“What right have you to be merry?”: Silliness and Seriousness in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”

My grandfather was Fezziwig. Standing on the stage at the end of the packing shed, fully dressed in a Victorian-style waistcoat and brown top-hat, with a sprig of holly in its side (though not, thankfully, in his heart), he announced to the audience that tables would be cleared and the band assembled so dancing could finally begin. Every early December on the weekends when I was growing up, my extended family would put on a series of Christmas dances for our living history farm. I or my cousin would always play Tiny Tim. Part dinner-theater, part dancing-hall, the packing shed became Fezziwig’s factory, and our production of A Christmas Carol would pause in that middle act so the “city folks” could try their feet at the “Roger de Coverly” and (always the house favorite) “Virginia Reel.”

Having Fezziwig for a grandfather meant that I always found Fezziwig’s scene in A Christmas Carol to be thoroughly joyful, happy, and good. It is always depicted in film adaptations as a moment where Scrooge and his audience lament the misspent opportunities and good influence that Fezziwig might have had on his young apprentice. Yet, in the novel, just after Scrooge begins to soften while watching, he receives a rebuke from his guiding Spirit. “‘A small matter, said the Ghost, ‘to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.’ Small!’ echoed Scrooge” (71). In that moment, Scrooge uncharacteristically defends merriment when he states that Fezziwig’s power of making his guests “so full of gratitude” is “impossible to add and count ‘em up … The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune” (72). The Spirit’s rebuke towards Scrooge could be an indictment of the latter’s miserly attitude, as is the case when the Ghost of Christmas Present uses Scrooge’s own words against him, asking “Are there no prisons? … Are there no poor houses?” (79). Ostensibly, the fact that Scrooge is more like his younger self when he responds would indicate that his remark is correct, or at least coming from a better part of his nature. I am inclined to agree with him, but does he adequately address whether or not Fezziwig and his guests are “silly,” or that Fezziwig’s kindness is “a small matter”? When suffering mars the world, is it right to express joy in such a silly way as Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig do? Are they rightly the source of praise, if their benevolence is of a “small” nature? Should we not be more serious?

Scrooge’s development in the novel can be seen as a “reclamation,” to use the first Spirit’s term, of childlike mirth and silliness, but it is not clear that such a demeanor is always the end of “Christian” maturity in the book (63).[1] At the novel’s final chapter, Scrooge begins his new life with the declaration, “I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby. Hallo! Whoop! Hallo here! … ”  (119). Childishness, or a kind of childish merriment, are seemingly among the crucial qualities that Scrooge had lost, and which the Spirits endeavor to re-cultivate in his cold and inhospitable heart. In a kind of reverse bildungsroman, it is not a growing up that Scrooge must achieve, but a growing younger, and I don’t think any reader mourns whatever Scrooge loses in that process. Bob Cratchit demonstrates a similar childlike glee when he “went down a slide on Cornhill” no less than twenty times as a way to “honor” Christmas (47). Part of keeping the holiday seems to receive it gleefully.

Yet, while readers might initially assume that Dickens universally promotes a child-like silliness because of Scrooge, Bob, and Fezziwig, it is notable that the Spirits themselves, and even Tiny Tim, are frequently serious.[2] The first Spirit is “soft and gentle,” but not jovial. Its commands are resolute, and its grasp, though “gentle as a woman’s hand, was not to be resisted” (63). It beams with light, but not warmth. Of course, the second Spirit, if it is a spirit of anything, is of “good humor” (84). It outpours its “bright and harmless mirth on everything within its reach” (91-92). Yet, even the “Jolly Giant” becomes grave at the introduction of Want and Ignorance at the end of its chapter, speaking to Scrooge “sorrowfully,” and prophetically spreading its hands towards London while crying out “bide the end” (79). The spirit of mirth grows to be more serious, rather than less. If the spirits represent what is most “spiritual,” in a broadly Christian sense, then why does their serious demeanor contrast so with Scrooge’s “spiritual” growth towards glee?

Tiny Tim, moreover, serves as a foil to Fezziwig and Scrooge, and even his father. The old men have a childish demeanor, while the boy has a serious wisdom. Tiny Tim may be a child and “as good as gold,” but he is never silly (87). Bob follows the characterization of his son’s goodness by saying, “he gets thoughtful sitting by himself so much, and he thinks the strangest things you ever heard” (87). That Tiny Tim would want others to see his own disability to be reminded on Christmas day of him “who made lame beggars walk and blind men see,” indicates he has a profound and serious nature (87). Furthermore, in the few pages the reader has of Tiny Tim, it is notable that Dickens tasks him with singing “about a lost child travelling in the snow” (91). Whether this boy finds his way in the song is not specified, but it is possible that Tim’s subject is of an entirely tragic nature. Either way, suffering is present, and the song is as poignant and unresolved as the “wretched woman with an infant,” at the end of Dickens’ first stave, whom the shades cannot help (59). Much in the novel, then, is serious, and it raises the question of whether such middle-class silliness as Fezziwig’s ought to be seen as great or worthwhile in light of the suffering poor. How can such flippancy as a dance be meaningful when the wretched widow and her infant are alone in the cold?

I am reminded, at the end of this inquiry, that my grandfather is actually quite a serious man. He plays at Fezziwig, but conducts his business of guiding dancers across the floor, and replicating Christmas jollity on the farm in the winter, with a kind of gravity. “I would like to think it is God’s work,” he has sometimes said to me. Perhaps he reflects the demeanor of the narrator, as Dickens expresses in a strange break in his story. Relating of Belle’s children, he declares “What would I not have given to be one of them! … I should have liked, I do confess, to have had the lightest licence of a child, and yet been man enough to know its value” (74-75). That the narrator longs for the licence of a child implies that he does not have it, even if he thinks it is a good quality. The end of the spiritual journey in the novel may not be towards complete child-likeness or complete seriousness. We know Ignorance and Want creep under the robes of the Present. We know that death is in our future. However, there might be a way to retain a licence in joy while knowing the value of things. Cultivating it for others may itself be valuable, “silly” and “small” though it may seem, even if we ourselves do not always feel it.


[1] I mean “Christian,” here, in a more cultural than theological sense. Scrooge comes to practice the virtues that Fred characterizes as belonging to the time of Christmas, regardless of anyone’s position on Christian orthodoxy: that is, kindness, forgiveness, charity, and pleasantness (42).

[2] Not much need be said of the final Spirit on this matter, who is introduced as “grave” and with the characteristic that, “in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery” (102).


Works Cited


Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. Broadview Literary Texts, 2003.

When Suffering Enters A Christmas Carol

In the commercialized Christmas we have come to know and love (?), we often frame A Christmas Carol as full of cheer and goodwill . . . an old man moved by the intervention of ghosts to care for a young crippled boy in the spirit of the holiday. When we call someone “Scrooge,” we usually mean they are not being cheery enough: perhaps they are refusing to listen to Christmas music before Thanksgiving. This collapse of emotions into “cheer” is why I was surprised by the range of emotions represented in A Christmas Carol when I came back to it this year. Difficulty and grief are placed alongside brilliant happiness and cheer. I’d like to explore how the cheer and troubles are placed together, though, since there is danger in representing suffering and pain in art. Does A Christmas Carol ultimately handle suffering ethically?

One of the biggest hurdles for me in saying “yes” is that the most vivid moments of people suffering are within the ghost sequences, not the “real present” of the frame, and all the suffering is very immediately solvable by personal action. In the “real present,” the gentlemen request funds to support the poor and describe “Want” as “keenly felt,” and we see Bob shivering at his small fire, but that is all (45). If Scrooge simply gave them money and wasn’t rude, then those problems would go away. If we view A Christmas Carol as tackling the problem of suffering and poverty in general, this is dissatisfying: the text would seem to be saying that if we individually just gave more money, there would be no suffering.

Within the ghost sequences, we see more moments of people suffering—like Tiny Tim dying—but even these are then alleviated or are “what ifs” that Scrooge’s actions can stave off. What if Scrooge met more people than could be supported by his personal generosity? All the suffering people he sees in the journey with the Ghost of Christmas Present are ultimately made cheerful by the Ghost’s happy blessing: “the Spirit stood beside sick beds, and they were cheerful; on foreign lands, and they were close at home; by struggling men, and they were patient in their greater hope; by poverty, and it was rich. In almshouse, hospital, and jail, in misery’s every refuge . . . he left his blessing” (99). They are fixed. The two sad figures at the end of the stave might complicate this, because they are not helped, but they are not even individual humans but allegorical figures of Ignorance and Want. They do not have hopes and dreams; they do not have stories with which to grab the imagination, and so they do not complicate the narrative as much as they could. If Scrooge met more poor individuals suffering in poverty instead of allegorical figures, he would also be prompted to help them, and his own financial resources would eventually run out.

This raises the question: would running out of personal financial resources actually be problematic for Scrooge’s attempts to alleviate suffering? Perhaps not—the Spirit does not sprinkle money on the people he spreads cheer to. The problem is, though, that in the last stave Scrooge fixes the suffering around him by giving money to the boy, to the Cratchit family, to the gentlemen representing the charity, and to Bob Cratchit. So it does seem that representing larger suffering would create difficulties: what does one do with suffering that refuses financial solutions, and how would that frustrate the text’s tone?

Please understand me, dear reader: I am not trying to cry “humbug!” on the tale. But it does seem important to ask the question of how we should portray suffering and its solutions, and what the consequences are of doing so. How does one include suffering in a text that ultimately seeks to persuade us that our actions can remove suffering …when those actions actually can’t remove it completely? Tiny Tim lives in the end because Scrooge helps provide for his family. What if he had a terminal illness and could not have been saved by financial help?

Perhaps I am asking the tale to bear a weight it was not trying to—not all works involving suffering have to be theodicies or be comprehensive.

Or perhaps I am overly limiting my definition of suffering. What if I broaden my definition from physical want to emotional pain? Maybe it is also tackling the problem of dealing with our own experiences of emotional suffering.

In my summary of that last stave, I left something off of my “things money helps to fix” list, and it’s a big one: it is Scrooge’s acceptance of Fred’s hospitality. Scrooge does not fix this relationship with money—he does not even show up with a host gift. But here there is “wonderful unanimity, won-der-ful happiness!” (122). There was not suffering in Fred’s house before, but now Scrooge is included in the happiness. To me, this hints that part of the happy ending is that Scrooge is no longer suffering, and that reframes the tale not just as one of a man ignoring the physical suffering of others but also one of a man ignoring his own emotional suffering.

