Mercy, Works of
MERCY, WORKS OF
Works of mercy are acts that express mercy and that could likewise be called the realizations of charity in its mode of mercy. Two specific works of mercy, almsgiving [see alms and almsgiving (in the church)] and fraternal correction, are explained elsewhere.
Christian Spirit of the Works of Mercy. The works of mercy warmly commended by the Law, the sages, and the prophets are at the heart of the Old Testament, e.g., "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" (Is 58.7). However, in the New Testament there is a profound development of the concept of mercy. Christ is now present in His people, and His people are not only those who are merciful, but those in misery and in need of mercy. In fact, the Incarnation itself is a work of mercy for human misery, both Jewish and pagan. "For God has shut up all in unbelief, that he may have mercy upon all" (Rom 11.32).
The Christian spirit brought first a new way of looking upon misfortune. Every kindness done "you did…" Our Lord said "for me" (Mt 25.40). Second, it
gave new scope to free generosity. No regulation can determine the extent or the opportunities for this duty of mercy, since faith has opened new horizons, as St. Paul pointed out to Philemon whom he wanted to persuade by love to free Onesimus: "May the sharing of thy faith be made evident in full knowledge of all the good that is in you, in Christ Jesus" (Phlm 1.6). Third, it involved a spirit of service. The Christian's mercy is really that of Christ; his own personal gain and the manifestation of superiority cannot be its motives. Instead, humble service will tend toward the development of the person in need in order to bring him to equality: "that at the present time your abundance may supply their want, and that their abundance may, in its turn, make up what you lack, thus establishing an equality" (2 Cor 8.14).
Corporal Works. The list is long established: 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, to bury the dead. All are found in the parable of the Judgment (Mt 25.34–40), except the last, to bury the dead, which was added out of the respect owed to the body as a "temple of the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor 3.16), and consideration of the sorrows caused by death. These seven are not to be considered as exclusive. Other real afflictions, such as those experienced by displaced persons who are without homes, or by prisoners, or alcoholics, or prostitutes, or others involved in evils that threaten human dignity, call for Christian mercy. Problems involved in getting aid to underdeveloped countries and the promotion of peace between men and races cannot be solved without the organized cooperation of many. Papal
encyclicals have exhorted the faithful to effective participation in such works.
Spiritual Works. Seven are usually listed: to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to admonish sinners, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive offenses, to comfort the afflicted, and to pray for the living and the dead. The instruction of the ignorant may be performed by an organization, although on occasion it may well be the work of an individual. But the other spiritual works remain in the realm of personal relationships, and on this account have a particular value. They make demands upon personal resources and hence are a more specific expression of charity toward another, and in this they tend to promote human unity. Their urgency comes from the threat of human depersonalization in contemporary civilization.
The works of mercy demand a spirit of service, the attention of love, and the sincerity of compassion. "I have given you an example …" the Lord said (Jn 13.15). The performance of these works was characteristic of Christ's life, who, as St. Peter expressed it, "went about doing good" (Acts 10.38).
The word of God is a challenge to every Christian: "I desired mercy, and not sacrifice" (Hos 6.6 DV); "God who is rich in mercy, by reason of his very great love wherewith he has loved us" (Eph 2.4) wants us to be united with Him and to come to know the joy of giving as He has given.
See also: mercy; charity.
[j. m. perrin]