Sunday, May 14, 2023

Mercy in Heart and Soul

As we've been exploring this great human journey that's meant to lead us to seeing God as he is, and so being made like him in ways we can't begin to imagine, we've been talking about steps we can take by God's grace to get further on that journey. Some of those bigger steps are what we called 'spiritual activities,' like spending time with God in pious actions like prayer, Bible reading, and worship in the church. But last Sunday, we had to expand our idea of 'spiritual activities' to include works of mercy. Mercy, all over God's word, is a vitally important quality of God. When God expresses his core identity to Moses, he announces his name as “the LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious” (Exodus 34:6). He's “rich in mercy” (Ephesians 2:4), “the Father of mercies” (2 Corinthians 1:3). And so what does Jesus insist of us? “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). The Good Samaritan was an exemplar of mercy in the Father's image, and so Jesus declared, “You go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). To do like the Good Samaritan is to do works of mercy.

To help us figure out how, we saw last Sunday how the Church by the Middle Ages, building on the words of Jesus in Matthew 25, came up with a list of seven works of mercy – seven ways to obey the command of Jesus, imitate our Father, and therefore advance closer to his heart and so to his face, which is our destination. One of those works was to feed the hungry. Another was to give the thirsty something to drink. A third was to clothe the naked. A fourth was to harbor the harborless – show hospitality, provide shelter. A fifth was to tend to the sick. And it's important today to note, as an aside, that so far, these are all works that must routinely be carried out by parents for their children. A father's role, a mother's role, invariably calls for at least five of these works on a daily basis. A mother of a little child must feed her hungry child, must give her thirsty child something to drink, must provide clothes for her child, must ensure there's a roof over the child's head, must tend her child when he or she is sick. Sadder is when a mother is called upon to do the sixth or seventh works of mercy for her child. For the sixth work of mercy is to set free the captive, or to visit the prisoner. And the seventh work of mercy is to bury the dead. Whether a maternal work or not, these are the seven things we do as acts of mercy for people around us who have need of them – and if we seek, if we look, we'll find the need. Be merciful.

Last Sunday, though, we briefly clarified that this list of seven was the seven corporal works of mercy – and the word 'corporal' means 'bodily.' These are seven works of mercy we do with and for bodies, for the life of the body. It's the body that gets hungry and needs food, it's the body that gets thirsty and needs water, the body that shivers when naked and needs clothes, the body that's in danger without shelter, the body that grows sick and needs tending, the body that lands behind bars and needs liberation or support, the body that dies and requires dignified treatment in death. The Good Samaritan came across a potential enemy in his hour of greatest bodily need, yet went out of his way to ensure that all his bodily needs for maintenance and restoration were met.

But why did Christians have to specify that these were seven 'corporal' works of mercy? Because there's more to us than just our bodies. A lot more, in fact! And so, just as they drew on the Bible to come up with seven corporal works of mercy, by the Middle Ages they'd also put together a biblical list of seven spiritual works of mercy – seven things we do to imitate our Father, not in the service of people's bodies, but in the service of their minds and hearts and souls. These are merciful acts that help our neighbors on the inside, not just the outside.1

Today, as sometimes in other ages, there's a tendency in some parts of the church to privilege corporal works of mercy as the only true sign of Christian ministry to our neighbors. And, of course, it's indispensable. We can't not feed the hungry, help the homeless, and so on. But if our idea of mercy is limited to those corporal works, we're imbalanced as Christians. Because not only is there more to life than the body's needs, but Jesus said some pretty clear things about priorities. He warned against “fearing those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28). Things that endanger just the body – like hunger, thirst, nakedness, homelessness, sickness, imprisonment, death – aren't nearly as dangerous as things that put the soul and mind and heart at risk. Indeed, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world” – to have all your bodily needs met – “and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36). And the answer is, nothing. That would be a losing bargain. Christians have always understood that, as valuable and precious as the life of the body is, the life of the soul is even more important. Which means the spiritual works of mercy are even more important than the corporal ones.

