The Taming of Sméagol
The fourth spiritual work of mercy – admonishing the sinner – perhaps possesses the least approval and most controversial status in modern times of any of the fourteen works. We are not in the business of “judgement” anymore – as long as you are not hurting me directly, I have no right to critique you for your activities. History might one day declare our age as the “sinless society,” where everything was tolerated save intolerance, and the only evil one could do was to not like or Tweet the sentiments of the latest fads. It is fitting that admonishment should follow forgiveness, as the latter is often set against the former as the standard of enlightenment: “Christians should love, not scold, the sinner.”
Nevertheless, the service of admonishing the sinner stands equal to the mercy of forgiveness. Christians throughout most of history would not have found this pairing to conceive irreconcilable differences. Forgiveness requires open recognition of sin, and it was dangerous to leave unconfronted activities that might influence or undermine the bonds of fellowship being fostered in the community. Christ admonished sinners frequently, and it is a particular habit of the prophets and the saints to urge people to give up their evil ways. After all, how could one truly love someone and not encourage them to give up their hurtful and self-harming acts? A parent warns a child from crossing the street without looking; a friend intervenes when his comrade falls into self-destructive addiction. All sin is addictive, self-destructive, self-harming, and hurtful: only a heart of stone would witness such pain without urging an end to it.
Certainly, admonishing the sinner can be a delicate business, and Christ was clear about the hypocrisy of declaiming the sliver in another’s eye while a log is lodged in one’s own. This is why the wisdom of the Church has often suggested great discernment and training before one takes it up as their primary vocation. However, Christ has place the imperative of all forms of mercy upon each disciple, and so the admonishment of the sinner must have some role the average Christian’s life. One unfortunate problem undermining this spiritual work is the connotations of admonishment in the English language today: negative, scolding, self-righteous, judgmental. Yet the origin definition of admonish means to “remind, urge, warn, encourage, or advise,” which are words of assistance and aid. There is no evil in encourage a woman to be more authentically herself. There is no judgment in urging a man to reject his vicious ways.
Such is the case with Gollum. Frodo admonishes Gollum for his wickedness and mischief, urging him to reject his desire for the Ring and turn instead to help the hobbits. He warns Sméagol of the treachery of the Ring, and reminds him of the unceasing torment of Sauron’s gaze. Yet Frodo does this not out of righteousness and haughty pride, but instead with pity and hope. He understands the burden that Gollum carried all those years, and he holds out the hope that Sméagol might find himself again, and in that finding rest. Even Sam “was gentler than his words.” The aftermath of this “judgment” and “scolding” is an immediate change in Gollum for the better: the potential for a true change of heart is planted.
In the seasons of the “sinless society,” the work of admonishing the sinner resounds with greater need. In the days of intolerance toleration, the great mercy is to be encouraged to choose life over death. Yet such merciful admonishment requires nuance, reflection, and a sympathetic heart. Only then can the seed of true change be instilled in the hearts of all people, and the work of deep mercy be promulgated.
2015’s Reflection: “On the Book that No One Likes”