The extraordinarily powerful teaching about hospitality in Scripture and Tradition was lost for centuries. I do not understand clearly how that happened, but I think that large part of the problem was that the teaching was obscured by the well-meaning but confused teaching tool called the "corporal works of mercy." I explained what I think happened in Knocking at Haven's Door.
The claim sounds extreme, so I've been looking at the whole teaching, including the "spiritual works of mercy." And I think that the list of "spiritual works" is even worse.
The seven spiritual works of mercy are:
1. To instruct the ignorant
2. To counsel the doubtful
3. To admonish the sinner
4. To bear wrongs patiently
5. To forgive offenses willingly
6. To comfort the afflicted
7. To pray for the living and the dead
Some of these can be good things to do, generally, maybe. However …
The list of corporal works includes the words of Jesus, edited and improved, with an addition. I find it hard to imagine what went through the head of the person who devised that list. Jesus said this and that, but I can make it better? He said it carefully, four times, but I can do better? I find it even harder to imagine what went through the head of the person who decided that we needed a completely new and improved list for the spiritual athletes. There are the words of Jesus in Matthew 25, then the edited and improved list of corporal works, and then the macho list of spiritual works. This is very strange.
It seems to me that when you unpack the words of the Lord, it turns out that he had some ideas about spirituality. So how do his ideas compare with the macho list?
#1: “to instruct the ignorant.” I think Jesus addressed this, and I prefer his approach. He said, “Feed the hungry,” including the people who came out into the desert to listen to him. That’s a more respectful approach: give people what they want and need when they want and need it (if you have it), and not before. If you think of people as ignorant, and try to stuff your ideas down their throats, that’s disrespectful, and ineffective. Jesus named the people he addressed better: hungry, not stupid. He had a better tone: respect, not condescension. And he has a larger and clearer verb: feed, not instruct. I’m not sure we need this spiritual work #1.
#2: “counsel the doubtful.” Why would you do that? What’s wrong with doubts? Jesus didn’t denounce Thomas for his doubts; he provided convincing data. He said firmly and clearly that it’s good if you have an approach – a habit of trust, perhaps – that gets to the truth without a lot of doubts: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” But Jesus didn’t curse or even criticize Thomas. And millions of people since that time have been grateful for Thomas’s question and Jesus’s response, both. Doubts have their place! The habit of doubt is fundamental in science. Skepticism is healthy, like pruning shears.
To be sure, there are times when people wrestles with doubts and want help figuring things out. But it’s the “… and want help” part that requires a pastoral response, that elicits the thoughts of an experienced and knowledgeable teacher. But I emphasize: this is not a response to doubt; it’s a response to a request.
To be sure, there are critics who want to argue and attack, deliberately stirring doubts. But if someone wants a debate, then debate! Counseling a debater is condescending and counter-productive.
#3: “admonish the sinner.” This one seems so wrong to me, in so many ways! First, in my life, “the” sinner is me. I’m pretty sure there are other sinners in my life, but the one who matters most to me, the only one who can be “the” sinner in my life, the one whose sins impinge on my life, is unquestionably me. I gotta repent; I gotta listen more carefully to the Lord who heals; I gotta learn to love others more completely. I learned from my childhood, from my brilliant and patient father, that a daily examination of conscience is a good idea. His way was patient and humble and honest, in tranquil prayer. There wasn’t anything like finger-wagging in it.
Parents are responsible for raising their children, and sometimes that includes direct confrontation over things a child has done wrong. But it’s odd to think of correcting a child as “admonishing a sinner.”
It matters to confront injustice, to speak truth to power, to denounce evil. But even when you address someone involved in evil directly, it seems to me that it’s better to try to separate the evil from the person, as well as possible, and to criticize the wrong-doing, not the wrong-doer. I’m not good at that, but I try; and when I realize that I have once again attacked someone personally because I was focused on the “sinner,” I judge that to be a failure on my part.
It seems to me that the Lord’s response to sinners is intelligent and complex and multi-faceted and creative. And it seems to me that he addressed this in three of his six precepts. He said we should clothe the naked, which includes asserting and protecting the dignity of people who are subject to criticism. Dealing with the woman at the well, he did get around to talking to her about sexual promiscuity. We don’t have a record of that part of the conversation, but we do see her reaction. She danced off, proclaiming loudly that everyone should come listen to this guy. I don’t know what he said, but I do know he didn’t shame her; he clothed her in his dignity. He said we should visit the sick and the weak; I take that to include people who can’t find the moral strength within themselves to stay out of trouble. And I take the word “visit” to be a word of immense power: be with them, with joy, like the dawning breaking upon us. Be a friend; be a joy; be a strength. And he said to visit the imprisoned. I take that to include visiting people who are not just in trouble, but who are trapped in evil. That includes, for example, people who have been raised in privilege and are almost incapable of imagining a just world. This attitude toward sin includes an approach to social evils. John Paul II taught that the route to freedom from massive social evils is solidarity with the victims of that evil: that is, in my view, a modern formulation of what Jesus said about visiting the imprisoned.