So when these lists of seven spiritual works of mercy started circulating, the first one listed was instructing the ignorant. Just like people's bodies need to be fed with nutritious things, so do people's minds need to be fed with informative things. A starving mind is as big a deficit, in the big picture, as a starving stomach. And in any age, people's minds are starving for knowledge. So it's a work of mercy to feed them knowledge. Any kind of teaching of true things to people is a benefit for their starving minds. What do you know about the world? If you know it, pass it on to those who don't. You can probably see again here how it's part of a parent's job, even a mother's job, to do this for her children – teach them how to read, teach them why the sky's blue, try to answer all those incessant whys that a child's hungry mind churns forth so inevitably. We give of what's been given to us – what we've been taught that's true, we pass along to others, including our children, but not limited to them. That's why the work of teachers and tutors is so important. And there's no limit of truth about the world that can be learned and passed along, especially to those who crave to know and grow.

But the natural world and the social world aren't all there is to tell the truth about. There's also the spiritual one. And that's the most important of all. Better even than knowing why the sky's blue is knowing that the sky was made by a God of wisdom, love, and power. Better even than knowing how to read is knowing how to read the word of the Lord. And so when an Ethiopian court official was riding in his chariot, reading the scroll of Isaiah but admitting he couldn't understand it without guidance, “Philip opened his mouth and, beginning with this scripture, he told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). And even though Apollos “spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus” (Acts 18:25), still “when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). They fleshed out the big picture even more, expanding Apollos' view. Apollos needed advanced teaching; the Ethiopian official needed basics of the gospel – but both needed spiritual knowledge, and Priscilla and Philip did works of mercy in supplying it.

Ideally, mothers will do the same. Timothy, described in Acts as “the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek” (Acts 16:1), inherited his sincere faith from his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice (2 Timothy 1:5), and so “from childhood” they made him “acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). And in the fourth century, one of the great Christian heroes we mentioned last Sunday, Basil – an incredible theologian and teacher as well – credited much of that to his grandma Macrina, a disciple of one of the great Christian heroes of her own time, Gregory the Wonder-Worker. Macrina “molded and formed us, while still young, in the doctrines of piety,” Basil said.2 She was little Basil's evangelist, just as Lois and Eunice were to little Timothy.

And evangelism – teaching people the good news about Jesus, as Philip did – is maybe the most central way to carry out this first spiritual work of mercy. Instinctively, we should recognize that – that sharing the gospel with someone is so vital. I'm not sure we usually think of it under the umbrella of mercy, but it is. It is a merciful thing, just like feeding the hungry, to evangelize those who need to know about Jesus. And just as that foundational teaching about Jesus is a work of mercy to give, so is teaching the Bible, teaching theology, teaching the riches of the church, as Priscilla did for Apollos, as Macrina did for Basil, and as Paul did for Timothy and for so many others. But to whatever degree we're equipped, we're all called to this work of mercy.

A second spiritual work of mercy we can do is called 'counseling the doubtful.' And one general way to do it is by giving people practical advice when they need it. Sometimes, people have doubts about God's love, or about their own worth or importance or ability to thrive or just to survive. Reassure them. Sometimes, people aren't sure what course they should take. Should I apply for this new job? Is this person right for me? Am I living well? People have questions like that, all the time. And they're doubtful about which direction to go. If they're open to it, and especially if they ask for it, you can counsel them. To do so, and so to help alleviate that paralysis of indecision and doubt, is a work of mercy. Just so is it a work of mercy to encourage someone to persevere when they need to press on. That goes double for when it's persevering in Christ. Sometimes Paul's tours were evangelistic, but sometimes he did tours for “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith” (Acts 14:22). Paul tells us to “encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11), to “encourage the fainthearted” and “help the weak” (1 Thessalonians 5:14).