At the beginning of the book, Scrooge asserts, “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly” (45). This tale obviously shows how “interfering” with others is actually good. I think it is equally important to see that the text also proves false another aspect of this statement. Scrooge implies that he understands his own business. If we take “business” to mean what he means when he refers to other people’s business (their lives), then his implied claim to understand his own business is patently false. He ignores many aspects of his life…who he has been, who he is to others now, and who he might be becoming: what life is left in that construction? His healing comes when he reintegrates those selves, and he does so via grief. When the ghost takes him to his past, he “wept to see his poor forgotten self as he had used to be” and “he said, in pity for his former self, ‘Poor boy!’ and cried again” (65-66). In the journey with the Ghost of Christmas Present, he feels “penitence and grief” over his own cruel words the ghost repeats back to him (89). With the Ghost of Christmas Future, he is confronted with his own lonely death and his sadness at that way of dying. He can no longer equate money with happiness as he does at the beginning (42). He has to own his unhappy state. This explains why the lesson he repeats at the end of the tale is “I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me” (117). Instead of focusing on what he will do for others, he focuses on an integration of his various selves, past, present, and future, despite the painfulness of owning who he has been and the pain of his experiences. This adds additional weight to his words “I am here” near the ending, when he realizes he is back in the true present (118). Of course, this integration then leads to helping others in the rest of that final stave.

After all this, though, I am still unsure if this emphasis on Scrooge owning his own emotional suffering makes the text more of an ethical representation of suffering or not. Could it be it terribly solipsistic to focus on Scrooge’s suffering in this way? Hopefully the way he moves from reintegration of his self to providing for others means not. Either way, though, I should hesitate before casting the first stone: I too have been guilty of limited vision. In remembering A Christmas Carol, I had forgotten the different types of suffering hidden within it. Whether this misremembering is all my own fault or is encouraged by the text—well, I leave that up to you.

Bearing Tidings in ‘A Christmas Carol’

As Richard Kelly notes in his introduction to Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the novella is marked by its contrasts: it is “a paradoxical mixture of light and darkness, joy and despair, warmth and cold, life and death.”[i] One striking element that conveys this paradoxical mixture within Carol has to do with the way in which speech acts are offered and rejected, given and received, even asked for and withheld. This is most evident in the opening stave, before Ebenezer Scrooge receives his ghostly visitations; however, this element is developed throughout the novella and Scrooge’s conversion.

While in his counting-house near the beginning of Carol, Scrooge receives three visitors, foreshadowing the unearthly visitors soon to come. The first visitor is Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, who offers him an invitation to Christmas dinner. Scrooge refuses this offer, but not only this offer, he also ignores and rejects Fred’s enthusiastic well-wishing for the Christmas and New Year. Soon after two gentlemen come in to speak with Scrooge, asking for donations in order to buy food for the poor. Scrooge, after what might be considered heartless remarks about the poor and their apparent suffering, refuses to give anything, remarking that it is none of his business, and ends the conversation with a sharp “Good afternoon, gentlemen!”[ii]

However, it’s the third visitor that is the briefest and perhaps the most revealing for Dickens purpose of these visits, and the novella itself. Scrooge’s third visitor is a poor, cold-bitten young man, whose nose is “gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs.”[iii] The visitor does not come inside, but rather stoops near the keyhole in order to offer a song—a Christmas carol. Dickens has this character sing only two verses of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” yet here Dickens changes the lyric to “God bless you merry gentleman!” This slight change from “rest” to “bless” seems significant and deliberate. Is Dickens here deliberately using “bless” to steer his readers from an understanding of rest that would dissuade from charitable action?[iv] Perhaps it simply signifies the changed meaning of “rest” from its more archaic “to keep;” nevertheless it does allow Dickens to begin the emphasis on blessing later to be echoed by Tiny Tim, the narrator, and Scrooge himself. Further, through this Christmas carol, the young man would have offered tidings of comfort and joy in the verses that follow, but he is silenced and scared off by Scrooge and his menacing ruler-grab. Each of these spoken (and sung) offers and invitations are rejected by Scrooge, and each of them seems to have comfort at the heart of them—be it the comfort of one’s family, the comfort of a meal and warmth, or merely the tidings of comfort offered goodheartedly in the season of joy.

As Scrooge’s evening continues, it is interesting that these speech acts seem to be reversed, yet the centrality of comfort remains. When Scrooge is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge pleads: “Speak comfort to me, Jacob.”[v] Marley responds that he has no comfort to give, saying that such comfort “comes from other regions…and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men.”[vi] Additionally, the first ghost claims his business to be Scrooge’s “welfare,” and yet Scrooge, though thanking the ghost, says instead that that a night of “unbroken rest” would be “more conducive.”[vii] Although Scrooge attempts to refuse such charity,” the ghost silences him, naming Scrooge’s reclamation over his welfare to be his concern: “Take heed!”[viii] Later, faced with the reality of the present, Scrooge is silenced by second ghost, who uses Scrooge’s own words to silence him. And it is finally with the third ghost that Scrooge is met with one who is completely silent, who refuses Scrooge with any spoken answer, despite Scrooge’s sorrowful query: “Will you not speak to me?”[ix] It is not until Scrooge vocalizes the promise of his change—“Spirit…hear me!”[x]—which is interestingly followed by an unspoken prayer, that Scrooge awakes in his own bed. Having been converted and his heart now full of laughter, Scrooge becomes the bearer of good tidings, tidings of comfort and joy, tidings of blessing.

Through this work, Dickens himself seems to offer tidings, but contrastive tidings. He offers readers both a tale of hope and a tale of realistic anguish and destitution. Dickens mentions in his preface, he endeavored “to raise the Ghost of an Idea.”[xi] He tells of the worst of human nature, but bears the comforting news of possible change. Through this telling, he further offers an image of the reality of poverty, but in it he also finds joy. By raising such a ghost of an idea, in some sense he leaves the reception open-ended for the reader, offering tidings that can be refused or accepted, but will hopefully continue to pleasantly “haunt” readers with its message.


[i] Richard Kelly, “Introduction,” in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, ed. Richard Kelly (Ontario: Broadview Literary Texts, 2003), 10. Cf., 27.

[ii] Dickens, Carol, 45.

[iii] Dickens, Carol, 46.

[iv] I am thinking here of how the ghost of Jacob Marley tells Scrooge that he cannot rest (55), and later how Scrooge tells the Ghost of Christmas Past how he could use a night of “unbroken rest” (63). Something more seems to be at issue with “rest” in this work, though it is not clear exactly what Dickens is trying to convey.

[v] Dickens, Carol, 55.

[vi] Dickens, Carol, 55.

[vii] Dickens, Carol, 63.

[viii] Dickens, Carol, 63.

[ix] Dickens, Carol, 103

[x] Dickens, Carol, 115.

[xi] Dickens, Carol, 37.

Remember . . . Christmas Day


A broadside ballad containing several Christmas carols. This particular version was printed and distributed on the streets of London between 1813 and 1838. Held by the Bodleian Library.

In all the renditions of A Christmas Carol I’ve experienced over the years, from plays, to movies, to cartoons, to audiobooks, to—of course—Dickens’ original text, I don’ t think I’ve ever paid adequate attention to the actual “carol” of A Christmas Carol. The story has become so thoroughly a part of western holiday culture that, I suspect, many of us don’t give the title a second thought. I won’t make the same mistake again.

The “carol” in A Christmas Carol is, presumably, the one the little boy attempts to sing outside Scrooge’s keyhole:

The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge’s keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of
“God bless you, merry gentleman!
May nothing you dismay!”
Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost. (46-47)

This action of Scrooge is the third and culminating inhospitable action he commits during the scene at his counting house. He has turned away his nephew’s invitation of hospitality and also turned his nephew out forcibly with his repeated “Good afternoon!” (43) in response to his nephew’s holiday well wishes, he has rejected altogether the request for donations to charity, and now he completes his tripartite rejection of the Christmas spirit—foreshadowing the three spirits that will later visit him—with his frightening away of the young caroler, who is stopped after only two lines of the song.

Dickens centers a great deal around these two lines that are present—and the rest that are absent—from this mid-eighteenth-century carol. By the book’s publication in 1843, dozens of versions of the carol were available in broadside printings, many of which still survive in the Bodleian Library’s physical and digital archives. Dickens’ version, however, does not match the text of any of these printings, but he instead trades the word “rest” for his own word, “bless.” The word “bless” becomes central to the tale, and it is prominently featured in Tiny Tim’s benediction at the close of the story: “God Bless Us, Every One!” (125). Dickens does not intend for Scrooge to “rest,” and he is certainly not “merry,” but through the playing out of the carol in the rest of the novella, he is indeed blessed, and he becomes merry. The switch to the singular “gentleman” likewise indicates a personal benediction. This carol and its blessing are meant for Scrooge. Scrooge loses rest—literally and figuratively—over the next several nights in order to be blessed by the results of the visitations by Marley and the three ghosts of Christmas.

Although Scrooge chases the boy off before he can start the next line, the rest of the carol resonates in the readers’ minds and is also extended in the themes of the book itself. The book becomes the carol in several ways. According to the original title page, A Christmas Carol is not merely the title of the book, but also its designation. Beneath the title are printed the words “in prose,” signifying that the story itself is not merely about a carol—it is one.

The title page of the first edition of A Christmas Carol, held by the British Library. 

Furthermore, in most versions of “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen” that were circulating at that time, the next line begins with “remember,” a command that becomes a key part of Scrooge’s transformation. Dickens emphasizes the theme of memory as Scrooge visits his former self with the Spirit of Christmas Past, and it is at that moment he recalls the caroler regretfully:

Then, with a rapidity of transition very foreign to his usual character, he said, in pity for his former self, “Poor boy!” and cried again.
“I wish,” Scrooge muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff: “but it’s too late now.”
“What is the matter?” asked the Spirit.
“Nothing,” said Scrooge. “Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that’s all.” (66)

When Scrooge empathizes with the lonely boy, remembering the emotions of his own boyhood, he also remembers his failure to exercise charity. Dickens even capitalizes “Carol” this time, further cementing the connection with the title and highlighting the importance of the act of remembering in truly celebrating Christmas.

But why does Scrooge seem to have been brought full-circle after only one spirit’s visitation? There are two remaining visitations that appear to be vital to his transformation, but it seems there must also be a reason for returning to the carol after only one ghost. It is never again explicitly mentioned.

