The Works of Mercy

Many Christian traditions formally recognize seven Works of Mercy as obligations that every Christian must perform. The warrant for six of the Works of Mercy is found in Matthew 25.31-46. The seventh Work of Mercy--burying the dead--was later added based upon Tobit 1.16-17.

I've always been fond of Ade Bethune's artwork depicting the Works of Mercy. Bethune was the artist who created the banner for Dorothy Day's The Catholic Worker and was a regular contributor of artwork for its pages.

The Works of Mercy

Feeding the Hungry
Giving Drink to the Thirsty
Sheltering the Homeless
Clothing the Naked
Visiting the Prisoner
Visiting the Sick
Burying the Dead

These are the actions that define the Christian lifestyle.

The irony, of course, is that few Christians actually do any of this.

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30 thoughts on “The Works of Mercy”

  1. Oooooh, now, really?? I can't help but bite here =o) We could do more, but I know loads of Christian people who shape their lives and their decisions around those kinds of values. Provision for the homeless in my little city of Exeter, for instance, is full of Christians in secular organizations and Christian organizations with a real Christian ethos - and Devon is a more Christian part of the country than most, but it's still by no means majority practising Christian, so we are surprisingly well represented in those fields.

    Now, what you may mean is that we should all, as individuals and families, being doing this without anyone having to create a third-sector organization for us to do it through, and you might well have a point... but then I feel much happier and like I'm more likely to actually help rather than harm if I'm part of a more organized group that has the experience and know-how and connectionss to make a real difference, rather than just buying a homeless guy a burger (not that I don't ever do that, mind - both/and etc.!).

    Anyway, I'm rambling. As ever, loving the blog. Keep it up =o)

  2. Sorry, should be clearer: Devon = rural county in the SW of England where I live; Exeter = its capital city of around 110,000 people.

  3. The question of individual vs. community is interesting. My understanding of the traditional assumptions regarding the Works of Mercy is that these are expectations of individuals.

    Mainly I'm just trying to contrast the Works of Mercy with the more "spiritualized" works that tend to define how many Christians unpack their faith: Going to worship, singing, praying, reading the bible, etc.

  4. So much comes to mind, in response to the closing sentences of this post.

    I think far more about works of mercy than I do.

    I believe that this:  mercy/compassion -- for me at least, is the core of my identity "in" Christ.  If he's to claim me at all.  If anything of "me" is to remain standing in the alleged final judgment, then it is my conviction that these are the works that won't be incinerated into oblivion.

    Over time, a distance has grown between me and those in extreme poverty.  That distance to some extent has been deliberate on my part.  An incident from my past haunts me to this day.  As a young teen, I was sitting with my mother in the waiting room of the Salvation Army while her request for assistance was being processed in the office.  Across from us sat a man in dirty, mismatched clothes, and my mother noticed that he was staring at me, grinning hopefully.  My mom whispered that the man wanted me to say hello.  I looked away in disgust, refusing to make eye contact, and muttered, "He's probably just drunk."  This memory just makes me want to die, even thinking about it now.

    Back then, all I wanted -- my life's mission -- was to get the hell out of poverty.  It was humiliating to me.  Sitting there, faced with someone ELSE in that situation was like looking into a mirror, the reflection from which I did not want to see.

    For years, I have kept a nice, healthy distance from the poor.  And I mean real, material poverty, not a spiritualized poverty.  It is painful to be taken back to that place in my mind.

    Regarding works of mercy toward the spiritually poor, the realization that I, too, am just a beggar at God's door is often a frightening prospect.  I think many times, I want to reach out, but worry that I don't know what to say or do.  What if it hurts, instead of helps (e.g., "toxic charity")?  What if I get "conned?"

    Spiritual poverty in others is like that same mirror I avoided in the Salvation Army encounter.  I think about grief, in particular, because I have experienced that.  People want to comfort you, but most like to do it from a safe distance.  In fact, I have at times quarantined myself in such times of vulnerability.

    I come back to the deep truth of our aversion to those who are perceived as "unclean."  The ways we exclude, instead of embrace.  It should be clear that this book, 'Unclean,' is profoundly personal for me, and reading it at this precise moment in my "formation" has afforded me the opportunity for a pivotal, transformational, paradigm shift.  If mercy and compassion are not the axis on which my faith (in God, Christ) revolves, then it's a dead faith.  Theologians and the guardians of orthodoxy might quibble with my conclusion and conviction, but there it is.  ~Peace~

  5. So right on.  Many Christians tend to just write checks and let other people "get their hands dirty" for them, completely feeling like they have done their duty.

