Saturday, January 23, 2021

Shaping a tabernacle

The readings at Mass that the Catholic Church uses this week are from the Letter to the Hebrews, and Thursday’s (1/21/2021) reading invites some reflection on tabernacles. Lemme skip around a bit.

So what’s a tabernacle? It’s a tent, with a history – with special reference to the tent which housed the stone tablets of the Law given by God to Moses – the Ark of the Covenant. The tabernacle is a dwelling of sorts, where God dwells in some sort of way.

King David wanted to provide a better dwelling for the Lord. He lived in a palace, but the corner of the universe set aside by the king and his people for the Lord was still a tent. So he was ready and eager to do better. The prophet Nathan said okay; but then slept on it, and returned with a more careful answer. God says no: God will build a house for David instead. And then Nathan talked about the House of David: it’s not made of stone, but is rather a people, a kingdom.

Catholic churches have “tabernacles.” They aren’t tents; they are boxes sitting on the altar in the front of the church. Inside the tabernacle is the Blessed Sacrament, bread that the Lord broke and blessed and distributed to his disciples, saying, “This is my body.”

I’m a Catholic, and I accept the Church’s teaching about transubstantiation. But I am deeply uncomfortable with teaching that starts weird and then goes nowhere. I’m happy to start weird as long as we go somewhere. And let me explain where I think the Lord’s words go: it’s more than a gold box. We understand that tabernacle when we see it radiate.

There wasn’t a tabernacle on the table at the Last Supper. There is no story about the fragments left over after the meal that night. They ate the bread; they consumed the flesh of the sacrifice. Did they do it right? Or was that just a primitive beginning, a Model T? What did the Lord do?

After a person receives Communion, where is the Lord? I’m okay with the tabernacle, but I think that’s a radically incomplete answer. The Lord dwells in his people. The dwelling we construct for him is interesting and useful, but the dwelling the Lord constructs matters more – and that dwelling is not a box; it’s the hearts of his people. That is, it seems to me appropriate to bow before the tabernacle – before all tabernacles – including each child of God. When the rite of Communion is completed – that is, when Mass is over – in a church with – say, for example – 600 people and a tabernacle up front, the Lord dwells sacramentally in 601 places. And half an hour later, the Lord still dwells, sacramentally, in 601 places.

When I walk down the street and pass someone, have I walked past a tabernacle of the Lord? Dunno; likely so. For sure, with tranquil certainty, I can say that this person may be a tabernacle, and should be a tabernacle. But is he/she? Dunno; but prudence demands that I assume so.

I understand that there are some people who are believe, more or less explicitly, a fragmentary thing. They believe that God enters into the hearts and minds and indeed into the bodies of his people – but then, they think, this presence in and among us is fleeting. After a little gastric acid and/or inattention and/or sin on our part, the Lord departs, decamps. He still dwells inside that gold box, but probably not inside me and you, and definitely not inside Joe. So say some people, although they may say it much more elegantly (and obscurely).

I don’t think God is squeamish. He comes to dwell with us – in us! – and he means it. The tabernacle that David wanted to build, and the tabernacles that we want to build, are interesting and useful. But the tabernacle that matters is what the Lord builds. I am / thou art / he/she/it is / we are / you are / they are tabernacle(s). So said God; and if he said it, he did it.

When we think about God’s visits in Scripture, the idea of tabernacle may get clearer. Elijah was in a cave when God visited. Elijah went to entrance of the cave, and saw storms and earthquakes – but found God in the gentle breeze. So God communicated gently: got that. But also, he communicated at the door of the cave. Elijah was in a quiet spot, a place of quiet meditation and contemplation; but God spoke to him as he came out. Not to say as he burst forth; that’s not right. But God was there at a place of transition, where quiet thought turns into action. Elijah went back inside the cave, but he didn’t stay there; God had spoken to him, and so he was getting ready to come out and make some changes in the world.

God visited Abraham at his home in Mamre. But they met at the entrance of the tent. They were in and out. Their conversation that evening ended under the stars.

The whole idea of a tent is about being in the midst or on the brink of action. If you stop permanently, you build a house. But if you are restless, peripatetic, on the move, on a pilgrimage, on a campaign, ready to go – well, tents are better.

John’s Gospel proclaims that the Word of God came to us, came to dwell among us. John’s word for this is provocative: the Lord came to “pitch his tent” among us. He might build us into a house, but he himself dwells among us in a tent, because he keeps tumbling forward. His home, his castle, his palace – and ours, in eternity – is elsewhere.

