Everyday Works of Mercy

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"Whatever you do to the least of these, that you do unto me." This passage from Matthew 25:31-40 provides the framework for the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Many times people think of these works directed to strangers, but this article challenges us to look at how these good works are lived in our family and workplace.

Are you more Christian than you give yourself credit for being? My belief is that there are many like that--that many dedicated Christian people have compartmentalized their lives and have excluded important and central areas of their lives from what they regard as the Christian or religious compartment.

As a discussion framework, let's use the familiar corporal and spiritual works of mercy or charity; these are closely associated with a section of Saint Matthew's Gospel which we can use as our starting point:

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?' And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me'"(Matthew 25:31-40).

This passage reminds us to see Jesus in others, but note--the "sheep" are portrayed as being surprised that in meeting the needs of others they are also doing such things to Jesus. Does this imply that Jesus' circle of friends (that is, the sheep) is significantly larger than some of us seem to think? Does this imply that there are many sheep who would incorrectly categorize themselves as goats?

Finding the Sacred In Everyday Life

Associated with this scene from Matthew are the corporal and spiritual works of mercy or charity. The corporal works usually listed are: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, visit the sick, shelter the homeless, bury the dead. The spiritual works include: to admonish the sinner, instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, comfort the sorrowful, bear wrongs patiently, forgive injuries, pray for the living and the dead.

Too often we tend to see these works of charity as involving extraordinary activities or as directed to strangers. But why overlook very ordinary things of everyday life pertaining to our own families and our work?

To work in a soup kitchen or to contribute financially to its operation is obviously in the category of feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty. But why stop there? How about the mom or dad who gets up in the middle of the night to give the baby a bottle or child a glass of water? Why not include the mother who breast-feeds her child--body and spirit--while rocking and singing to her? One doesn't need to know much psychology to realize that there is more to raising a child than meeting bodily needs.

And now science tells us that a stimulating and psychologically nourishing environment has much to do with a person's brain growth during early childhood, that without suitable stimulation certain areas of the brain may not develop or may develop improperly. Father and mother earn and prepare each day's food; every child gets hungry and thirsty. "...whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me."

Why can't we include the gardener, the farmer, the grocer, the waitress, the chef in a restaurant, the trucker who brings food to the store, etc.? And how about the grocer who makes a motorized cart available to shoppers with disabilities so that they can do their own shopping and preserve their independence? I can readily imagine Jesus--who never saw motorized carts--saying: "Now that's a great idea!"

Several years ago my wife, Pat, suggested that we celebrate our wedding anniversary by expressing our gratitude to God for each other by helping to serve the noon meal at a local soup kitchen. It was a learning experience for us. We expected to find nourishing food dispensed by caring people. We found this, but considerably more.

After the meal checkerboards and cards were made available for a period of time. It was easy to think, "Not by bread alone...."

It's All About Perspective

The outlook or attitude toward our work is, of course, important. Do you remember the old story about the three men digging a ditch for the footing of the foundation for a new cathedral? In reply to the question about what they were doing, one replied that it was obvious what they were doing--digging a ditch; the second said he was earning a living for his family and the third answered that he was building a cathedral.

As for clothing the naked, what is more naked than a newborn child? Father and mother clothe each other and their children, the mother (and perhaps the father) makes or mends her own clothes and those of her husband and children. Father and mother at times do without a new pair of shoes, a new suit or a new outfit to provide these for their children. "...whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me."

As for sheltering the homeless, where would children be without their parents? The Habitat for Humanity volunteer is certainly helping to shelter the homeless, but why shouldn't we also include the father who paints his own home or the mother who repairs household appliances? Homes have to be cleaned; windows need to be washed; floors require scrubbing or vacuuming; etc. And let's not forget to include those mortgage payments.

And as for alleviating the burden of being confined to prison, consider the husband who baby-sits to free his wife from the "prison of four walls" that a child can build around a mother. How about the housewife who baby-sits or grandma-sits for a neighbor in order to give her a free afternoon or evening to get her hair fixed or to go shopping?