Perhaps part of the answer may be found in the next lines of the carol that are not sung by the caroler, which Dickens’ readers would have known and filled in automatically. It continues, “Remember Christ our Savior/ was born on Christmas Day.” Christ, however, is oddly absent from this novella that purports to be a song about his birthday celebration. Whereas the broadside versions of “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen” are typically adorned with engraved images of the nativity or depictions of Christ’s life, Christ is all but missing from this “prose carol.” The song is cut short before reaching his name, and he is not named elsewhere in the story. Scrooge does indeed “Remember . . . Christmas Day,” but his acts of remembrance are not actually about Christ—or are they? Although the babe himself is never mentioned, opportunities for kindness to the least of these abound. The biblically literate reader cannot help but recall Matthew 25, in which Christ commends those who have shown mercy or charity as having done so unto him, although they did not recognize him. Even without recognizing Christ in fellow humans, one can still feed, clothe, visit, and otherwise remember them.

At the end of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge completes the unsung lines of the boy’s carol by remedying his series of inhospitable actions and attitudes from the beginning of the novel–a task he completes with the aid of memory. It seems to require different uses of memory in all three visitations to enable Scrooge to change enough that he can complete all of these tasks. Memory is not only a tool for empathy with those we see, but it is also a reminder of those whose needs exist but cannot be seen, as Scrooge learns from the second ghost, as well as a tool for considering the legacy we will leave behind us when we are gone, as Scrooge learns by encountering the contrasting deaths of himself and Tiny Tim. Each of these uses of memory enables Scrooge to “remember . . . Christmas Day” in a different way. The carol cannot be completely fulfilled until he has been kind to those he encounters and knows who are less fortunate, given to charity to help the poor he does not see or know, and entered into relationship with his family by accepting his nephew’s hospitality. In keeping Christmas Day in this way, Scrooge fulfills the unsung lines of the carol. Through his participation in both charity and hospitality, he becomes the blessed and merry gentleman from the first line of the boy’s song. By remembering his fellow man, he is  remembering Christ and aptly celebrating Christmas Day. 

Is it possible to celebrate Christmas in a way that honors Christ without mentioning his name or acknowledging his presence? Dickens seems to make that case in this story. The closest we find to a mention of Christ comes through Tiny Tim’s comment that “it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see” (87). The needs of the poor, lame, and otherwise less fortunate should remind people of the one who met their needs when he was on earth—needs that the church, as Christ’s hands and feet, are now charged with meeting through Christian charity. With this in mind, Dickens writes a new Christmas carol that works to exemplify the spirit of Christmas rather than merely singing about its guest of honor. Without the spirit of charity in Christmas, all the carols in the world cannot adequately remember or worship the infant Christ.

*All quotations from A Christmas Carol are taken from the 2003 Broadview edition, edited by Richard Kelly

Be a man, Scrooge.

We are introduced to Ebenezer Scrooge in the early pages of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol on a particularly cold day, made all the colder by the man himself. Scrooge’s internal chill is a defining feature of Dicken’s description:

The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas. (40)

This description dramatically illustrates Scrooge’s lack of human warmth and is emphasized repeatedly by the hearths in his rooms, lit poorly—or rather, miserly—wherever he goes. Scrooge is a cold man, within and without.

Shortly after this litany of chills, we meet Scrooge’s nephew, who had “so heated himself…that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again” (41). This nephew is able to turn even the chill of a late December morning into an opportunity for warmth. He is a good man, appearing on the scene with a cheerful “merry Christmas” and “God save you” for the uncle who gives him no greeting or blessing in return. And from the consistency of Dickens’ descriptions, we would know him to be a good man from his self-creating warmth alone. Cold defines the miser, after all, not the generous.

There seems to be something to this description that goes beyond obvious associations with cold-heartedness and warm-heartedness, however. After all, Scrooge is actually cold. His resistance to warm fires in his office suggests that he pursues cold. He even “had a cold in his head” (49). And one of the clearest signs of his transformation at the end of the story is that he tells Bob Cratchit to “Make up the fires, and buy another coal-shuttle before you dot another i” (123).

I suspect Scrooge’s physical coldness says something about his refusal to recognize himself as an embodied participant in the life of the world around him, and that his transformation from a cold miser to a warm man occurs through an encounter with disembodiment—the shifting forms of the spirits—and embodiment—his own dead body.

The early descriptions of Scrooge might as well be of a dead man, or worse, a spirit. He goes unacknowledged in the streets, except to be feared (40). Even his own sense of self is disembodied, as he refuses to trust his senses when Marley’s ghost comes to him in sight and sound. When Marley asks, “Why do you doubt your senses?” his response is that “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats” (52). Here is a man who would do away with the limitations of his flesh if he could.

Small surprise, then, that the only way for him to see the world—and himself—with any clarity is through the guidance of tenuously embodied spirits. Marley’s body is transparent. The first ghost’s figure is particularly changeable:

The figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. (62)

The second ghost seems physically substantial, perhaps the most richly embodied and particular character in the story up to this point with his bare chest and feet, dark brown curls, and rusty, empty scabbard. But his embodiment is also unstable: “notwithstanding his gigantic size, he could accommodate himself to any place with ease” (85), and by the end of his tour with Scrooge, in the space of a single night, he grows old (99). The last of the spirits is so insubstantial we can’t even see his face under the shroud. Besides these disembodied spirits, Scrooge himself becomes as disembodied as he would have liked it to be in his actual life, unseen by the figures in his visions, the “shadows” of things that were, are, and could be. It is beside the last spirit, that formless figure, that Scrooge is faced with his own dead body.

Scrooge’s first introduction to his death is actually quite disembodied to begin with. He hears about it from his business acquaintances, and then watches his charwoman, laundress, and undertaker’s man hock his belongings—some stolen right off of his dead body. Their conversation about his body is telling, as they make a direct association between his miserly character and the absence of anyone attending to him in his dying and death. If he’d been “natural in his lifetime,” then there would have been “somebody to look after him” (107). As a result, his body is pillaged and abandoned. Scrooge cannot even bear to look on his own face under the sheet. Having his death confirmed is as horrifying as the possibility of staring at the truth of himself. After all, what the spirit is essentially showing him is that the dead face of Scrooge is the real face of Scrooge.

Of course, Dickens prepares Scrooge for this epiphany through the previous spirits. The second spirit in particular clarifies for both Scrooge and the reader just what’s at stake, even in his first line: “Come in! and know me better, man!” Three times in this spirit’s encounter with Scrooge, he refers to the miser by the simple address of “man.” To begin with, it sounds merely stylistic. But the second use shows it to be intentional: “‘Man,’ said the Ghost, ‘if man you be in heart, not adamant’” (89). What is ultimately at stake here isn’t Scrooge’s life or death, but his humanity.

What will it take for Scrooge to be a man? The spirit’s last commandment clarifies this: “Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” (99, italics mine). Simultaneously, the ghost speaks to Scrooge as representative humanity and as a particular man, commanding him to look. No wonder, then, that the defining feature of the newly transformed Scrooge in the final pages of the story is that he does just that—he looks at his bedcurtains, out the window, at every passerby along the road. He has become, like his nephew, a good man. Scrooge’s transformation suggests that to be a good human being is to be aware of yourself as an embodied participant humanity, to look at those around you—and to look at yourself.

The Cross-Shaped Hole in A Christmas Carol

A Christmas time hardly ever rolls around that does not find me enjoying Charles Dickens’ delightful tale in some form or other, whether for private reading pleasure, in a read-aloud gathering, as an adaptation for stage or screen, or at the very least in many shared allusions and quotations scattered liberally over family festivities, like drops from the Ghost of Christmas Present’s torch. It is, of course, one of the best of books for inspiring holiday hospitality. It encourages readers not to look on the poor as strangers, but “to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys” (42). The story closes, memorably, with Scrooge’s overflowing acts of charity and generosity, as he provides food, warmth, and medical care to the poor from whom he was formerly estranged. He no longer desires to banish the unwanted, unknown masses of the poor into prisons and workhouses, for now he knows them as individual human beings. He knows them as friends.

And yet, in some ways A Christmas Carol is a strange book to incorporate into a Christian holiday celebration, because it does not “keep Christ in Christmas.” While it might make the poor appear as friends, it makes Jesus into a stranger. It banishes him to the corners of chapters, leaving Him to shiver in the margins of the pages like a refugee outside a border-wall, looking in. It seems odd that in a book whose quintessence is the birth of Christ, without which event the story could not in any sense exist, the name of Jesus is never evoked. Not once is His name mentioned. Nor is the title “Christ” used anywhere except in formations such as “Christmas.”[1] There are no sermons given. No one recounts the story of the birth of the Baby Jesus. There is no stable, no manger, no Mary or Joseph, no shepherds.[2] Indeed, the Jesus-shaped hole at the center of the story is called out by Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. “I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round,” he exults, “—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time” (42). Those em-dashes contain the whole question I am asking: How can this book, framed and invested, as it were, with that sacred name and origin, fail to mention them? How can it leave Jesus out in the cold?

Not only is Jesus never mentioned and His salvation never laid out plainly in this novella, but it may even preach an anti-Christian gospel. Rather than faith in Christ, A Christmas Carol appears to credit good works with the ability to reconcile people to God. In begging the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come to give him a chance to change the future, Scrooge cries out: “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach” (117). When he awakes and finds that he has been granted that chance to repent, he repeats his resolution, then faces this new Christmas morning “glowing with his good intentions” (118). Rather than trusting Jesus’ atonement to save him, Scrooge immediately and busily sets about saving himself by the works of his hands. “He did it all, and infinitely more” (123). Not only does Dickens appear to make Christ a stranger to the reader; he seems to go further and banish Him as an outsider, replacing His sacrificial crucifixion with a rich man’s alms-giving actions.

Why, then, this cross-shaped hole throughout the book, filled up with human works rather than God’s grace? Why so many casual exclamations referring to God—such as “God save you!” “God bless it!” “Lord bless ye!” “Lord bless me!” “God forbid!” “God bless my soul!” “God love it” “Oh God!”, or “God knows”—throughout the text, but so few serious ones that might point readers to a God they may not know? Why do characters so often go to church, but there is no report of what they heard there? Why does the cold caroler at Scrooge’s door sing “God bless you, merry gentleman! /  May nothing you dismay!”, but Dickens stops before quoting the next lines: “Remember Christ our Savior / Was born on Christmas day”?

There are certainly cultural explanations available for this lacuna. Anglophone readers in 1843 would have been extremely familiar with the Biblical story of Christmas’s “sacred name and origin.” They would not need accounts of what church-goers would hear, because they were likely church-goers themselves. At the very least, England was still culturally a nominally Christian country in the middle of the nineteenth century, with the Bible occupying a central place in standard education. Dickens could not predict that his book would be popular years later with a biblically uninformed audience.

