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I never knew what was wrong with Mr. Cox, only that he was old and couldn’t feed himself. Each time I walked into the dining room in my pink and white Candy Striper uniform, he’d be sitting in his wheelchair with a tray across his lap and a bib around his neck, staring at his food.
“Hello, Mr. Cox, how are you today?” I’d ask, not waiting for an answer. “Are you hungry? Look what we have for dinner!” I’d use a spoon to part his lips and give him a little soft cereal, then use the spoon to clean it from his chin. Sometimes he would bite the spoon and fight me for it. I used to wonder if this was his way of communicating; of saying, “Hey, Sarah—I see you too. What have you been up to?”
I only volunteered at the nursing home on Thursdays, my sophomore year of high school. I remember watching the aides who worked full-time, noticing how they patiently moved from one person to the next, making sure they ate, cleaning up spills, making cheerful small talk. Today, as I think about the first two corporal works of mercy, it strikes me: this is feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty on a level I never considered before.
I must admit, I struggle with these two commands. I have never known hunger that I didn’t have the means to satisfy. I have never not had something to feed my children. I don’t personally know anyone who suffers badly from hunger or thirst (or they do a good job of hiding it!). We give money to the poor, and I sometimes make casseroles to send to shut-ins or a shelter. But that is at a distance. Am I doing enough?
The list of good deeds that we know as the corporal works of mercy comes from Matthew 25, where Jesus says that on the Day of Judgment, he will separate people as a shepherd separates sheep from goats: the “sheep”—those who fed and gave drink to and clothed and sheltered and visited and welcomed the Lord as they found him in the needy—inherit the heavenly kingdom. The “goats”—those who failed to do those things—are damned.
Clearly, it’s of vital importance that our eyes are open to the poor and needy, that we recognize Jesus in them and reach out to help. St. John wrote, in 1 John 3:17-18. “But if any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth.”
Surrounded as I am by people whose hunger and thirst is more spiritual than physical, I want to say that responding to their need, along with my “distance giving,” is enough. But is it?
All four Gospels tell of the time Jesus spent a whole day teaching and healing people, and when it got late and time to eat, the apostles wanted to send the crowd away. But “you give them something to eat,” said the Lord. And after blessing the little food they had and breaking the loaves, Jesus gave the food to the disciples to distribute by hand. Surely there’s a lesson here about the way we should feed the hungry around us. Not just at a distance (however necessary that may often be)—but in person, with our hands. By volunteering at a shelter. Inviting someone to share a meal. Taking food in to a house when someone’s shut in instead of sending it or leaving it at the door. Offering to cook and clean up. Helping to feed the Mr. Coxes in our midst.
The world is full of people who are openly hungry. By all means, let those who have resources, share so they can meet their needs (see Luke 3:11). But let us not forget those who are nearby but hidden away, that we might serve love with the food that we give.
Isaiah wrote to the people of his day,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your desire with good things. (Isa 58:10-11)
“Pour yourself out.” That’s something more than pulling out a wallet.
God of mercy, open my eyes to the hungry around me. Show me the need and help me to “give them something to eat” with my hands, so I can better love in deed and truth.
NOW ASK YOURSELF:
- When have I been hungry or thirsty? Who helped me in a way that I felt loved?
- Who are the hungry and thirsty in my neighborhood? At work? In my town?
- What is one thing I can do this week to “pour myself out” for someone nearby, who hungers or thirsts?
If you’d like to share something you learn or an experience you have, I’d love to hear.
© 2016 Sarah Christmyer.