So how do the works of mercy fit into this prudential approach to discipleship? It turns out that the works of mercy present us with a great example of the Bible giving us general rules and leaving the particular circumstances up to us. It comes from Matthew 25:31–40, which is a passage that Wesley cites almost every time he talks about works of mercy. The heart of the passage goes like this:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory . . . he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by 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.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ ”
Have you ever thought about how radical that Scripture passage appears when you just read it in a straightforward way? Jesus is telling us that he will meet us in the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, and the stranger. He calls us to treat such people as if they were the Son of God himself.
If works of piety like prayer, searching the Scriptures, and the Lord’s Supper teach us how to love God better, then these works of mercy teach us how to love our neighbor. They also show us how to love as Christ loved.
We get the Wesleyan view on that in a wonderful letter that John Wesley sent to Miss J. C. March in the year 1775. He encourages Miss March to press on in her faith until she knows by her own experience “all that love of God which passeth all (speculative) knowledge.” He then asks her bluntly if she is willing to know how to dedicate her life more and more fully to God. He says,
And are you willing to know? Then I will tell you how. Go and see the poor and sick in their own poor little hovels. Take up your cross, woman! Remember the faith! Jesus went before you, and will go with you. Put off the gentlewoman; you bear a higher character. You are an heir of God and joint-heir with Christ!
Notice in that little passage how Wesley is offering his pastoral counsel in a way that tracks very closely with Matthew 25. For if we really do meet Jesus in the poor and the sick, then Miss March had every reason to believe that Jesus went before her and would be with her every step of the way.
One of the places where Wesley lays out his view of the works of mercy the best is his sermon, “On Visiting the Sick.” Wesley explains in that sermon that the work of visitation is a “plain duty” for Christian believers. He also says that the sick are not just those who have a conventional illness and are lying in a hospital bed. Such people are part of who we mean by “the sick,” but the sick also consist of anyone in a state of suffering. “I would include all such as are in a state of affliction, whether of mind or body,” Wesley says, “whether they are good or bad, whether they fear God or not.” That means that he’s including pretty much all those categories of people Jesus names in Matthew’s Gospel—the hungry, the poor, the ill, the imprisoned, and the stranger. And since Jesus’ command is given to all his followers, this means that the works of mercy are meant for all Christians. In other words, it is not just pastors who are called to offer pastoral care!
It’s fairly obvious to see how the poor widow or the imprisoned felon would experience a personal visit as a means of grace. I can tell you from my own experience in ministry that most people who find themselves in hospitals, homeless shelters, and prisons welcome visits from others. They need companionship, encouragement, and prayer just as much as anyone else, but they are often in situations where those important parts of human relationships are hard to come by.
Where Wesley’s teaching on the works of mercy gets really interesting is when he makes the case that the works of mercy are not only means of grace for those being visited, but also for those doing the visiting. When we visit the sick and the needy, we are moved to thank God for all the blessings that we ourselves enjoy. At the same time, our sense of compassion and our desire to help others are both increased. In that way, the love we share with others is returned to us and works to transform our hearts. In giving, we find that we receive as well.
Do you want to learn more about how works of mercy and other spiritual rhythms help connect us with God? Get The Means of Grace: Traditioned Practice for Today’s World by Andrew Thompson from our store! It’s September’s Book of the Month, which means when you buy one copy, we’ll send you a second one FREE!