off as hopelessly Pollyanna and caricature it as the naïve belief that hardened thugs will melt into saints if you talk nice to them. But that’s not my point or my claim. It is, rather, that in abandoning our understanding of the human person to the secular state instead of having the courage of our convictions as Catholics, we are laying the foundation for treating all human beings as animals and potential criminals rather than as citizens of a free society. One need only note the changes in our Security State over the past ten years to see it. Big Brother has eyes everywhere and you are assumed to be up to something if you find that problematic. An 86 year old bedridden woman is tasered (twice), while the cops stand on her oxygen hose and her protesting grandson is cuffed and frog marched out of the house. The cops explain that was all justified because she “took a more aggressive posture in her bed”. One more human animal dealt with as animals must be dealt with. The idea that she was a human being seems never to have entered their heads.

The curious result of our culture’s growing abandonment of the notion of sin is (as Faustian bargains tend to be) a loss of our humanity. As our culture becomes coarser and our belief in humans as moral creatures made in the image of God fades in favor of a vision of humans as creatures shaped by heredity and environment, our faith in the power of moral suasion goes with it. So, for instance, despite years and years of evidence to the contrary, self-styled combox experts in interrogation endlessly inform us that our first, rather than last, assumption is that prisoners in the War on Terror must be tortured like animals to get even minimal “results” from them. These self-appointed experts base this claim, not on reality, but on watching lots of episodes of 24. Meanwhile, real interrogators who dealt with pantywaists like Nazis and Commies insist that real intelligence is much more fruitfully gained by treating prisoners as what they are: rational human beings and not beasts.

As a culture embraces the view that men are essentially brutes, it is not possible to keep that in the bottle of a prison or CIA black site. Caesar starts to treat his subjects that way too while congratulating himself on his gritty “realism”. So, for instance, where there used to be public service announcements which said “Every litter bit hurts” we now get “Litter and it will hurt” (something you could just as easily say to a beast via a whip). “Buckle up for safety!” has been replace with “Click-it or ticket” or “Drive hammered. Get nailed.” Threats, not admonition, are the order of the day.

And in the apotheosis of such ads (at least so far), we cannot, of course, admonish the sinner and say “Sex out of wedlock is a sin. For the love of God and the sake of your family’s happiness, save it for marriage”. That would be a sin against the Conventions, which our culture venerates as much as it despises the Commandments. So instead of moral reasoning, the goal is to just scare the crap out of people because they are, in the postmodern world, held to be creatures of appetite who cannot be expected to control their desires as rational animals made in the image of God. Therefore, the strategy is to (yet again) shout “HITLER!” and thereby do the equivalent of firing a pistol to make the sheep bolt in some general direction away from the sound. It’s to be expected, since so much sexual agitprop (and especially gay agitprop) is, in fact, all about describing the human person as nothing more than a mammal controlled by his sexual desires.

But it’s still, if Christ is to be believed, foreign to what we actually are. Why then do we prefer to treat people like animals when, in fact, admonishing the sinner and not stampeding the herd is truer to our nature as rational beings?

Answer: because admonishing the sinner is hard. Christ did it and it got him nailed to a cross. For admonition means looking somebody in the eye rather than long-distance bureaucratic solutions from 3000 miles away. It means addressing a fellow human being as an equal, not a lab rat, sheep, or contagion. It means stating really and truly unpopular opinions, not to peers who share them, but to enemies who don’t. It also means speaking about things that are awkward and uncomfortable. And in our post-Christian world, it means doing it often in a grammar and terminology that members of our culture know, if at all, only in a sort of pidgin. It means the risk of losing friends, family, job and reputation.

To all this, I know only a few replies to the person who says, “Then I think I’d rather not.” One reply is this: You should anyway, if for no other reason than that you will sleep better at night. Another reply is this: sometimes when you admonish the sinner, the sinner repents—because the sinner still has a conscience, heart and soul. Some of the best moments in my own life have been due to the fact that a friend who truly loved me took me aside and, with tears glistening in her eyes, said, “Mark, you know I love you and I wouldn’t want to hurt you for the world. But I have to say that when you said/did X, you really disappointed me. I know you are better than that! You need to repent, ask forgiveness and right the wrong you did.” Half the time, when such admonitions have been addressed to me, my own conscience was already playing backup for my friend anyway and, instead of shouting them down, I was feeling the crushing weight of my own guilt already. In such cases, admonishing the sinner is particularly revealed for what it is: not a shattering blow designed to humiliate and destroy the sinner, but a reassuring reminder that, heinous as we both know this sin was, God is not abandoning you, but is calling you back to mercy and restoration. Many, many times admonishing the sinner mean admonishing him not to despair over his sin.

The hope of our Tradition is then, very simple: it is the faith that God saves sinners—real, nasty, repulsive sinners and not merely colorful charming golden-hearted “sinners” from comic burlesques who drink a bit, like the sight of a pretty pair of legs, and wouldn’t harm a flea. It is a faith that is rooted in the R-rated spectacle of the life of King David, a power-drunk despot who used his clout to steal a good man’s wife, impregnate her, and then murder the victim of his despicable crime, Uriah the Hittite, by trading on his very loyalty in order to send him into battle on his behalf—and abandon him there. In any other oriental despotism of antiquity, confronting such a crime would have meant instant death. But when the Prophet Nathan admonished David something extraordinary occurred. David sagged on his throne and, instead of having Nathan executed as a warning to his court, he sobbed, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13). Then he composed one of the greatest poems of antiquity as a beacon of hope to every sinner who has ever lived after him, Psalm 51, which reads in part:

Have mercy on me,
O God, according to thy steadfast love;
according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
Create in me a clean heart,
O God, and put a new and right* spirit within me.
Cast me not away from thy presence,
and take not thy holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of thy salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit. (Psalm 51:1-12)

That psalm stands as a permanent reminder of the power of the Holy Spirit, even at this hour, to change the world when a disciple of Jesus calls a sinner to doff the mask of sin and to become who he really is, a child of God in the image of Christ.

(For more information on the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, see my book The Work of Mercy: Being the Hands and Heart of Christ).


Follow Mark on Twitter and Facebook

Get updates by email