The word mitzvah, writ large and uttered reverently, means an act which I perform because God requires it of me. ~Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld
Central to Jewish theology is the understanding that man is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and that God calls His people to be holy, just as He is holy (Lev. 19). In this call, God has given His people 613 mitzvahs, or commandments, to perform; 248 of them are deemed positive and include such things as studying and teaching Torah and sanctifying God's name while 365 are considered negative and include such things as not to worship idols and not to practice sorcery. In a world filled with opportunity to easily stray from one's path towards God, these mitzvahs provide a clear and concise guide to living. At the heart of following these commandments is one's relationship with God; itself the focus of the first six positive commandments (Believing in God , Unity of God , Loving God , Fearing God , Worshiping God , Cleaving to God).
Throughout the ages, the term "mitzvah" has taken on a broader meaning and has come to include a general attitude of performing good deeds for others. But regardless of how the term continues to evolve, at the core of Jewish life are these acts performed out of love for God. As Catholic Christians, our lives, too, reflect our understanding that how we live and what we do while we are alive, are the clearest messages we send to others. When we follow the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy, we, too, are responding to God's interest in our daily lives.
The Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy
- To convert the sinner
- To instruct the ignorant
- To counsel the doubtful
- To comfort the sorrowful
- To bear wrongs patiently
- To forgive injuries
- To pray for the living and the dead
The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy
- To feed the hungry
- To give drink to the thirsty
- To clothe the naked
- To give welcome to strangers
- To visit the sick
- To visit the imprisoned
- To bury the dead
What we find when we give fuller attention to these works of mercy is that our own lives, interestingly but not coincidentally, become more meaningful. Just ask anyone who has offered their time to a local nursing home or has helped at a charity event (this doesn't include all the ones we do for our children's schools!). And what is most remarkable is that the works of mercy we perform in which no one can repay us tend to be the most rewarding. This is why burying the dead is considered such a "mitzvah" in the Jewish faith. This is an act of kindness that cannot be repaid.
In man's truest relationship with his Creator it would be impossible NOT to perform good works because these works would be performed out of pure love. In this way there would be no other motive, no ulterior interest in anything other than pleasing God. These works, then, are not the works condemned by Paul but are, indeed, the natural expression of a love for God so penetrating in one's heart that the carrying out of them would be impossible to restrain. And while we are completely aware that we are not justified by these actions performed in the flesh, they bear witness to our understanding of Jesus' warning that Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father in heaven. Matthew 7:21.
When our love of God is in its truest form, in those fleeting moments of our lives when we are completely in union with Him, it would actually be painful not to serve Him through our works. That space deep within ourselves created for His own indwelling would feel so cavernous that it would become a physical pain, like an addiction, that could only be satiated through works of the flesh. And even then, truly like an addiction, we would be spurred on to do more and more; each work drawing us closer to Him and creating an even deeper desire to serve Him.
When we appear before the judgment seat and receive good or evil according to what we have done in the body (2 Corinthians 5:10), it is because Christ knows, as witnessed by His own sacrifice at the cross, that real, true, unadulterated faith and love always results in real, true, unadulterated action. As we prepare for the second coming of Christ during this Advent season, it is the perfect time to ask God to provide us with opportunities to perform mitzvahs for His glory, for His kingdom, done out of our love for Him.