So what about this “admonish” thing? I think it’s a horrible habit, deliberately inculcated. It’s condescending, embodying the worst of clericalism. Some people believe that they are supposed to poke their noses in other people’s lives – deliberately, uninvited – in order to be “faithful to the truth.” I don’t think this is a work of mercy; I think it’s arrogance.
#4: “bear wrongs patiently” and #5: “forgive offenses willingly.” Good ideas! I have no argument with them. But I note that they can be found in the Lord’s third precept, as Thomas Aquinas described it. The Lord’s third precept is to welcome strangers – an attitude that Abraham displayed at the First Feast at Mamre, and that Jesus displayed at the Last Supper. Aquinas was eloquent about a detail from the Last Supper, Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. In Aquinas’s understanding, this detail of hospitality is also a gesture of forgiveness – and it is mandatory. Jesus, says Thomas, commanded his followers to wash each other’s feet – not necessarily literally, although he thought that would be a good idea when possible. But to forgive from the heart: that, he said, was the point of the gesture.
But wait, you think. Did Jesus welcome “strangers” at the Last Supper? Emphatically yes, and far more. He welcomed Judas, who was about as alienated as a person can be. He was planning treachery that night; that’s deep alienation. Knowing that, Jesus welcomed him, and even advised him. Jesus knew what Judas and Peter were going to do, and made clear to them both that he understood them better than thy understood themselves, and he offered them faithful love. Jesus did not welcome someone he didn’t know, who might be a threat; he embraced someone he knew to be alienated, and knew to be a grave danger.
I have no argument with #4 and #5, but I think the Lord’s command to be hospitable, especially to strangers, includes them.
#6: “comfort the afflicted.” No argument. I think it’s a catch-all that refers to everything that the Lord said in his six precepts. I prefer the Lord’s clarity, but won’t argue with a quick encapsulation.
#7: “pray for the living and the dead.” This isn’t a bad idea; intercessory prayer is always a good idea. Do it. But this formulation is an incomplete thought, an unfinished draft, a work in progress.
This used to be “pray for the dead.” Some Christians insist that the dead are beyond any need of prayer; they are done, and have gone on to their eternal destiny. Catholics disagree with that. We pray from people who have died, and also ask people who have died to pray for us. We consider death a change, not an end.
Then this item was edited: of course we should pray for the living too! Of course; great idea. But while we’re at it, praying for those in the past and the present, shouldn’t we pray for those to come as well? The whole environmental movement has an eye on our descendants, who have a right to live in a well-tended world. If pagans are thinking about those to come, shouldn’t we?
So in my view, this last item is fine as far as it goes, but it’s half-baked.
The worst aspect of the list of seven “spiritual works of mercy” is that it reinforces the idea that the corporal works of mercy – including the Lord’s six precepts – are corporal and not spiritual. The Lord’s teaching is always multi-faceted, moving easily from one level of reality to another, from literal (corporal) to metaphorical to emotional to intellectual to social to anagogical. If we explore what he said, each item in his list of six is extraordinary, explosive – and spiritual. The list of spiritual works can get in the way of exploring the Lord’s own teaching, substituting a confused mishmash. That’s destructive.
Each of the Lord’s six precepts are meaningful on many levels, and calling them “corporal” can cut off any meditation on other levels. It’s a loss, for example, when the command to feed the hungry is heard as a command about bread – and not about reading Scripture, not about building a community, not about the Eucharist, not about a heavenly and eternal feast. Calling them “corporal” truncates thought, for no good reason.
Further, it seems to me that four of the Lord’s six precepts are not literal and corporal when you first bump into them. That is, the literal and corporal service is included, but it’s secondary. The first two, about feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty, start with the physical level and then build rapidly on that. But it seems to me that the third, welcoming strangers, begins with an attitude of hospitality – and then specific concrete acts flow from that. And the fourth, clothing the naked, is about protecting dignity first; doing something with clothes is almost irrelevant. The corporal level does matter, but it’s not the first meaning, nor even the second or third meaning. As to the fifth and sixth corporal works, it seems to me that they are primarily about reacting to sin as a weakness and sin as a trap. For sure, the corporal level matters, but it’s not the primary meaning. So when you discourage a multi-faceted approach to the Lord’s six precepts by listing corporal works and spiritual works separately, you don’t just truncate Lord’s words for all six; you also distort four of the six. Yes, clothing the naked includes a corporal service – but it’s secondary, and neglecting the demand to protect dignity distorts the teaching.
I think the list of spiritual works of mercy should be set aside. I think we should return to the original powerful text, the Lord’s own words in Matthew’s Gospel.