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From the April, 2004 issue of Touchstone


The Lost Art of Mercy by Thomas S. Buchanan

The Lost Art of Mercy

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, “Lord, when saw we thee hungry, and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? Or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?” And the King shall answer and say unto them, “Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
—Matthew 25:37–40

James famously wrote that faith without works is dead. Apart from introducing soteriological difficulties for some future theologians, he was making the case that the Christian must express his faith through acts of mercy, like feeding the poor and caring for the widows and orphans. All who take the name of Christ agree with this—for how could we argue against the idea of clothing the naked and feeding the hungry when James’s kin admonished us to do the same when he said, “Inasmuch as you have done this unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me”?

Peter Chrysologus was a fifth-century bishop who was famous for his sermons (“Chrysologus” was his nickname and means “The Golden Orator”). Like James, he taught that acts of mercy are critical to the Christian life, just as prayer and fasting are.

There are three things, brethren, three, through which faith stands firm, devotion abides, and virtue endures: prayer, fasting, and mercy. What prayer knocks for upon the door, fasting successfully begs and mercy receives. Prayer, fasting, and mercy: these three are a unit. They give life to one another. For fasting is the soul of prayer; and mercy is the life of fasting.

He went on to say that prayer, fasting, and mercy must go together: “If a man has only one of them, or if he does not have all of them simultaneously, he has nothing.” All of them are gifts we bring to God, like the gifts the wise men of old brought to the Christ-child: frankincense for worship (e.g., “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!” [Psalm 141:2]), myrrh for the preparation for death (i.e., akin to fasting), and gold for mercy.

Chrysologus also discussed how, if we only offer to God the gifts of prayer and fasting, we do not produce fruit:

But to make these gifts acceptable, follow them up with mercy. Fasting does not germinate unless watered by mercy. When mercy dries up, fasting suffers drought, for mercy is to fasting what rain is to the earth. The man who is fasting may prepare his heart, cleanse his flesh, pull out his vices, and sow virtues. Nevertheless, if he does not sprinkle his plants with streams of mercy, he does not gather his harvest.

During Lent many Christians increase their prayers and their practice of fasting, but sometimes neglect to practice the art of mercy. In some ways it is a harder thing to do. Perhaps that is why the author of the Didache admonished us to “let your alms sweat in your hands,” for an act that produces sweat requires hard work.

But mercy is not just the giving of alms. There were coins available in Jesus’ time, but he didn’t say, “I passed the collection plate and you put money therein.” And while food and clothing can be purchased with money, Jesus and James also told us to take in the stranger and visit the prisoner; such things money cannot buy. Acts of mercy should extend beyond our checkbook. They should saturate our life. We must give away something of ourselves.

Let us remember to water our other virtues with the streams of mercy.  

The quotation from Peter Chrysologus is taken from his 43rd Sermon: “Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving.”

Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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