Works of mercy

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Caritas, The Seven Acts of Mercy, pen and ink drawing by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559. Anticlockwise from lower right: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, free the imprisoned, bury the dead, shelter the stranger, comfort the sick, and clothe the naked

Works of mercy (sometimes known as acts of mercy) are practices which Christians perform.

The practice is common in the Catholic Church as an act of both penance and charity. In addition, the Methodist church teaches that the works of mercy are a means of grace which lead to holiness[1] and aid in sanctification.[2]

The works of mercy have been traditionally divided into two categories, each with seven elements:[3]

  1. "Corporal works of mercy" which concern the material needs of others.
  2. "Spiritual works of mercy" which concern the spiritual needs of others.

Pope John Paul II issued a papal encyclical "Dives in misericordia" on 30 November 1980 declaring that "Jesus Christ taught that man not only receives and experiences the mercy of God, but that he is also called "to practice mercy" towards others.[4] Another notable devotion associated with the works of mercy is the Divine Mercy, which are reputed to be apparitions of Jesus Christ to Saint Faustina Kowalska.

In the Catholic Church[edit]

Based on Jesus' doctrine of the sheep and the goats, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are a means of grace as good deeds[5] and their omission is a reason for damnation.[6] Because the Messianic Age will be a time of mercy,[7] and because the church believes this age began at Jesus' coming[8] and believes Jesus obeyed every mitzvah and fulfilled the Scriptures,[9] Catholics perform the works of mercy.[10]

In particular cases, a given individual will not be obligated or even competent to perform four of the spiritual works of mercy, namely: instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, admonishing sinners, and comforting the afflicted. These works may require a definitely superior level of authority or knowledge or an extraordinary amount of tact. The other works of mercy, however, are considered to be an obligation of all faithful to practise unconditionally.[11] In an address on the 2016 World Day of Prayer for Creation, Pope Francis suggested "care for creation" as a new work of mercy. Corporally, it means simple daily gestures of peace and love; spiritually, it means contemplation of the world.[12]

Corporal Works of Mercy[edit]

The Works of Mercy, by the Master of Alkmaar made for the Church of Saint Lawrence in Alkmaar, Netherlands. The wooden panels show the works of mercy in this order: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, bury the dead, shelter the traveler, comfort the sick, and free the imprisoned. Circa 1504.
Frans II Francken: The Seven Works of Mercy, 1605, German Historical Museum Berlin
Works of Mercy by Pierre Montallier, 1680

Corporal works of mercy are those that tend to the bodily needs of other creatures. They come from Isaiah 58[13] and the mitzvah of hospitality.[14] The seventh work of mercy comes from the Book of Tobit[15] and from the mitzvah of burial,[16] although it was not added to the list until the Middle Ages.[17]

The works include:[18]

  1. To feed the hungry.
  2. To give drink to the thirsty.
  3. To clothe the naked.
  4. To welcome the stranger. (Previously referred to as "harbor the harborless" and "shelter the homeless")
  5. To visit the sick.
  6. To visit the imprisoned. (Previously referred to as "ransom the captive")
  7. To bury the dead.

Spiritual Works of Mercy[edit]

Just as the corporal works of mercy are directed towards relieving corporeal suffering, the aim of the spiritual works of mercy is to relieve spiritual suffering. The first four come from Ezekiel 33,[19] the fifth comes from the mitzvah of forgiving others before receiving forgiveness from God,[20] the sixth comes from Deuteronomy 15,[21] and the seventh comes from Maccabees 2.[22]

The works include:[18]

  1. To instruct the ignorant.
  2. To counsel the doubtful.
  3. To admonish sinners.
  4. To bear patiently those who wrong us.
  5. To forgive offenses.
  6. To console the afflicted.
  7. To pray for the living and the dead.

In Methodism[edit]

In Methodist teaching, doing merciful acts is a prudential means of grace.[23] Along with works of piety, they are necessary for the believer to move on to Christian perfection.[24] In this sense, the Methodist concern for people at the margins is closely related to its worship.[25] As such, these beliefs have helped create the emphasis of the social gospel in the Methodist Church.[26]

