“Got a dollar?” I’ve barely stepped off the escalator before I’m hit with requests for money—some desperate, some disinterested. At this point, any response seems inadequate. Feeling pathetic, I give a weak “I hope you have a good day” to the man in the wheelchair. He returns, “God bless you, young lady.”
However uncomfortable my commute, I can’t compete with fourth-century priest John Chrysostom, who on his way to church encountered “outcasts, some with severed hands, others with gougedout eyes, others filled with festering ulcers and incurable wounds.” One morning, he described the experience to his congregation in detail, knowing many of them had grown blind to the horrors they passed every day.
“We must always make sermons about almsgiving,” John Chrysostom (348-407) tells his parish in Constantinople, “because we, too, have much need of this mercy issuing from the Master who created us, especially during the present season when the frost is severe.” Chrysostom is clear on this: giving to the needy is essential for the warmth of the poor, and the salvation of the rich.
I’ll admit, on my walk to work, I’m usually thinking more about how to avoid eye contact with the homeless man on the corner than how to receive God’s mercy through him. Chrysostom, though, sees the spiritual landscape: situations, actions, and communities are defined by the extent to which they bring us closer to God. For him, poverty isn’t an evil to be eradicated, nor an unfortunate reality to be forgotten. Rather, it’s an opportunity for mercy, a vehicle to bring the rich and the poor closer to each other, and to Christ.
Instead of just creating enough gold in the world to make material poverty impossible, God gave us varied needs and gifts. Chrysostom says, God “allowed many to be found in beggary both for their and for your advantage. For poverty assuredly is more suitable to virtue than wealth; and those existing in sin come into great consolation for helping those in need.” Chrysostom rejects our tendency to think of the poor as alone in need. The rich want too—for repentance, for detachment, for relationship. The poor, though lacking material goods, provide exactly what the rich need: an opportunity for mercy!
When he talks about mercy, Chrysostom uses the Greek word ἐλεημοσύνη, “which has roughly the same double sense as the English ‘charity.’” Today, charity—in the sense of financial giving—is often completely divorced from the idea of charity as self-giving love. But Chrysostom refuses to separate the two meanings. Almsgiving for him requires a loving heart—making it a channel of grace for the almsgiver as well. When I serve the poor with a truly merciful heart, I too receive mercy.
Chrysostom always has this sense of the rich’s need for mercy in his sermons. With concern for our souls, he demands that we give to all, even the lazy, the unwise, the sinful. By opening our hearts in almsgiving, we open ourselves to Christ, present in the least of these. In refusing mercy to the “unworthy” poor man, we shut ourselves off from the very mercy God desires for us. Indeed, Chrysostom is grateful God has relieved us of this impossible task of judging others’ souls: “If we are going to examine lives, we will never have mercy upon any human being; rather, hindered by this inopportune meddlesomeness, we will remain fruitless and destitute of all help.” It’s not only the poor who suffer here. In judging whether or not a particular person is worthy of love and aid, the rich man rejects the spiritual fruit that he would have received by giving with humility.
So refusing to serve isn’t an option. But should we really give money to someone we know will use it to harm themselves? No. The nuance lies in how we give. Giving money to the poor simply to relieve our consciences is not real charity; it doesn’t consider the other. When we consider the other fully, we see his spiritual needs for community, purpose, and dignity. Simply giving money, with no charity, no relationship, refuses to acknowledge the whole of the person. It exploits the poor for the mental comfort of the rich.
Chrysostom tells a beautiful story of giving well—an act of charity which exploits no one, but ennobles all:
When women see some young girl who is poor and has no one to protect her, they all take the place of the girl’s relatives and contribute to her from their own resources. And you would see a large and noisy crowd there on the day of the young girl’s betrothal. Some of the women … make contributions of money; others lend their presence in person. And this is no small thing. The eagerness of these women hides their frugality and, in this way, they cover over their poverty by showing themselves ready and willing to help. You must do this for the Church.
Here we see Chrysostom’s vision for service: a long-term, reciprocal community. Rather than just meeting her material needs, these women draw the girl into loving relationships. Both rich and poor have something to give, and in giving, become defined not by their material status, but by their place in the community.
How do we practice Chrysostom’s reciprocal vision of charity in our own neighborhoods? Mother Theresa, a friend to both the spiritual and the material poor, wrote in No Greater Love, “Know the poorest of the poor among your neighbors, in your neighborhoods, in your town, in your city, perhaps in your own family. When you know them, that will lead you to love them.” The poor are served best by people, not programs.
The prospect of reciprocal giving may seem daunting. It takes considerable time, effort, and vulnerability. But deep change only comes about through deep investment. True charity draws all people, each one gifted and broken, into an interdependent community. By learning to love and receive love, we each grow closer to the One who satisfies all needs.
- St. John Chrysostom, On Repentance and Almsgiving, trans. Gus George Christo (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1998), Homily 10, 1. ↑
- St. John Chrysostom, On Repentance and Almsgiving, trans. Gus George Christo (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1998), Homily 10, 2. ↑
- St. John Chrysostom, On Repentance and Almsgiving, trans. Gus George Christo (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1998), Homily 10, 20. ↑
- Frances M. Young and Andrew Teal, From Nicaea to Chalcedon, 2nd ed. (Ada: Baker Academic, 2010), 211. ↑
- St. John Chrysostom, On Repentance and Almsgiving, Homily 10, 26. ↑
- St. John Chrysostom, On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, trans. Paul W. Harkins (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984), Homily 11, 38. ↑