By Mark Shea - OSV Newsweekly, 3/3/2013
It is interesting to note that when Jesus tells his great parable of judgment we call the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Mt 25:31-46), the big dividing line between sheep and goats is not their views on justification by faith alone, their sacramental theology, their opinions on the papacy, their thoughts on just war and gun control or even their visible membership in the Catholic Church. It is how they treated “the least of these.”
It is easy to draw wrong conclusions from this, and our polarized culture is good at doing that. So for some Catholics, the conclusion is that one’s views on these other subjects don’t matter at all. As long as you are serving the poor, it doesn’t matter if you make it to Mass, or listen to the Church’s teaching on the pelvic issues, or bother with the sacraments or pray. The faith begins and ends with “social justice,” and “social justice” more or less means “voting liberal and recycling.” For others, the alarm bells go off when you start talking about the least of these, and a complex defense mechanism kicks into gear in which the eyes narrow, adrenaline starts to squirt, and preparations are quickly made to say things like “Social justice stuff has its place, I suppose, but at the end of the day, the unborn are the only ‘least of these’ who really matter and the rest of all that stuff about the poor is just prudential judgment and liberal hand-wringing.”
Both sides are wrong. And they maintain their wrongness by the standard blunder of taking some real Catholic truth and pitting it against the whole of the Tradition. In the case of the “social justice” guy who doesn’t care about questions like “Who is Jesus?” or “Why bother with Mass?” or “Could the Church be right about human sexuality?” what is typically asserted against the whole of the Tradition and the common good is “conscience.” Meanwhile, with the guy whose attention to the works of mercy boils down to the formula “Opposition to abortion taketh away the sins of the world,” the notion is that “prudential judgment” means you don’t have to pay any attention to the Church’s guidance unless it is given in the form of a dogma.
But the reality is that works of mercy — though there is no dogma commanding us to do them or outlining which ones we are to do, nor how many times — are essential components of healthy Catholic life, and we are to seek ways to either do them ourselves or help others do them. That’s the meaning of the parable, and the implication is both shocking and stark: Whatever we do or do not do to the least, we do or do not do to Jesus. In other words, we do them because our neighbor is a sacrament to us and we to him — because all that stuff about Jesus being the Word made flesh and fully present on the altar and coming to us in a human way and us having to have the mystical eyes of faith to see it is true — all that is what undergirds the Church’s teaching here. We Americans imagine that social safety networks, and care for the poor, and pity for the weak and reverence for childhood and equal rights are all just “self-evident” as the Declaration of Independence put it. But in fact, apart from faith in Jesus Christ, there is no particular reason not to return to the horrible world of pre-Christian paganism in which none of these things were self-evident and the rule of thumb was “The strong do as they will, and the weak suffer what they must.” One of the gifts the Christian tradition has kneaded into Western culture for 2,000 years is this regard for the “least of these.” Without the Church quietly operating in the background, doing works of mercy that nobody will ever hear of for the love of Jesus Christ, present in the weak as he is in the Eucharist, civilization would have overheated and burned down a long time ago.
For body and spirit
So what are the corporal works of mercy and where do they come from? They are: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, harbor the harborless, visit the sick, ransom the captive and bury the dead. As you can see, they are rooted in the Bible itself (half of them come from the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, and the rest are virtuous acts we see attributed to various heroes of the Bible such as Moses or Tobit). The corporal works of mercy are addressed primarily (though not exclusively) to bodily needs since we are embodied creatures. However, they are also charged with sacramental significance too, as we shall see. The works are the response of love to the fact that the Word became flesh and, in the least of these, still dwells among us. Let’s take a quick look at each.
Mark Shea writes the Catholic and Enjoying blog at www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea/ and is the author of “The Heart of Catholic Prayer: Opening the Our Father and the Hail Mary” (OSV, $12.95) and “The Work of Mercy” (Servant, $14.99).
Feed the hungry
Feeding the hungry, like many of the other corporal works of mercy, is tough in our culture since we live in a weird historical moment where the poor in the First World suffer from obesity, not starvation. Still and all, there are things we can do.
The poor are not helped if you give them the means to pay for more alcohol or crystal meth. But they are helped by food. My wife and I have made a habit of keeping tasty health bar thingies in our car for handing out when we are stopped at a light.
In addition to these minor acts, you can help support apostolates, either with hands-on activities such as actually preparing food and serving it to the poor, or with funding organizations that feed people who are literally starving in other parts of the world.
Feeding the hungry, like all the corporal works of mercy, has a spiritual dimension as well, since the ultimate food is the Bread of Life: the Eucharist.
If you bring somebody to Mass or introduce them to Jesus Christ, you are feeding them not merely temporarily, but eternally.
As Christ himself put it: “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal” (Jn 6:27).
Mercy Corps helps people in the world’s toughest places turn the crises of natural disaster, poverty and conflict into opportunities for progress. Driven by local needs and market conditions, their programs provide communities with the tools and support they need to transform their own lives. Their worldwide team of 3,700 professionals is improving the lives of 16.7 million people in more than 40 countries.
