J.F. Keenan – The evolution of the Works of Mercy

« The evolution of the Works of Mercy »

by James F. Keenan

Index – Verzeichnis – Indice – Índice – 指數


The works of mercy throughout Christian tradition have almost always been expressed as communal practices for responding to evident contemporary needs.  In practicing mercy, Christians have understood themselves as acting in “the greatest way” to imitate God and Christ.[1]

Significantly, Christians have striven, to be imitators of Christ not primarily as individuals, but more importantly, as a people.  Understanding themselves as saved by mercy, they have sought as a community of faith to be disciples of Christ who practiced mercy with and for others.  The bridge between one’s identity in the church and with Christ was completely built on mercy.  Not surprisingly, through mercy, Christians have brought many others into the church.

1. A Pattern of Recognizing and Responding to Chaos

Mercy, as I define it, is the willingness to enter into the chaos of another.[2]  Because God is merciful, God enters into our chaos.  This divine responsive entrance into another’s chaos becomes a pattern that extends to Christianity precisely as an imitatio Dei.

The pattern is proposed most clearly in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), wherein Jesus answers the scribe’s question, “And who is my neighbor?” The parable is an odd one because its end is, unless we are not attentive, a reversal of the beginning.  The parable is answering the question, “who is my neighbor?” and so, as the story begins, we quickly begin to think that the neighbor is the wounded man on the road.  But by the end, the scribe, when asked again the original question, responds that the neighbor is the one who shows mercy.  

Jesus’s parable teaches us not to look for a neighbor to love, but rather to be a neighbor who loves.  We give that answer because when hearing the story, we see that the center of the story is not the man on the road, but rather the Samaritan.  We make the shift to the Samaritan because in hearing the story, we find it incredible how merciful he is.

This surprising shift to the agent of mercy has always made an enormous impact on hearers of the parable.  Throughout the tradition many preachers and theologians saw in the story of the Good Samaritan the narrative (in miniature) of our redemption by Christ.  Starting with Clement of Alexandria (ca.  150-ca. 215), then Origen (ca.  184- ca.254), Ambrose (339-390) and finally, Augustine (354-430), the Good Samaritan parable is the narrative of our merciful redemption.  Later from Venerable Bede (673–735) to Martin Luther (1483-1546), preachers and theologians appropriate and modify the narrative, but in each instance, the narrative is first and foremost the Gospel in miniature, a story of what Christ has accomplished for us, so that we, in turn, can go and do likewise.  It is much more than a story of moral instruction.[3]

The basic allegorical expression of the parable is this: the man who lies on the road is the exiled Adam, wounded (by sin), suffering outside the gates of Eden.  The priest and the Levite (the law and the prophets), pass him by because they are unable to rescue Adam.  Along comes the Good Samaritan (Christ), a foreigner, one not from here, who tends to Adam’s wounds (our salvation), takes him to the inn (the church), gives a down payment of two denarii (the two commandments of love), and promises to return for him (the second coming), when he will pay in full (our redemption) and take him with him into his Kingdom (the eschaton).

This interpretation of the parable highlights that the summons to “go and do likewise” is based on a narrative of Jesus’ redemptive work and then a call to imitation; the parable reveals the mercy of Jesus that makes possible our mercy.  In a manner of speaking the parable is at once the kerygma and the mandate for mercy.

The parable is then not one among many.  As William Spohn notes, it has a privileged position in the Gospels and a privileged position in the church that hears the Gospel proclaimed.[4] This privileging of the Good Samaritan is at once a privileging of mercy.  In Matthew the privileging is established in the Judgment of the King in Matthew 25.  

2. Mercy Defines the Early Church

Matthew 25 gives to the church the roster of mercy: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead.   While the first six are in Matthew 25, the seventh adds an early church practice, by which Christians buried not only their own members but others as well.  Thus the church created an easy pedagogical tool that could parallel other major practices concerning the Christian life, like the seven spiritual works of mercy, the seven deadly sins, the seven virtues and the seven sacraments.

The pattern originates with Christ: we respond to the sick, because Christ did.  This roster recurs throughout the Synoptic Gospels. For instance, all three synoptic Gospels agree that healing the sick was Jesus’ first miracle.  They highlight that the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry was marked by many healings (Mark 1:32-33; Matthew 4:23; Luke 4:40-41).  Not surprisingly, the synoptic Gospels recount how Christ trained his disciples by sending them out to preach and to heal (Mark 6:7; Matthew 10:1; Luke 9:2).  Similarly, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth is the first expression of Mary’s own discipleship: she promptly responds to the Annunciation (Luke 1: 26-38) by attending to her cousin in need (Luke 1: 39-56).

In the early church, attending to the sick is a fairly common Christian practice. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, leads his congregation to respond to victims of the plague in 252.  Bishop Dionysius provides a narrative of his community’s response to the plague in Alexandria in 259.  “Most of our brethren, in their surpassing charity and brotherly love did not spare themselves and clinging to one another fearlessly visited the sick and ministered to them.  Many, after having nursed and consoled the sick, contracted the illness and cheerfully departed this life.  The best of our brethren died in this way, some priests and deacons, and some of the laity” (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl.  7.22.9).

[1] Thomas Aquinas asks the question whether mercy is the greatest virtue (Summa Theologiae II.II.30.4) and responds that charity is the greatest virtue because by it we are united in love to God; second to charity alone, mercy is the greatest because by it we exemplify God in God’s actions and, therefore, we become like God.  Charity, in effect, makes it possible for us to be merciful.  

[2] James F.  Keenan, The Works of Mercy: The Heart of Catholicism  (Lanham, Md.: Sheed and Ward, 2007).

[3] See for instance, Augustine, Quaestiones Evangeliorum, 2.19; Bede, Lucae Evangelium Expositio, III (PL 92, 467-470).  See also Robert Stein, An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981) 42-52.

[4] William Spohn, Go and Do Likewise: Jesus and Ethics (New York: Continuum Press, 1999).

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