Caves and tents – we meet the Lord as we tumble out of the quiet into action. And yet, we do cherish the times and places of quiet. The cave has an entrance, but it’s a cave. So what’s in my cave? What do we choose to do in the cave, to shape that space?

I was very interested in the stories about Biden’s cave (if indeed it is such), the Oval Office. It’s a place for a ruler – not with a sceptre and a throne, but with a pen at a desk. Not in robes and mantles, but in coat and tie. The details change a bit, but this is a place where a ruler does his ruling, where he pronounces his decisions. And the way he shapes that space can and should explain what goes on inside his imagination before we hear what’s in his mouth. If the office isn’t in fact his cave, still it can and should correspond to whatever it is that he uses to decorate the walls of his cave, the home of his imagination, the tabernacle of his soul, where he listens to the Lord. And indeed, Biden chose busts and pictures of an impressive group from the communion of saints to stand around him as he ponders and rules. His family of course, and Washington and Lincoln of course, and crisis manager FDR, tussle-dancers Jefferson/Hamilton, martyrs MLKing and RFKennedy, activists Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt, Cesar Chavez and a sculpture by an Apache from a Japanese-Hawaiian friend, geek Franklin and a moon rock, Unionizers Lincoln and Webster. The choices reveal, and are meant to reveal: if he’s not really intending to emulate these men and women as well as he can, he’s a liar, deceiving us for sure and perhaps himself.

In the tabernacle of our hearts, we surround ourselves with the clear recollection of God’s word and work in our lives, and with the love and the work of family and friends and heroes and models and artists and poets and other sources of strength and joy and challenge. That is (I think): we build our tabernacle according to the model of the house that the Lord promised to build for David: the House of David is the People of God.

God came to dwell among his people – in fact, in his people. We are the tabernacle, and although we are the anointed stewards and empowered custodians of our souls, it is the Lord who builds. And he is comfortable living in my restless heart, because he came to live among us in a tumble-forward dwelling – a tent but especially the entrance, a cave but especially the exit, in our hearts but also in our hands, where love becomes service, where hidden contemplation becomes visible action.

Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary, 

Pure and holy, tried and true. 

With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living 

Sanctuary for you.


Wash Post photo in Biden's Oval Office


Monday, January 4, 2021

The pro-life movement in a democracy

I’m a pro-life activist, and have been since 1972. Some years ago, I faced a major dilemma. I was convinced that tiny children before birth were members of the human family; but also, I became convinced that democratic government – that is, government based on the will of the people, expressed in votes – would not protect unborn children in my lifetime. So what then? Was an honest pro-life movement possible in a democratic nation? Did I have to choose between the values I held dearest, and the American way of government? Could I hold to both?

The answer doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker.

I am convinced of the following.

First: life begins at the beginning, not in the middle. The beginning is real and objective, not a social construct. It is significant, non-arbitrary, and discernible. And when an individual’s life begins, that individual is precious in the eyes of God, and is a member of the human family, worthy of all the respect and protection offered to older and larger people. If the Fourteenth Amendment means anything, it includes equal protection for tiny and dependent children.

Second: effective protection requires the cooperation of the child’s mother. An effort to protect the child that is dismissive of the mother’s concerns is certain to fail.

Third: effective legal protection requires the agreement and joint determination of the society around this child and this mother. This is not a minor point, because …

Fourth: a dictatorship can indeed create laws much faster than a democracy, but cannot enforce them.

I do not have to choose between struggling to protect unborn children, and choosing to live within a democratic system. Democracy is slow, but it works, while the alternatives go faster until they smash. I assert that an unborn child has rights, and also I am convinced that the painfully (lethally) slow democratic process is the only way to move toward effective social and legal protection.

I understand clearly that unborn children will not have social and legal protection in my lifetime. I will do what I can do help mothers and children in ways that are not affected by a broken legal system. But also, I want to see a realistic plan for moving toward social and legal protection. So …

Fifth: I am convinced that the only way to move toward protection is by a sustained campaign of nonviolence.

There was once the beginning of such a campaign. That campaign was smashed by people who refused to study the power and the discipline of nonviolence. They were distracted by the more obvious power of the press. The best-known campaign of nonviolence in America was led by Rev. Martin Luther King, who was committed to nonviolence but was also adept at harnessing the power of the press. This American experience may have obscured the differences between these two powers. But the two are different, and pro-lifers need to study nonviolence as practiced by Gandhi, King, Walesa, and Aquino – and build a disciplined campaign, with or without the added power of the press.

