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AN ORTHODOX UNDERSTANDING OF ACTS OF MERCY
Fr. Thomas Hopko
Christ commanded his disciples to give alms. To “give alms” means literally “to do” or “to make merciful deeds” or “acts of mercy.” According to the Scriptures the Lord is compassionate and merciful, longsuffering, full of mercy, faithful and true. He is the one who does merciful deeds (see Psalm 103).
Acts of mercy are an “imitation of God” who ceaselessly executes mercy for all, without exception, condition or qualification. He is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
To “do mercy” means to do good to others in concrete acts of charity. It does not mean, in the first instance, to forgive, or to “let off sinners.” A merciful person is one who is kind, gracious, generous and giving; a helper and servant of the poor and needy. For example, St. John the Merciful of Alexandria was a bishop who helped the poor and needy; he was not a judge who let off criminals.
Mercy is a sign of love. God is Love. A deed of merciful love is the most Godlike act a human being can do. “Being perfect” in Matthew’s Gospel corresponds to “being merciful” in Luke’s Gospel. “Perfection” and “being merciful” are the same thing.
To love as Christ loves, with the love of God who is Love, is the chief commandment for human beings according to Christianity. It can only be accomplished by God’s grace, by faith. It is not humanly possible. It is done by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. One can prove one’s love for God only by love for one’s neighbors, including one’s worst enemies, without exception, qualification or condition. There is no other way.
To love God “with all one’s strength” which is part of “the first and great commandment” means to love God with all one’s money, resources, properties, possessions and powers.
Acts of mercy must be concrete, physical actions. They cannot be “in word and speech, but in deed and truth” (First letter of John and letter of James).
Jesus lists the acts of mercy on which human beings will be judged at the final judgment (Parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25). Acts of mercy are acts done to Christ himself who was hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, in prison and “sick” i.e. wounded for our transgressions on the Christ, taking up of our wounds, and dying our death.
Christian acts of mercy must be done silently, humbly, secretly, not for vanity or praise, not to be seen by men, “not letting the right hand know what the left hand is doing”, etc.
Christian acts of mercy must be sacrificial. By this, we understand that we must not simply give to others what is left over. We have to be sharing our possessions with others in ways that limit ourselves in some way (The Widow’s Mite).
Acts of mercy should be done without qualification or condition to everyone, no matter who, what or how they are (Parable of the Good Samaritan).
Christians, when possible, should do acts of mercy in an organized manner, through organizations and communities formed to do merciful deeds. Throughout its history the Christian people have had many forms of eleemosynary institutions and activities.
Being the poor Christians are not only to help the poor; they are themselves to be the poor, in and with Jesus Christ their Lord. Christians are to have no more than they actually need for themselves, their children and their dependents.
How much is enough? How much is necessary? What do we really need? How may we use our money and possessions for ourselves, our families, our children and our churches?
These are the hardest questions for Christians to answer.
*Fr. Thomas Hopko is Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and currently serves at the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania.