Sermon: Introduction to the Seven Works of Corporal Mercy
18th January 2015
Isaiah 58: 6-10; Matthew 25: 31-46
Í say móre: the just man justices; Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces; Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is— Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
Words from Gerald Manley Hopkins’s poem As Kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame: the acceptance of God’s grace, brings grace into our everyday behaviour and actions, allowing a person to be “in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is”— that is, in Christ. It is then that Christ plays in ten thousand places, in our limbs, our eyes and God can be perceived in the faces of others.
Hopkins’s ideas reflect those of Isaiah in our first reading. Actions of justice and kindness, rather than malice and spite, are the true way in which all are called to reflect the divine image.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
This term we are going to explore these ideas further by looking at the seven corporal works of mercy, those practical and down-to-earth acts can reflect God’s grace in the world. The list of the seven works was formed Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century, as they are to be found in his summary of all theology, the Summa Theologicae, but the importance of performing these duties was urged from the earliest days of the Church, in fact, from Christ’s declaration of the two highest commandments:
And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it; You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
Fulfilling the works of mercy fits hand in hand with loving God and our neighbour, for, as St. John of the Cross wrote: “At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.”
Of the virtue of mercy, Aquinas wrote:
“. . .The sum total of the Christian religion consists in mercy, as regards external works: but the inward love of charity, whereby we are united to God preponderates over both love and mercy for our neighbour. . . Charity likens us to God by uniting us to Him in the bond of love: wherefore it surpasses mercy, which likens us to God as regards similarity of works.” (Secunda Secundæ Partis, Question 30)
Thus, the virtue of practising mercy becomes part of the greater command and virtue of love, which is the essence of the divine. Many of the corporal works of mercy are mentioned by Christ in our second reading this evening, from Matthew 25:31-46:
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. . . Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:35-36, 40)
Now I mention that these works are corporal, pertaining to the body and physical needs, thus the seven works of corporal mercy are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to visit the imprisoned, to visit the sick and to bury the dead. This last work is not mentioned in Matthew 25 but several times in the book of Tobit.
The seven works of corporal mercy are complimented by the seven spiritual works of mercy, whose purpose is to relieve spiritual suffering. These are, traditionally, to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to admonish sinners, to comfort the afflicted, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive offences willingly, to pray for the living and the dead. But it is the works of corporal mercy that Christ emphasizes in Matthew 25 and which concern us this term, for they are the concrete actions that bring us closer to the divine nature, to God’s grace and the true purpose of our lives.
Of course this passage from Matthew 25 has caused theological debate throughout history, insisting as it does, that according to our merciful deeds, or lack of them, we shall be judged and sentenced to everlasting heaven or hell. In Catholic theology, this seeming endorsement of justification by works stands against the traditional view that God’s grace is offered to us freely in the sacraments. In Protestant theology, Jesus’s words in Matthew 25 seem to contrast with the Lutheran imperative that we are justified to God by faith alone. Such debates will remain as we struggles to understand that nature of creation and our place within in it, but what can unify theological or religious differences, especially as we begin the week of prayer for Christian Unity, is the fundamental sense that all of us are made by a merciful God, in his image and our purpose to is worship and love that creator, and to exercise love towards each other as we are best able to do. This involves following treating others, especially those with whom we strongly disagree or dislike, as holy, uniquely loved children f God. We are commanded to treat the stranger as Christ by offering what we can to help or comfort, thus showing that God’s grace is at work in this world.
The tragedy, with which we are increasingly living with today, is a perversion of religion and a false portrayal of God as a violent might which must be imposed on others by force.
We hear much about the greatness of God, and in our time, as in many other times throughout history, atrocities are being committed in the name of God of an almighty and powerful God who will judge the world. But murder in the name of God is an aberration and an absurdity and a catastrophic consequence of a distorted notion of the divine. ‘When religion goes wrong, it goes very wrong’, as Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of Baghdad, recently stated as he and his community fled their Church in Iraq because of terrorism. That is why our speaker this term, for the Woodroffe Society dinner in fifth week, is Imam Monwar Hussain, Muslim Chaplain at Eton College and head of the Oxford Foudation, which promotes education of young, challenges extremism, and promotes inter-faith relations. He will be speaking about challenging extremism from an educator’s perspective. In a recent open letter to ‘Islamic State’, Monawar and his colleagues from around the world, concluded with these words:
God has described Himself as the ‘Most Merciful of the merciful’. He created man from His mercy … Reconsider all your actions; desist from them; repent from them; cease harming others and return to the religion of mercy.’
What he, and his moderate friends are calling for, is a humble turning back to the God of mercy and compassion and to the true image divine, and to be touched by the ‘Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love’ of God in each other. I end with words by William Blake:
‘For Mercy has a human heart Pity, a human face: And Love, the human form divine, And Peace, the human dress.’