There is, at this time, not a single pro-life leader with recognized national status who is serious about building a campaign of nonviolence. Some admirable people are engaged in efforts that are good and aren’t violent. I pray that their work prospers.

The pro-life movement in America today is prepared to scuttle democracy in order to protect children. I understand the temptation, but I reject it. There is another way forward. It is not cheap, and it will not be quick. But it exists.

In the shadow of death, I choose life. In the face of violence, I choose nonviolence. So help me, dear God.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Hospitality -- Divine Mercy Sunday


Hospitality in today’s readings

No one disputes that hospitality is nice. But there is a fierce debate about whether it’s fundamental and mandatory – like truth and justice – or decorative and optional – like using the best dishes when special guests come.

I note with interest that the first reading at Mass today, on Divine Mercy Sunday, is a short passages from the Acts of the Apostles (2:42-47), with three references to hospitality. It’s repeated three times: the ideal of a Christian life in community includes prayer and hospitality.
               
First: “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.”

Second: “Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes.”

And third: “They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people.”


Monday, January 27, 2020

Two Stout Monks Myth

I've completed a new book, the third in a series, on immigration in Scripture and Tradition. The first was immigration in the Old Testament; the second was immigration in the New Testament; this is immigration in the teaching of the Church from the Fathers to Aquinas.

I have posted a draft. I would be pleased to get some feedback.

The book is serious, but it's readable and relaxed. The book took me a long time -- partly because I'm undisciplined, but partly because I wanted to understand the people I was writing about. Understand: for people like these, "understand" that means "appreciate and enjoy." I like these men and women, and I tried to make it easy for you to like them too.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Dear Liz


Dear Liz –

Cause. Movement. Supporters. I sort of know what that stuff is all about. And it’s got almost nothing to do with why I’m a pro-lifer. When people talk about the political “movement,” I listen, but wonder if they have any idea what they’re talking about.

I am a pro-lifer. May I, respectfully, explain me? (1267 words)

I should say first that I have immense respect and affection for you. I understand your commitment to protecting women from assholes, and I applaud it. I disagree with some details, perhaps.

There’s a difference between your view and mine. But it does seem to me that the difference between your view and mine is much much much smaller than the difference between my view and – pick a figure – Pat Buchanan’s or Fr. Pavone’s or … The difference between your view and mine is, in a sense, a detail – and important detail, but a detail. That is, I think that tiny unborn babies and full-grown adults are pretty much the same, that the changes are very interesting but essentially insignificant. You think (I think you think) unborn children and adults are pretty far apart. The difference between your view (if I understand it) and my view is not a small detail, but I still think it’s just a detail, because if you changed your mind about whether fetuses are part of the human family, you would protect them. Fr. Pavone, on the other hand: he and I agree about whether unborn children are members of the human family. But I do not trust him to protect adults in need. So the difference between his view (if I understand it) and my view is stupendous, not a mere schmere detail.

I opposed the war in Vietnam. Much of my opposition was because of my brother’s death there. Let me try to make this clear, because it’s not a simple and predictable thing. When I heard my brother was dead (on my 18th birthday), a deep and permanent part of my reaction was about the Vietnamese soldier who fired the mortar that took off the back of his head. I was sorry for the guy. I didn’t blame him; he was defending his country. I don’t know who he was.  I doubt very much that he was aware that he had killed anyone, although of course he was trying to; mortars kill from a distance. But there is a guy who killed Roy. Everyone dies, but not everyone kills. I’d rather not be the person who killed someone like my brother. For all eternity, that’s a part of who he is: he’s the guy who killed Roy. Damn, what a bummer.

Pretty promptly, I was deeply convinced that the guy who killed my brother was in far worse shape than my dead brother. I understand that that’s a little weird.

I am convinced, right to my toes, that guns do huge damage at both ends. The person in front of the gun gets hurt or killed. The person behind the gun becomes a killer. Getting killed is not a big deal: everyone does it. I’m nervous about dying: you can’t practice, you only do it once. I’m nervous, but I am not afraid. Killing someone, on the other hand, is a big deal, and it’s not good. Or so I think.

My brother shot his weapon a bit, but I don’t know whether he killed anyone. I don’t think he knew either. He was a sentry one night when his unit was under siege, a Special Forces camp in Dak To. He heard noises on the hill, and fired; but in the morning, no one was there. I pray with everything in me that he never killed anyone.

