Part of Jesus’ earthly mission was to fulfill the Law and Salvation History by teaching humanity to love. He fulfils the Covenant by showing us God’s love and by teaching us to love God and neighbor. Jesus’ lessons in love took many forms – direct teaching, parables, and his lived example. The works of mercy are part of Jesus’ message that Catholics are called upon to practice regularly.
November is traditionally the month we pray for our dead, making it a great month to exercise the Spiritual Works of Mercy. Mercy means to love someone in the midst of their suffering. The Corporal Works of Mercy are meant to show God’s love by giving people relief in their physical suffering. Jesus explicitly taught about the Corporal Works of Mercy in His analogy of the sheep and the goats. But the Spiritual Works of Mercy are more ambiguous. They’re taken from the example of Jesus’ life.
Let’s take a look at each of the Spiritual Works of Mercy, how Jesus lived them and how He calls us to live them in imitation of Him.
To instruct the ignorant
Even people who don’t believe Jesus was God acknowledge Him as a great teacher. Jesus’ teachings fulfilled the Old Testament Law. His message was of love. But Jesus is more than a great teacher. He is the very Word of God, come to earth to intimately unite humanity to the Holy Trinity. Jesus is Truth itself. Everything He said and did on earth revealed God to us.
Jesus also calls us – His disciples – to reveal God to others. Through Baptism we are all given a share in Jesus’ mission as prophet. For some of us, that means explicitly teaching the faith in formal settings. But every Christian is called to share their faith with others. That means you need to know your faith first, and be ready to teach by example and by answering questions when they come up. That’s the first Spiritual Work of Mercy.
To counsel the doubtful
Jesus confronted many people with doubts. I’m not talking about the hard-hearted Scribes and Pharisees who refused to listen to Him. I’m talking about those who honestly sought truth but who weren’t quite sure about Jesus. Jesus showed them mercy each and every time. He explained to Nicodemus how to be born again. He showed the woman at the well that He was the one the Samaritans as well as the Jews awaited.
Jesus calls us to show the same mercy to those who have doubts in their faith. We are to patiently invite them to the Father’s love, and to show them God’s love through our very lives.
To admonish sinners
“Judge not lest you be judged.” How many times have we heard that quote from Jesus used to try to convince us not to “force” our morality on others? But consider how Jesus treated the woman caught in adultery. First He says, “Neither do I condemn you.” But then He says, “Now go and sin no more.”
But while Jesus calls us to forgiveness, and calls us not to condemn others for their sins, Jesus still calls us to call sin sin and to correct the sinner. But we need to do it keeping in mind that we’re all sinners and that we admonish sinners for their good, not to satisfy our sense of self-righteousness.
To bear wrongs patiently
Jesus bore wrongs patiently his entire life. Scribes and Pharisees falsely accused Him, tried to trap Him, and basically despised Him from the beginning. His every move was under scrutiny, and someone was always willing to misinterpret His actions. Jesus was also rejected in His home town. And of course all of this mistreatment culminated in Him being falsely condemned, tortured and put to death. Jesus bore all of these wrongs with patience and love. Sometimes returning insult or accusation with a firm, though-provoking response, and sometimes even with condemnation. But his responses were always measured, always aimed at converting the hearts of others.
Jesus calls us to the same patient forbearance. He calls us to love our enemies and to work for their good.
To forgive offences willingly
This spiritual work of mercy goes hand-in-hand with the bearing wrongs patiently. Jesus forgave His enemies, showing the ultimate forgiveness on the Cross when He said, “Father forgive them, they do not know what they do.”
Jesus also teaches us to forgive others seven times seven times. This means we are called to forgive “very perfectly” – as perfectly as humanly possible.
To comfort the afflicted
Jesus’ work of mercy included a lot of healing and easing physical suffering. But Jesus also brought healing to wounded hearts. He forgave sins. He called people to conversion. He pointed out the emptiness in their lives.
Jesus calls us to comfort the afflicted by teaching them the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) – pointing out the emptiness in their hearts and leading them to Jesus for healing. He calls us to reach out to the lonely, the lost, the despondent, and the misguided and lead them to the Truth.
To pray for the living and the dead
Jesus prayed for those He loved. His most notable prayer, found in John 17, was to ask the Father to keep His followers in the Covenant and to keep them unified. Jesus also prayed for Lazarus, and raised Lazarus and others from the dead.
Most of us won’t be called to raise anyone from the dead, but we are called to pray for those who have died. Jesus raised people from the dead for specific reasons, but His main concern is always the eternal state of their souls over their earthly well-being. So we are called to pray for the souls in Purgatory, who are being purified in preparation for Heaven. We are also called to pray for each other in this world so we can participate in God’s love for others. But most of all, praying for the living and the dead answers Jesus’ prayer for unity. The entire family of the Church – on earth, in Purgatory and in Heaven, constantly support and love each other in our prayers for each other.
The Spiritual Works of Mercy are not as concrete or as obvious as the Corporal Works of Mercy. But they are just as important. Jesus calls His disciples to love, and especially to love others in their suffering. This November, remember the souls in Purgatory and imitate Jesus’ love by exercising the Spiritual Works of Mercy.
Jeff Arrowood is the Natural Family Planning Educator for the Diocese of LaCrosse.
You can contact Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org