Listing the 14 works of mercy is easy; appreciating their breadth takes time. Let’s begin with the corporal works of mercy: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, and bury the dead. Where do these come from? Six derive from the Final Judgment teaching in the Gospel of Matthew: “What you do for the least of these, you do for me.” The seventh work is grounded in traditional Hebrew respect for the body.
Feeding the hungry goes beyond soup kitchens to the level of economic reform. Satisfying thirst includes the politics of water rights and the ecology of preserving seas and rivers. Clothing the naked involves respecting the dignity of the poor as well as surrendering your cast-off attire. Visiting the imprisoned recognizes many kinds of captivity: domestic violence, sexism, racism, educational impoverishment. Sheltering the homeless includes welcoming the marginalized and lobbying for affordable housing. Visiting the sick expands to creating access for the disabled and inviting the infirm elderly into the greater community. Burying the dead can include pardoning those who injured us long ago.
The spiritual works of mercy are next: admonish the sinner, instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, comfort the sorrowful, bear wrongs patiently, forgive all injuries, and pray for the living and the dead. These teachings are gathered from the New Testament and 2 Maccabees in Hebrew scripture. This eclectic list was compiled later than the first to balance the temporal (worldly) and spiritual obligations we owe each other. Saint Augustine of Hippo recorded both lists in 421 C.E.; perhaps he was promoting what was already within Christian tradition.
While Jesus obliges all Christians to practice corporal works of mercy, some of the spiritual works are not binding until we’re spiritually mature enough to undertake them. We can all comfort the sad and must forgive trespasses and pray “unceasingly” for the needs of others, living and deceased. Bearing wrongs patiently takes practice, but we can begin at once to achieve some. But correcting sinners, teaching the ignorant, and counseling the hesitant are best left to those more advanced in Christian virtue and knowledge. Mercy has been called the meeting ground of love and justice. In works of mercy, compassion ascends to the level of service.
• The works of mercy in the Catechism of the Catholic Church
• Works of Mercy by Fritz Eichenberg, edited by Robert Ellsberg (Orbis Books, 2004)
• The Works of Mercy: The Heart of Catholicism, 2nd ed., by James F. Keenan, S.J. (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008)