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 (Mercies Remembered by Matthew R Mauriello 2011 ISBN 1-61215-005-5 page 149-160):

  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.[3] 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[4] and their omission is a reason for damnation.[5] Because the Messianic Age will be a time of mercy,[6] and because the church believes this age began at Jesus' coming[7] and believes Jesus obeyed every mitzvah and fulfilled the Scriptures,[8][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] 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]

Eight corporal works[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.
  8. To care for our common home.[19][20]

Eight spiritual works[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,[21] the fifth comes from the mitzvah of forgiving others before receiving forgiveness from God,[22] the sixth comes from Deuteronomy 15,[23] and the seventh comes from Maccabees 2.[24]

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.
  8. To care for our common home.[25][26]

In Methodism[edit]

In Methodist teaching, doing merciful acts is a prudential means of grace.[27] Along with works of piety, they are necessary for the believer to move on to Christian perfection.[28] In this sense, the Methodist concern for people at the margins is closely related to its worship.[29] As such, these beliefs have helped create the emphasis of the social gospel in the Methodist Church.[30]

Works of Mercy
  1. Doing Good[27]
  2. Visiting the Sick and Prisoners[27]
  3. Feeding and Clothing People[27]
  4. Earning, Saving, Giving All One Can[27]
  5. Opposition to Slavery[27]

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. ^ Pope John Paul II, Dives in misericordia, §14, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, November 30, 1980
  4. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church 2447 The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities.242 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. Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God...
  5. ^ Matthew 25:31-46 31When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, He will sit on His glorious throne. 32All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate the people one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will place the sheep on His right and the goats on His left. 34Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you took Me in, 36I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you looked after Me, I was in prison and you visited Me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You something to drink? 38When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and cloth You? 39When did we see You sick or in prison and visit You?’ 40And the King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.’ 41Then He will say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave Me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, I was naked and you did not clothe Me, I was sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’ 44And they too will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ 45Then the King will answer, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me.’ 46And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
  6. ^ Isaiah 11:6-9 Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat; The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.f 7The cow and the bear shall graze, together their young shall lie down; the lion shall eat hay like the ox.g 8The baby shall play by the viper’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair. 9They shall not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD, as water covers the sea.
  7. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church 1287 This fullness of the Spirit was not to remain uniquely the Messiah's, but was to be communicated to the whole messianic people.94 On several occasions Christ promised this outpouring of the Spirit,95 a promise which he fulfilled first on Easter Sunday and then more strikingly at Pentecost.96 Filled with the Holy Spirit the apostles began to proclaim "the mighty works of God," and Peter declared this outpouring of the Spirit to be the sign of the messianic age.97 Those who believed in the apostolic preaching and were baptized received the gift of the Holy Spirit in their turn.
  8. ^ Philippians 2:8 He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.
  9. ^ Matthew 5:17 Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.
  10. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church 520 In all of his life Jesus presents himself as our model. He is "the perfect man", who invites us to become his disciples and follow him. In humbling himself, he has given us an example to imitate, through his prayer he draws us to pray, and by his poverty he calls us to accept freely the privation and persecutions that may come our way.
  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” (ibid., 230-31).
  13. ^ Biblehub, Isaiah 58 Is this not the fast which I choose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free And break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
  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 Pope Francis: Message on 2016 World Day of Prayer for Creation [10] The corporal works of mercy are feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned, burying the dead. The spiritual works of mercy are counselling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, admonishing sinners, consoling the afflicted, forgiving offenses, bearing patiently those who do us ill, praying for the living and the dead.
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^ 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.
  22. ^ 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).
  23. ^ 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.’
  24. ^ 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
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^ 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. 
  28. ^ "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. 
  29. ^ 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. 
  30. ^ 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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