The Works of Mercy: Harbor the Harborless

One of the most exasperating bits of exegetical trendiness to afflict First World Catholics for the past thirty years or so has been the endless recirculation, like a bad penny, of the True Meaning of the Miracles of the Loaves and Fishes homily. It goes like this:

Jesus found himself in the wilderness with a crowd of 5000 people who were two millennia stupider than we smart suburban Americans. Eventually, people started getting hungry. So Jesus took five loaves and two fish and distributed them to a couple of people around him. Suddenly, inspired by a wave of warm fuzziness emanating from Jesus, everybody remembered the picnic baskets they had tucked away in the billowing folds of their robes and started sharing their lunches. People were so moved by this utterly unprecedented outburst of mutual generosity that they called it the “miracle” of the loaves and fishes. So we should also likewise share our lunches. The End.

It’s a story that only suburban Americans could possibly believe. As a Palestinian friend of mine once said, “My father would sooner see our family starve to death than that a guest should go without food.” That’s a sentiment found almost universally in the hospitality of the Near East and it has roots that go back to remotest antiquity. The notion that Jesus “inspired” ancient Semites to share their food in the miracle of the loaves and fishes is like the notion that he “inspired” them to walk on two legs or breathe air for the first time in their history. It’s balderdash. Hospitality was one of the sacred duties universally recognized by everybody in the crowd that day.

The proof of this is offered by the Bible debunker himself. Just wait a day after the Loaves and Fishes debunking and then ask the debunker what the story of Sodom and Gomorrah teaches us about the morality of homosexual acts. Shazam! It turns out that the grave sin of Sodom was unhospitality, doncha know. Prescinding from the fact that, as Scott Hahn once remarked to me, homosexual gang rape is a particularly acute form of “inhospitality”, what is notable is that the duty of hospitality is not something that Jesus suddenly presented to the wondering crowd of 5000, a mob utterly unfamiliar with the concept.

Indeed, the Old Testament is full of testimony to the ancient Jewish conviction that care for guests was crucial. Abraham, for instance, is marked by his sense of hospitality, most notably when the Three Visitors arrive to tell him of the birth of Isaac and to warn of the destruction of Sodom. All through the Old Testament, the emphasis is on Israel’s duty of hospitality to the alien, the orphan, and the widow. The book of Ruth centers on the duty to take in the stranger—and it becomes a book of the Bible because out of this drama issues Israel’s greatest king, David.

And the story of David, of course, ultimately issues in the birth of the Son of David, Jesus. Yet the paradox of his birth is that “his own received him not” (John 1:11). He is shunted off to a stable to be born. He lives the life of an itinerant preacher with nowhere to lay his head. His few moments with a roof over his head are unusual and those who provided him with hospitality (such as Mary of Bethany) are remembered for it as remarkable and rare. He dies despised and rejected of men and even his burial place has to be borrowed since he has none of his own.

This is the backdrop for the Christian understanding of the duty of hospitality. It is the conviction that Jesus meant business when he said, on behalf of the least of these, “I was a stranger and you took me in.”

And, of course, it’s the basis for a tradition of hospitality in Christian lands that both ennobles and bedevils us. It’s the source of that great Christian invention, the “hospital” (note the etymology of the word) and of the current chaos in our country concerning illegal immigration. It’s why we give to homeless shelters and why we feel so baffled about and conflicted by our response to the homeless when we meet them. Do we tell them, “If a man will not work he shall not eat” like St. Paul or take them in like Mother Teresa?

The Church, as is her custom does not offer us a program for harboring the harborless, any more than it writes us a recipe book to buttress her command to feed the hungry. It’s pretty much up to us how we are to live out the ideal. So, for instance, some people start—and many people support—homeless shelters, shelters for runaways, shelters for battered women and drug addicts, etc. Others (with more courage than most of us, including me) take homeless people into their homes. This is radical charity. It is also quite dangerous, as a woman I know discovered when her grateful guests fled the premises with her wallet and embarked on a campaign of identity theft that has yet to reach its end.

This brings us to a point many well-meaning people discover in painful ways: Just because somebody is a victim doesn’t mean they can’t be a bad person too. Hitler, after all, was a homeless person. It’s easy, in the flush of excitement over conversion, to leap into a sort of Franciscan zeal for the leper, only to discover that the leper is a major jerk. That homeless guy you want to help may be homeless, not because he’s one of the wretched of the earth whom fate dealt a bad hand, but because he’s a violent, unstable parasite who bites the hand that feeds him. Sometimes, the bum suffers, not from bum luck, but from sitting on his sinful bum. Sometimes, it really is better for professionals to handle things than to assume that your sanctity will melt the heart of the guy who, if you but knew it, is wanted for rape in three states.