A third spiritual work of mercy is comforting the sorrowful. This one shouldn't be tough to understand, because we all know what it's like to grieve and be in need of comfort and consolation – to be accompanied in our inner suffering of heart. Maybe we didn't need words, or maybe there were no words that could help, but we needed a listening ear or a silent companion whose very presence reminds us that we aren't alone, that we're loved, that we'll get through this. A mother often needs to comfort her sorrowing children, because even though their hurts may not always make sense to an adult perspective, they're still very real and very painful on a child's scale set by a brain yet in formation. And we often need to comfort and console each other through difficult times – a frightening dread, a difficult diagnosis, a wounding loss, a grievous pain. Paul says that God “comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 13:4). Seven verses later, he turns it into a commandment: “Comfort one another” (2 Corinthians 13:11). To comfort those who are hurting, grieving, sorrowing, scared – the moment we even think about it, we know it's a work of mercy, and an important one. Be a giver of comfort.

The next spiritual work of mercy, though, might catch us off guard, because it doesn't feel like it fits in so well with these first three I've described. Because it's also a work of mercy to admonish the sinful. This one can get tricky and complicated, especially in a culture where 'judge not' is so deeply woven into our reflexes. But let's think about this. If someone is sinning, is that sin good for them? Obviously not. Because our ultimate good is God himself. Any sin a person commits, whether they're a Christian or not, is a hindrance on their great human journey, even if they haven't really started that journey yet, because it will tend to entrench bad habits that can persist as obstacles even when they do get evangelized and baptized and sent forth to seek the face of God. And if a person is a Christian, sin is still a hindrance. It doesn't just bounce off of us. It can shipwreck us, derail us, send us on a detour, or at least trip us up and slow us way down. It is not good for someone to sin.

From that, it follows that it is good for someone to not sin, for someone to avoid sin or turn back in repentance from sin. And helping someone to get what is good for them isn't a bad definition for a work of mercy. Helping a sick body get better by tending to them is a work of mercy; so is helping a sick soul. Jesus frequently rebuked his disciples when they needed it (Luke 9:55). He tells them, too: “If your brother sins, rebuke him” (Luke 17:3). Paul directs Timothy, in Timothy's capacity as a pastor, to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort” (2 Timothy 4:2), and, even more strongly: “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Timothy 5:20). But it's to all of us that James is speaking when he says, “If anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).

Now, obviously this can be done the wrong way. You don't improve the health of a sick body by running up and shouting a list of prescriptions at them. If there's one thing the years of pandemic reminded us, it's how little people like to be condescended to about their healthcare. Indeed, even the gentlest approach on the street – “hello ma'am, I noticed you seem to have a nasty cough, have you considered this brand of cough syrup?” – is bound to come across as alienating, awkward, and probably won't actually improve that person's health. The same is true when it comes to ambushing people about their sins. Proverbs warns, “Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you” (Proverbs 9:8). All this to say, be careful. Don't be condescending or self-righteous, angry or judgmental. Be sensitive to whether it's the right time, place, and person. But, gently and lovingly, it remains a work of mercy to admonish people against their sins. And you never know! As Paul writes, “God may perhaps grant them repentance” so as to “escape from the snare of the devil” (2 Timothy 2:25-26).

A fifth work of mercy may become especially important after doing the fourth, and it's to bear wrongs patiently. Sometimes in life, people won't treat you well. They may be thoughtless toward you, not considering the self-centeredness of the way they behave. They may manipulate you to their own ends. They may be cruel toward you in unkind words and deeds. They may even betray you. Or they may just have some very annoying habits that really get on your nerves. But bearing any of these things patiently and charitably is a work of mercy.

