Having sat between the denominational worlds for so long, I tend to ask very uncomfortable questions that Catholic priests don’t like to hear (hence why it’s one of my former denominational pews). My very favorite has always been:
If you can’t use Tradition as an explanation because it’s not acceptable and considered as hearsay, how do you from the shared Scriptures alone justify your teaching? (yeah, I was not very popular at all)
Since I never received satisfactory answers, I always had to study Scripture on my own and ask hard questions of all the Protestant pastors in my friend network (yeah, I could be ornery). But with the advent of the Internet and Google-like searches, I’ve gotten more independent.
I thought in this piece and the next I would take Catholic works of mercy and see if using just the Protestant canon, I could prove them in alignment with Scripture, thus providing a common bonding ground for me and my family members who are still in the Catholic denominational pew.
There are two kinds: corporal and spiritual. Because I’ve found you can’t reach someone on an emotional and spiritual level until their physical needs for shelter, food, and water are met, I thought I’d start with the corporal works of mercy.
According to the website by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, corporal works of mercy actually are directly advised by Jesus’ teachings. They teach us how to treat others as though Jesus is incognito in them.
They are the following:
- Feed the hungry
- Give the thirsty a drink
- Shelter the homeless
- Visit the sick
- Visit the prisoners
- Bury the dead
- Give alms to the poor
Since the Bishops claim these are embodied in Jesus’ teachings, I will initially limit my study strictly to the Gospels.
I contend that the first five are directly cited by Jesus in His teaching on His return and the final judgment in Matthew 25:31-46. Those who are granted entry into Heaven complete these works almost without thinking. Of particular focus are verses 34 through 40:
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take your inheritance, the Kingdom prepared for you from the founding of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you made me your guest, I needed clothes and you provided them, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the people who have done what God wants will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you our guest, or needing clothes and provide them? When did we see you sick or in prison, and visit you?’ The King will say to them, ‘Yes! I tell you that whenever you did these things for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did them for me!’ (Complete Jewish Bible)
That leaves giving alms and burying the dead.
I started with giving alms because I thought that would be a no-brainer. However, in the versions I typically use to study, it wasn’t so easy. I had to arrive at it in a circuitous thought pattern.
At the end of John 13, we have the scene of the Last Supper. Jesus has told Judas to do quickly what he must. The disciples were confused, but in verse 29 we see how they interpreted Jesus’ statement to Judas:
Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the festival, or to give something to the poor. (New International Version)
The fact that the disciples thought one of the things Jesus told Judas was to give something to the poor indicates that Jesus might have done this quite often. No one, despite the confusion, argued or stopped Judas.
If the King James Version is reviewed, Matthew 6:1-4 discusses not only giving alms but how to give alms in a proper way that is pleasing to God. Other versions, including Douay-Rheims, Complete Jewish Bible, and New International Bible, do discuss giving to the poor or needy, but alms are not directly mentioned.
That leaves burying the dead. This one is hard. The only places where the Scriptures seem to mention burying the dead as discussed by Jesus (excluding Jesus’ own burial post-crucifixion) are in Matthew 8:21-23 and Luke 9:57-62. These seem to be parallel passages. Jesus does not appear to be commanding his followers to bury the dead; it seems almost like He wants instant obedience and discipleship, that is “Drop it now and run after Me.”
That said, many commentaries suggest that Jesus was looking at a follower with a very high call and vast potential in his life. Jesus was challenging that follower to stop coasting and doing the minimal to get by, buried in the simpler activities of life, and step up to a deeper level of service and discipleship.
However, we can see that burying the dead was important to the Patriarchs of Judaism, whom Jesus would have studied and followed devoutly as He is Jewish. Burial was important to Abraham in Genesis 23. Sarah has died. While Abraham mourns, he also desires proper burial for his wife’s remains. So he requests land from his neighbors for the ancient Jewish equivalent of a cemetery. He pays for the land, and Sarah is buried in a cave on that land.
So, while I could only prove six of the seven works of mercy from Jesus’ own words, the seventh came from Scripture in the Torah that Jesus probably would have quoted from memory since childhood.
Interdenominational families can and should work together in performing corporal works of mercy to show unity in Christ and solidarity of purpose even if we can’t yet truly worship together fully.