Works of Mercy
  1. Doing Good[23]
  2. Visiting the Sick and Prisoners[23]
  3. Feeding and Clothing People[23]
  4. Earning, Saving, Giving All One Can[23]
  5. Opposition to Slavery[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ John Stephen Bowden. Encyclopedia of Christianity. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 5 July 2011. Works of mercy are, therefore, not merely good deeds but also channels through which Christians receive God's grace. 
  2. ^ John Wesley. The Works of the Reverend John Wesley, A.M., Volume VI. J. Emory & B. Waugh; J. Collord, New York. p. 46. Retrieved 5 July 2011. Why, that both repentance, rightly understood, and the practice of all good works, — works of piety, as well as works of mercy, (now properly so called, since they spring from faith,) are, in some sense, necessary to sanctification. 
  3. ^ R Mauriello, Matthew (2011). Mercies Remembered. pp. 149–160. ISBN 9781612150055. 
  4. ^ Pope John Paul II, Dives in misericordia, §14, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, November 30, 1980
  5. ^ "CCC, 2447". 
  6. ^ Matthew 25:31-46
  7. ^ Isaiah 11:6-9
  8. ^ "CCC, 1287". 
  9. ^ 2 Philippians 2:8; Matthew 5:17
  10. ^ "CCC, 520". 
  11. ^ Catholic encyclopedia: Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy
  12. ^ Pope Francis: Message on 2016 World Day of Prayer for Creation As a spiritual work of mercy, care for our common home calls for a “grateful contemplation of God’s world” (Laudato Si, 214) which “allows us to discover in each thing a teaching which God wishes to hand on to us” (ibid., 85). As a corporal work of mercy, care for our common home requires “simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness” and “makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world”
  13. ^ Isaiah 58
  14. ^ Jewish Library: Hospitality in Judaism In Judaism, showing hospitality (hakhnasat orchim) to guests is considered a mitzvah. When one knows of strangers who are hungry or need a place to relax, it becomes a legal obligation. Some rabbis consider hakhnasat orchim (literally the “bringing in of strangers”) to be a part of gemilut hasadim (giving of loving kindness).
  15. ^ Tobit 1:16-22 16In the days of Shalmaneser I had performed many charitable deeds for my kindred, members of my people. 17h I would give my bread to the hungry and clothing to the naked. If I saw one of my people who had died and been thrown behind the wall of Nineveh, I used to bury him.* 18Sennacherib returned from Judea, having fled during the days of the judgment enacted against him by the King of Heaven because of the blasphemies he had uttered; whomever he killed I buried. For in his rage he killed many Israelites, but I used to take their bodies away by stealth and bury them. So when Sennacherib looked for them, he could not find them. 19But a certain Ninevite went and informed the king about me, that I was burying them, and I went into hiding. When I realized that the king knew about me and that I was being hunted to be put to death, I became afraid and took flight. 20All my property was confiscated; I was left with nothing. All that I had was taken to the king’s palace, except for my wife Anna and my son Tobiah.* 21But forty days did not pass before two of the king’s sons assassinated him and fled to the mountains of Ararat. A son of his, Esarhaddon,* succeeded him as king. He put Ahiqar, my kinsman Anael’s son, in charge of all the credit accounts of his kingdom, and he took control over the entire administration.i 22Then Ahiqar interceded on my behalf, and I returned to Nineveh. Ahiqar had been chief cupbearer, keeper of the signet ring, treasury accountant, and credit accountant under Sennacherib, king of the Assyrians; and Esarhaddon appointed him as Second to himself. He was, in fact, my nephew, of my father’s house, and of my own family.
  16. ^ Chabad: The taharah, funeral and burial Jewish law is unequivocal in its insistence that the body, in its entirety, be returned to the earth, in a way that allows for the natural process of its decomposition and re-integration with its primordial source--the soil of which it was formed. It also insists that in the interim between death and interment, the integrity and dignity of the body be respected and preserved.
  17. ^ News.Va: New work of mercy Since biblical times, Christians have been called to carry out 6 acts of mercy, listed in St Matthew’s Gospel – giving food and drink to the hungry and thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoners – with a 7th one, burying the dead, added in medieval times.
  18. ^ a b Catechism of the Catholic Church par. 2447 The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead..
  19. ^ Ezekiel 33:7-9 7Now as for you, son of man, I have appointed you a watchman for the house of Israel; so you will hear a message from My mouth and give them warning from Me. 8“When I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you will surely die,’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require from your hand. 9“But if you on your part warn a wicked man to turn from his way and he does not turn from his way, he will die in his iniquity, but you have delivered your life.
  20. ^ Jewish Virtual Library: Forgiveness The rabbis go even further in the ethical demands made upon the injured party, for not only must he be ready to forgive his injurer, he should also pray that God forgive the sinner before he has come to beg forgiveness (Yad, loc. cit.; Tosef., BK 9:29; Sefer Ḥasidim ed. by R. Margalioth 1957, 267 no. 360). This demand is based on the example of Abraham, who prayed to God to forgive Abimelech (Gen. 20:17). The reasons the injured party should be ready to forgive the injurer are mixed. On the one hand is the self-regarding consideration, already mentioned, that forgiveness to one's fellow wins forgiveness from Heaven. As Philo states: "If you ask pardon for your sins, do you also forgive those who have trespassed against you? For remission is granted for remission" (ed. by Mangey, 2 (1742), 670; see also Yoma 23a). On the other hand there is the purer motive of imitatio dei. Just as it is in the nature of God to be merciful to His creatures, so man in attempting to imitate the ways of God should be forgiving toward those who have injured him (Shab. 133b; see Lev. 19:2). R. Naḥman combines both motives when he says: "Imitate God by being compassionate and forgiving. He will in turn have compassion on you, and pardon your offenses" (op. cit. 81–91).
  21. ^ Deuteronomy 15:11 For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’
  22. ^ 2 Maccabees 12:42 Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen
  23. ^ a b c d e f "Mission: The Works of Mercy". The United Methodist Church. Archived from the original on 9 December 2000. Retrieved 5 July 2011. John Wesley believed that "means of grace," include both "works of piety" (instituted means of grace) and "works of mercy" (prudential means of grace). He preached that Christians must do both works of piety and works of mercy in order to move on toward Christian perfection. 
  24. ^ "Mission: The Works of Mercy". The United Methodist Church. Retrieved 5 July 2011. Christian Perfection is "holiness of heart and life." It is "walking the talk." John Wesley expected Methodists to do not only "works of piety" but "works of mercy"--both of these fused together put a Christian on the path to perfection in love. 
  25. ^ John Stephen Bowden. Encyclopedia of Christianity. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 5 July 2011. In this sense, Methodist concern for people at the margins is closely related to its worship. 
  26. ^ Edward Craig. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Questions to sociobiology. Taylor & Francis. Retrieved 5 July 2011. He clearly thought that there is an experience of sanctification in which there is a total death to sin and a complete renewal of the image of God. His various qualifications concerning the nature of perfection did not, however, weaken the Methodist stress that one must press on towards perfection in this life. Much of the social activism of Methodism sprang from this stress. 

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