Jesus is our example, as Peter says: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to the One who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). Just the same, Paul urges us to live “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2). James begs us to “not grumble against one another” (James 5:9). Peter reminds us: “This is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly” (1 Peter 2:19). And if that goes for outright persecution, as Peter has in mind, then it goes for these lesser things we have to put up with. Maybe your child doesn't call today, or your mother doesn't make time for you. To bear that patiently is a work of mercy toward her. Jesus bore patiently even the lips of Judas Iscariot and the taunts and beatings from the Roman soldiers. He bears patiently our sins every day. We can learn from him to bear with each other's faults and foibles, however aggravating or hurtful they may be. Such mercy heals our families, our nation, our world.

A sixth spiritual work of mercy is something else Jesus talks about a lot, and it's forgiveness. Forgiveness is to release people from their indebtedness to us, including the debts they incur when they wrong us and treat us in ways that fall short of what we're owed. We all fall short in some way, and some fall short pretty significantly. We know that's true in how we treat our Lord, for “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 8:28). And yet God says through his prophet, “I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me” (Jeremiah 33:8). Jesus assured his disciples that “everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven” (Luke 12:10), and when nailed to the cross, he offered radical forgiveness to those who crucified him (Luke 23:34). Jesus insists we learn from him: “If your brother repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying 'I repent,' you must forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4). “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25). “If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15). Paul is only echoing Jesus when he says, “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive” (Colossians 3:13).

Maybe it's someone you know, who's hurt you in some way. Maybe it's someone who's not even alive anymore – a mother or a father, even. But if someone incurs a debt to you, cutting them loose is an act of mercy. And it's an act of mercy without which your own soul may be on the line. As deep a debt as it may be, the debt of which God forgive us is vastly deeper still (Matthew 18:23-35). Forgiveness is an essential spiritual work of mercy.

Which brings us to the seventh spiritual work of mercy, and this one, too, should make obvious sense. The last spiritual work of mercy is to pray for people. Jesus prayed for his disciples (John 17:9), and especially for Peter (Luke 22:32). Paul prayed for his churches (Ephesians 1:16), and repeatedly asked them to pray for him, too (Ephesians 6:19). He urged Timothy that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people” (1 Timothy 2:1). And Jesus highlighted especially praying for your abusers and persecutors (Luke 6:28; Matthew 5:44). In the fourth century, there was a woman named Monica, who lived in northern Africa, and she had a son who'd fallen far away from his faith at school in the big city, and who lived in unholy and self-indulgent living with his mistress, all while presenting himself as a great philosopher. For years – decades – St. Monica interceded with God for her son with desperate tears, and even followed him from place to place in secret. She prayed for her son day after day, night after night. And finally, God poured all those collected tears and prayers straight onto her son's heart, and his eyes were opened. And not only was he saved, but he became one of the most important Christian leaders of all time: St. Augustine. A mother's prayers did that. That was the special work of mercy that made St. Monica so great.3 And when we pray for people, it's our work of mercy too.

Instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting the sorrowful, admonishing the sinful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving offenses, and interceding for people in prayer – those are the seven spiritual works of mercy, the ways we can be merciful to people's souls and not just their bodies. Cleanse yourself from your own ignorance and doubt, from your own sin and unforgiveness, and you'll be, as Paul said, “a vessel for [God's] honorable use..., ready for every good work,” including these spiritual works of mercy (2 Timothy 2:21). And I hope and pray that you will be ready – ready to evangelize and counsel, ready to comfort and admonish, ready for patience and forgiveness, ready to intercede in prayer. Because these things, like the corporal works, may sound so basic and so simple at times, but they're the stuff that real glory can be built from. So go and do likewise, today and every day, as Jesus does, as God your Father does (Luke 10:37). Amen.

1  Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II, q.32, a.1, obj.1 (thirteenth century).

2  Basil of Caesarea, Letter 204 (fourth century), in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 28:76.

3  See Augustine of Hippo, Confessions 1.11 §17; 3.11-12 §§19-21; 5.8 §15; 6.1 §1; 8.12 §30 (fourth century).

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