Furthermore, Dickens himself was not enamored of what we now like to call “organized” religion, and perhaps held some less-than-orthodox beliefs himself. In The Life of Our Lord, he rewrote the birth of Jesus heretically, making the angels say to the shepherds: “There is a child born to-day in the city of Bethlehem near here, who will grow up to be so good that God will love him as his own son.” And while the doctrine of good works can perhaps be ascribed to denominational differences (historically, Anglican preaching has focused more on outward than inward signs of regeneration), Dickens himself went even further, arguing that “because [Jesus] did such Good, and taught people how to love God and how to hope to go to Heaven after death, he was called Our Saviour.” This is the heresy of adoptionism or dynamic monarchianism. Dickens concludes The Life of Our Lord with this unmistakable adjuration to his children: “Remember! – It is christianity [sic] TO DO GOOD always.” In short, Dickens’ stated version of Christianity posits a non-divine Jesus and a works-based soteriology.

With these concerns in mind, it almost seems as if it is erroneous to read A Christmas Carol as a Christian book. However, whether by design or in spite of himself, Dickens did include the saving shape of the cross in his story in the form of an important chiasmus. When Scrooge awakens after the three marvelous encounters with the spirits and cavorts joyfully around his room, “He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer; ding, dong, bell. Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!” (119). This beautiful palindrome with its arrangement of words crossing in the middle creates a cross-shape out of the sounds of church bells ringing on Christmas morning, thus telling the whole Gospel story from Jesus’ birth through His death and resurrection down to the church as His body in that day. And of course, the most-quoted line in is Tiny Tim’s “God bless us every one!” (89), which the narrator echoes to conclude the book, expansively: “Spirit of Tiny Tim, thy childish essence was from God! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”

In short, while there are still valuable questions to be asked about the orthodoxy or denominational nature of A Christmas Carol, it really answers my concern itself, in Fred’s wise words: “I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that.” With these words, Fred welcomes Jesus as friend, family, and savior who both gives and receives Christmas hospitality.

[1] There are several oblique—but important—references to Jesus without using His name. Tiny Tim told his father, coming home from church, “that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see” (87). The narrator comments upon adults playing games, claiming that “it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself” (96). When Scrooge enters the house of the bereaved Cratchits in one of the Christmases of the future, he hears a Scripture quotation read aloud: “‘And He took a child, and set him in the midst of them’” (Mark 9:36, qtd. in 112).

[2]  There is one mention of the Magi, spoken by Marley’s Ghost: “Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode!” (56), and one rather facetious reference to “Angelic messengers descending through the air on clouds like feather-beds” depicted upon Scrooge’s fireplace-tiles (50).

The Incursion of Allegory in A Christmas Carol

The children produced from under the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present are strange additions to Dickens’ tale, and not just because of their disturbing appearances. Up to that point in the narrative, all characters have been characters proper, and not symbolic stand-ins for abstract ideals. Even the ghosts enjoy a level of development and distinction from one another that is typical of complex human characters, and not mere representatives of the immaterial.

Dickens, with his usual adjectival-liberality, describes the children as “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable” creatures (99). We learn that they are “a boy and a girl”, and that each has a name; “The boy is Ignorance,” explains the Ghost of Christmas Present, and “The girl is Want” (Dickens 99-101). They have only names—no backstory, no hopes and dreams, not even the courtesy of an exuent on the part of Dickens.

Why does Dickens interrupt the semi-realism (magical realism? Spiritual realism?) of A Christmas Carol with such a brief allegorical episode? And, to compound the oddity of the allegory’s inclusion, the details of the encounter are bizarre: why represent such evils as Ignorance and Want as the very things that ought to be taken in and cherished most—namely, children? I will consider the second question first, as understanding the meaning of the allegory will help us to understand Dickens’ motivation for the inclusion of the device in the first place.

Certainly, if I were writing A Christmas Carol, and allegory suggested itself to me at the end of Stave Three, I would represent Ignorance and Want as something inherently repulsive, and something that people would be right to repel—rats, maybe, or cockroaches. But Dickens chooses children. He describes them as very ugly children, to be fair—they are “yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, [and] wolfish” (Dickens 99). He writes that, “where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacingly” (Dickens 101). Dickens has to work hard to make them repulsive, because they are members of the most vulnerable and lovable subsection of humanity.

The Ghost of Christmas Present verbalizes and encourages the revulsion Scrooge feels toward them. He says of Ignorance and Want, “Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom” (Dickens 101). He goes on to warn Scrooge, “Deny it!” (Dickens 101). It isn’t entirely clear what the referent of that “it” is—Doom? Ignorance alone? Both of the children? In any case, there are clear, inhospitable overtones to the Ghost’s instructions. Scrooge is to turn away the evils that the two children represent.

But the command that Scrooge turn away destitute children, even symbolically, is of course antithetical to the message of the story as a whole. Scrooge has already made a practice of neglecting poor children, and the ghostly intervention is certainly not meant to affirm him in his inhospitality. Similarly, it would be absurd to suggest that Dickens intends the reader to take away such an inhumane message.

How, then, do we reconcile the book’s obvious call for charity towards children, and its allegorical association of children with that which ought to be driven away?

This episode draws directly on Scrooge’s past treatment of children, rather than the proper treatment of children—even ones as repulsive and terrifying as these two. In response to Scrooge’s plea, “Have they no refuge or resource?” the Ghost of Christmas Present responds with Scrooge’s earlier dismissal, “Are there no prisons?…Are there no workhouses?” (Dickens 101). I would submit, then, that the Ghost’s purpose in presenting the evils of Ignorance and Want as children, amounts to a dark and convicting taunt to Scrooge: Drive away Ignorance with the ferocity with which you drove away the caroler yesterday. Let Want suffer in the same way you have let the Cratchit children suffer. Surely you are capable of denying Doom entrance to your society—you have been denying the poorest among you for years.

If the Ghost’s rhetorical purpose for the introduction of the children to Scrooge is primarily one of conviction, let us return to our original question of Dickens’ rhetorical purpose for the use of allegory. Beyond the fact that this episode is among the most disturbing and memorable in the novel, the device of allegory, used sparingly and tastefully, offers a utility to the author that his ordinary narrative mode does not. It allows him to directly and unmistakably admonish the reader to beware ignorance and want, while simultaneously forwarding Scrooge’s drastic character arc in a compelling and believable way. I say “believable”, not because of the likelihood of encountering such grotesque children in real life, but because of the likelihood that Scrooge, having so mistreated the poor in the past, will be hastened by their appearance in the direction of his ultimate redemption.

The Epistemology of Hospitality in A Christmas Carol

          “Bah! Humbug” has come to be one of the most recognizable and frequently uttered literary allusions, especially around the Christmas season, expressing an often ironical disillusionment with the holiday foofaraw. It is originally, of course, the catch-phrase of the inimitable Ebenezer Scrooge, and it is employed by that gentleman in Dickens’s classic tale most famously to deny the worth of Christmas and his nephew’s Christmas blessing. It is also used later on, however, when Scrooge denies the appearance of Jacob Marley in Jacob’s erstwhile doorknocker. Having double-locked himself into his chamber after this alarming encounter, Scrooge reflects upon the experience with the singular exclamation: “Humbug!” He denies the reality, even the possibility, of what he has witnessed, and this recalcitrance to believe in the reality of his strange spectral visitors persists in Scrooge for a strikingly long time. Indeed, a key part of Scrooge’s dramatic personal transformation could be described as epistemological. He incrementally learns new ways to know and to believe through his encounters with the ghosts of Christmas, gradually accepting the reality of what he at first denied. In such a tightly woven tale as Dickens’s, this element of Scrooge’s change is unlikely to be disconnected from his broader transformation, and so we might wonder how Scrooge’s evolving epistemological position on spooks and spirits facilitates his newfound commitment to loving and caring for others?

We can begin seeking an answer to this question by considering more closely how Scrooge’s ability or willingness to believe in the supernatural alters throughout the story. Scrooge’s initial resistance to believing in the real existence of the spirits is shown clearly in his engagement with Marley’s specter. When Marley’s ghost enters the room and comes into Scrooge’s view, Dickens writes, “the dying flame leaped up, as though it cried, ‘I know him! Marley’s ghost!’ and fell again” (51). Contrary to the fire’s epistemological certainty, Scrooge has just before this once again declared humbug of all the ghostly sounds approaching him and even after witnessing and speaking with the ghost, Scrooge is unconvinced. Marley states: “You don’t believe in me” (52), and Scrooge affirms this fact, explaining his disavowal of his own senses’ report by asserting “a little thing affects them…There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” (52). Scrooge recognizes that he is seeing something, but he calls into question what that something is. Strikingly, he denies the strangeness of the ghost by reducing it not only from the supernatural to the natural but from the natural particularly to the psychological. Scrooge attempts to render the ghost as nothing but an extension of himself. He attempts in this encounter to obliterate the other altogether.

This denial becomes increasingly difficult for Scrooge to maintain and quite quickly becomes impossible altogether. Indeed, while waiting for the arrival of the first spirit, Scrooge attempts to convince himself that the ordeal with Marley was mere nonsense, but he is unable to do so fully, such that when the Ghost of Christmas Past arrives Scrooge seems to more or less accept its reality. The supernatural being of the ghost is quickly made apparent through its time-travelling tendencies, and Scrooge’s resistance shifts to an attempt to deny the truth that the ghost reveals rather than an attempt to deny the ghost itself.

Even before the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge then has come to recognize the reality of an other and not just any other but a supernatural spirit. Ebenezer has jumped right into the deep end of the otherness pool, moving from an unwillingness to acknowledge being beyond himself to affirming the stark reality of a strangeness transcending the traditional bounds of reality itself.

Scrooge’s epistemological journey is not complete yet, however, as revealed in the invitation proffered by the Ghost of Christmas Present: “Come in! and know me better, man!” (80). Here, the ghost demonstrates to Scrooge the hospitality that he has persisted throughout most of his life in refusing to practice. Although the Spirit is in fact visiting Scrooge’s apartments, he invites Scrooge into Scrooge’s own rooms and into fuller knowledge of himself. With the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge only needed to recognize the ghost’s existence. The knowledge that ghost imparted to Scrooge was knowledge of Scrooge himself. But the Ghost of Christmas Present challenges Scrooge to go a step further, beckoning him to not merely recognize the existence of the stranger but to actively seek knowledge of the stranger. For this reason, the second ghost leads Scrooge not to scenes of his own life but rather to scenes of others’ lives. Indeed, “Stave Three” emphasizes the wide variety of households that Scrooge visits with the spirit, beginning with others with whom Scrooge is at least acquainted such as his nephew and Bob Cratchit but proceeding to others of whom Scrooge has no knowledge at all, even sweeping beyond Britain and across the sea. Thus, coming to know Christmas is parallel, if not synonymous, with coming to understand others and otherness.

