The Church and the Poor

“Many people erect high ‘temples’ and decorate them. They build tall belfries and cast great bells, they sew rich vestments for the churches and frame the sacred books, the icons and the Cross with gold and jewels. With these material gifts they wish to please the immaterial God; but they despise and neglect the poor…and leave them to their fate; and thus they do what God has not ordained and do not do what He has ordained! I do not condemn this building of churches. I only condemn the neglect of the Word of God. Churches are necessary, but not the magnificence of churches. Public worship can be held in any temple, provided it is clean. But people – the ‘living temples’ of God cannot exist without food, shelter, clothing …”

(St. Tikhon of Zadonsk in What the Church Fathers Say About…Volume 2, pp 107-108)


5 thoughts on “The Church and the Poor

  1. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

  2. Father Ted,

    Is there any consensus or rule of thumb about this in Orthodoxy? —say, that a church ought to be giving X amount to the poor relative to the amount spent on building ornamentation?

    One of my priests told a story last Wed night about someone during a church tour scoffing at the gold and ornamentation, “this could’ve been given for the poor.” He replied, ‘we should give to the poor, but we have to make sure that the house of God is the nicest house on the block.’ i’m coming ’round to respect and appreciate the Orthodox approach to aesthetic issues. But i have to say, there’s still a part of me that really resonates when i hear the original comment–isn’t taking care of the poor more important than gold leafing? i realize it’s not a dichotomy, but it seems like the gold leafing takes on a different character if the parish isn’t doing anything or very little for the poor, no?

    1. Fr. Ted

      Obviously Orthodox have deemed the worship space to be an important element of our worship and faith.

      So to answer your question – there is no consensus about what is “correct” and what is too much, but there is a tension as reflected in St. Tikhon’s quote. Orthodox need to have an awareness of that tension and bring it to the table whenever they are discussing beautifying their church buildings.

      It is hard to put a value on the decorating of a church building, but the price to ignore the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters is stated in Matthew 25’s parable of the Last Judgment.

      Christ gave no commands about decorating church buildings but taught us to be merciful and charitable to the poor. Yet he stunned His disciples by defending the woman who poured costly ointment on Him. Following Christ is not governed by law but by love.

  3. “… it [is] far better to preserve souls than gold for the Lord. For He Who sent the apostles without gold also brought together the churches without gold. The Church has gold, not to store up, but to lay out, and to spend on those who need. What necessity is there to guard what is of no good? Do we not know how much gold and silver the Assyrians took out of the temple of the Lord? Is it not much better that the priests should melt it down for the sustenance of the poor, if other supplies fail, than that a sacrilegious enemy should carry it off and defile it? Would not the Lord Himself say: Why didst thou suffer so many needy to die of hunger? Surely thou hadst gold? Thou shouldst have given them sustenance. Why are so many captives brought on the slave market, and why are so many unredeemed left to be slain by the enemy? It had been better to preserve living vessels than gold ones.

    “To this no answer could be given. For what wouldst thou say: I feared that the temple of God would need its ornaments? He would answer: The sacraments need not gold, nor are they proper to gold only—for they are not bought with gold. The glory of the sacraments is the redemption of captives. Truly they are precious vessels, for they redeem men from death. That, indeed, is the true treasure of the Lord which effects what His blood effected. Then, indeed, is the vessel of the Lord’s blood recognized, when one sees in either redemption, so that the chalice redeems from the enemy those whom His blood redeemed from sin. How beautifully it is said, when long lines of captives are redeemed by the Church: These Christ has redeemed. Behold the gold that can be tried, behold the useful gold, behold the gold of Christ which frees from death, behold the gold whereby modesty is redeemed and chastity is preserved. ”

    St Ambrose of Milan
    On the Duties of the Clergy II.XXVIII

  4. frmarty

    To me, the problem arises when you can’t do both. If you care for the poor, then ornamentation isn’t a particular problem. However, if you can only do one – I think care for the poor would be the wise choice.

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