All people have been created by God in His image and likeness and if we truly believe this, we have the obligation to treat everyone with dignity. While doing research on the corporal works of mercy, I realized that so many of them have to do with treating others with dignity: the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the imprisoned.
Since most of us have experienced sickness to some degree, it is very easy for us to agree, and even champion for, treating the sick with respect and compassion. However, many have not experienced true poverty, and most have not been homeless or imprisoned, thus it is harder for us to put ourselves “in their shoes.” Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel (25:31-46) has made it abundantly clear that how we treat people will be the measure by which we are judged.
I find it fascinating that giving food and drink are two separate commands. One would think that if I give food to the hungry, I will also be offering them something to drink. Yet each is a separate action. While these are two of the corporal works of mercy, perhaps some of the meanings transcend the literal meaning. What does a person thirst for besides water? Perhaps knowledge, justice, purpose, or God, and many of these alternate thirsts can be quenched within the spiritual works of mercy.
In the version of the Bible I was using, one of the commands is to “welcome the stranger” but in lists I found online, this was often translated as shelter the homeless. Welcoming the stranger sounds much easier to do; even a shy person can gather enough courage to smile and say hello to someone they don’t know. But sheltering the homeless sounds much more intimidating, and much more costly of our time. It may cause us to go outside of our comfort zone. There are as many reasons that people find themselves homeless, and while we may feel secure in our homes, circumstances could turn against us and we could very easily find ourselves with nowhere to go.
Perhaps the most challenging corporal work of mercy is visiting those in prison if we are unfortunate to have a friend or family member who has been incarcerated. However, it can be equated to visiting someone who is ill. And yet, for others visiting a prison is not merely stepping outside of our comfort zone, it’s more like being catapulted into an area that is downright terrifying. Could it be that the choices the prisoners have made thus far have been due to being treated with a lack of dignity and respect? If we were to participate in a prison ministry, could we give God the chance to show us Himself in these fellow human beings?
With Lent coming up in a few short weeks, now is the time to refresh ourselves with the corporal and spiritual works of mercy and see how we can challenge ourselves to give our time and resources to bring dignity to those who are suffering. Let us ask God what He wills for us; His answer may surprise you!