All of this begins to suggest how Scrooge’s burgeoning ability to believe in the ghosts is essential to his transformation into a loving and generous man. The spirits are, in a sense, the ultimate strangers, and they invite themselves into Scrooge’s house. They enter his home as if they are guests, although in fact they have come for Scrooge’s benefit and are truly the ones offering him an invitation, thus exemplifying the mutual exchange of love and hospitality which Scrooge has for so long denied himself. By the time, Scrooge encounters the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come he is ready to greet that ghost with gratitude, even in spite of the fact that that ghost is the strangest and most frightening specter by far! Scrooge has learned to accept the reality of the other and actively seek understanding of that other.

To confirm our suspicion that Scrooge’s decision to practice charity and hospitality was predicated on his epistemological alteration, we can look back to an early incident in the first stave. When Scrooge has uttered his notoriously Malthusian recommendation that the death of the destitute might decrease the surplus population, he then remarks, “Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that” (45). It might at first seem as if Scrooge is denying his pseudo-eugenicist remark, but the gentleman collecting charity retorts: “But you might know it” (45). It seems that Scrooge is denying knowledge of the kinds of suffering and ways of thinking about suffering his interlocutor had described. In response, Scrooge insists that such efforts of knowing are not his concern. His business is with himself and himself alone. This is what Scrooge must grow past. Before he can overcome his selfishness and his greed, he must learn to see others as others and accept that his knowledge of himself and his own experience cannot explain them.

Indeed, we might even read Scrooge’s education in Christmas love as a partial repudiation of the doctrine of sympathy. Scrooge at first tries to reduce the ghostly other to a projection of his own digestion-muddled mind, and similarly he refuses to extend charity because his own self-knowledge does not enable him to know the reality of the sufferings the charitable gentleman describes. Scrooge grows in the tale not so much by recognizing the sameness of himself and others as by embracing others in their otherness. He could hardly have come to accept the Ghosts of Christmas by virtue of the humanity he shares with them, since they are not, in fact, human. Rather, they are just about as strange as a stranger can come and it is in learning to see and seek them as such that Scrooge becomes “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew” (123).


Is “The Wisest Thing” a Moral Responsibility? Martineau and Benefit Clubs

In Cousin Marshall, Martineau refers to Benefit Clubs as a viable alternative to reliance upon parish relief several times, especially because of John Marshall’s use of this financial option. When the widowed Mrs. Marshall writes to Ned about his money, she says, “I quite approve your wish about the Friendly Society, knowing how my husband did the wisest thing in belonging to one, and at times could have got through in no other way” (123). Earlier, the narrator characterizes John as “a slow and dull, though steady workman” of whom his friends say “that his club served him instead of a set of wits” (73-74). Furthermore, the narrator indicates Mrs. Marshall does not fully recognize that he is not particularly bright because of this one wise choice that enabled them to be self-sufficient when his hard work was not enough to keep them financially afloat: “His wife, who never seemed to have found out how much cleverer she was than her husband, put the matter in a somewhat different light. She attributed to her husband all the respectability they were enabled to maintain…She gave him the credit, not only of the regularity of their little household…but of the many kindnesses which they rendered to their neighbors” (74). Mr. Marshall’s responsible character and Mrs. Marshall’s careful stewardship of their resources also receive attention in these passages, but Martineau stresses how the Benefit Club played a major role in their abilities to be financially responsible and stable. Additionally, Martineau makes a point of clarifying that John is not actually a smart or talented man but rather a good but average man who just had the good sense to listen to the advice of his father and invest in this safety net (73). Martineau considers wise financial decisions as being within the grasp of all the working class that are not severely disadvantaged through disability, as even an allegedly dim-witted fellow like Mr. Marshall could make that choice.

Despite the support the Benefit Club provides the Marshall family in their times of need, Burke, the doctor who presents explanations and solutions for England’s political economy, does not think that Benefit Clubs are inherently the solution and therefore should not be made compulsory. When Effingham asks him what he thinks of the idea of requiring people to join Benefit Clubs, Burke responds,

No man approves such societies more than I, as long as they are voluntary; but fellowship of this kind would lose its virtue, I doubt, by being made compulsory. There are no means that I know of, of compelling a man who will not earn to store his earnings; and the frugal and industrious will do it without compulsion, as soon as they understand the matter: so that in fact the worst classes of society would be left as free to roam, and beg, and steal, as if the institution did not exist. (115-116)

For Burke, and seemingly for Martineau, as her concluding summary echoes much of Burke’s other ideas presented in the narrative, the good, hard-working people will do the common-sense thing once they know its benefits, and the people associated with the term “undeserving poor” would not act sensibly even if they could afford to do so.

Martineau’s characterization of the Marshall family and the contrasting Bell relatives, as well as several other conversations and characters, reveal her strong belief in the difference between deserving and undeserving poor. This is best represented by Louisa Burke’s conversation with Mr. Nugent, in which she expresses her concern for the lack of separation between “blameless and culpable indigence” (29). Of course, Mr. Nugent considers her categories “somewhat too nice,” for Martineau acknowledges that this is indeed an oversimplification. However, though her views are likely more nuanced than her characters’ explanations, she considers a major difference between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor to be the willingness and wisdom to save up resources through these Benefit Clubs. By associating John Marshall, a man who is not especially educated or even smart, with the wisdom of benefit clubs, which then in turn allows him to benefit other people and his relatives, the Bells, whose financial decisions are clever but unwise and often even unethical, with those who would not have the foresight to save through Benefit Clubs, is Martineau suggesting that though Benefit Clubs ought not to be legally required, that there is a sort of moral imperative to make such wise decisions?

While financial responsibility and frugality are certainly admirable qualities that allow for greater participation in the moral responsibility of charity toward neighbors, it seems that Martineau’s fairly clear distinctions between the deserving poor and undeserving poor move financial wisdom from an admirable quality to a characteristic that helps separate the virtuous from the unvirtuous and the deserving from the undeserving in troubling ways. What about those who would have joined the Benefit Clubs had they not already been receiving relief as children or who were trying to be self-sufficient in caring for their aging parents and therefore could not set aside the necessary earnings? Ned is an extreme example of the hard-working poor, but would Martineau find those in similar situations who did not break the cycle of poverty as he did to be undeserving? While she does not explicitly portray failure to plan ahead financially as a moral failing, her characters present limited examples of virtuous people who are not able be fairly self-sufficient through wise financial decisions, and thus, she seems to ignore the possibility of those who do not clearly fit in one category or the other.

Participatory Recognition

“People view hospitality as quaint and tame partly because they do not understand the power of recognition. When a person who is not valued by society is received…as a human being with dignity and worth, small transformations occur.” (Pohl, 62). As Pohl recognizes here, hospitality and recognition are deeply intertwined. Christian understandings of hospitality have frequently highlighted this fact. Yet, Christian recognition has often stressed not merely recognition of the needy, but recognition of Christ in the needy. In this post, I intend to look at both the parable of Matthew 25 and the story of Simeon in Luke 2 to begin to consider how we recognize Jesus in the other without erasing the other’s individuality and alterity.

Matthew 25 is probably one of the most cited passages concerning hospitality in the Scriptures. In this parable, Christ declares that those who care for the “least of these” in fact care for him. This is a beautiful picture. It sharpens the idea of the person as image of God, connecting the one who is the perfect image of God with those who are made in his image. It makes Christ truly present in the poor and vulnerable. But this seems to raise a serious problem. If hospitality partially consists of and necessarily demands recognition, who are we recognizing in this model? Does our recognition of Jesus complicate our recognition of the other? Can recognition of Jesus obscure our recognition of the other person in all their complexity?

This dilemma can be made even stronger by applying the rhetoric of worship or sacrifice to caring for the vulnerable, a move that is common throughout the Christian tradition. Lactantius provides just one example of this in his “Epitome.” He urges care for others as those who are also made in the image of God just as we are. And he says such activity “offer[s] to God a true and acceptable sacrifice” (quoted from Oden, 90). To describe hospitality as offering gives it a deep and beautiful significance. But does such thinking obscure our recognition of the vulnerable by shifting the focus to our recognition of God?

There are several ways one could answer this question, but I want to gesture towards a solution by looking at Simeon’s welcome of Jesus in Luke 2. In this passage, Luke describes a complex interplay of recognition and welcome (a welcome that, as we shall see, begins with Jesus but extends to Mary). Simeon is an old man in Jerusalem who has been promised by God that he will not die before he sees the Messiah. When Mary and Joseph come to the temple with Jesus, Simeon is directed to them by the Spirit. Simeon welcomes Jesus with great joy and eloquent prayer: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32). Simeon welcomes this babe carried in the arms of a poor couple without hesitation.

The recognition and hospitality in this passage takes an interesting turn as Simeon continues to speak. After welcoming Jesus, Simeon warns that many will reject him (Luke 2:34-35). His next statement, however, is striking. He addresses Mary directly and warns her that “A sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). Simeon recognizes the presence of Mary. He does not ignore her on the grounds of her not being the Messiah. He does not simply lump her into the family unit. He recognizes her as a person. He recognizes her as a mother who loves her son, and who is bound up with the divine plan for Jesus’ life. Why does he do this? Doesn’t this take away from his focus on the infant Jesus?

To the contrary, the passage suggests that Simeon’s recognition of Jesus flows over into a recognition of the humanity, loves, and sorrows of the woman who stands before him. Simeon’s recognition of Mary, her love for Jesus, and her future suffering is in fact dependent upon his recognition of Jesus. Only by the inspiration of the Spirit and his recognition of the work of Christ as Messiah could Simeon speak to Mary in this manner and know to warn her of her coming sorrow.

