The Seven Works of Mercy: A Progressive Christian's View
Part 1: The Corporal Works
Ask someone about the "Moral Code" of Christianity, and they will most
likely respond with something about the Ten Commandments, the Golden
Rule, or the Two Great Commandments as given by Christ. Many in the
Protestant tradition are not familiar with the Seven Corporal and
Spiritual Works of Mercy. They are acts of material and spiritual
kindness with which we bless others and demonstrate God's love to
them. The Works of Mercy are:371d36d75e05eda735858f8e467be99cCorporal
1. Feed the hungry.
2. Give drink to the thirsty.
3. Clothe the naked.
4. Shelter the homeless.
5. Visit the imprisoned (or, release the captives).
6. Visit the sick.
7. Bury the dead.
1. Instruct the ignorant.
2. Admonish the sinner.
3. Counsel the doubtful.
4. Comfort the sorrowful.
5. Bear all wrongs patiently.
6. Forgive all offenses willingly.
7. Pray for the living and the dead.
For the most part, the Corporal Works are pretty "No Duh" for Progressive Christians. Feeding the hungry and giving shelter to the homeless: this is what we progressives live for! Social justice! Stay tuned for my thoughts on the Spiritual Works in Part 2.
"If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace:; keep warm and eat your fill,' and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?"--James 2:15-16
I hear some among our more conservative brothers and sisters argue that the preaching of the Gospel is more important than soup kitchens and homeless shelters. The Church is here to save their souls, not fill their bellies or clothe their bodies. However, what if by feeding, clothing, and sheltering, we are preaching the Gospel? By these works of mercy, are we not living out the very life of Christ himself? Are we not embodying the very Good News that he preached and lived? You can quote John 3:16 in English to someone who does not speak the language, and you have wasted time and air. However, give such a person a plate of food or a set of clothes, and they will understand that. It is a universal act of kindness that transcends language and nationality. By such an act of mercy, providing for one's physical needs, you have preached the Gospel without saying a word. You have done something that the Bible alone cannot do. You have become Christ to that person! As it is said and attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, "Preach the Gospel always. When necessary, use words."
How to apply the Corporal Works of Mercy
1. Feed the hungry
No, you don't have to be a mission worker or volunteer for humanitarian organizations overseas. Those, these things are admirable. Do you know someone who is having a hard time, struggling financially or otherwise? When preparing dinner for your family, prepare some extras and take them to someone you know who is having a hard time. A person does not even have to be financially struggling. How about people who are caretakers for their sick loved ones, or have many responsibilities falling on them, robbing them of time to cook and prepare food? This work of mercy applies to them, too. Donate money or food to a local food bank or soup kitchen. Donate time, even, and help prepare and serve the food, even if only for an hour or two one weekend. Buy some extra groceries on your next trip to the market and give them to the food bank, church, or other organization doing a food drive, or give them directly to someone who is in need.
2. Give drink to the thirsty
This goes along with feeding the hungry. No one wants to eat a steak and baked potato without having something to drink along with it! In many parts of the world, there are no clean water resources for communities and villages, no access to running water either. Support initiatives to supply clean, running water to areas that need it. However, aside from sending cases of bottled water to a food bank, there are other ways to quench the thirst of others. It used to be standard hospitality to offer someone a drink when they came into your home. How many people still do this? When I was growing up, it was one of the first things said to a person when they came into our home. We welcomed the person, invited them to sit down and make themselves comfortable. Then, we asked if they would care for anything to drink. Back in the day before air conditioned cars, or even before cars at all, when someone traveled to a person's home, they either traveled on foot or in a hot car, and more than likely they were very thirsty upon arrival. Even today with our speedy and comfortable travel, it can still be an issue. Maybe the person who just walked in the door is diabetic and is thirsty a lot? Perhaps they have medication they need to take, and would appreciate a glass of water. Many people are too embarrassed to ask for such things in another person's home, or in their system of etiquette they may find it impolite or imposing. Do you have someone who cuts your grass for your or works on your lawn or garden? Do you have a repair person over working on your home or appliances? Offer them a drink! I remember when I was little and visiting my grandparents out in the country. My grandmother would often prepare water, iced tea, or lemonade to offer to the field workers. This is why the ball is in our court the minute we cross paths with people. Hospitality is to be initiated by us and should not have to be requested by another. In Christ's day, it was standard practice that when someone came into your home, you offered them hospitality, food and drink, and washing of their feet (dusty from travel). It was so important, that you were to put your life on the line and protect your guests at all costs. Jesus said that anyone who offered his "little ones" a drink of water, would not lose their reward.
