By Cackie Upchurch
Director of Little Rock Scripture Study
“The Church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love.” In these words of Pope Francis announcing the Year of Mercy, we hear a challenge and an invitation — a challenge to offer testimony with our lives and the invitation to enter into the very heart of God in the process.
Within the biblical tradition, from some of the earliest recorded materials, we find the priority given to that mercy and compassion of which the pope speaks.
The Ten Commandments outlined in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 presume the kind of community where love of God and love of others is expressed in actions, not merely refraining from evil such as murder, adultery and stealing, but honoring the dignity of others and protecting their rights to property, reputation and life.
The covenant code was expanded to include 613 laws found throughout the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch or Torah). At their core is the belief that within the community we have responsibilities to one another, responsibilities that reflect God’s own care for his people.
The command to care for widows and orphans and to welcome the alien is but one example of this merciful love in action (e.g., Deuteronomy 10:17-19; 14:28-29; 24:17; Psalm 146:9).
In fact, when the prophets of Israel later announced God’s judgment and called Israel to repent it was most often because their actions did not reflect the merciful compassion of God that was to be the hallmark of their communities.
Isaiah spoke God’s words when he announced, “Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes … make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow” (1:16-17). Notice that justice takes the form of compassion for the needy.
Similarly, Jeremiah announced the way to reform, “Only if you thoroughly reform your ways and your deeds; if each of you deals justly with your neighbor; if you no longer oppress the alien, the orphan and the widow … only then will I let you continue to dwell in this place” (7:5-7).
The heart of the matter is mercy, also translated as compassion or faithful love. Justice, a different word in Hebrew and in Greek (the languages of the Bible), nonetheless includes the component of mercy. Justice is delivered to those who show no mercy to those most in need.
It should come as no surprise that Jesus, raised in the traditions of Israel and truly the Son of God, painted a vivid picture of final judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). The nations will be separated and judged as a shepherd separates sheep and goats, with the determining factor being how each group has treated the least among them.
Jesus makes the clearest and most profound statement about his presence in our midst when he states, “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” He is stating plainly and profoundly that he can be found in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the homeless, the sick, the imprisoned and those who are dying. Our work as disciples is to feed, give drink, clothe, provide shelter, nurse, accompany and bury. Our work is to be ministers of mercy.
Our credibility as disciples will be evident in what our Church has come to identify as the corporal works of mercy. In Matthew 25 these works of mercy are repeated four times in just 16 verses. Clearly, we are meant to hear them and to take them to heart. But more importantly we are meant to live them.
Living the corporal works of mercy may put us on the front lines of reforming injustices, but it may also be fulfilled in simple acts that become larger ones. Consider this example: feeding the hungry and clothing the naked might lead us to a food pantry or a homeless shelter where we can regularly volunteer and get to know people, but it can also cause us to examine what we waste, to find good partners for our extra coats and boots, to purchase wisely so that we don’t throw away food.
We might purchase food vouchers from area grocery stores or restaurants and keep them in our cars or wallets so that we can give them to those in need right at the time we encounter them.
Pope Francis is right. Our very credibility as Christians is at stake.
Can you think of an instance when you became aware that your life was giving witness to the type of God you believe in and follow? How did this affect your prayer and action?
What obstacles might you identify that prevent you from performing works of mercy? Are these obstacles surmountable? How will you overcome them?
Prayerfully read Matthew 25:31-46. Do you know people in your own life who are hungry, thirsty, without proper clothing, homeless, sick, in prison or dying? How will you reach out to them this week? This month?
Where do you feel that Jesus might be inviting your faith community, your parish, to better minister God’s mercy in your town or neighborhood?
This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic Sept. 17, 2016. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved.