Mercy has a Physical as well as a Spiritual Aspect
The Gospel reading this weekend is a dialogue between a lawyer and Jesus about how a person can attain eternal life. Jesus does not answer directly, but directs the lawyer to the Law and beckons him to recite the verse. The lawyer well acquainted in those teachings responds, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.“
The lawyer wishing to push the issue further asks Jesus, “then, who is my neighbor?” Jesus again does not answer his question forthwith, but suggests he listen to a parable about a victim of robbery who lay injured in the street. The parable tells us there was a priest going by the injured man and did nothing for fear of being contaminated by the victim’s blood which would result in him becoming impure and excluded from offering sacrifices in the temple. Blood was specifically mentioned in the Law, and if touched, rendered the person impure and consequently prohibited the person from worshiping in the temple, for they would be unclean.
Likewise, a Levite passed by and chose not to aid the injured person either, probably for the same reasons listed above. But then came along a Samaritan, not bound by the Law, who stopped, and moved by compassion, lent aid to the victim of a violent attack. Jesus then asked the lawyer who was the neighbor to the victim? The lawyer answered and said, the one who treated him with mercy. Jesus then said, “Go and do likewise.”
A close reading of the parable reveals the operative word of this parable is “mercy” as the necessary element in defining loving our neighbor as ourself. As Christians we are called to be merciful and compassionate to those who are suffering. The Church has always taught this is necessary and has described the practice as corporal (bodily) works of mercy. They include: feeding the hungry; giving drink to the thirsty; clothing the naked; sheltering the homeless; visiting the sick and imprisoned; ransoming the captive; and, burying the dead.
Presently, much of the implementation of mercy is firmly placed in the camp of corporal mercy in which much of today’s social justice is based. Without question, the bodily needs of those who are less fortunate is an expression of mercy and does answer the question of ‘who is my neighbor?”
But there is more to mercy than just bodily aid because a person is composed of body and soul which indicates he can be in need of spiritual help as dramatic as his bodily need, if not more.
In the wisdom of the Church, she has acknowledged the need for spiritual life and those things which inhibit the its growth. Like the corporal works of mercy, there is a corresponding “spiritual works” of mercy. Those include: instructing the ignorant; correcting sinners; advising the doubtful; showing patience to sinners and those in error; forgiving others; comforting the afflicted; and, praying for the living and the dead.
If you want to attain eternal life, then you must love God “with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And how do we know we are loving our neighbor as ourselves? Simply by being merciful to them, both physically and spiritually.