Yet, all that said, we are still commanded to harbor the harborless. And there are ways to do it and even to do it via personal involvement and not merely by writing a check. For instance, some 20 years ago, a small non-denominational church in the north end of Seattle took it upon itself to start sponsoring refugees into the US. I remember it well because it happened to be my church. Our pastor, working with a relief agency in the area arranged to bring a refugee and his two children from Vietnam. They had walked through Pol Pot’s Cambodia and the children had seen bodies stacked like cord wood. They came here in the early 80s and subsequently brought their mother and sibling here when they got established. We also sponsored two men from Ceaucescu’s Romania (and then their families) and a family from Communist Poland.

That’s not just an Evangelical thing. Catholics can do it too, especially Catholic parishes that pool their considerable resources.

Of course, in keeping with Chesterton’s famous remark that Catholics agree about everything and only disagree about everything else, it is worth noting that the question of just how to harbor the harborless has no one-size-fits-all approach. The American episcopacy (and many priests and lay Catholics) are all over the map concerning how the Church should respond to illegal immigrants. Some of the confusion is due to the fact that the question of how the Church should respond is not the same as the question of how Caesar should respond. A priest in LA is not bound, first and foremost to make sure that the Mexican at his door is legal. He is bound, first and foremost, by the fact that the Mexican at his door is Jesus Christ. At the same time, foolish things can be and are said to the effect that America is like Nazi Germany for so much as having an immigration policy. This is silly. Every state needs a way of screening out dangers to the common good. So trying to create a system of legal immigration that works is just common sense. No nation on earth has been as welcoming of the stranger as the United States has: a testimony to the penetration of this particular corporal work of mercy into the American psyche. How this particular struggle to live out this corporal work of mercy will play out I do not know (and thanks be to God, I do not have to know). But if we follow our historical pattern, we can hope that it will eventually fall out that the stranger from the south will find a welcome as did the stranger from Ireland, southern Europe and Asia.

Meantime, most of us are not tasked with how to deal with 12 million illegal aliens. Instead, we can start in much simpler ways by welcoming the stranger, be he literally homeless, or merely “checking out the parish to see if it would be a good Church home”. In my experience, that’s where we lay Catholics can be of huge assistance to the Body of Christ. Homelessness in one’s own parish is an endemic problem in Catholic America. My family attended a parish for three years and, by the time we left, were just as anonymous to our fellow parishioners as when we first came. The stories of aching loneliness I hear from average Catholics sitting as strangers in pews all over the US are painfully familiar and painfully common. “Nobody know my name. We have no friends here. I come to get my sacrament card punched each Sunday but I have no living connection to this parish.” These are things heard again and again in parishes around the country. It’s the reason ex-Catholics are ex-Catholics. They don’t leave the Church because they read “Call no man Father” and realized to their horror that priests were called “Father”. That’s the theological excuse that gets layered on later. The real reason is, “I was desperately lonely and this Evangelical guy invited me to his church, and they welcomed me and gave me a place and knew my name and loved me.”

There’s no need for that to happen. Catholics have the capacity to be welcoming and warm. We have the ability to open our homes, to invite new folks in the parish over for tea or Sunday dinner, to notice gifts and charisms at work in the lives of newcomers and say, “Hey! You’ve got a good voice! Have you thought about joining the choir?” or “There’s a ladies prayer meeting. Wanna come?”

All this is part of welcoming the stranger and harboring the harborless. Some will complain that it is “provincial”, that it teaches Catholics to only look out “for their own”. But this is like complaining that fathers and mother think first of their children before considering their neighbors. The answer is, “What else do you expect?”. Of course welcoming the stranger does not stop at our parish doors. But it does start there. And if we cannot welcome the Catholic whom we have seen, how can we welcome the stranger whom we have not seen? So let us begin where we are and do what is possible first before trying to begin where we are not and doing what is extremely difficult. This is the counsel of the gospel itself, which proceeds, not by grand utopian schemes, but by ordinary people doing what they can where they are—and eventually building the Temple of God made with living stones in which all the nations of the earth can find a home.

(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).


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