Harbor the Harborless


One of the most exasperating bits of exegetical trendiness
to afflict first-world Catholics for the past 30 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 5,000 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, dontcha 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 5,000, 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” (Jn 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 he 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 — even ways 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 United States. 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 1980s 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 Los Angeles 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 that 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 United States are painfully familiar and painfully common. “Nobody knows 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 provincialism and teaches Catholics to only look out “for their own.” But this is like complaining that fathers and mothers 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.

Mark P. Shea


Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

  • Deacon Ed

    When my wife and I were running RCIA at the parish some years back, I took a note from our Protestant brothers and incorporated dinners into our evneing catechetical sessions. Realizing that many coming into the Catholic Church had prior experiences with Wednesday evenings Church suppers, I asked everyone to prepare a dish to bring to each session. We sat and shared a meal together before getting on to the lesson. I found that all Church should begin with relationship building and food always makes people feel “at home” and comfortable. Then you can layer on the dogma -it gets digested better that way.

  • Austin

    For centuries, the Church gave food and shelter to the less fortunate. Orders of religious made it their main mission to take care of the less fortunate. The Little Sisters of the Poor have performed truly heroic work taking care of the poor elderly, and they are about as close to Christ as you can get.

    In “modern” times, people have come to expect governments at all levels to perform this function and the Churches, Catholic and Protestant, while still performing their charity work, have let the Governments take the lead. To a degree, this is unfortunate, as the Churches would help the less fortunate, but they would also expect a change in behavior, as very often, the skid row wino is where he is, due to bad behavior. The Governments tend to not expect people to modify their behavior.

    Government has its place and will not go away, as much as we might like it to, but the Churches and individual Christians have their place as well, to bridge the gaps that Government fails to take care of. The other day, in downtown Baltimore, I gave a couple of bucks to a homeless guy [at least I think he was], and I felt good about it. Now, it is very possible that he did not buy food with it, he may have bought some cheap wine or put it towards his next crack hit, but at least I felt good for a while. Was I “enabling bad behavior?” Perhaps. But I don’t see this as my duty to be his nanny. People have free will, even homeless guys, and if he chooses to use the money badly, then that’s his problem.

    I think the thing is to try to see Christ in other people, even smelly, homeless guys who drink cheap wine.

  • Steve Newark

    My own experience goes this way. When approached by a street person – homeless man – what ever, what came to mind was all the years of contributions to the local Catholic shelter made by so many of us to provide this fellow and many others until they fail with a bed for the night, a meal in the morning, clothes for his use, medical attention when needed, and – no small matter – attempts at spiritual guidance. So,…so…What is christian charity, and why is it so badly used by government to enslave people…can we teach them how to “catch fish”

  • Mary

    No, thank you may be the response.

    Not everyone has the same desire for socializing. Some of us, indeed, would find the offer from the Evangelical rather repulsive. (This is why Mass offers worship and if there’s socializing after, it’s elsewhere.)

  • Ryan Haber

    Government is a good thing. The thing is, though, not absolutely good. It is a relative and limited good. Its goodness is relative to the need for it, and it is limited by its essential nature. And the essential nature of government is coerciveness. And things that can be done through coercion, or that can be done only by coercion, are generally well done by the government.

    Coercion is contrary to charity – to self-sacrificial love – because it is the nature of love to be voluntary. Love cannot be coerced.

    It is not criticism of government that it cannot be charitable, any more than it would be a criticism of a cow to say that it cannot jump over the moon. It’s just a fact.

    Sins and vices love to masquerade as virtues. What some self-interested politicians pass off as “social responsibility,” “social justice,” or some other such euphemism, is in fact the deployment of a politics of envy in order to advance their own personal and petty interests. Envy loves to masquerade especially as justice, and control as charity.

  • Brian English

    “To a degree, this is unfortunate, as the Churches would help the less fortunate, but they would also expect a change in behavior, as very often, the skid row wino is where he is, due to bad behavior. The Governments tend to not expect people to modify their behavior.”

    It is more than unfortunate. It explains why government efforts have failed, and will continue to fail.

    In Jesus of Nazareth, in his discussion of the temptation to turn stones into bread, Benedict explains why relief efforts in Third World countries that exclude God are doomed to failure. Material relief is not enough. Nothing can be good if it excludes the source of all good.

    To look at an example closer to home, the Church lifted the Irish out of the gutter (sometimes literally) in New York City in the 19th century. Now look at the experience of the poor in New York over the last half of the 20th century, where the government has primarily provided aid (all of it restricted to the material variety). The poor are locked in a cycle of despair that the government cannot break them out of.

  • Ryan Haber


    You’re spot on. The Song of Songs (ch smilies/cool.gif says that “love is stronger than death,” and it is true that only love has the power to break the bonds of sin and death that hold people locked into spiritual prisons.

    With all its billions of dollars, the government cannot provide love, because love is free – which is the very opposite of cheap.

    Happily, the Church can provide love.

  • Pammie

    Brian’s post brings up a great point. Sometimes the things that lead people to personal and finacial disaster is of their own willful misdoing.I just finished an online debate with a self-described Indian pagan who despises The Missionaries of Charity because of their belief-based aid. He gives great lauds to Bill Gates’ charity whose primary function (as it appears) is to hand out condoms to Indian prostitutes with no attempts to change their behaviour. Pointing out that this philosophy didn’t have much success in halting AIDS in Africa was not deemed as relevent by him. The main thing is that they “respected the women” enough not to try an “impose” some foreign mentality upon them in exchange for help. Idiotic and doomed to failure.

  • Brian English

    I posted these quotes from Jesus of Nazareth last September:


    Your approach of dealing with economic issues first as the answer to abortion is doomed to failure. Benedict XVI explains why in his book, Jesus of Nazareth.

    Benedict quotes the German Jesuit, Alfred Delp, who was executed by the Nazis, with regard to the idea that man does not live by bread alone: “Bread is important, freedom is more important, but most important of all is unbroken fidelity and faithful adoration.” (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 33).

    Benedict then goes on to state, “When the ordering of goods is no longer respected, but turned on its head, the result is not justice or concern for human suffering. The result is rather ruin and destruction even of material goods themselves. When God is regarded as a secondary matter that can be set aside temporarily or permanently on account of more important things, it is precisely these supposedly more important things that come to nothing. It is not just the negative outcome of the Marxist experiment that proves this.” (Id.)

    Benedict then goes on to examine the failure of material aid by the West to the developing world and states, “The issue is the primacy of God. The issue is acknowledging that he is reality, that he is the reality without which nothing else can be good. History cannot be detached from God and then run smoothly on purely material lines. If man’s heart is not good, then nothing else can turn out good, either. And goodness of the human heart can ultimately come only from the One who is goodness, who is the good itself.” (Id. at 33-34).