“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me. Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’”  —Matthew 25:35-40


“Then Peter approaching asked him, ‘Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.’”  —Matthew 18:21-22

I have learned from experience that these two teachings from Jesus, both in Matthew’s Gospel, are interconnected and are inseparable. Feeding the hungry one is a Corporal Work of Mercy. Forgiving a person for betraying us after we have helped that person is a Spiritual Work of Mercy. Both works, performed for the love of God, are parallel paths to holiness, and they lead us along the “narrow way” to heaven.

Once upon a time, in a parish far, far away, I took in a homeless man in his early thirties. I fed him, clothed him, gave him a warm place to sleep, and provided transportation in cold weather.  I trusted him. In return, he stole a bunch of personal checks from my office drawer and forged my name to them to the amount of hundreds of dollars which he tried cashing all over town. Unfortunately for him and luckily for me, he didn’t know how to make out a check so that nothing was ever withdrawn from my checking account. I spent time at the police station feeling embarrassed and angry, not to mention betrayed for not only had I opened my home, but I had opened my heart. I felt betrayed both by this homeless man and by Jesus.

I said, “Lord, you tell us to take care of the homeless man and then he steals from me and I don’t have much money to begin with!” The Lord’s words to St. Peter came to my mind, “Forgive him seventy-seven times.” I wasn’t happy with that answer, but I understood what I had to do in order to grow in holiness. So, I forgave the man who robbed me and I promised Jesus that if he ever did show up at my doorstop again I would feed him — but this time watch him like a hawk!

Loving (being merciful) and forgiving are the two legs upon which we walk along the narrow way of holiness. It’s a way strewn with thorns and roses. Sometimes we get hurt and other times we get blessed. But whether pain or blessing, we continue to walk until we reach our ultimate destination: heaven. And when we lose our way and just want to quit, Jesus speaks a word of “course correction” and sets us back on track.

—Father Lance Harlow is pastor of Corpus Christi Parish based in St. Johnsbury. 

—Originally published in the Winter 2023 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.