  6. Can we add "buying gas for the empty" to this list?  (My wife did this the other day and I wanted to brag on her.)

  7. Hey, that's a great idea. We can create an expanded list for us modern day folk. So, Work of Mercy #8: Buying gas for the empty.

  8. One thing I've been struggling with in my own life is how much discipline it takes to live this out financially.  Before I can participate in these acts of mercy, I have to be a good steward of my resources, or else I will quite literally run out of money by the end of the month!  I love the idea of giving to the poor, but it is hard for me to do the mundane tasks of budgeting, couponing, and basic self-denial (especially RE purchases for my children) that make my participation possible.  Sometimes those financial "chores" seem so...secular? me.  I constantly have to remind myself of their sacredness.  

  9. After giving some thought to the "question of individual vs. community" in terms of those doing the serving, it occurs to me that we also deal with that same question in terms of those needing the help.

    The classic versions - as well as the modern variations mentioned here (buying gas for the empty, etc) - appeal to me to some extent because they're largely one-on-one actions. The works of mercy I see most often today are not.

    What I see most often now is our attempt to "mass produce" our mercy. Feeding the hungry means a soup kitchen. Visiting the prisoner means a full-fledged prison ministry. Clothing the naked means clothing drives and church-wide garage sales. Sheltering the homeless means a large scale affordable housing initiative.

    All of these are wonderful and necessary... and the best ones are excellent examples of efficiency and stewardship and, yes, love.

    But I don't think they can (or should!) replace the impact of personal, loving, individual action. I think there might just be a reason that the story of the Good Samaritan doesn't involve a Sunday School class putting together a 5k run to raise money for the victims of roadside violence.

  10.  Kim,

    This is for most of us, of course, exactly where the rubber meets the road.  Your post ties in neatly with the discussion from yesterday.  I wish more well-meaning Christians could see it.  Thank you for the timely reminder.

  11. Lovely artwork. Stark, clear, understated, strong. It would be good to keep these nearby as a challenge/reminder...

  12. Mikey, yes!  Together with Kim at Kingdom Civic's comment, this speaks to me and my own struggles/convictions on practicing works of mercy.  It requires self-discipline -- being both a steward of material resources *and* intangibles, like time, health, social, and spiritual relationships...

    Also, more to your point, why wait for The Big Opportunity (high profile "cause", organized charity, group effort) to practice an act of mercy?  Are the small gestures too meaningless?  I was reading one blog by a person who is pro-Marxist but also pro-Christ, and though I'm not in agreement with Marxist/anarchist philosophy, he had some valid complaints and questions about the typical structure and methods of Christian charity.  It tends to be run like a business, which is hierarchical, and indirectly promotes the failures of the "system" from which the poor have fallen through the cracks.  Those served are viewed as "clients" which in itself is dehumanizing?  Is it any wonder that many of the poor learn to survive in the system (Welfare, NGO's) by "working it?"  It seems to me that in these orgs that seek to mass-produce charity, one power/principality is traded for another.  I realize that it's idealistic and impractical to imagine that structure and rules can be abandoned in any large/group effort.  But how to minimize the dehumanizing, perhaps mostly unintentional side-effect of the capitalist model being superimposed onto charity as a business?  Ultimately, I think it is a good and worthwhile goal to restore individuals into society from the margins, and to help them recover (or find) their dignity.  But, I think there is also a risk of implicitly glorifying the capitalist system.  It's, as Dr. Beck commented yesterday, the lesser of many evils; but not without its own idolatrous dangers.

    Understanding that beyond material poverty, those on the margins often see themselves as socially bankrupt.  No friends, nothing to offer in friendship.  And, in our American mindset, friendship is often treated as a commodity.  I don't mean to say that "be warm and well fed; I'll pray for you," is acceptable in response to suffering people.  I'm only saying that by coming close and simply offering our friendship vertically, as opposed to condescending, has the great potential of allowing me to learn from those I come close to in friendship.

    Finally, I think maybe it's O:K that there are NGO's through which we can contribute to works of mercy.  Also, that the gov't does what individuals and churches simply cannot accomplish in our current system (healthcare coverage, for instance).  I think that probably it takes everything we've got to impact our world in a healing, restorative way.  The main thing, I think, is to see that human suffering is not somebody else's problem.

