A Lenten challenge to perform works of mercy
A Reflection for Monday of the First Week of Lent
Find today’s readings here.
Pope Francis is a big proponent of thecorporal andspiritual works of mercy. These acts of service are especially appropriate during Lent, when many people commit to “doing something more” as their spiritual practice. In fact, in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus teaches his disciples that caring for the least is essential to discipleship.
There is a practical truth in today’s Gospel passage. We live in a better world when the poor do not have to steal in order to eat. Many ancient civilizations recognized this.The city of Rome, for example, was especially generous to its poor, providing daily rations of grain, olive oil, salt and even occasionally pork. Many other ancient cultures also took steps to ensure that the poor would receive food, housing and other needs, if only to maintain the social order.
It was ancient Israel that elevated this practical activity to something spiritual. Israelites believed in a God who had an interest in the lives of the poor. Many of Israel’s laws command that people care for the poorest members of society, especially for widows and orphans, whose lives became precarious when the men of their families met untimely deaths. God was especially attentive to their needs and so God’s people needed to be attentive to their needs. “Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy” (Lv 9:2). Evidence from the ancient world suggests that the Jewish people followed these laws carefully; ancient Roman writers noted how rare it was to see a Jewish person begging in the street. Because care for the poor had spiritual value, works of mercy became a form of worship, a way to demonstrate love for God and fidelity to the covenant.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus makes this practice an essential part of his own teaching. He enumerates a list of good deeds that forms the basis of the church’s corporal works of mercy (except for burying the dead, which comes from Tb 1:17). Jesus expected his disciples to care for the poor not just because of the practical value or even because it was a form of worship. Jesus commanded his disciples to perform works of mercy because the poor would embody Jesus after he was gone. It is a startling claim: Those considered the least in human society would somehow mediate the divine presence, but today’s Gospel reading leaves no room for doubt. The hungry, thirsty, outcast, naked, sick and imprisoned are icons of Christ.
If there’s a Lenten challenge in today’s readings, it is perhaps to bring that same awareness to our own works of mercy. Ideally, we do not care for the needs of others merely out of a spirit of benevolence or as a way of demonstrating our fidelity to God. We do so as a way of encountering the divine. When we offer our own mercy to those who need it most, we stand in the presence of God whose own infinite mercy attends to the needs of every creature under heaven.