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 less smart than we suburban Americans. When people started getting hungry, Jesus took five loaves and two fishes and gave them to a couple of people around him. Suddenly, inspired by a wave of warm fuzziness emanating from this gesture, everybody remembered the picnic baskets they had tucked away in the 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 have a guest 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.

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 promise the birth of Isaac and to warn of the destruction of Sodom (Genesis 18). However, the wicked town was not, as modern theologians are wont to say, ultimately destroyed for its inhospitality (but that’s another story for another time).

Scripture constantly emphasizes Israel’s duty of hospitality to the alien, the orphan and the widow (Deuteronomy 10:18; Jeremiah 7:6). 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, a descendant of Ruth.

And David’s story, of course, ultimately issues in the birth of the Son of David, Jesus. Yet the paradox of Jesus’ 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) and are remembered for it are remarkable and rare (John 11:1-2). 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 tradition of hospitality — a tradition 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 and conflicted by the homeless when we meet them. Do we tell them, “If anyone will not work, let him not eat” like St. Paul (2 Thessalonians 3:10)? Or do we 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 and 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.

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 bad too. Hitler, after all, was homeless once. It’s easy, in the flush of excitement over conversion, to leap into a Franciscan zeal for the homeless, only to discover that the homeless guy you want to help is homeless not because he’s one of the wretched of the earth whom fate has dealt a bad hand, but because he’s a violent, unstable person 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 in three states.

Yet, all that said, we are still commanded to harbor the harborless. And there are ways to do it both with personal involvement and via financial support — without compromising our own safety and well-being.

For instance, in the 1980s, a small nondenominational church in Seattle started sponsoring refugees. I remember it well because it was my church. Our pastor arranged with a relief agency to help a Vietnamese family who had walked through Pol Pot’s Killing Fields in Cambodia and seen corpses stacked like cord wood. We also sponsored families from communist Romania and 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 G.K. Chesterton’s famous remark that Catholics agree about everything and only disagree about everything else, it’s 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 by the question of whether the human being at his door is legal. He is bound by the fact that the human being at his door is Jesus Christ.

At the same time, foolish things have been 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. Laws should be respected.

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.

But if we follow our historical pattern, we can hope that the stranger from the south will find a welcome as did the stranger from Ireland, elsewhere in Europe and Asia.

Meantime, most of us are not tasked 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.”

In my experience, that’s where we lay Catholics can be of huge assistance to the Body of Christ. Spiritual homelessness in one’s own parish is epidemic in Catholic America. The stories of aching loneliness we hear from average Catholics sitting as strangers in pews all over the U.S. 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.”

It’s the No. 1 reason ex-Catholics are ex-Catholics. They don’t leave the Church because they read “Call no man your father” (Matthew 23:9) and realize to their horror that priests are called “Father.” That’s the theological excuse that gets layered on later. The real reason is usually: “I was desperately lonely, and this evangelical co-worker invited me to his church. They welcomed me, gave me a place, knew my name and loved me.”

There’s no need for that. Catholics can be welcoming and warm. We too have the ability to open our homes, to invite new folks in the parish over for tea or Sunday dinner. We too can notice gifts and charisms 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. Want to come?”

All this is part of harboring the harborless. Some will complain that this 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 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 from 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 Shea is a Register columnist and blogger.

Previous parts in the series on the corporal works of mercy:


Feed the Hungry

Give Drink to the Thirsty

Clothe the Naked