Holy Year of Mercy – Works of Mercy: Ransom Captives & Admonish Sinners

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nicene_guy
-by Nicene Guy, 3/27/15

“Ransoming captives may seem the strangest, the least necessary of the works of mercy today. Oh, it was surely necessary historically (and Christ does specifically mention it in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats). There are indeed two different religious orders which were established to do this work historically. Both the Trinitarians and the Order of Our Lady of Ransom specifically had as their mission the rescuing of Christian captives from the hands of the infidels (which largely meant, Muhammedans). Members of the Order of Our Lady of Ransom took a fourth vow, which was to substitute themselves for other captives held by infidels, thereby ransoming those captives by becoming themselves captives: a very Christ-like approach to the problem of captivity.

But how can we do this particular work of mercy today? Hostage situations seem more a problem for the FBI and the police than for the average citizen. POWs are traded between warring governments, and the occasional ship taken by pirates is more likely to be rescued by SEALs than by concerned Samaritans.

Sometimes this work of mercy is interpreted as the simpler “visit the imprisoned,” and that is indeed a part of this work. Not all captives can be ransomed, nor really should all prisoners be set free: there is often a good reason why they are imprisoned, and letting them free is neither merciful to their victims nor to their own souls. But in the US at least, virtually any prisoner can receive visitors, and many of them greatly appreciate the visits. Many parishes run some sort of prison ministry, which might involve Bible studies or even Communion services, both of which can be invaluable to any prisoner. It may be too late for the hardened criminal to walk free under the sun or stars, but there is yet time for him to repent so that he finds himself in Paradise rather than perdition after his death [1].

Captivity goes beyond the bars of a prison or the demands of a hostage situation. Saint Thomas Aquinas notes that sickness refers to distress due to an “internal cause” (e.g. lack of health, but any internal cause of distress), and captivity is distress due to an “external cause” (e.g. imprisonment, but any other external cause of distress):

“If the need be special, it is either the result of an internal cause, like sickness, and then we have ‘to visit the sick,’ or it results from an external cause, and then we have ‘to ransom the captive.’…All other needs are reduced to these, for blindness and lameness are kinds of sickness, so that to lead the blind, and to support the lame, come to the same as visiting the sick. On like manner to assist a man against any distress that is due to an extrinsic cause comes to the same as the ransom of captives” (Summa Theologica II-II.32.2 Answer and Reply 2).

Therefore, ransoming captives includes many works of mercy beyond visiting the imprisoned and freeing hostages. The fireman who pulls a woman from a burning building is ransoming the captive, as is the teacher who breaks up a fight in the schoolyard.

A more serious problem in our society is sex-trafficking. The USCCB (council of US bishops) has a program which attempts to fight sex trafficking, which is the modern day equivalent of slavery. The American abolitionist historically worked to ransom the captive by freeing slaves, and now their successors work against the modern slaves, those victims of human trafficking.  (Ed. Captives of sexual slavery may not be held by others against their own wills, but by themselves, and the evil forces which promote this form of slavery.  These captives are in our homes, our schools, our places of work and worship.  They are our colleagues and loved ones, our fellow Catholics and Christians.  The devil is hard at work.  Lord, save me from my temptations and sin.  Lord, save all those so imprisoned.  Save us, holy Lord.  Deliver us, merciful Lord.  Only You can.  Come and save us now.)

There are worse situations against which the Church has been leading the fight. Abortion, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, parental surrogacy, artificial insemination (arguably) and in vitro fertilization (definitely) are all forms of captivity. Many of them—embryonic stem cell research, in vitro fertilization (in practice at least), and abortion—result in the death (often very painful) of the captive, in this case a tiny human being in the earliest stages of his development. Ransoming the captive here aims to put a stop to these evil practices, and where possible to save the lives of their victims. Abortion destroys at least two lives—the child’s and the mother’s—and rescuing a woman and her child from abortion most certainly is a form of ransoming the captive which can be engaged in directly or indirectly (by prayer) by us as lay Catholics.

Moreover, certain sins, especially those pertaining to addictions, require the presence and availability of the thing to which a person is addicted. Thus, an alcoholic sins when he over-imbibes. Whereas his addiction to alcohol is a sort of sickness, the actual presence of alcohol to tempt him is a sort of captivity, and so to remove this temptation is a sort of ransoming. Thus, another form of ransoming the captive is to remove external aides to sin, such as alcohol from an alcoholic, drugs from a drug addict, or weapons from a man who might be tempted to murder.  (Ed. pornography from the sexually tempted or addicted.)

While we are removing those external aids to sin, we might go a step further and consider the internal ones. If there are many people who are put in external danger, bodily damage, corporal captivity, then it is also true that all of us face a greater internal threat from sin. We are all to some extent enslaved, ensnared, and beshackled by sin. Thus, a fitting spiritual compliment to the corporal work of mercy ransoming captives would be ransoming sinners. However, we cannot ransom sinners and remove them from their captivity in sin: that’s a thing that only God can do. However, we can do a slightly less glamorous task which may be the first step in this process, which is the spiritual work of mercy of admonishing the sinner.