How, then, does Simeon’s recognition of Mary tie into our original question? The story of Simeon’s welcome suggests that the recognition of Christ can be non-competitive with recognition of the other. It may even suggest that the recognition of Christ strengthens our ability to recognize the other. Simeon’s recognition of Christ leads him to deeper, not shallower, recognition of Mary. Our recognition of the oppressed and the vulnerable as figures of Christ can have the same effect: it can deepen our appreciation of their dignity and value, and thus the importance of their individual stories and pains. These points suggest one final corollary. Simeon recognizes Mary as he prophecies, which indicates he recognizes her because God has already recognized her. In Matthew 25, we recognize Christ in the poor because Christ has already recognized them and in some sense identified himself with them. We recognize others because God has already recognized them, and this can only deepen our own recognition and hospitality. But could we strengthen this even further? Instead of a simple discussion of prior conditions, could we speak of participation? Is it possible that the reason we can recognize Christ in the other is that God by uniting his church to himself catches us up into his recognition of and care for the vulnerable? If we pursue such a thought, we might return with a fuller understanding to the idea expressed by Lactantius: recognition of and care for the vulnerable is truly doxological, as a full recognition of the other is simultaneously participation in God and truly acceptable worship.

Naming John the Baptist

“How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years” (1:18).

“How can this be, since I am a virgin” (1:34)?

What is striking in the two pericopes giving Zechariah’s and Mary’s encounters with Gabriel is both their proximity, their near identity in so many ways, and their distance—a distance told in the divergence of Gabriel’s reactions. The two passages run parallel and run away. And they also exist, of course, as the final pieces of a mosaic begun in the story of Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality and the promise of Isaac, exist within that story while recapitulating it and rendering it an anticipation of a motif ultimately figured around the evangelical moment. Like Mary and Zechariah, Sarah is filled with wonder and skepticism, she too offers a recital of reasons to doubt the given promise.

Pointing out Genesis 18’s return in this passage, marking its consonance, also serves to foreground the question of the near grammatical identity of the evangelical responses, raises again the question of what to do with their nearness and distance. To Zechariah and Mary Gabriel proclaims an unexpected birth, to each he announces the name the child and what the child will do. And both Zechariah and Mary ask how, both offer evidence for doubt, Zechariah citing age and Mary virginity. What then is actually different in their responses that merits Gabriel’s chastising condemnation and muting of Zechariah and his commendation of Mary? (It might be possible to say that no difference can be discerned—at least that Luke gives us no difference—that Zechariah’s doubt appears to Gabriel though not to us, perhaps that this just is the way of doubt or that the lack of difference signals our transparency to Gabriel’s perception. We know that Zechariah doubted because Gabriel says he did but not by some other means. But if all these options are possible, they are hardly satisfying—they disappoint in trading on a notion that the text’s significance, the seemingly intentional setting of these two visitations as contrastive parallels and bookends for the verses that oddly and crucially intervene, recedes before interpretation itself; they disappoint in suggesting the text’s opacity is its meaning.) Thus despite the structural grammatical similarity it does seem possible to say that Zechariah’s response is unique because his question appears oriented toward a desire for certainty that emerges from his doubt of Gabriel. And Mary, who also asks how and also offers reasons for doubt, seems instead transfixed by the event itself, her questioning less directed toward surety than expressive of wonder—we understand how how might be asked and also left open, as one says how beautiful, which is itself a question but one not ordered to an answer (still not rhetorical, I want to add, not a negation of itself as question—the expression how beautiful is truly asked even if an answer is unimaginable). Mary’s how ruptures the possibility of certainty itself, leaving only the event.

This difference might be witnessed not only in the questions themselves but in the differences between Gabriel’s responses that extend beyond condemnation and commendation. One might surmise as much because Gabriel responds to Zechariah with a declaration of his authority, but to Mary he offers a strange account of how, though not one that enacts a closure to the question’s openness. He adds words but not at the cost of miracle. Emphasizing just this, in turn, announces the significance of another dissimilarity within the pairing of these visitations: Mary’s promised event, her coming to be pregnant, just is miraculous. It exists outside the realm of what can be known. I want to say it can only be believed, though this may not make it unique. Zechariah and Elizabeth’s promise on the other hand exists within the realm of plausibility, however much it might mock the conventional horizons of expectation and biology (this is, I think, why both Zechariah and Sarah in different ways mock the promise of what they have desired—they mock because they are mocked, or at least they find themselves mocked). It exists, furthermore, within the realm of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s religious identity and tradition, even though Zechariah clearly cannot imagine their participation as characters in that identity and tradition.

In all this, the passage gives skepticism’s opposite not as certainty but hospitality, but a hospitality that makes demands, that demands a certain sort of response—even response as submission, a relinquishing of the authority and control of the host, returning the same host/guest inversion that animates Sarah’s story. That Gabriel’s visitation demands a response but does not effect one is clear enough from the fact that his angelic presence is strange enough to necessitate, as almost always, the prefatory “do not be afraid,” yet is apparently not so stunning, so miraculous as to actuate belief in and by itself. That Zechariah might fear the angel but not trust him, I mean, opens his response as a failure to respond, but also indicates the centrality of response, the way in which he must make something (say something) of this stranger who comes to him in the Temple. All this is to say that Gabriel not only can be disbelieved, but that he can only be believed, and more, that if this was not so it wouldn’t make sense to talk of response and hospitality. We understand, that is, the depths of Mary’s hospitality because in Zechariah we see just how much it costs to believe and submit, for Gabriel’s appearance is both promise and command: “You will name him John” (1:13). The divine event demands from Zechariah a submission to a world outside his narration, and it is precisely this that his skepticism cannot allow him. In this sense, Zechariah is doubly contrasted in Luke 1, not first by Mary but by Elizabeth, who we will come to see submits to his own nonverbal description but also submits to the event as God’s own, accepts it as God’s work and favor and in turn bears the skepticism of the relatives who will not accept the name John. This disbelief, in turn, also serves to offer Zechariah his own rehabilitation and healing. It is not, in fact, as Gabriel suggests, John’s birth that frees Zechariah’s tongue but Zechariah’s submission to a narration not his own—a relinquishing of his right and capacity to name (that the name at hand, the obvious name, is his own is too significant to omit). Zechariah is healed by not naming his son; he is also healed by naming him John, of course, and this is the most mysterious point in the entire passage, mysterious in its suggestion that despite every ethical claim about hospitality and submission the chapter has raised, still we do not stop naming things and God start naming them. Nor does the recognition of naming’s often synonymy with a power that might refute skepticism free us from naming—a point I take to be constitutive of the inseparable difficulties and possibilities of the philosophical discourse of otherness. In Luke it is apparent that conflicted naming is not escaped but transformed. God’s naming does not replace our own; or perhaps better it is more important to say that despite all this, the coupling of the story with the promise of the Incarnation suggests that Zechariah’s acceptance of God’s naming exists within God’s wider acceptance of creation’s naming.

S/spirit and hospitality in Luke 1

Many commentators have rightly noted that Luke’s Gospel is filled with both hospitality and the Holy Spirit. Hospitality is evident in Luke’s frequent mention of food and feasting, as well as in encounters between “others” (e.g., Jews and gentiles, women and men), while S/spirit is named repeatedly, especially in the first half of the Gospel: a form of pneuma shows up 34 times in Luke – far more often than in the other Gospels – and 69 times in Acts. Luke’s pneumatological emphasis is clear from his first chapter, where pneuma appears seven times in critical and relational ways, as both the divine Holy Spirit and the core spirit of human persons. In this post, I will engage with Luke 1 to explore the fruitful interplay of these Lukan foci, S/spirit and hospitality.

The foundational opening chapter of Luke narrates the Holy Spirit as actively engaged in divine-to-human and human-to-human meetings and speech: Gabriel announces to Zechariah that the son of his old age will be “filled with the Holy Spirit,” even in utero (1:15); the same heavenly messenger proclaims to the perplexed Mary, a virgin, that she will conceive a child by the power of “the Holy Spirit [that] will come upon you” (1:35); when the pregnant Elizabeth receives Mary in her home, the Holy Spirit prompts a joyful welcome from the older woman (1:41); and Zechariah, his tongue finally unstopped, receives the very gift promised to his son, and the exultant father, filled with the Holy Spirit, speaks words of prophecy and praise (1:67). These episodes reveal a Spirit who crosses the barriers between heaven and earth, between human impossibility and divine promise – a gracious Presence who enters even into closed hearts and wombs to bring life and joy.

Present also in this chapter is human spirit (lower-case), both distinguishable from and enmeshed with Spirit. Elizabeth and Zechariah’s son, it is promised, will prepare the way for the Lord “with the spirit and power of Elijah” (1:17); after John’s birth, Luke reports, the child “grew and became strong in spirit” as he made the wilderness – now barren but later filled with crowds – his home (1:80). And Mary, rejoicing with Elizabeth about their blessed pregnancies, proclaims, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (1:48).

The narrative arc of Elizabeth’s and Mary’s intertwining story/ies in Luke 1 is particularly rich with respect to the relation of hospitality and S/spirit. Elizabeth, once isolated from her neighbors in the disgrace of childlessness, is being drawn into community through God’s activity, through which she is host to both the unborn-John and the Spirit who fills him. For the five months since her conception, though, she has been in seclusion from others. Mary, through the power of the same Spirit, has become host, in the most intimate of ways, to the Son of God. The electing and overshadowing God has “hosted” her in the divine household, and she in turn has received God as guest, through her faithfully hospitable response to the annunciation: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord” (1:38). Now Mary hastens from her home in Galilee to Judea, eager to be the guest of her relative Elizabeth, whose seclusion she breaks. Elizabeth’s hospitality to her younger relative – or is it the hospitality of her fetal son or that of the Spirit . . . or can such distinctions even be made? – wells up from within: the child jumps in her belly, and the mother cries out, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (1:41-3). Mary, responding to Elizabeth’s warm blessing and embrace, sings her signature spiritual song (see Col. 3:16), “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant” (1:46-48). So complete is Elizabeth’s hospitality that her guest stays for three months. Mary leaves soon before Elizabeth gives birth, but Elizabeth is not left alone, for her S/spirit draws in neighbors and relatives who rejoice together with her when her child is born ((1:58).

The dance of S/spirit and hospitality, guest and host, human and divine, is beautifully evident in this story. Hospitality abounds: God to Mary, Mary to the Son of God, Elizabeth to the Spirit, the mothers to their sons, Elizabeth to Mary, the Gospel to the women . . . The hospitality is reciprocal, blurring fixed definitions of guest and host, and filled with both wonder and rejoicing, giving a doxological tone to the account. Who sings in the Magnificat, Mary or the Spirit? The fertile ambiguity of pneuma – encompassing Spirit, spirit, ghost, wind, and breath – blows open a hospitable and broad space of encounter in which distinct persons interact intimately, almost perichoretically. The Spirit who is the love between the Father and the Son in the Trinity goes forth to inspire analogous encounters among human creatures, including strangers. While Elizabeth and Mary are admittedly not estranged others, the same Spirit who creates their hospitality of spirit will also, especially in Acts, bring together those who are dramatically separated, as in the story of Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10).

