Wednesday, October 16, 2019 - Updated: 2:31 pm
QUESTION: In the past, the church used to talk a lot about the “corporal works of mercy.” But I don’t hear much about that today. What has changed?
ANSWER: The corporal works of mercy find their more distant origin in the Old Testament. From the prophet Isaiah we read of “sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless, clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own” (Isaiah 58:7).
One of the reasons the prophet can say what he does to the people of Israel was that they had a distinct memory of what it was like to be slaves, alone in a foreign land with no one to defend them. On the way into the promised land, Israel makes an implicit promise that never again would there be poor among them — namely that they would care for one another. This people forged together in the desert is being challenged by Isaiah to live up to what they had promised.
The coming of Christ narrated within the New Testament established a new rationale for such good deeds performed on behalf of those in need. While previously based on kinship by clan, tribe and nation, with Jesus a new dimension is added. Jesus claims that as often as one performs such acts as feeding the hungry or clothing the naked one performs such actions for him (see Matthew 25:40). Now such acts are related to God. We serve God by our concern for one another.
Jesus not only established the mercy shown to others as one of the principal components of one’s entrance into the kingdom, but he personally established the attitude that should underlie the performance of these actions. It was Jesus who said: “I have come not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45).
The number of seven and the precise activity attached to each has a very ancient origin. Found in the judgment scene in Matthew 25:34-40, they include: to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to visit the sick, to ransom the captive and to bury the dead.
It is important to see that this “list” does not exhaust the possibilities of the good that can be performed for our neighbors. It is nonetheless a traditional starting point that has been used for countless generations of Christians to guide their interactions with others.
Today, we may not as frequently employ the phrase “corporal works of mercy,” but the content is as relevant as ever. There can be no doubt that our path to heaven is found in our relationship with Christ. We do not perform any “works” to win God’s love. That love is a free gift given by God in sending the Son (“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life,” John 3:16). But our response to the love of God in Christ must be seen in the way we care for one another.
Father Bober is administrator of the grouping that includes St. Kilian in Adams/Cranberry townships and Holy Sepulcher in Glade Mills.