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James Petticrew ~ The 7 Works of Corporal Mercy (or How Jesus Evaluates the Ministry of His Church)

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’  “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’  “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’  “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’  “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”  – Matthew 25:31-46 (NIV)

I came across a picture doing some research into the church and healthcare. It illustrates what was known in the Medieval church and the Roman Catholic church today as the “Seven Works of Corporal Mercy.” At first sight I thought it was referring to the responsibilities of junior NCOs in the Army, but “corporal” here refers to “bodily or physical,” not a junior rank in the armed forces. Based on Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats, the “Seven Works of Corporal Mercy” outlined the different dimensions of the Church’s and individual disciple’s responsibility to take care of other’s physical and practical needs – what we might call today, “social action” or “compassionate ministries.” Here they are in outline form:

To feed the hungry 
To give drink to the thirsty
To clothe the naked
To shelter the homeless
To care for the sick
To visit the imprisoned 
To bury the dead

The more I read those words and reflected on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25 the more it struck me that the Seven Works of Corporal Mercy are not an anachronistic relic of the Medieval church but constitute a very effective evaluation tool for the contemporary church.

Let me ask you a question: if you are a church leader, how many of the programs or ministries of your church could you as note down beside one of the Seven Works as fulfilling and meeting that physical need in your community or in the wider world?

Let me ask you another: are there any gaps? Is the truth that your church doesn’t do anything at all to meet the physical needs described in one of those seven categories?

The reason I asked you those questions is that it appears from Matthew 25 that those are exactly the kind of questions that Jesus himself will one day ask you about your church’s ministry. Matthew 25 is a hugely controversial and confusing passage but there are a couple of things we can say for definite. Namely, that it’s incredibly important to Jesus that his people are involved in meeting the physical needs of those around them and there will be serious consequences for those who resist doing so or are too apathetic to get their hands dirty with the real physical and practical needs of the world around them. I think we can safely say that a church that simply meets in a building for worship and isn’t involved in the real needs that exist around it is in for a rough time from Jesus on judgment day.

Annually most church leaders get some sort of evaluation form from their denomination which basically boils down to “bums and bucks,” how many people come to services and how much money did they give to the church? Well here in Matthew 25 and through the Seven Works Of Corporal Mercy we are confronted by Jesus with a very different set of criteria through which to evaluate the ministry of our congregations.

So is your church more of “Sheep Church” or a “Goat Church” ?

Featured image courtesy Polly Vn for Creation Swap.