And then there is the teenager who volunteers to take care of her brothers and sisters so that her parents can have a free evening--to go out to supper, or to a movie or play. Consider those whose work involves helping to free others from the psychological prisons in which they are enclosed.

Teachers are clearly included in the Christian work of instructing the ignorant--teachers of so-called "secular" subjects as well as of theology. What, if anything, makes something inherently secular? Isn't it more accurate to use the word secular to describe the attitude that we choose to take toward an area of life? As far as I know, the Creator has not put brackets around some areas of life and labeled them as secular.

From time to time when I was teaching calculus, I used to wonder about the students in my classes. Will one of them help find a cure for cancer or for cystic fibrosis? Will a student in this classroom help solve the water purification and waste-disposal challenges of underdeveloped countries? Is there a future engineer who will build dams to provide electrical power in such countries? Will that bright, hardworking student in the front row become a theoretical physicist and, by pushing back a little more the frontiers of physics, reveal more of God's secrets? Is there a future research chemist who will work in perfecting planet-friendly plastics?

No one can do serious science without a background in mathematics; some sciences require a great deal of mathematics. Nature does not yield its secrets easily, so let's not leave mathematicians out of the picture.

Volunteering to help with the RCIA program is certainly a Christian activity that we can include in this category. But why can't we label tutoring a fellow student in mathematics in a similar way? A student's primary vocation is that of being a student; helping another fulfill a vocation can be seen as a Christian act of service just as truly as going to Appalachia to serve or helping with Habitat for Humanity.

How many times a day does a parent perform such a Christian deed by answering the questions of children? We speak and a child gets facts; we live and she catches an attitude. How deeply are our basic orientations to life affected by our parents!

How about helping a son or daughter with homework? If helping a child with prayer is regarded as a Christian deed, why doesn't homework count also? What about teaching a child how to sew on a button, make a cake or prepare supper?

Consider the parent who teaches a son or daughter how to use a hammer or saw, or throw a ball.

Reassurance in Times of Doubt

Every man is ignorant, that is, he does not quite know what to expect of a woman or what a woman expects of a man. He has never been a woman and never will be; he had a mother but he may not have had a sister. A husband has to learn what it means to feel like a woman, and, in particular, how it feels to be this woman, his wife.

In a similar fashion every woman is ignorant. Here's how a friend expressed it: "A man may know how he would act in a given situation, but he is lucky if he guesses how a woman will act in the same situation. A woman may know how she would feel in a certain situation, but she is usually wrong if she thinks she knows how a man would feel in the same situation. He may not feel anything at all."

Every husband needs to be a significant teacher to his wife and every wife needs to be a significant teacher to her husband. This means learning to talk to each other, especially about feelings. It means developing the art of communication. Isn't it O.K. to regard these growth activities as Christian actions, very worthy of the approval of Jesus?

The People's Catechism: Catholic Faith for Adults addresses this when it states, "The film Shadowlands poignantly illustrates this reality. C. S. Lewis, or 'Jack,' as he preferred to be called, had all the answers to life's most important questions. And people came from far and wide to hear him. Oh, his answers were 'right,' all right, but he stood strangely distant from the realities about which he spoke. Until he met Joy, that is. His love for her opened him to feelings beyond his imaginings. His pain, as he watched cancer ravage Joy's body, was almost more than he could bear. In an idyllic moment when the consciousness of Joy's disease receded temporarily, his desire to retreat into his old world of control by standing above the reality of what was happening was quickly rebuked by the wife he loved so. 'We've got to talk about this now, Jack, if you're going to be with me when the time comes. Don't you see? The pain then is part of the joy now. That's the deal.' Yes, he learned through the pain of experience what love was. He could no longer stand on the outside looking in at reality. No, he had thrown in his lot with another. Now he 'knew' joy and pain in a very different way. There were no magic solutions for the anguish of grief that he suffered at Joy's death. But he could say sincerely, 'The pain now is part of the joy later.'" (Quote used with permission of the publisher, The Crossroad Publishing Company.)