In the book of Ezekiel, we read:

“You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear Me say anything, you shall warn them for Me. If I tell the wicked man that he shall surely die, and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked man from his way, he (the wicked man) shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death. But if you warn the wicked man, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.” (Ezekiel 33:7-9).

This is addressed by God to His prophet, meaning ultimately to all His prophets. This includes us, since we are also prophets by our baptisms. According to our Lord, “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” John was the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets (and among the first of the New), yet those who will be part of the Kingdom of God are greater still.

Since we are all called to be prophets by our baptisms, we are also called to take up the mantle of the prophets as “watchmen” against sin. Therefore, we are in fact called to admonish sinners. It does not seem that this was ever an “easy” task, in that admonishing sinners always carries with it a certain risk.  (Ed. the risk of hypocrisy is ever present and may be ever real.) In past ages where sin was taken more seriously, admonishing a particularly powerful sinner might bring with it certain social consequences, and worse. Nobody likes to be reminded that he is a sinner; the more humble accept the correction without bitterness; the more haughty see the rebuke as a personal attack and look to exact revenge.

That is still true today [2]. Admonishing the sinner still carries a number of social (and physical, for that matter) risks, whether the sinner is a powerful stranger or a close friend. Try telling one of your “gay” friends that homosexual acts are immoral (as per Catholic moral teaching and the Natural Law tradition), and you will see how strong the friendship is [3]. Ditto for your “straight,” Christian friends who are divorced and remarried.

However, there is an added twist in today’s society. There is a Bible verse which has been twisted and then placed on the lips of the collective culture, and used as a bludgeon against the work of admonishing sinners. After all, we read in both the Gospel of St Matthew (7:1-5) and the Gospel of St Luke (6:37-42) Christ’s own words: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Even the Gospel of St Mark echoes this point, “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more” (Mark 4:24).

So we are warned sternly against judging others.

However, these passages have been twisted from their intent. For one thing, we are being told not to judge falsely (hence Christ’s use of the word “hypocrite” [4]). We are not to condemn others, either, and this is what judging as Christ uses it here boiled down to. We do not know the inner movements of the hearts or the inner thoughts of the minds of others: we cannot gaze into each others’ souls to see fully our motives, struggles, desires, thoughts, beliefs, etc.

We can, however, see actions, and call them what they are. Therefore, we cannot judge a person—this is the real warning which Christ is giving here—and call ourselves better than him for not committing all of his sins. For that matter, we can’t call ourselves worse simply because he does not seem to commit all of ours. What we can do, and what this work of mercy requires of us, is to call a sin a sin. This can be done publicly where the sin is public (what we sometimes call a “scandal” [5]); it can be done generally where the sin is widespread (e.g. abortion, contraception, usury, pornography, etc.). But in its most potent (and most merciful) form it is done tactfully, privately, and done with the intention to helping the other person to give up his sin.  (Ed. to call upon the Almighty for His Grace to say “no” to sin, and “YES!” to Jesus.)

Lest we get hung up on the “judge not” passage, Christ also tells us about fraternal correction, and admonishes us to use it rather than pretending that the sin does not exist and that it causes no harm:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17)

Admonishing the sinner is in fact a work of mercy, and one which Christ Himself enjoins us to do. We are to do it tactfully, lovingly, without boasting, and without condemning. That is a tall order, but it is a far cry different from not doing this at all. When we do not admonish the sinner, we risk losing our own souls, whatever else may be the outcome.

—Footnotes—
[1] Saint Dismas, often known as “the good thief,” is an excellent example of this.

[2] Mary Stachowicz is a name we may hear more often in the future. She died a martyr for the Faith, murdered by a homosexual man for telling him that the homosexual lifestyle is sinful.

[3] Not to mention that we have created a socio-political-economic climate in which the wrong remarks about the wrong classes of people can lead to losing one’s job. Personal conversations and private actions increasingly have public consequences, usually not for the better.

[4] Hypocrite means something very different in the Gospels than its common use today. Now it merely means not practicing what one preaches. This is not at all the meaning of the words as used by Jesus, since it would make anybody who preached a consistent moral code into a hypocrite. Since He tells us that we must “be perfect” (Matthew 5:48), if we merely echo His own words we would be hypocrites by today’s (mis-) use of the word.

The word then meant something akin to wearing a mask, putting on a false show like an actor. It would mean, in other words, that we ourselves do not believe in the moral standard which we are preaching, that we don’t hold ourselves to the moral standard to which we hold everyone else. We have one (easy) moral standard for ourselves, and another (harder) one for everyone else. “Hypocrisy” is, in other words, more rightly translated by the phrase “double standard,” and so “judging” means holding others to this double standard to which we do not hold ourselves. God is not fooled, and if we do this, then we will ultimately be held to the higher/harder standard by God.

[5] Another words whose meaning has changed. “Scandal” once meant something—an action, some words, etc—which caused others to lose their faith or to doubt. As Christ Himself says, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42).

Love, and always in need of His mercy,
Matthew

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