The corporal works of mercy, as the phrase itself suggests, have to do with the physical, the material. Unlike the spiritual works of mercy, what is at stake is not feeding, clothing, or washing someone spiritually, with truth and spirit. The feeding, clothing, washing, visiting, ransoming, and burying that they direct us towards are precisely corporal, to do with the physical well-being of our neighbour.

However, physical does not necessarily mean literal. This is particularly so for the corporal work of mercy which directs us to ransom the captive. For most of us, taken literally, there would be little opportunity to practice this. Who today needs ransoming in the literal sense? Prisoners of war, hostages, and other victims of this sort. Not many of us are in situations where there is much rescuing we can do of this kind.

But the physical character of this injunction needs to be safeguarded even as we let go of its literalness. We still need to ransom the captive and today, as in every age, there are countless persons who, while not literally in a prison or held hostage, are physically captive, that is, caught up in conditions which physically imprison them in some way. In fact, sometimes this corporal work of mercy is rendered: minister to prisoners. That is simply a synonym for ransoming the captive.

So how might we today go about ransoming the captive today?

A few years ago, I was attending a lecture given by Gustavo Gutierrez, the father of liberation theology. At one stage, after a long discussion on the complexity of social justice, someone asked him: “Given magnitude of poverty and injustice on this earth, given all the discussions about the complex systems that must be changed to make much difference in bringing about a more just world, and given my own limits as one human person, what really can I do?” Gutierrez answered something to this effect: “Do this at least, have one concrete poor person or family in your life. Never let your response to poverty and injustice be only a theoretical ideal. Always be concretely involved with someone who is physically poor, even if it is only one person.”

At one level, we ransom the captive by reaching out concretely to someone, even if it is to only one person, who is somehow being held hostage by poverty or injustice. Our efforts may not seem to make much difference in terms of changing the systems that cause poverty and injustice – but they can make a big difference to that one person, analogous to the story of a young child who was walking along the shore one day and was throwing beached jellyfish back into the water. Someone pointed out to her that, given the thousands of jellyfish that had been washed ashore, her efforts would not make a big difference. Picking up a jelly-fish and throwing it back into the ocean, she announced: “It will make a big difference for this one!”

To ransom the captive means to reach out, concretely and individually, but it means more:

It also demands that, beyond touching this or that concrete individual, we get involved in trying to change the social and economic conditions that are help cause poverty, analogous to another story: A small town was built downstream on a long river. One day a number of bodies were found floating on the river. The townsfolk pulled them out. They were dead, so they buried them. The next day, four more persons were found floating in the river. Two were dead and these they buried. One was badly injured and him they took to their hospital. Another was a child, frightened but healthy. They found a home for her and placed her in their school. From that day on, for many years after, this went on. Every day a number of bodies came floating down the river. The townsfolk fished them out and generously attended to their various needs – but, throughout all those years, nobody thought to go upstream and investigate why all those bodies were, daily, found in that stream.

Ransoming the captive, as social justice groups have always told us, is also about investigating why certain bodies are ending up helpless in the river of poverty and injustice. To visit prisoners does not just ask us to, in fact, spend some time with those society has locked away, it invites us too to visit the reasons why certain people invariably end up in prison.

Ransoming the captive has to do with more than just visiting and trying to set free prisoners of war and persons taken hostage. It has to do with persons who find themselves held captive by every kind of physical bondage. It enjoins us to visit them and to visit too the reasons for why they are imprisoned.