The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy
As Christians, we know we’re called to serve one another. This, we can understand, is one of the core messages of the Gospel, especially significant in the instructions to love our neighbor as ourselves.
But what does that look like on a practical level? How do busy adults, parents, teachers, administrators, and others serve our neighbor in real, tangible ways? While this question can open up discussion about ethics, politics, and larger societal issues, it can be helpful to step back to a personal level and examine concrete steps we can take as individuals to practice this love in our lives.
The Church, in fact, has guidance on this specifically, namely in the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. These works (14 in total) are a collection of concrete actions that Christians around the world are instructed to practice in their homes, in their communities, and in the world as a whole.
These actions are split into two categories, each dealing with a separate part of the unified human person: the body (corporal) and soul (spiritual). And the foundation for these works is found in Scripture!
Let’s take a look at how the Gospels open up the works of mercy, and how we can practice these instructions ourselves.
Matthew’s Message: The Corporal Works of Mercy
Matthew’s Gospel offers us some direction for how we are to serve others and help transform the world into a more just and peaceful place. For the Corporal Works, let’s take a look at two parables from the Gospel of Matthew and see how they can help us understand our call to serve and treat others with love and compassion in specific, concrete ways.
The Workers in the Vineyard
In Matthew 20:1–16, Jesus tells the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. In the parable, a landowner goes out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. He offers them an acceptable daily wage, and he sends them to work. He goes out four more times that day.
Each time he does so, he hires more workers and promises to pay them a just wage. In the evening, he tells his foreman to gather the workers and pay them.
All the laborers receive the same pay, whether they worked all day or just a few hours.
Naturally, those who worked all day grumble about the laborers who only worked for an hour, yet received the same pay. After all, they did do more work. They spent more time in the vineyard, harvesting, tilling, and working hard.
However, the landowner chastises them for complaining, saying: “My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?” (Matthew 20:13). And it was true. The landowner had offered them a daily wage, and they had agreed.
Does it matter how he chooses to pay the rest of the workers, whether they worked most of the day or just an hour? The landowner explains: “Are you envious because I am generous? Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:15–16).
This parable serves as a lesson for us today. Perhaps you identify with the first-hired workers. If you put in the hard work and effort, you want to be paid or rewarded more than someone who did less work. But Jesus reminds us that it isn’t up to us to judge what a person earns or what they deserve. God is loving and just.
We are called to serve others. Rather than trying to determine who deserves food, shelter, and other basic needs based on how hard they work, perhaps we need to share the bounty of our hard work with others.
If “the last will be first,” how can we serve them? How can we treat them with the love and compassion modeled for us by Christ? Let’s look at another parable in Matthew’s Gospel to answer those questions.
The Sheep and the Goats
The last parable that Jesus shares, right before his Passion begins, is a powerful and thought-provoking story about the Last Judgment. In Matthew 25:31–46, the Son of Man (in other words, Jesus, who is also referred to as “the king” in this story) has come to judge all of humanity, so all the nations are assembled before him.
He divides them into two groups, the way that a shepherd or farmer might divide a group of animals into two flocks. The “sheep” go on his right side, and the “goats” on his left.
The king praises the people on his right side because they cared for him when he was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, ill, and in prison. He condemns the people on his left side for failing to carry out these same actions.
Both groups of people are completely puzzled. They have no memory of ever seeing Jesus in any kind of need. Here’s the parable’s surprise punch line: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
In serving those in need, the “sheep” were, in fact, serving Jesus, even though they had no idea they were doing so. Likewise, in failing to serve those in need, the “goats” have failed to serve Jesus.
The parable affirms a fundamental truth: although Jesus is present in all people, we have a special responsibility to recognize him in people who are poor or suffering.
The Corporal Works of Mercy
The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard is the basis for a traditional Christian teaching: the Corporal Works of Mercy.