  13. Thanks, Dr. Beck.  I understood and didn't take it as a remonstration.  I thank you for sharing your struggles and providing a safe space to be honest about mine.

  14. Tobit 1.16-17 (KJV)
    And in the time of Enemessar I gave many alms to my brethren, and gave my bread to the hungry, and my clothes to the naked: and if I saw any of my nation dead, or cast about the walls of Nineve, I buried him.

  15. "...offering our friendship vertically" should be "horizontally" (which is to say, NOT condescending but with or beside a person).  Sorry for that mix-up and for cluttering up the comments with this correction.  ~Peace~

  16. This Lent, my congregation is dwelling on the Roman catacombs, which highlights for us the importance of burying the dead in the late ancient church.  Just like with their pagan neighbors, the Christians practiced that work of mercy in a thoroughly collective way, though with a different impulse and organization than the pagans.

  17. I love the art and the principles behind it. And I hate to be that guy, but I've grown up in communities that dedicated themselves to these actions. My mother and father, my mother-in-law and father-in-law -- all of these people have consistently shown themselves to be committed to helping those in need. And there have been so many others.
    I have never been a part of a faith community where these duties weren't expected from all mature Christians. Richard, would you not characterize Highland as a place where the duty to perform acts of mercy is emphasized?

  18. I am reading unclean right now.  Ifind it interesting that all the groups that I can think of that are primarily about works of mercy are not churxhes.  many of them are associated with some church or religion.  It totally supports the concept that churches primarily focud on defining boundaries and being spiritualized.  Works of mercy are initiated at churches, but as someone who has been initiating for 15 years now, it can be pretty tough to get people excited about working at the homeless shelter, the soup kitchen or habitat for humanity, but if you bring up a purity issue like homosexuality, the energy level rises quickly on both sides.

  19. Good thoughts Mikey, and LOL at the last line. Thanks for the thought provocation AND the laugh!

  20. I would because its not in MY bible however that would be really arrogant. I haven't devoted years of my life to prayer, fasting, and contemplation as many monks and scholars have. My congregation (Church of Christ) doesn't make up roughly half of the world's Christians and contain literally thousands of years of rich history. And as far as I know, Jesus did not preach the Sermon on the Mount out of the NIV. While I definitely don't see eye to eye on many Catholic doctrines and I wonder how yall can possibly interpret certain scriptures the way you do, you're probably not ALL idiots and false prophets. God would have squashed all of you years ago had that been the case

  21. Before we start, please take a few things into consideration. I am a college freshman with no spouse or children to support. Over the course of my life 75% of my possessions and resources have been given not earned (I'm being really generous to myself). Also, tests tell me I'm smarter than most of the world's population, but I am by no means a biblical scholar (or any other type for that matter).

    I agree with the loss of the sacredness feel in the mundane "chores" of holy living, however I think you're coming at it with too much of a world based approach. The widow that Jesus praises gives our of her need, not our of her surplus. Also, Jesus was homeless! Now I know snarky theological one-liners leave a putrid taste in my mouth so please don't think my super christian holyhorse idealism is intended. Basically I mean to say that my views are no better, just different.

  22.  It's not really important - but just in case you were meaning me, I'm definitely not catholic... or Catholic for that matter. In fact, I grew up in the C of C as well... I even attended the same church (and acted in the same drama troupe) as Dr Beck when he was still in Dallas.

    All that being said, I'm still happy that no one went nuts about his inclusion of Tobit in this discussion...

  23. For a moment I thought you were saying that your congregation was dwelling in the Roman catacombs.  I was awestruck.

    It's good that many Christians do throw themselves into works of mercy, but very few Christian communities are defined by them.  The one shining example is the Salvation Army, which is so outstandingly active at doing the work of the Church that many people are unaware that they are a denomination.  

  24. I guarantee you, many LGBTQ people are very, very aware that the Salvation Army is a branch of the Church:

  25. There's some ancient precedent for that, though not in Christianity. The ancient Egyptian "Book of Going Forth by Day" lists various works of mercy the deceased was expected to have performed in life (on penalty of the gods saying the equivalent of "Get out of our sight! We never knew you"), though not in any particular order (there were many recensions of the text, and no one ever tried to standardize it, so far as I know). One work I remember seeing was "I gave a boat to the stranded." ;-)

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