3. Clothe the naked
Don't throw those clothes away! Take them to the Salvation Army or donate them to your church if they have such a program. Unbeknownst to many of us, the clothes we wear may have been made in a sweatshop somewhere in a third world country, by a woman or child making less than a dollar a day, and exempt from some of the labor and health standards that we tend to enjoy in industrialized nations. Don't throw their hard work, blood, and sweat away! If it doesn't fit anymore, or the color is too faded for you, or it's not in fashion anymore, hold on to it and give it someone else. For a person with holes in their shirt, pants, or shoes, they care not about the faded color or fashion statements of that article of clothing you care nothing for. That winter coat no longer doing anything for your fashion? I'm sure someone would like something to block the cold air while they sleep under a bridge or in an unheated house. You know those shelters for battered and abused women? Sometimes, those women leave in the middle of the night or in a hurry so as not to get caught, and don't have time to pack many clothes or toiletries. If you want extra points, buy a brand new suit of clothes and give them away! Many are in need of appropriate attire so they can look presentable when going in for a job interview.
4. Shelter the homeless
Okay, so I know not many of us are too comfortable with bringing in strangers into our home, and that can be outright dangerous at times. But there is something you can do. Is there a homeless program in your community? Donate. Don't have a program? Call for one! Give your money, time, or resources to Habitat for Humanity. Support local shelters that provide basic protection from the elements. More than this, we need strong proactive solutions that help place people in permanent housing situations: apartments, mobile homes, houses, whatever. Basic shelters are good and necessary, but they should only be temporary. Most people are proud and don't want a handout. It is a flat out myth and lie that most people want something for nothing. But people get trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and they just need a little assistance to get on their feet again, and when they are stable, they will say, "Thank you, I can take it from here." Everyone should have a safe structure to protect them from the elements and provide room for a little furniture and some appliances, something that says, "Home" and not "shelter", and where they can have an established residence for purposes of sending and receiving mail and filling out applications for jobs or social assistance.
5. Visit the imprisoned (alternatively stated, release the captives)
Jesus said he came to set the captives free. There is an imprisonment of sin and death, but we will talk about that some when we get to the Spiritual Works. I don't think Jesus wants us to go to all the prisons in the country and throw the doors open. We might find ourselves arrested in the process. Many people are in prison for non-violent crimes. To be sure, crime is real. Laws are necessary and they have to be enforced. When people break a law, they commit an offense against society as a whole and they do have a debt to pay. For many, however, the debt tends to be disproportionate to the crime committed. Furthermore, our mentality in the justice system is "lex talionis", the law of retaliation, tit for tat, eye for eye. We are concerned with punishing the person, that is, inflicting pain or discomfort for crimes committed. This serves a very dark and unhealthy desire in human nature and is borderline sociopathic. The Scriptures say that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, so neither should we take pleasure in the suffering of others. The justice system should be about equity, restoring balance, making restitution. For some of the most heinous of crimes, imprisonment is necessary, yet hope should not be lost for them either. Yet, how many small, minor crimes could be duly dealt with by means of fines and community service? How many drug-related offenses are punished severely when there is no indication that the person involved is gang-related or otherwise violent? How many white collar corporate criminals who thieve away millions of dollars from their employees and clients, get a light slap on the wrist and sent on their way? See where this is going? Those who argue that "we liberals" are soft on crime, are often the ones who tend to be most sympathetic to those thieves who rob people of their retirement savings. Who deserves worst? A kid who got caught with a single marijuana joint but with no prior offenses or obvious indication of gang activity or violent behavior...or the suit-and-tie big executive cats who funnel away millions of dollars out of a company for their own extravagant purposes, and obliterate the retirement of their hard-working wage-slave employees in the process?
So, yes, let's release the captives who are wrongfully imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, and reduce sentences for those who punishment most definitely does not fit the bill. No one is calling for the abolition of justice or the system of law and order. Rather, it just needs a tune up. Go after real criminals and don't ruin people's lives for what can sometimes be called more of a "mistake" than a "crime". Let's attack the roots of crime itself. We know where crime is concentrated and we know that oppression and poverty breed crime. We know that prosecution and sentencing is often biased when race and money are involved. We know that many people are serving life sentences or facing the death penalty for crimes they possibly did not commit. We know that many communities lack the technology and resources of DNA testing. We know that there are judges and prosecutors who are swayed by money or by ties with white collar criminals. Let me say this again. Yes, let's be tough on crime! But let's be tough on the right crimes. And for those who can rehabilitated, let's work with them, show them a better way and put their feet on a path to a productive life. No, rapists, murderers, and heavy traffickers of narcotics and illicit substances should not be roaming the streets. Those who are not habitual criminals or violent criminals, who just "screwed up" that one time and harmed no one but themselves, try and give them a chance. There is nothing worse for a society than to have people who feel like hope is lost. In the meantime, until this system changes, let's go visit these people in prison. Maybe they have no visitors, no family or friends who care. Maybe they would appreciate a Bible, or book, or set of puzzles or games to occupy their time. Bring the Eucharist to them and let them partake of the Body and Blood of the one who came to set the captives free! Become a pen pal and use a letter exchange program that shields your identity and location, but so that the prisoner knows there is a real person somewhere that they are interacting with, without having to know your last name or street address. We can fight crime and encourage restitution for debts of offenses committed. Help those who can be helped and rehabilitated. For the violent and habitual criminals, do our best to keep society safe from them, but not lose our own humanity in the process.