The word corporal comes from the Latin word corpus, which means “body.” All of the Corporal Works of Mercy involve responding to people’s physical, bodily needs. Those that are mentioned explicitly in the passage are:
- Feeding the hungry
- Giving drink to the thirsty
- Welcoming the stranger (sometimes phrased as “sheltering the homeless”)
- Clothing the naked
- Visiting the sick
- Visiting the imprisoned
The setting of this parable—the Last Judgment—helps to highlight that the Corporal Works of Mercy are serious business. According to the parable, they are the criteria by which we will be judged.
Therefore, these actions are a necessary component of the Christian life. They are not optional. They are not something that we fit into our schedule if we have extra time or if we’re really bored and have absolutely nothing else to do. Rather, they should be at the top of our list of priorities.
Additional Works of Mercy
Traditionally, one extra Corporal Work of Mercy has been added to the list of those that appear in the parable: “bury the dead.” This addition reflects our call to care for people not only throughout their lives but also when they pass away.
“Bury the dead” does not necessarily mean getting a shovel and literally digging a grave; rather, it directs us to reverence and honor of the memory of all those who have gone before us.
We can do this by attending funerals and memorial services, visiting the graves of our deceased relatives and friends, and expressing our sympathy and support to those who are mourning the loss of a loved one.
On September 1, 2016, the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, Pope Francis proposed expanding the usual list of the Corporal Works of Mercy to include “care for our common home”—that is, care for the Earth, for nature, and for all of creation.
This teaching demonstrates Pope Francis’s deep concern for the environment. It also makes a great deal of sense when considered alongside the other works.
Think about it: Are we supposed to feed the hungry with food grown in contaminated soil? Are we to give the thirsty polluted water to drink? Are we to visit people who are sick from exposure to toxic chemicals without trying to prevent others from becoming similarly ill?
Science tells us that humanity is both connected with and sustained by all other living things. Our faith tells us that we must nurture and protect that connection, because justice for people cannot fully happen without justice for the Earth.
The Spiritual Works of Mercy
In addition to the Corporal Works of Mercy, the Church recognizes seven Spiritual Works of Mercy, works that are performed with a focus on the spiritual needs of the world around us. Like their corporal counterparts, the Spiritual Works of Mercy have been a vital part of Catholic tradition for centuries, giving the faithful guidance on how to act in spiritual matters regarding their neighbors.
The seven Spiritual Works of Mercy are:
- Counseling the doubtful
- Instructing the ignorant
- Admonishing the sinner
- Comforting the sorrowful
- Forgiving injuries
- Bearing wrongs patiently
- Praying for the living and the dead
Just as before, the Spiritual Works of Mercy also encompass fundamental pieces of Christ’s instructions to the faithful throughout the Gospels.
Counsel and instruction follow from Christ’s directive: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
When it comes to forgiving injuries and bearing with wrongs, we have Christ’s words, again in Matthew: “Then Peter approaching asked him, ‘Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.’” (Matthew 18:21-22)
The works of mercy in everyday life
The 14 combined works of mercy, corporal and spiritual, are foundational to the lives of Christians everywhere. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church holds that the works of mercy are a necessary part of the “preferential love” we are instructed to have for the poor and the needy (CCC 2448).
As such, it’s helpful to have examples of ways we can implement these works in our own everyday faith lives, and in the lives of the young people we serve.
Some ways to practice works of mercy:
- Donate money to your parish’s Saint Vincent de Paul Society or a local hunger organization. (feeding the hungry)
- Educate yourself about the lack of clean, drinkable water in many parts of the world—even in the United States. (give drink to the thirsty)
- Go through your closet and donate all your clothes that you have outgrown or don’t wear anymore. Make sure they are clean and in good condition—no rips, missing buttons, or broken zippers. (clothe the naked)
- Go to Confession, and beforehand, make an intentional effort to let go of any grudges you’re holding onto. (forgiving injuries)
- Say a Rosary for someone who has passed away. (pray for the living and the dead)