P.O. Box 2669, Dept. W
Portland, OR 97208-2669
Food for the Poor is the third-largest international relief and development charity in the United States, feeding 2 million daily. Its Christian relief programs and projects help children and the poorest of the poor by providing food, housing, health care, education and micro-enterprise assistance in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Food for the Poor
6401 Lyons Rd.
Coconut Creek, FL 33073
Phone: 954-427-2222 or 800-427-9104
Bury the dead
Burying the dead seems to many moderns like a weird work of mercy since we tend to think of the body as a sort of Tupperware container for the soul. Who cares what happens to the dead meat after death? The only thing that requires mercy is the soul, right?
Well no, because we believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead in a glorified body. So the body is holy, because it is both the temple of the Holy Spirit and the seed of the Resurrection, destined to be raised in glory just as Christ’s body was raised. We honor that by burying the dead instead of just chucking their corpses into a garbage dump.
Burying the dead is, in a certain sense, the most purely merciful thing we can do, since the dead we bury are both victims of the tragedy that is the common lot of all fallen human beings (and therefore the most pathetic of our race and deserving of our pity), as well as the most helpless. Here, supremely, is the beggar who is powerless to repay your kindness to him, and therefore the very least of these. At the same time, this body you honor will one day be like Christ’s in glory. We can do this work by such means as supporting Catholic cemeteries or supporting pro-life ministries that offer Christian burial to those most forgotten of our dead: aborted children.
Reverence for the body is an extension of the reverence for life.
The International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide exists to support each person’s right to die a natural death in an environment of love without being murdered by a culture eager to dispose of the weak and inconvenient.
The International Task
Force on Euthanasia
and Assisted Suicide
P.O. Box 760
Steubenville, OH 43952
Clothe the naked
Clothing the naked is not something we think about too much today, since we seldom meet nearly naked people dressed in rags. In our culture, pretty much the only people you meet who are naked are people who want to be that way, owing to some loopy theory of nudist naturalism.
What they demonstrate, of course, is that naturalism is unnatural and that the normal state of the human person is to be clothed in some way, even if that clothing is just a grass skirt in some tropical outpost somewhere. That tells you something about clothes: namely, that they exist to express (and guard) our dignity as much as, if not more than, to keep us warm.
That clothes are bound up with our dignity is made clear, not only in our species’ perpetual fascination with changing fashions, but in such violent assaults on human dignity as the Holocaust, in which victims were routinely stripped naked precisely in order to humiliate them. To clothe the naked, therefore, is to give them their dignity. Happily, this is something we can do very easily in the First World.
From the Salvation Army to St. Vincent de Paul to Goodwill, there are tons of places we can provide clothes for people that need them here in the United States, as well as helping to provide for those who literally are naked in, say, Calcutta.
In doing so, we clothe them with the dignity of Jesus Christ, who was himself stripped of his garments on Golgotha, so that we could be clothed in him (see Rom 13:14).
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul helps the poor with needs, especially clothing.
Check the local phone directory for one of its local ministries, or contact the national office:
National Council of the United States
Society of St. Vincent de Paul
58 Progress Parkway
St. Louis, MO 63043-3706
Catholic Relief Services carries out the commitment of the bishops of the United States to assist the poor and vulnerable overseas. It is motivated by the Gospel of Jesus Christ to cherish, preserve and uphold the sacredness and dignity of all human life; foster charity and justice; and embody Catholic social and moral teaching.
Catholic Relief Services
228 W. Lexington St.
Baltimore, MD 21201-3413
Give drink to the thirsty
Giving drink to the thirsty is, again, hard to put legs on in the First World, since water is as close as the nearest public fountain. In the developing world, though, having something to drink can still be a dangerous and chancy business. In some areas, the phenomenon of withering drought can still kill thousands of the old, sick, weak and very young. In addition to such natural scourges, there are man-made ones such as war, despotism, and even planned genocide that deliberately denies water to those who need it. And on top of this, there are corporations from the West that market things like baby formula to new mothers, telling them to ignore their own breast milk in favor of the new technological hotness, while failing to warn them that the formula, mixed with cholera-infected water, will kill their children. Happily, there are also initiatives proliferating to help sink wells in drought areas and that provide water filtration and sterilization for people living in impoverished conditions. Moreover, as with feeding the hungry, so also giving drink to the thirsty has a secondary meaning in our tradition. Jesus says of natural water, “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4:13-14). The best drink we can give to the thirsty is the waters of baptism and the living water of the Holy Spirit.
Global Water was founded in 1982 by former U.S. Ambassador John McDonald and Dr. Peter Bourne to help save the lives of people in developing countries that are lost due to unclean water. Rather than providing short-term supplies like food and bottled water that are quickly consumed, Global Water focuses on permanent solutions to a region’s water needs.
Project Management Office
3600 S. Harbor Blvd., No. 514
Oxnard, CA 93035
H2OAfrica’s objective is to increase awareness of the African situation; empower people to action; and create sustainable alliances between people who want to help, the best organizations in the field to make it happen, and some of the communities of Africa that have no clean water.
