Long before it was fashionable to publish books of lists, my generation was asked to memorize them. As children, many of us were asked to memorize, among other things, a mini-catalogue that was, back then, called a list of the corporal works of mercy. It contained seven biblical imperatives:
Feed the hungry
Give drink to the thirsty
Clothe the naked
Shelter the homeless
Visit the sick
Ransom the captive
Bury the dead
My suspicion is that few of us have thought much about this list for a long time and that a new generation of Christians is not even aware that it exists. This is not to say, of course, that present catechesis and spirituality has not, in other ways, picked up and incorporated what is commanded by this list. The strong emphasis on social justice within recent years attempts to bring the same challenge. However, the goodness of this recent development notwithstanding, there can be, I feel, considerable benefit in revisiting that old list. Hence, this column begins a series of reflections, partially geared for the lenten season, on the corporal works of mercy.
Before examining each of these individually it can be helpful to look at the concept of mercy itself. What does it mean to be merciful in the religious sense?
Medieval theology taught that mercy flows spontaneously out of charity, like smoke from fire. Nonetheless, it suggested that it should still be considered a separate virtue and an important one. Moreover, it linked mercy to justice, seeing it as one dimension of justice. This insight is valuable because mercy does flow out of charity and ultimately does take its root in justice. It does too, however, have its own specificity and this can be seen when we examine it biblically.
In the Old Testament, mercy (HESED, often translated as loving-kindness) is a quality ascribed first of all to God – “Give thanks to the Lord for his loving-kindness is without end.” Later, the prophets begin to challenge the people with it, telling them that what God wants is not sacrifice but mercy, as practised by God. What is implied in this?
Commentators sometimes try to explain mercy by contrasting it to justice (mercy is optional, justice is not) but this can be misleading. The biblical concept of mercy is ultimately rooted in justice, it presupposes justice. Mercy however goes beyond justice the way advanced calculus goes beyond simple arithmetic, it adds something even while it presupposes what it dwarfs. Properly understood, mercy is super-justice.
Biblically, mercy it is a word used to describe the feelings and actions that a very loving parent has towards his or her children. There is justice here, surely, but there is much more. In scripture, the concept of mercy connotes feelings and actions which are deeply personal, one-to-one, unique, special, tender, and warm. The tender love of a parent for a child dwarfs the demand of strict justice even while never violating it.
Classically, in trying to teach this to us, the church complied various lists which tried to summarize what is implied in imitating God’s mercy. The corporal works of mercy are one such list, though there are others. In essence, these lists try to challenge us to be more holy, God-like, through practising a justice which is more personal, one to one, warm, and gracious beyond strict need. The works of mercy ask us to make everyone, especially the poor and needy, our family.
In looking at the list of the corporal works of mercy, we see that each imperative, save the last one, is explicitly commanded in Scripture. The prophets of the Old Testament made this list the acid test for faith. If you did these things you had faith – and vice versa. Jesus goes even further. For him, as is evident in Matthew 25, the corporal works of mercy are the criteria for salvation and the measure of how we are treating him – “Whatsoever you do unto the hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, sick, and captive, you do unto me.”
Sometimes it is good to revisit old fox-holes. Old lairs can be full of surprises. The list of the corporal works of mercy, long buried in the thicket, awaits such exploration.