When I first bumped into abortion, this was what was in the back of my mind.

I had a friend who explained her decision to get an abortion. She wanted my support, and I gave it to her as well as I could. But she went on and on, explaining and explaining. And slowly, it grew on me that I had seen this before, this pain in the heart in the person behind the gun. I didn’t judge her; I wouldn’t know how to begin to judge her. I was just puzzled. When I started to figure it out, I thought that she was a mother, and her child was dead, and she couldn’t mourn because she was in denial. That’s what I thought, anyway.

I didn’t know what to do. I listened, and loved her.

I read King on nonviolence, and his stuff made sense to me. Nonviolence protects blacks from exploitation, and protects whites from turning into monsters. Who does it help more? It seemed obvious to me.

For some time, I wasn’t too interested in the pro-life movement, because I thought they were a bunch of self-righteous prigs. But there was a guy from the Catholic Worker House in Boston who used to picket at Harvard Square, protesting abortion, and he intrigued me. Ignatius O’Connor. He was seriously ugly, but he had bright bright eyes and an irresistible smile. Then I met Dr. Joseph Stanton, a leader of the pro-life movement in Massachusetts. He gave me a book about Franz Jagerstatter written by a friend, Gordon Zahn. Jagerstatter was an anti-war activist, beheaded in Berlin in 1943 for refusing induction into the Army of the Third Reich. He had been radicalized by his encounter with abortion. Bit by bit, I got pulled in … into a movement.

That’s where I started, and I didn’t change much. But the movement changed, over time. I gave a workshop at the National Right to Life Convention one year, and got tossed out (cops, orders to depart, all that stuff) of the convention a few years later. I wrote for National Right to Life News, but got fired because I was too liberal. I worked for American Life League, but got fired for who-knows-what liberal shit. I worked for Human Life International, but got fired for smelling like a union organizer. (I wasn’t organizing, but I appreciate the thought.)

Almost every person who was ever arrested blocking the door of an abortion clinic had read a lot of my stuff, although my writing was in the public domain and usually didn’t have my name on it, especially when Protestants used it. I helped start rescues in all 50 states, and in Latin America and Korea and all over Europe. But when the “nonviolent” branch went crazy and hid a murderer (Jim Kopp), I lost a long list of friends trying to get pro-lifers to denounce what he did. I became persona non grata in the part of the movement that I had built.

I fought racists for control of the pro-life movement. I thought we had won easily in the 1980s. But today, Buchanan’s people hold the leadership.

I’m aware of the movement, and I know far better than most people what went wrong. But movement craziness doesn’t change me. I buried bodies, hundreds of little bodies with blue eyes, and I’m committed, even if I’m alone (again). I don’t judge, but I mourn for the dead.

Liz, you and I don’t agree about abortion. I have huge respect for you, but we don’t agree.

But I can’t change who I am.

I say again: I feel much closer to you than to many pro-lifers, because I know you will fight for people in danger, people in need (people you recognize). I’m proud to know you. But even for you, I can’t change who I am.

Monday, June 17, 2019

"Welcome strangers" -- what's that Greek verb there in Matthew?


Sunago means, approximately, collect or gather or invite or welcome. Jesus says we should do this thing (sunago) to the stranger (xenos). From the Greek work we get the English word synagogue, the place where you sunago.



I think the best way to get a firm grasp on the word is to see it in context. It shows up 59 times in the New Testament, including 24 occurrences in Matthew’s Gospel. Here are the 24, with a sentence for each to identify the context.



I.                    Gather people together for an assembly of some kind



1.       Matthew 2:4 : Herod assembled the chief priests and scribes and asked where the Messiah was to be born.



2.       Matthew 13:2 : Large crowds were gathered together around him.



3.       Matthew 22:34 : When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together.



4.       Matthew 22:41 : When the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus questioned them.



5.       Matthew 24:28 : Wherever the corpse is, the vultures will gather.



6.       Matthew 25:32 : The Last Judgment passage begins saying that the Son of Man will sit on his throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him.



7.       Matthew 26:3 : The chief priests and elders assembled in the palace.



8.       Matthew 26:57 : They led Jesus to Caiaphas, where the priests and elders were assembled.



9.       Matthew 27:17 : When the people were assembled, Pilate spoke to them.



10.   Matthew 27:27 : The soldiers took Jesus into the praetorium and gathered the whole cohort around him.



11.   Matthew 27:62 : The next day, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate.



12.   Matthew 28:12 : When the chief priests hear what the guards had to say, they assembled the elders and took counsel.



