By Sister Marilyn Sunderman, Ph.D. Professor of Theology, Saint Joseph’s College of Maine
In Matthew 25, Jesus focuses on the works of mercy as the criteria of the Last Judgment—the need to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those imprisoned, shelter homeless people and bury those who have died. Before we reflect on these works of mercy, let us first consider the religious meaning of mercy.
What is Mercy?
In the scriptures, Mercy is constitutive of God’s nature. Mercy is what God does for humans because God loves each person God creates. As Pope Francis has noted so beautifully, God’s mercy is a “caress of love.”
Mercy is being attentive and sensitive to the needs of others; mercy is heartfelt, compassionate love in action. With this understanding of the meaning of mercy in mind, let us now reflect upon each of the corporal works of mercy.
Feed the Hungry
In the Book of Proverbs we read: “A generous person will be blessed for she or he shares food with the poor” (21:13). Additionally, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed to fellow Hebrews that sharing food with the hungry is the kind of fasting that God desires (Isaiah 58:7).
Globally, 3 million children die of malnutrition each year. This means that every four seconds another child on Earth loses his or her life due to hunger.
Give Drink to the Thirsty
Jesus said: “Whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water … shall not lose his or her reward” (Mt. 10:40 – 42). Today, water shortages are a common reality in different parts of our world. For many people, safe, drinkable water is not readily available. Globally, each day several thousand children die due to diarrhea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation. Given this reality, we might ask ourselves how far we each need to go to satisfy our thirst. For almost a billion people on Earth the answer to that question is at least four miles a day.
Clothe the Naked
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus instructs the person who has two coats to share with another who has none. In today’s world, millions of people cannot afford to purchase adequate clothing to protect themselves from the elements. In contrast, there are many who possess an over-abundance in this regard. Although clothes do not make the person, clothes and human dignity go hand-in-hand. That being said, engaging in this work of mercy upholds the dignity of one’s brother or sister by ensuring the basic necessity of sufficient clothing.
Visit the Sick
During his public ministry, Jesus encountered many sick people. He reached out in love to those suffering from illness; he spoke encouraging words to them; sometimes, he physically touched them; and he healed them of their maladies.
Often those who are sick become discouraged and feel lonely. Visiting those who suffer from short- or long-term illness is a way of bringing comfort and care to them. It is a way of letting them know that they are not forgotten and that their lives matter. One’s presence and willingness to listen are immeasurable gifts to sick persons.
Visit the Imprisoned
Jesus said: “I was in prison and you came to me” (Mt. 25:36). Currently, in the United States a higher percentage of the population is in prison than in any other nation. Life in prison can be very hard and, in general, much is lacking in rehabilitation programs that exist in our prison system. Prisoners look forward to visits; they appreciate others’ taking time to be with them.
Shelter the Homeless
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews insisted: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware” (13:2). Today, there are many refugees from war-torn countries and countries where safety is an issue due to human or drug trafficking. Millions are leaving their lives behind to seek shelter elsewhere.
Also, because of floods, earthquakes and hurricanes, people can suddenly become homeless. Those who come to the aid of victims of these kinds of natural disasters not only rebuild homes but, more importantly, rebuild the spirits of those who suffer from such catastrophic, life-changing events.
Furthermore, homelessness can result from long-term unemployment or a medical condition that depletes an individual or family’s financial resources. In the United States, a significant percentage of the homeless are military veterans. Long-term homelessness can lead to alcoholism, drug abuse or psychological illness.
Bury the Dead
In the Christian tradition, burying the dead is based on the sacredness of the human person. Proper burial of the dead gives expression to words of the psalmist: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of the saints” (Psalm 116:15). It is a way of demonstrating that the life of the deceased was valued and continues to have value because she or he is sacred in the eyes of God.
Engage in the Works of Mercy!
There is an urgent need in our world today to witness to Mercy by doing the corporal works of mercy. Pope Francis has said that what our world needs is the medicine of mercy and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI insists that “There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbor is indispensable.” The word misericordia (translated “mercy”) means a heart that gives itself to those in need. In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul insists that the one who does acts of mercy do so cheerfully (Rom. 12:8). And so, whenever and wherever we engage in the works of mercy, let us do so in a warmhearted and most generous way!