We Pay Debts of Justice by Performing Works of Mercy

“When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.” —Pope St. Gregory the Great

Wilfred Thompson, “Saint Martin and the Beggar,” 1918
Wilfred Thompson, “Saint Martin and the Beggar,” 1918 (photo: Public Domain)

“I am thirsty,” he says to me as I tuck him into bed. “These pants have a hole,” she informs me as she gets dressed. “I need a hug,” another child cries out as she deals with the consequences of her poor behavior.

Addressing these basic necessities of my children has been a part of my life for nearly 12 years, and I realized a few years into parenting how in my service to my family I am fulfilling the call to live out the works of mercy. However, the fact of my own children’s needs being daily met, reminds me that there are many people who do not have these most basic needs met — of food, drink, clothing, health care, and human sympathy and comfort.

In the encyclical Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII wrote about private ownership as the natural right of man. He further discussed how we should use our own possessions, quoting from St. Thomas Aquinas, “Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need” (RV 22). He said it was our duty, “not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity, to give what we have to others,” not of what we reasonably need to support ourselves, but of what we are able.

The corporeal works of mercy — to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to shelter the homeless, to visit the sick, to clothe the naked, to visit the imprisoned, to bury the dead, to give alms to the poor — are at a most basic level meeting what humans deserve in justice. Meeting these needs respects the inherent dignity of the whole human person. But when done in charity, they are works of mercy. Mercy is tied closely to justice, which, despite our faults, shows us how God loves us all.

The tradition of the Church concerning this tie between the works of mercy and justice runs deep. The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes St. John Chrysostom: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs. … The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity” (CCC 248). It goes further to say, “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice” (CCC 248).

Justice is the cardinal virtue by which we give to persons what is due to them. To God, our creator and savior, we owe worship and obedience. To our parents, who co-created us and brought us into this world, we owe honor, respect and obedience. To our spouse, we owe the fulfillment of the vows we made to them. To our children, we owe all of the physical and spiritual care they require until adulthood. To all humans in our common home, we owe it to them to respect their human dignity and to help them as much as we are able.

When Christ came, he looked at the state of the world and had to remind us that meeting these basic needs of others was an essential part of following him and inheriting his kingdom:

“Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matthew 25:34-36)

Why did Christ need to tell us that to be like him we had to be generous, to take the time to meet the basic corporeal needs of others, and of course the spiritual ones as well (to admonish the sinner, to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to comfort the sorrowful, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive all injuries, and to pray for the living and the dead)?

He told us because he saw that we were failing to do all of these most basic things for others, and he knew that we would continue to fail to do so. Just as he took the Ten Commandments and asked us to do more than they originally required (such as in the prohibition of killing commanding us not even to get angry), he took what we owe others in justice and made giving these things to others an avenue of grace. When we do these things transformed by charity, our acts of justice make way for God’s mercy in our lives and the lives of those we help. When we do these things, they make us heirs of the kingdom of God.

Christ further told us, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

When God became man, he entered into our suffering. He made it possible for us to serve him in meeting the just needs of others through the works of mercy. It is a mercy that I can physically serve God in caring for my children. It is a mercy that I meet him at the street corner and hand him food out my car window. It is a mercy that I can provide him with shelter and clothing by supporting the local homeless shelter and St. Vincent de Paul. It is a mercy I can help him as a refugee by supporting larger charities. It is a mercy that because God became man we can love with his love and become one with him. It is a mercy that God made a way for us, despite our actual sins, to enter into his kingdom. And knowing that reminds me that I have never shown as much mercy as he has shown me.