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The Corporal Works of Mercy

by Brant Pitre February 28, 2020 0 Comments


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Well here we see even further illumination on the salt of the earth and the light of the world by going back to the book of the prophet Isaiah.  In Isaiah 58:7-10, the first reading describes some of the very same images that Jesus uses in the Sermon on the Mount.  It describes how good works and acts of charity can be light to others.  So this is the passages, it says this again Isaiah is speaking to the people of Israel and he is describing the will of the Lord:

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am.
"If you take away from the midst of you the yoke,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.

This is a beautiful passage.  What is Isaiah saying here?  Basically he is describing three acts of charity: feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and clothe the naked.  And the result of these acts of charity is that the light of Israel, when they engage in those kind of works, will break forth like the dawn.  In other words, it will be like the sunrise bringing light to a world that's full of suffering and sin and death and darkness.  That's how charity acts, that's what charity does in this world.  So that's what Israel is called to be and that is what Israel is called to do.

And the same thing is true in the Responsorial Psalm.  So if you look at the Responsorial Psalm, it's Psalm 112 a beautiful little Psalm it is describing the characteristics of a righteous person.  And this is what it says again note the image of light:

Light rises in the darkness for the upright;
the LORD is gracious, merciful, and righteous.
It is well with the man who deals generously and lends,
who conducts his affairs with justice.
For the righteous will never be moved;
he will be remembered for ever.
He is not afraid of evil tidings;
his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD.
His heart is steady, he will not be afraid,
until he sees his desire on his adversaries.

And then in verse 9 it says these very important words:

He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor;
his righteousness endures for ever;
his horn is exalted in honor.

Notice what is being described here.  It is describing a person who is righteous.  Why is he righteous?  Not because he is flawless, but because he is generous.  So he lends money, and not just begrudgingly, it says he lends it lavishly.  So he's generous with the poor, he lends money lavishly, he gives it away.  He doesn't just do business fairlyso he is just.   He's also trusting in God, he's faithful.  It also says that he does business fairly and he is not just fair, he's steadfast, he's trusting in the Lord and he is also merciful.  So we see here a continuity of themes.  These Old Testament texts are the kind of thing Jesus is talking about, the kind of charity he is describing when he talks about becoming the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

So what does this mean for us today and what did it mean in the living tradition of the Church?  Just a quick couple of final points.  First, if you look at that first text from Isaiah for this week, Isaiah 58, you see three of what later were known in the church as the corporal works of mercy, these traditional seven acts of charity or works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick sitting, visiting those in prison and then burying the dead.  So those seven works we call the corporal works of mercy and we already saw Isaiah describe the first three of them: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and clothing the naked. 

Now when we combine Isaiah 58 with another passage it isnt used for this week the famous passage in the Gospel of Matthew about the sheep and the goats, we see exactly what the Church is wanting us to think about when we're asking what does it mean to be a light of the world?  What does it mean to be salt of the earth?  It means above all to be engaged in acts of charity, corporal works of mercy, and through them to engage in evangelization, to share the Gospel with the world.  And sometimes Catholics can be tempted in particular to think that that's the work of missionaries.  That's what Mother Teresa, the daughters of Charity, they engage in those kind of works but I can't do that in my own life.  Im not a missionary, Im not a religious.  But if you look at Jesus teaching in the Gospel, it's very clear that this call to engage in the works of mercy is not just restricted to his disciples, and it's not restricted to what we would think of today as consecrated religious or the clergy.  It's something that everyone, every disciple of Jesus, is called to, and if we neglect it we put our salvation in danger.  Pope Francis has talked about this recently on a number of occasions.

If you look at Matthew 25, just to round it outthe famous passage from the sheep and the goats.  In Matthew 25:41, Jesus says:

Then he will say to those at his left hand, Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;

But why?

for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.Then they also will answer, Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?Then he will answer them, Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

So this is a pretty sobering text there, but that's the basis for the Church's exhortation for us to engage in the corporal works of mercy.  It also brings you back to the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says if salt loses its saltiness, what good is it except to be cast out and trodden underfoot by men.  As a number of interpreters have pointed out, whenever Jesus talks about being cast out in the Gospel of Matthew, he frequently uses that as an image for being cast out of the kingdom of heaven, as an image for being separated from God, for losing ones salvation.  So if you're going to be a disciple of Jesus and follow the Sermon on the Mount, you really don't have a choice, so to speak, when it comes to engaging in acts of charity, works of mercy and evangelization.  This is part of the obligation of a disciple in the Gospel, but is also, by the way, not just an obligation.  Remember, we just heard him talk about the Beatitudes the secret of how to be happy.  Well he's still talking about how to be happy in these next passages.  The  whole Sermon on the Mount is going to be about not just how to live, but how to be happy in life as a disciple.  So true happiness will only ever be found when, as Christians, we live according to who we are in Christ. Namely, the salt of the earth, offering our sufferings and sacrifices in union with Christ to the Father, bringing others to God to offer the world to him and then also light of the world,  following the work of Christ, engaging in good works, so that people can give glory to God in heaven.  This is an essential call that we have as Christians, it is not an optional thing.

I might add as an aside, I recently read a short article on this by a Catholic writer I forget who it waswho was pointing out that the corporal works of mercy are something that we can engage in our own family, especially for those of you like me if you have a young family, so if you have young children.  A large part of a young parents life and time is precisely taken up by engaging in corporal works of mercy like feeding the hungry.  Who's hungrier than an infant?  Who is hungrier than a little child?  Every meal has to be taken care of by the parent.  Clothing the naked.  For the first few years of your child's life, every time they get dressed, every time they get undressed, who is doing it?  The parents are doing it.  So you are feeding the hungry, you are clothing the naked, what about sickness?  Visiting the sick, caring for the sick?  Well especially if you have a big Catholic family as you know if one person gets the flu, everybody gets the flu; if one person gets a virus, everybody gets a virus.  And one of the the struggles in that is entering into it and caring for one another, even in the midst of sickness and suffering.  And so on and so forthI could make a joke about visiting the imprisoned if one of the kids gets sent to their room being punished you could go in and in the middle of that show mercy and show love. 

There are all kinds of ways to apply this within family life.  And you dont have to have children, you can apply it within your family, your brothers, your sisters or your parentsyou might have elderly parents living with you that you have to feed ,that you have to even maybe clothe, if they are getting to old to clothe themselves. We dont have to join a missionary order to engage in the corporal works of mercy.  This is part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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