6. Visit the sick
Most people needlessly suffer alone in this world. Most of us can get by with the cold or a mild touch of the flu, and don't really need visitors. In many cases, we may find visitors an unwanted aggravation or irritation. When I'm sick, I prefer to be left alone. Yet, if you know a person who enjoys company, stop by to drop off some chicken soup or just to chat for a bit. In cases of a chronically ill person or disabled person, regular visits may make a difference. Such people tend to become shut-in's and have no contact with the outside world. They may appreciate some kind conversation now and then, or perhaps an offer to clean some dishes or vacuum the house, do laundry, dust, make some calls and schedule appointments with doctors or social workers. Maybe they need a ride somewhere, or for someone to do grocery shopping for them, or perhaps a trip to the post office to drop off some bills or letters. Stop by the pharmacy and pick up their medications for them, and maybe pick up a movie on the way back to watch with the person when you return. These small acts of social kindness can make a difference between a sick person sinking into depression, and gathering up the strength and courage to fight their illness.
7. Bury the dead
To some, this seems quite obvious. Of course we bury our dead, or cremate them, or something, don't we? There is more to it than just the physical act of burial, of course. Burying the dead is about a final act of kindness, the last work of mercy we can perform for someone. In ancient times and still today, proper interring was considered so important, that it could affect one's status in the next life. All sorts of rites and ceremonies that today seem to us to be mere traditions, were often literally matters of life and death. If the correct words, prayers, or litanies were not said, the person's soul might find itself lost in the next life, or worse. Also, to deny someone a proper burial, was an act of utter disrespect and disgrace, a fate reserved for common criminals. To deny someone a burial, was in the minds of some, to deny them a bodily resurrection at the Last Day. Today, we see it as just a gesture of respect, the traditions of "last things"...just something we are supposed to do. Show up at the funeral home and visit with the family, attend the burial, and then get back to your routine of life.
Whatever the afterlife holds, burying of the dead (or cremation) is the last work of mercy we can offer someone. Though, I would encourage the other works of mercy, above, be performed while a person is still living! It is often said, "Don't bring me flowers when I'm dead. Bring them to me while I'm alive!" Offering them a decent lay to rest, giving closure to survivors, and setting up a memorial in which their life and memory will be perpetuated. When you walk through a cemetery, you may not know any of the names or people laid to rest there, but you know that they are people who lived, had family and friends, and make some kind of impression on the world, however small or large. Their place there and whatever stone or marker indicates their presence there, is a sign of their place in the world of the living, like the "Such-and-such was here" graffiti we see on bridges and walls. To some, it is a final act of annihilation, to be forgotten. People think that as long as there is something indicating their presence here, as long as someone remembers them, they live on at least in that form, if not as a soul, spirit, or resurrected being. This is the same reason that people feel compelled to bear children. They are leaving a genetic trace on the world. When you see a person, you recognize that there are centuries and millennia of genetic code in that person, each gene, each portion of DNA, came from somebody else, which in turn came from somebody else, and so forth.
For those who believe in a literal resurrection of the body, burial of the dead is a witness to that fact, that at the last day, Christ will judge the living and the dead, and the dead will be raised, body and soul. Even if one does not believe in a literal bodily resurrection, burying the dead is still a testimony to whatever it is we believe. For the secular humanist or atheist, it serves the purpose of commemorating the person and their life, and perpetuating their memory. For the otherwise spiritual, it signifies that we may not know the particulars about other side of the grave, but whatever it holds, we entrust our loved ones to God. Maybe they go to heaven? Maybe they reincarnate? Maybe they enter the stream that leads to Nirvana? Maybe they merge with God or the Spirit, like a drop of water returning to a lake or ocean? Who knows? Whatever happens, we know that it will happen regardless, independent of what we believe about it, so we lay our friends and relatives to rest and entrust them to the mercy of God or the Cosmos. And in faith, perhaps, we hear that song verse in our hearts, "He lives that death may die," or the Scripture, "I am he that lives, and was dead, and behold I am alive forever and ever, and I hold the keys to death and the grave." Maybe we hear that timeless truth of the Resurrection, that death is not the final answer, that life does triumph over death and the grave, that God is the God of the living, not the dead, and all are alive unto him. We may not know what that means exactly, but it gives us hope and we can say, with Job, "I know that my Redeemer lives, and though I die and my body be eaten by worms (or struck off), in my flesh (or apart from my flesh), I will see God."