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.
Mercy is a sign of Love. God is love. A deed of merciful love is the most God-like act a human being can do. “Being perfect” in Matthew’s Gospel corresponds to “being merciful” in Luke’s Gospel (compare Matthew 5: 48, “Be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect” and Luke 6:36, “Be merciful just as your Father is Merciful”) . Perfection and being merciful are the same thing. To love as Christ loves, with the love of the 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.
Acts of mercy must be concrete, physical actions. They cannot be “in word and speech [only],” but must be “in deed and truth [also]” (see 1John and James). Acts of mercy are acts done to Christ himself who was hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, in prison and sick in the form of being wounded for our transgressions on the cross, taking up our wounds, and dying our death. That is, every suffering human being is Christ, according to the Christian teaching.
Christian acts of mercy must be sacrificial. By this we understand that we must not simply give to others our leftovers. We have to share our possessions with others in ways that limit ourselves (for example, the widow’s mite). And if we cannot give all, as in the biblical example, our merciful acts should at least pinch us in some way.
Finally, acts of mercy should be done without qualification or condition to everyone, no matter who, what or how good, bad, worthy, unworthy or indifferent they are (the Good Samaritan is our example). That is, need, suffering, sickness, these are the only qualifications for mercy.
Adapted from a meditation by Fr. Thomas Hopko in a flyer produced by International Orthodox Christian Charities: www.iocc.org Icon from St. Isaac the Syrian Skete