Works of Mercy are tangible results of Christian life

Father John A. Kiley

The Jubilee Year of Mercy is placing special emphasis on the Corporal and Spiritual works of Mercy. Most senior readers of “The Quiet Corner” no doubt memorized these sometimes tangible and sometimes otherworldly actions when they were children. Certainly these works of mercy are worthy of repeating here since Our Holy Father has made them an integral part of the observance of the Holy Year — as indeed they are integral to the Christian life itself. The traditional corporal works of mercy parallel in great measure the charitable actions listed by Christ in the last judgment episode in Matthew 25: Feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked; shelter the homeless; visit the sick and imprisoned; Ransom the captive; bury the dead. Much of a parish’s charitable work fixes on the first five of these directives. Perhaps the recent influx of refugees from the Middle East into the Western world might be an opportunity to revive the need to “ransom the captive.” Ransoming captives was a major occupation for the Church in the Middle Ages when Moors regularly held Christians for ransom. Respectfully burying the dead is an act of mercy inherited from late Judaism. Tobit ventured out at night to bury the corpse of a Jew found dead in the street. It is particularly chilling to recall that failure to carry out the corporal works of mercy could well result in eternal damnation: “…for I was hungry and you gave me no food…”

The Spiritual Works of Mercy look more to the relief of the soul’s ills than to the relief of any bodily misfortune: Instruct the ignorant; counsel the doubtful; admonish the sinner; bear wrongs patiently; forgive offences willingly; comfort the afflicted; pray for the living and the dead. While these seven acts of charity are not conveniently listed in a single New Testament chapter, they are all discovered in the various precepts attributed to Jesus Christ during his public life. Fraternal correction which might suggest the first three activities is advised in Matthew 18:15. Forgiveness of injuries which covers the next two undertakings is counseled in Matthew 6:14. Jesus’ entire ministry of course consisted in comforting the afflicted. And praying for the living and the dead certainly has ancient Christian roots as a visit to Rome’s catacombs will affirm.

The corporal and spiritual works of mercy are the tangible and palpable results of the Christian life effectively lived. Certainly Christians do not hold a monopoly on charitable deeds. Many philanthropists and many humanists have done much to alleviate the sufferings and the misgivings of their fellow men and women. But nonetheless, significant works of mercy have resulted from deeply held Christian convictions. Religious congregations that took on the education of youth and the relief of the sick during most of Western history stemmed from deeply held Christian convictions. The abolition of slavery in Europe and the Americas, although later politicized, sprang from genuine Christian concerns – mostly Protestant. The Christian life, well-lived, inevitably results in some work of mercy.

The Jubilee Year of Mercy is a clear statement on the part of our Holy Father that works of mercy cannot be left to chance. While the rich and educated can and have done a lot of random good throughout history, authentic mercy must be consistent and deliberate. Mercy is not an option left for the well-off or the well-educated to exercise at their leisure. Mercy is a direct consequence of the Christian life which obliges always, not just when convenient or practicable. St. Thomas Aquinas taught that mercy is just as much a part of the virtue of justice as it is a part of the virtue of charity. Believers actually owe their less fortunate fellow men and women the duty of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Believers actually owe their confused fellow men and women the obligation to counsel the doubtful and admonish the sinner. Mercy is justice revealed through thoughtfulness.

In this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage, Jesus cites a farmer who is annoyed when his fig tree has not produced any fruit. Fig trees should have figs! The impatient farmer is not keen on any explanation. He wants results. Jesus too wants results. Jesus, as well as Pope Francis, wants mercy to be a way of life among Christian believers. For Christians, the fruit of mercy should always be at the ready. In the Christian community, mercy should always be ripe for the picking.