In sum, Luke 1 depicts how the true spirit of hospitality is enabled and embodied by and in the Spirit. As Amy Oden says, “The spirit that gives life to hospitality is . . . humility and gratitude, arising as a response to God’s initiating grace” (100). God initiates, the women respond with modesty and thankfulness, and the relatives participate in a broadening, deepening hospitality that draws together the Trinity, the two of them, their yet-unborn sons, and ultimately all of God’s chosen people, both Jew and gentile.

Directional Charity and the Revolutionary Table

In considering this week’s theme of Charity, I have to start with a passage I love from Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, in which the narrator describes a painting of the Virtue Charity, by Giotto di Bondone:

she is holding out her flaming heart to God, or shall we say ‘handing’ it to Him, exactly as a cook might hand up a corkscrew through the skylight of her underground kitchen to some one who had called down to ask her for it from the ground-level above. (84)

The painting shows a common, workaday woman who holds a large bowl overflowing with food in one hand, and her own, fist-sized heart, lifted up to God’s outstretched hands, in the other. Charity, in this iteration, has a proper direction; it is to be offered up, as a gift, in humility, and not handed down. To state the obvious, all too often charity ends up being condescending, our acts of giving serving more our own sense of morality than they do the people we interact with. In Christine Pohl’s chapter “Hospitality, Dignity, and the Power of Recognition,” she draws out this unfortunate potential result of hospitality:  “our helping roles give definition to the relationship but they also keep it decidedly hierarchical” (74). This problem of directionality is a real one, and Pohl outlines the key roles which recognition (broadly) and sharing meals (specifically) play in counteracting a hierarchical view of others, particularly strangers in a place of need.

Pohl points to the importance of “[u]nderstanding the historical connection between hospitality and recognition” (63), particularly as it manifests in the Christian tradition. Rooted in the belief that all human beings bear the Divine image, Christian hospitality recognized (and, one hopes, does still) that “Every person is worthy of respect because of the work of God in them and for them” (67).  Herein lies the reason for an upward directionality of charity, rather than a condescending one:  every individual is created by God, and “[b]earing God’s image establishes for every person a fundamental dignity which cannot be undermined either by wrongdoing or neediness” (65).

Rightly, Pohl points out that “Recognition and respect cannot be sustained at the level of abstract claims or commitments” (63). It is all well and good to say that we are all bear the image of God, but if that purported recognition does nothing to influence our love and care for our fellow human beings, then it breaks down into inutility. Here is where shared meals come in. Sitting down together with strangers, and particularly strangers in need, can aid true recognition of “being equals eating together” (74). While it can be easy/easier to give our money, time, or vocational talents to people in a place of need, it can be more difficult, more complicated, and more uncomfortable to just exist in relationship at the common place of the table. Pohl acknowledges this, and recognizes it as a good thing:  “Meal-time, when people sit down together, is the clearest time of being with others, rather than doing for others. It is the time when hospitality looks least like social service” (74). Sharing meals with people who are different from us, especially with people who might be seen to occupy a lower place in the societal hierarchy, allows for recognition of common humanity that goes beyond altruistic abstraction and towards specific, individual human fellowship.

Pohl didn’t have to win me over to this argument. The table is a place that I love, and I think she is absolutely right about its equalizing and dignifying potential and power. I do, however, want to probe some of her choices of language, and to consider ways in which the table might have even more power than Pohl describes.

As I made notes for this post, I noticed how often the word “hospitality” was used in Pohl’s chapter, when it felt like the word which would communicate the intended meaning was “charity.” Certainly this is intentional, and in Pohl’s title-stated aim of “Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition,” she clearly wants to convey that hospitality’s roots go much deeper than current definitions of it may imply. It is not just about the “hospitality industry,” or about hosting friends or newcomers in our homes. Pohl points out that in church history, “Hospitality provided a context for recognizing the worth of persons who seemed to have little when assessed by worldly standards” (62). In contrast to our current understandings of the word, historical hospitality was linked with need.

Looking at the etymology of both hospitality and charity is compelling. Hospitality comes from the Latin hospes, meaning “host,” “guest,” or stranger,” while Charity comes from the Latin caritas, meaning “dearness” or “costliness,” but also often referring to love for one’s fellow human beings. Given the fact that Pohl seems to be seeking to trouble a flat, service-industry view of hospitality, as well as to upend hierarchical notions inherent in contemporary definitions of charity, I understand her choice to use “hospitality.” I wonder, though, if she couldn’t similarly reinvigorate “charity” by drawing out the historical roots of love which precede charity’s current definition of financial assistance and altruism. Viewing interactions with strangers in need as “hospitality” can emphasize the relationality involved, as well as the fluidity of the host/guest roles, but so too could reimagining “charity” direct us back towards the love for others which is the best impetus for all giving.

I very much agree with Pohl that “the intimacy of a shared meal can forge relationships which cross significant social boundaries” (73). One of the most exciting contemporary examples of this is the Refettorio kitchens, founded by Italian chef Massimo Bottura and his wife Lara Gilmore. These kitchens, of which there are currently four, use food waste—in-date, surplus food destined to be thrown away—to make meals for people who need them. Many people who come to eat at the Refettorio are homeless, or elderly, or refugees, or all of the above. The parent organization of these kitchens, Food for Soul, states on their website that “a meal is a gesture of inclusion,” and that they seek to “celebrate the value as well as the potential of what is abandoned, unheeded and discarded” (www.foodforsoul.it). Renowned chefs from all over the world come volunteer to cook, and guests of the kitchens are served in beautifully-designed spaces, restaurant-style rather than walking through a cafeteria line.

This work by Bottura and Gilmore feels like a wonderful amalgamation of the historical notions of hospitality and charity. The Refettorio kitchens welcome people who are marginalized and serve them beautiful food. They honor not only individuals, but also the earth through their use of food destined to be waste. Still, it is complicated to discern whether these kitchens do only good; does the fact that celebrity chefs (Rene Redzepi, Eric Ripert, etc.) come in to do the cooking draw attention to the chefs’ generosity more than to the individuals who come there? How can our responses to strangers emphasize their inherent worth and dignity rather than emphasizing their need? How can our actions avoid being directed towards people in ways which imply they are “beneath us,” and instead become gestures upwards towards God, in humility and love?

I think one key is the empathy which Pohl describes as “remembering our own experiences of vulnerability and dependence” (65). By being at the table with people different from us, and sharing in each other’s lives and stories, we can work against a better-than/lesser-than view of society. And certainly we have to be on guard against the disempowerment Pohl mentions (119), where in our own desire to serves those in need we don’t allow them also to serve and minister to us. This is where the Good Samaritan story offers such a wonderfully inverted vision of charity:  the one serving the man in profound need is not one of the “higher-ups,” not from the upper echelons of society, but is one who occupies a low, disgraced place in society, at least according to the eyes of the Jewish establishment. He, the Samaritan, and not the priest or the Levite, is the one to dress the wounds of the beaten man, to provide him with room and board. And perhaps most important of all, “when he saw him, he was moved with pity” (Luke 10:33); the Samaritan notices the man, and his heart responds. In light of the inverted hierarchy of this parable, I can envision a world where the table, and especially a table where the marginalized are invited to serve, to cook, or to create, becomes a place of revolutionary hospitality, charity, and love.

Church, State, and Hospitality

Throughout Pohl’s work, balance stands out as a strength: she considers multiple dimensions of hospitality (e.g., provision and recognition), the needs of both host and guest, and the challenges different sorts of hospitality may pose, among other things. One challenge to Christians in particular is the need both for “maintaining distinctions” and “protecting difference” (82–4). Benevolence must not require conformity to Christian belief and practice, particularly in times of danger for potential guests, because Christians have a responsibility to welcome the needy and persecuted. Yet the Christian community must remain free to define itself with distinctively Christian beliefs and practices (83).

Considering this challenge of Christian responsibility, Pohl recalls Christian hospitality to Jews during World War II in Le Chambon and notes that original Christian thought on hospitality related to such provision of safety to the persecuted and endangered. But for her, “Today hospitality, rights, and entitlements are separate, and they should be” because material needs and protection should not depend upon one’s commitments and beliefs (83). At the same time, human wellbeing requires not only these things but also connection and belonging, without which one remains “anonymous and vulnerable.” Thus, Pohl concludes, we need complex interactions between “bounded communities” that provide connection and belonging and “a larger community with minimal boundaries” that offers basic provision and protection (83). To that end, though the former sort of community can be found in churches, families, etc., “the more anonymous care of the state is essential” to protect basic human rights from the impact of “more parochial hospitality which chooses its guests and the needs it will meet” (84).

I find this claim disconcerting. On the one hand, I wonder if “more anonymous care” is indeed essential, and if whatever such care uniquely provides must come from the state. If the answer to either is yes, what does that say about the role of the church in providing for human needs? Must the church depend on the state as the church promotes human wellbeing? On the other hand, I wonder if it is realistic to view the state as securing the needs Pohl suggests it secures. Can the church depend on the state as the church promotes human wellbeing?

A charitable reading of Pohl might suggest she is working descriptively, not prescriptively. The fact that “many social groups find it very difficult to accept people different from their prevailing membership” drives her claim about the state (84). Perhaps following one prominent strand of political theology, the state in this view limits certain evils, even if it cannot fully lead humankind into the good. It is certainly a strength of Pohl’s vision that it accounts for human sinfulness in the forms of exclusion—a risk not only to human belonging but sometimes to provision and protection—or coercion. Still, however, it is a prescriptive claim to say hospitality, rights, and entitlements should be separate. And to say that the state serves a certain function is not to say it must serve that function. Pohl’s understanding of our fallen nature’s impact on hospitality and human wellbeing should be accepted, but there may be other ways to address problems posed by our fallenness.

