Corporal Works of Mercy (1): To Feed the Hungry

Corporal Works of Mercy (1): To Feed the Hungry

“Simply believing” has never been enough for Christians.  Nor has “going to Mass” or “getting the Sacraments.”  Through the ages Christians have known that God placed us here to help one another; and the ways we do that have been summarized in what are commonly called the “works of mercy” – seven having to do with the physical care of others, seven with spiritual care. 

The first of the corporal works of mercy is this: To feed the hungry.  There’s ample Biblical foundation for this, from God offering manna to the Israelites in the desert through Elijah’s feeding of the widow and her son through Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the crowds to the description He gives of the Last Judgment which determines our eternal fates: “Come … When I was hungry, you gave me food.”  Few things could be more clear in the Bible than the obligation to give food to people who need it.  Why is that even an issue today?

People who study food and hunger tell us the planet produces enough food for everyone to have enough; the problem is not limited production but unfair distribution.  International trade, profit-first business models, and shortsighted government policy combine with “I’ve got mine” attitudes in too many wealthy (at least in the world’s terms) people, so that the “developed” world (that’s you and me) faces the diseases of obesity while others (some in our country, many around the world) go hungry.  The power each of us has to change that is limited: but we reduce any power we might have to zero if we fail to ask, whenever talking about or voting about an issue, What effect will this have on the poorest of the poor?

Hunger also continues because of our culture’s readiness to divide the poor into the “deserving” and the “undeserving.”  But there’s nothing in the Gospel or in our tradition to support that: Jesus didn’t say, “Feed the deserving”; He said “Feed the hungry.”  There’s a place for the analysis of long-term consequences of programs to help the poor – but first, they need to be cared for, not judged.  From St. John Chrysostom in the fourth century AD (“Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them”) to today’s Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput (“If we ignore the poor, we will go to hell”), the message is clear: Feed the hungry now; ask questions later.

How?  We should start by looking at our successes close to home.  The parent who works a disagreeable job to “put food on the table” for his or her family is fulfilling the command to “feed the hungry.”  The person who prepares a meal for family or friends with care is fulfilling the command.  The person who provides snacks to the scout-troop or little league is fulfilling the command.  That’s the start.

Then we move out a bit: The person who grabs an extra can or two when shopping and donates it to the food-pantry is feeding the hungry.  The people who stack the pantry shelves are feeding the hungry.  The person who donates regularly to a local charity to feed seniors or homeless people is feeding the hungry.  So is the person who agitates to have government divert more resources to food pantries.

And on the larger scale, there are the people who give their lives to feeding the hungry internationally, the workers for Bread for the World, or Catholic Relief Services, or Mercy Corps, or Feed the Children.  But they couldn’t do what they do without people like you and me sending them money regularly.  That, too, even if indirect, is giving food to the hungry.

Our faith tells us that we will face Christ, who gave us life and gifts so that we might care for one another.  We no doubt hope to hear from Him, “Come, beloved of my father, enter into the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world!”  So we do well to remember how He continues: “For when I was hungry you gave me food…  Whenever you did it for one of these least ones, you did it to me.”  Until next week, peace.

[1] As promised, I’m going to run a series of columns (not every week) on the works of mercy; this is the first.  My sources, in addition to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, are these: The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy: Living Love and Compassion by Mitch Finley; The Works of Mercy: the Heart of Catholicism by James F. Keenan, S.J.; and The Work of Mercy: Being the Hands and Heart of Christ by Mark P. Shea.  If you’re interested in learning more, any one of these books is worth a read.