II.                  Harvest a crop



1.       Matthew 3:12 : He will gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn.



2.       Matthew 6:26  Look at the birds … they don’t gather anything into the barns.



3.       Matthew 13:30 : Collect (sullego) the weeds and bundle them for burning, but gather (sunago) the wheat into my barn.



4.       Matthew 13:47 : The kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collects every kind of fish. They haul it all ashore, sort it, and throw out the bad.



5.       Matthew 25:24 : Master, I knew that you harvested where you hadn’t planted, and gathered where you hadn’t scattered, and I was scared.



6.       Matthew 25:26 : You knew that I harvest where I didn’t plant and gather where I didn’t scatter, and yet you didn’t even put the money in a bank?



III.                Worth individual careful attention






2.       Matthew 18:20 : Wherever two or three gather together in my name, there I am in their midst. (Unless they tell me to get lost.)



3.       Matthew 22:10 : For the wedding feast, servants went out and gathered all the people they could find, good and bad alike, and filled the hall. (What’s the garment that you have to wear to this wedding? Put on Christ, and welcome the strays from the highways and byways who were invited at the last minute. If you sneer at the new guests, the bouncers will not toss them out; the bouncers will toss you.)



The lines that raised the question in the first place

1.       Matthew 25:35 : I was a stranger, and you [sunago] me.



2.       Matthew 25:38 : When did we see you as a stranger and [sunago] you?



3.       Matthew 25:43 : I was a stranger, and you did not [sunago] me.



[In the fourth reference to strangers in this passage from Matthew 25:31-46, there’s only one general verb. It says that when you saw me hungry or thirsty or as a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, you did not minister – in Greek, diakoneo – to me.]





NOTES

1.       The word sunago appears 59 times in the New Testament, including 24 times in Matthew’s Gospel. Of those 24, half (12) refer to assemblies of people, and a quarter (6) collecting crops. Three are in the passage about the Lord’s precepts (serve the hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, & imprisoned). And three require individual attention.

2.       This [sunago] is one way to serve. It’s a service. People want it.

3.       The opposite of [sunago] is scattering, like a scorpion.

4.       This service is more psychological than “corporal.” Welcome, invite, include, gather with.

5.       It’s proactive. None of the uses of the word sound like someone sitting at home with tea and cakes ready in case someone stops by. This action (perhaps hospitality) is not passive; it’s active, up and out, collect, gather, assemble, invite, serve.

6.       The word often refers to an assembly of some kind. You got your friends together and didn’t invite me. You called a meeting and didn’t notify me. The gathering might be good (a feast, a presentation), or might be bad (vultures at a corpse, plotters plotting violence), but there’s a gathering of like-minded people. It’s fundamentally social, not individual.

7.       It is plausible that the word often refers to preaching the Gospel. The text surrounding these uses of sunago does not say “preaching the Gospel”; but it does refer to whatever you’re supposed to do about the Kingdom of God in our midst: gather in crops (sunago), pull in nets of fish (sunago), put things in barns (sunago). It’s a little odd: this harvest activity includes keeping the good and discarding or burning the bad – while the passage in Matthew about six precepts doesn’t refer to burning up the weeds, and says instead that the workers who fail to xx (?? – sunago) the stranger are consigned to the fire.

8.       Two of the references to gathering a harvest are just a few lines before the passage with six precepts. That is, in Matthew 25:24-26, we read about the man with one “talent” that he didn’t use wisely; he was afraid of the Master who harvested what he hadn’t planted and gathered (sunago) where he hadn’t scattered. Then in Matthew 25:31-46, we read four times about welcoming (?? – the verb is sunago) strangers.

9.       The three lines that need careful scrutiny are:

(a)    Matthew 12:30 : Whoever is not with me is against me. And whoever does not gather with me, scatters. (The word for scatter is scorpiz-. There’s gathering like a synagogue, and there’s scattering like a scorpion.)

(b)    Matthew 18:20 : Wherever two or three gather together in my name, there I am in their midst. (Unless they tell me to get lost.)

(c)     Matthew 22:10 : For the wedding feast, servants went out and gathered all the people they could find, good and bad alike, and filled the hall. (What’s the garment that you have to wear to this wedding? Put on Christ, and welcome the strays from the highways and byways who were invited at the last minute. If you sneer at the new guests, the bouncers will not toss them out; the bouncers will toss you.)


Thursday, June 6, 2019

Editing the Gospel


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.