As an example of counseling the doubtful, consider the fact that every man at times has his doubts about whether he is adequate as a man, husband, father, Christian, worker, etc.; every woman at times has similar doubts. In moments of doubt and uncertainty, of disappointment and disillusionment, we need reassurance; in such times a sincere compliment, a warm hug, an affectionate touch, an attentive ear, a pat on the back, sharing a meal, can do much to alleviate the painful experience. Why not see such actions as the type that Jesus would commend?

Young people, especially teenagers, have their times of self-doubt, their need for a sympathetic ear, a warm hug. How about the professor who shares his time as well as his ear with students as they talk about their feelings, their joys and disappointments, their successes and failures, their plans?

Right now I'm thinking of a bright, beautiful and charming girl, a straight-A student, who felt free enough with me to say that there had been times in her life when she felt so lonely and depressed that she had suicidal thoughts. For her that chat session may have been the beginning of a whole new life.

Opportunities for Mercy in Family life

Extending sympathy and help to someone who has lost a loved one obviously fits the category of comforting the sorrowful, and most people would readily classify such actions as Christian or religious. But family life offers many opportunities for easing pain and sorrow. Do we tend to overlook such actions as also Christian and religious?

In August 1992 I watched my nephew pitch in a baseball tournament. On the way to the game my brother and his wife took us to see the diamond near Dyersville, Iowa, where the movie Field of Dreams had been filmed. In a family of four, Rick is the youngest and the only son; he is my only nephew. Being avid fans of professional sports as well as active participants in amateur baseball, they had been planning their vacations together so that they could include a professional baseball game as part of the fun. Their life vacation project was to visit all the major-league parks.

My nephew Rick seemed to have arrived. In addition to his successes in baseball (including three no-hitters), he had a loving wife and family, lots of friends, had recently received a promotion to top management in his company and had purchased a new home. But in early 1993 he developed multiple sclerosis (MS) and within two months became legally blind. Although he had to give up his new managerial position, with the help of a special magnifying program on his computer and support from staff, he was able to work part-time in the loan department.

But a flare-up of MS last year affected his memory; he had to give up that part-time work and adjust to living in a nursing home. (His home-away-from-home is now a group home.)

The support of his family and his associates from work has meant much to him: Not only do they visit and play cards with him (Bless those manufacturers who make special cards for those with impaired vision!), they take him shopping and out to lunch. But the question of his young son ("What's going to happen to my daddy?") is difficult to handle. Like Job, I struggled with the "why" question; his family and friends behaved more like Jesus. As John L. McKenzie once put it: Jesus didn't provide an answer to the "why" of suffering, he just did it.

The Model of the Prodigal Son

How do we admonish the sinner as Jesus did? Our Christian faith tells us that we are all sinners, that Christ died for us as sinners, and that God loves us as we are, that is, as sinners. The warmly embracing, party-giving father and the cold-hearted, ever-faithful-to-the-rule older brother in the parable of the prodigal son tell us something about welcoming home wayward believers--and this includes our treatment of ourselves. Not only do we need to be forgiven but we also need to experience forgiveness, to feel forgiven.

One does not need much experience in helping those seeking forgiveness to realize that helping them to obtain God's forgiveness is a much simpler matter than helping them to forgive themselves.

Some years ago a father shared with me the pain he experienced when one of his favorite unmarried daughters told him that she was pregnant. He told me that he didn't know what to say; he just gave her a big warm hug. I assured him that he probably had done the best thing for her--hugs speak more loudly than words and they speak on the feeling level. Certainly this action imitating the example of the heavenly Abba (Daddy) as portrayed in the parable of the prodigal son should be regarded as something Jesus would praise.

We can close with some home work. (No, that space is not a typo.) How, in our homes and families, can we grow in our awareness of how godly or religious or Christian everyday life can be?

Raymond J. Collins is a retired professor emeritus of mathematics from Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He says that "the Ignatian ideal of finding God in all things captures my belief that the teaching of mathematics is an important Christian vocation."


© Copyright St. Anthony Messenger Press. This article was published with the permission of St. Anthony Messenger magazine, which provides study guides to accompany many of its articles. You can access these guides by going to the magazine's Links for Learners page. Teachers will find a wealth of other resources at the St. Anthony Messenger Press web site by clicking on this link: http://www.americancatholic.org/features/learners/

Published June 1, 1999.