920 Main St., Suite 1800
Kansas City, MO 64105
Harbor the harborless
Harboring the harborless can take many forms up to and including the daring (and often dangerous) form of taking people into one’s home. It can also include doing things like helping refugees get settled in their new life in your country, or helping battered women or children establish themselves in a new place, or helping people who have been institutionalized get established in an independent living situation. It can most certainly apply to those who choose to adopt children, and particularly children from dangerous and difficult origins such as a Chinese orphanage.
One form of harboring the harborless that often gets overlooked is to welcome new people into your parish and help them get connected with friends, work, and ways in which they can share in the service of other people’s needs. Catholic parishes can be desperately lonely places for many people, especially new people who are either recently arrived in the parish or recent converts or reverts.
The Catholic instinct to let people alone and “give them space” can often be a fine thing, but not at the cost of making people feel frozen out and unconnected. Here again, there is a spiritual principle at work too. For in welcoming people into your parish and your lives, you are fulfilling the promise of the Gospel that we “are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19).
Incorporated in 1972, Covenant House has been leading the effort to help homeless kids. Today it is the largest privately funded agency in the Americas that provides food, shelter, immediate crisis care and an array of other important services to homeless, throwaway and runaway kids. Covenant House doesn’t stop at offering an immediate safe harbor to homeless youth; it strives to move each kid forward down the path to an independent adulthood, free from the risk of future homelessness.
461 Eighth Ave.
New York, NY 10001
Sheltersforwomen.org has information on shelters for battered women, families, youth, homeless people and drug addicts, as well as links that help get people back on their feet.
Ransom the captive
Ransoming the captive has a distinctly pre-modern ring to it. It’s been a while since the president of the United States, returning from a Crusade, has been captured by Saracens who demanded 2,000 gold doubloons for his safe return. Indeed, our culture tends to view paying ransoms as “capitulating to terrorism,” not as a noble act worthy of praise. That’s because we have developed mechanisms and systems for dealing with criminals more sophisticated than simple ransoms.
But the principle behind it — freeing those held in bondage — is as honorable as ever. We don’t tend to think too much about that these days, since slavery has not been on our minds since 1865 or so. But beyond our borders (and, in a certain sense, within them) slavery is still a live issue. On our own soil as well as abroad, there is the ongoing crime of sex slavery. There are goods bought at your local big-box store that were made by people who are, for all intents and purposes, slave laborers. There is, throughout much of the Islamic world, the ongoing fact that slavery has never disappeared and remains a thriving institution at this hour.
So, there are whole organizations dedicated to freeing people from slavery and to making economic changes that make slaveholding a financially losing proposition. We can support those, as well as watching where and what we buy so as not to prop up corporations that profit from slave labor.
And we can bear in mind that Christ is the ultimate liberator from the slavery of sin.
Anti-Slavery International works at local, national and international levels to eliminate all forms of slavery around the world.
Thomas Clarkson House
London SW9 9TL U.K.
Phone: 011[from USA] +44 (0)20 7501 8920
The Not For Sale Campaign equips and mobilizes smart activists to deploy innovative solutions to re-abolish slavery in their own backyards and across the globe.
Not For Sale
270 Capistrano Rd., Suite 2
Half Moon Bay, CA 94019
Visit the sick
Visiting the sick is something any of us can do, but most of us are not super eager to do since, you know, sick people are sick. You might catch something. But, of course, the reality is that we aren’t really in danger of catching AIDS or car accident injuries or broken legs or strokes or heart attacks. And even with communicable illnesses, there are lots of ways to visit the sick without getting what they have what with hand sanitizers, soap and water and such like. But we still have an aversion to visiting the sick unless it is somebody pretty close to us, like our kid with the measles. That’s because bodily infirmity or any kind is a reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return. So we tend to want to warehouse and put from our minds the ill and infirm. Nonetheless, Jesus confers a blessing on those who visit the sick and opportunities to do this work of mercy abound. You can, for instance, volunteer at a hospice, or become an extraordinary minister of holy Communion and bring the sacrament to shut-ins. Much of this work of mercy is actually very simple. It consists of giving somebody a little time and attention. You sit and listen and drink tea and chat.
Now and then, it may require more (and that “more” may require calling a nurse or doctor). But mostly visiting the sick is, well, visiting, just as Christ visits us and stays with us in our trials. You don’t just deliver the sacrament; you become the sacrament.
The Hospice Volunteer Association is a diverse, well-trained, and globally unbounded volunteer community with a shared commitment to provide the most compassionate service possible to those who are dying and their bereaved.
Phone toll-free: 866-489-4325
Ronald McDonald Houses provide a “home-away-from-home” for families so they can stay close by their hospitalized child at little or no cost. They are built on the simple idea that nothing else should matter when a family is focused on healing their child — not where they can afford to stay, where they will get their next meal, or where they will lay their heads at night.
Ronald McDonald House Charities
One Kroc Dr.
Oak Brook, IL 60523
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Indeed some might say, ‘you have faith and I have works.’ Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.”
— James 2:14-18
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