When we think of the essentials of the Christian faith we generally associate these with belief in a certain creed, acceptance of various dogmas, adherence to a certain moral code, especially as it pertains to private morality, involvement with a church community, and with having some personal relationship to Christ in our lives.
Now, while these things are essential and may never be denigrated, Jesus would add something else. For him, a criterion, in fact the criterion, for the practice of the Christian faith is the exercise of the corporal works of mercy. Have we fed the hungry? Given drink to the thirsty? Clothed the naked?
Jesus’ command to practice the corporal works of mercy is direct, uncompromising, and everywhere present in the entire New Testament. Taken as whole, every tenth line in the New Testament is a direct challenge to the Christian to reach out to the physically poor. In Luke’s gospel, it is every sixth line. In the Epistle of James, it is every fifth line. Involvement with the poor is not a negotiable item. This is mandated with the same weight as is any creed, dogma, and moral or spiritual teaching.
And this may never be spiritualized. The command to be involved with the physically poor means just that, the physically poor. It is rationalizing when we turn the corporal works of mercy into something less concrete, namely, when we define the physically poor in such a wide sense so as to include everyone—“To feed the hungry can also mean feeding those who are spiritually hungry.” “To give drink to the thirsty can also mean giving spiritual nourishment to those who, while affluent materially, are hungry for deeper things.” There is a sense in which this is true, but that is not what Jesus intended in Matthew 25 and not what the church has perennially intended in its social teachings. There is a spiritual sense to hunger, thirst, and poverty, but that is addressed elsewhere, both in the New Testament and in church teachings. Reaching out to the deeper, non-material, hungers and thirsts of humanity is what is mandated in the spiritual works of mercy. The words of Jesus in the gospels challenging us to reach out to the physically poor are not intended spiritually. The corporal works of mercy are about reaching out to the physically poor, pure and simple.
So how do we give drink to the thirsty?
Obviously, especially given what has just been said, there is an aspect to this that is brutally concrete. Water is even more important than food. Without water we die, are unable to wash ourselves and our clothing, and are unable to enjoy any quality of life whatever. To lack clean, drinkable water is to lack the first necessity of life. Hence, Jesus’ command to give drink to the thirsty is, first of all, about looking around ourselves and our world and trying to provide for every person on this earth clean, drinkable water.
This, given the present situation of the planet, is not easy to do. A long, and mostly morally sanctioned, history of privilege and inequality—wherein some of us have surplus while others lack for basic necessities—has made for a situation in which there is now a rationalized acceptance of the fact that millions of people lack the basic physical necessities for life, including clean, drinkable water. Thus, to get water to the thirsty today requires more than just the positive efforts being made by those individuals and agencies which are directly trying to bring clean water into poor areas. What is required, as well, is a change of heart and ultimately a change of lifestyle, by each of us who does have clean water.
As the great social encyclicals of the church, from Leo XIII through John Paul II, re-iterate over and over, clean water will come to everyone on the planet when those of us who have surplus, of any kind, live fully moral lives, namely when we accept that is it not right to have surplus while other lack necessities:
Giving drink to the thirsty involves looking at those principles with more moral courage than we have up to now.
- God intended the earth and everything in it for the sake of all human beings. … Thus created goods should flow fairly to all. All other rights, whatever they may be, are subordinated to this principle. (Popularum Progressio 22 & Gaudium et Spes 69)
- No person or country may have surplus if others do not have the basic necessities.” (Rerum Novarum 19; Quadragesima Anno 50-51; Mater et Magistra 119-121; Popularum Progressio 230)