To this end, my knee jerks away from relying on the state. As Pohl’s own history attests, the state quite often (and in many forms) does not protect basic human rights, and when it has failed, the church has often stepped in to protect them. We see that still today as the right to live and work is denied to migrants by their deportation under the U.S. government, and many churches have responded by sheltering immigrants. Beyond skepticism of the state as an able protector of rights, I am also more optimistic that the church can provide the provision Pohl thinks must come from more anonymous groups/organizations without coercing those provided for. Difficult as it may be, difference within the church seems to be of God’s design, as evidenced by the Gentile inclusion and eschatological visions of a highly diverse church gathering to worship (E.g., Isaiah 60, Revelation 7). The church’s community of belonging is meant to be heterogeneous. And it seems plain to me that though not all whom the church takes in will follow Christ and participate fully in its life, even a difference of faith does not preclude belonging in all forms; still the church can recognize and provide for the other rather than eventually casting others out to preserve the church’s distinctiveness. Perhaps as a sort of bounded community exists around faith in Christ, common identity as God’s creatures, which Pohl notes at other points, can constitute something like the larger community she calls for, freeing the church’s support of universal human wellbeing from necessary dependence on the state.

The eschatological church is not the church we see today, however, and the multitudes of Revelation 7 are homogenous in at least one feature: their worship of the lamb. Even if the church can and should offer belonging, provision, and protection to all, many who do not worship Christ will choose not to receive these things from the worshipping community, whether or not the church pressures them to join in the praise. A dose of Pohl’s pragmatism seems necessary. The church is universally called to promote the wellbeing of the other, and in a fallen world, perhaps that can best be done with help, through the interaction of bounded and larger communities, including but not limited to the church, Pohl commends (83). This need not depend on the state—NGOs, charities, and community organizing, among other things, can provide for and protect the endangered and the needy. Where ecclesial hospitality seems ill-fitted to provide for certain individuals or groups, perhaps the church can call upon other communities and share its resources with them. I remain doubtful that the church can or should depend on the state in its work for human wellbeing, but it need not deny the difficulties of hospitality in a fallen world or the sorts of contributions of others to human wellbeing that Pohl identifies.

The Least of Whom? Tracing the Element of Surprise in Matthew 25:31-46

For many centuries—and throughout this semester—the conclusion of Matthew 25 has been a touchstone for those who want think about Christ’s appearance in the “distressing disguise” of the poor. This passage offers a profound link between responding to those in need and responding to the incarnate Lord himself. However, a close reading brings surprises beyond the one experienced by the “sheep” and “goats” within the text. Jesus’ words demonstrate a curious slippage between different categories and genres. Even more strikingly and significantly, his reference to “the least of these” is less straightforward, and perhaps ultimately more surprising, than we might initially assume.

Chapter 24 in Matthew’s Gospel is a prophetic text addressing “the sign of [Christ’s] coming and of the end of the age” (24:3b).[1] Matthew 25 continues that theme, moving clearly to final judgment: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory” (25:31). Here he clearly takes up Second Temple Jewish prophetic language.[2] Yet the last part of Matthew 24, and the entirety of chapter 25 up to this point, have addressed their subject in the form of parables; and as Jesus continues, the genre distinctions of “parable” and “prophecy” begin to blur. He compares the act of judgment to a shepherd separating sheep and goats, and the next verse seems to literalize the simile: “Then the king will say to those at his right hand….” Here the “Son of Man” who acts “as a shepherd” has become “the king”—a familiar term from many of Jesus’ parables.[3] The “sheep,” those “on the right,” are again renamed “the righteous” when they answer him in verse 37 (cf. verse 46). One of the surprises of this text is simply the way its language presents a moving target for the reader.[4] While it never becomes a proper parable, it does introduce parabolic elements. Perhaps this is intentionally disorienting, to prepare readers for what follows.

The great surprise comes when the king informs those standing before him that they have cared for him in times of grave need—or have failed to do so—and makes this the basis for their judgment. A king choosing to describe himself in terms of radical lowliness and abasement is itself shocking: “I was hungry… I was thirsty… I was a stranger… I was naked… I was sick… I was in prison….” But when they express astonishment, he answers with the most surprising statement of all: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these members of my family, you did it to me” (25:40).

Who are “these members of my family”?[5] It is possible to read this as a reference to something like what we now refer to as the “human family”; this seems to be the default assumption when we take this passage as a call to care for anyone who is in need. However, such a usage would (so far as I am aware) be unprecedented in the recorded teachings of Jesus. Like later New Testament authors, Jesus uses the language of kinship in a different—though, in his context, radically subversive—way. This is made explicit earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, when someone tells him that his mother and brothers wish to speak with him. “[P]ointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Matthew 12:49-50). Such a reappropriation of kinship language is itself a profound surprise in a traditional culture where familial bonds are fundamental markers of identity. But elsewhere he makes an even stronger act of identification with his followers: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40; see John 13:20). This latter passage continues: “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward” (Matthew 10:42; see Matthew 18:5).

So “the least of these” in Matthew 25 seems to have a more specific primary referent than simply “those in need.” Indeed, it can be read as a profound (and profoundly reassuring) expression of Jesus’ solidarity and even identification with those who entrust themselves to him.[6] And this, in turn, could echo the recurring theme throughout the Gospels that the determining factor in a person’s spiritual status is how he or she responds to Jesus. The king’s judgment only makes sense because he takes a response to “the least of these” as precisely a response to himself.

However, certain aspects of the text complicate this reading as well. Those experiencing judgment in this passage are “the nations,” and it is far from obvious that such a comprehensive eschatological categorization excludes Christians.[7] Are various followers of Jesus among those gathered on the right hand—or, God help us, those on the left? If so, this cannot be solely a judgment of “their” response to “us” (or to Christ in “us”).

Moreover, this prophecy comes on the heels of a series of parables warning sternly about the need for preparation and the probability that even those who know him will be surprised by his arrival. If this final passage does represent an affirmation of the Lord’s solidarity with those who commit themselves to him, can it really be true that it includes no element of challenge or warning for the disciples themselves? After all, they are the primary listening audience, at least within the text; and the implied hearer of the text is also probably a follower of Jesus, or at least someone seriously considering becoming such a follower. Four times we hear a list of specific needs, the response to which determines the outcome of final judgment. Such particularity seems unnecessary if the message is only one of reassurance.

A third, related and more serious complication: why does the text place such an emphasis on the kind of brethren with whom the “king” expresses a particular identification? This is not merely an act of solidarity with his “brethren,” but especially with a subset of them: those who are most likely to be overlooked or forgotten or neglected. At a minimum, this suggests that Jesus is also reasserting his repeated upending of the usual order of things: “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). The ones of whom the king says “that was me!” are the subset of his followers who seem least king-like, or—to put it more strongly—whose worldly need and suffering provides the least external evidence of divine concern. In other words, the God revealed in Jesus is the same God who, according to the prophets, sides with widows and orphans and strangers. This matters.

The most significant complication of all, though, is the fact that the basis for judgment really does come as a surprise. In R. T. France’s words, “the striking feature of this judgment scene is that both sheep and goats claim that they did not know that their actions were directed toward Jesus…. They have helped, or failed to help, not a Jesus recognized in his representatives, but a Jesus incognito.”[8] Whatever reassurance Jesus is giving his disciples through his act of solidarity, the act of judgment emphasizes that his “distressing disguise” is precisely a disguise.[9] When the “Son of Man” arrives in glory, he already will have arrived—frequently, and to all “the nations”—in ways that none of them expected.

This has two effects, one theological and one practical. Theologically, it underscores the nature of the incarnation itself: that the second Person of the Triune God becomes poor, a person without a home and reliant on others (see Matthew 8:20 and the description of the women in Matthew 27:55). He “emptied himself” and was “despised and rejected… a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity” (Philippians 2:7, Isaiah 53:3). The “distressing disguise” of Christ in the poor underscores the fundamental realities of divine self-revelation.[10]

Practically, this “element of surprise” may be the reason why Christians—both in the early Christian era and today—have taken Jesus’ words as a general call to respond with charity and care, not only toward fellow believers (certainly a priority in the early Church), but also beyond the bounds of “these members of my family” to every person in need. They, too, bear the image of God.[11]

But there is a final paradox here: the attempt to meet every stranger as if they were Christ is, in a certain sense, an attempt to circumvent the surprise. It is easy to imagine that if one always feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, visits those in prison, and so forth, then when the other sheep say “When did we see you?” one can smile quietly and whisper, “Aha! I thought so.” But here the parable challenges us once again. Christ’s coming is not subject to our expectations.[12] No one in the story avoids surprise—except for the king himself.


[1] Biblical quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

[2] As has often been noted, “the Son of Man” is Jesus’ favorite term of self-reference. This passage echoes Matthew 16:27 and prepares the way for the climax of Jesus’ trial-scene in Matthew 26:64, where the allusion to Daniel 7:13 is made explicit. There is also quite possibly an allusion in these Gospel texts to the pseudepigraphal book of 1 Enoch 69:27-29: “And he sat on the throne of his glory, and the whole judgment was given to the Son of Man, and he will cause the sinners to pass away and be destroyed from the face of the earth.  And those who led astray the world will be bound in chains, and will be shut up in the assembly-place of their destruction, and all their works will pass away from the face of the earth.  And from then on there will be nothing corruptible, for that Son of Man has appeared and has sat on the throne of his glory….” M. A. Knibb, The Ethiopic Book of Enoch, vol 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978).

[3] The Hebrew Scriptures’ link between shepherd and king, embodied especially in David, may also be at play here.

[4] The two destinations also undergo renaming. The “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” of verse 41 becomes “eternal punishment” in verse 46, just as “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” of verse 34 becomes “eternal life.”

[5] The Greek is literally “my brethren.” This is the language of close kinship bonds, which carry with them a high degree of commitment and obligation. The Greek masculine plural can (and here almost certainly does) refer to a mixed-sex group.

[6] For another instance of this, in a quite different context, consider Jesus’ words to Saul of Tarsus when the latter is carrying out acts of violence against followers of the Way: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4).

[7] The fact that this is a judgment of “the nations” may also suggest that it has a corporate, and not just individual, character.

[8] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2007), 959. Emphasis original.

[9] This also recalls the verse in Hebrews about “entertaining angels without knowing it” (13:2).

[10] Arthur Sutherland, in another of our readings, points out the ways that Jesus in his earthly ministry actually experienced the characteristics of those with whom the “king” at the end of Matthew 25 identifies. I Was a Stranger: A Christian Theology of Hospitality (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), 2-4.

[11] This responds also to Jesus’ more general instructions in the Sermon on the Mount: “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42). There is substantial Biblical basis for a Christian call to care for those in need, regardless of how one reads Matthew 25. My point here is simply that “the least of these” in Matthew 25 does not lead us to that general Christian call as straightforwardly or easily as we often assume.

[12] This is true eschatologically as well as in Christ’s first coming; preparation does not negate the unexpectedness of the event when it arrives. “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father…. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Matthew 24:36, 44).