Learning the Skill of Charity

One person has the skill to hammer brass into the most exquisite shapes and to engrave elaborate patterns on to it.

Another has the skill to make furniture, joining together different pieces of wood so firmly that no one can break them apart. A third person can spin the finest yarn, while a fourth weaves it into cloth.

A fifth craftsperson can lay stones one on top of the other to build walls, while a sixth puts a roof on top of the walls to make a house. Indeed there are so many different skills, each one requiring many years to attain, that it would be impossible to list them all.

So what is the skill that rich people should acquire? They do not need to fashion brass or wood, or to build houses. Rather, they must learn how to use their wealth well, to the good of all the people around them. The ordinary craftsperson may think that that is an easy skill to learn. On the contrary, it is the hardest skill of all. It requires both great wisdom and great moral strength. Look at how many rich people fail to acquire it, and how few practice it to perfection.

(St. John Chrysostom, On Living Simply, p. 14)

St. Nicholas: An Icon of Mercy

On December 6 we honor the memory of St Nicholas the 4th Century Archbishop of Myra who has become so popular in Christian and Western European Cultures.  Most of what we know about his life comes from legend and lore.  He was being honored as a saint 200 years after his death,  but his popularity grew exponentially in later Centuries.  When St. Methodius wrote a life of St. Nicholas in the Mid-9th Century, he notes that hardly anyone had heard of him. Be that as it may, he became one of the most beloved saints in both Western and Eastern Europe.  Even the secular world continued to evolve stories about him which became an icon of the American secular Christmas celebration.

The legends of his life include descriptions of him as being especially merciful to the unfortunate poor.  As such, it is appropriate to consider the virtue of mercy.

“Mercy is therefore a twofold virtue.

On the one hand, it means giving shelter, protection, food, and necessary aid to those in want.

On the the other, it is patience, forgiveness of wrong, and compassion towards those who offend.”

(St Gregory Palamas, THE HOMILIES, p 283)

St Nicholas is for us an icon of mercy.  We can think about what Jesus taught us in the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:36-37 –

Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”

He said, “The one who showed mercy on him.”

And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

The Folly of the Wealthy

Then the Lord Jesus spoke this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ So he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. ‘And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”  (Luke 12:16-21)

St. John Chrysostom comments:

Why are you so concerned about fleeting things that must be left here? Nothing is more slippery than wealth. Today it is for you; tomorrow it is against you. It arms the eyes of the envious everywhere. It is a hostile comrade, and you acknowledge this when you seek every way to bury and conceal it from view. While the poor are prepared for action, the wealthy wander about, seeking where they may bury their gold, or with whom they may deposit it. Why do you seek your fellow slaves, when Christ stands ready to receive and to keep your “deposits” for you. Those who receive treasures in trust think they have done us a favor. But with Christ it is the contrary, for He says He has received a favor when He receives your deposited treasures. For the guardianship he provides He does not demand a fee, but instead gives you dividends.

You are a stranger and a pilgrim with regard to things here. But you have a country that is your own in the heavens! Transfer there all that you possess…

Would you be rich? Have God for your friend, and you’ll  be richer than all men!

(Sermon: The Rich in This World, pp. 4-5, O Logos Publication)

Theosis: Being a God to the Unfortunate

Many Orthodox note that the goal of the Christian life is theosis or deification – the goal is not to get to some distant”heaven”.  Rather the goal is to transform and transfigure our own life and our own being, now on earth.   As in heaven, so on earth is what we pray in the Lord’s prayer.  The goal of the Christian life is not merely to get to some eschatological and transcendent location, but to become and be the temple of God – the very place where God dwells on earth!  And attaining theosis in this life means to be like God – to be a God to the unfortunate, offering love and mercy to those in need.  Fr. John D. Jones  writes:

As Orthodox Christians, we recognize the ultimate goal of the Christian life is theosis or divinization—becoming like God as much as is possible for human beings. Yet this process of theosis is not a matter of a discarnate spirituality that retreats from human need and suffering. The journey towards theosis is rather expressed through concrete acts of love and mercy in imitation of God, who is love. As St. Gregory the Theologian writes, ‘Prove yourself a god to the unfortunate by imitating the mercy of God. There is nothing so godly in human beings as to do good works.’…[doing so] constitutes a sacred obligation for us to minister in Christ’s name to our neighbor; that is, to every person in need whom we encounter (cf. Luke 10:25–37).  —Metropolitan Anthony (Gergiannakis)

Prove yourself a god to the unfortunate by imitating the mercy of God. There is nothing so godly in human beings as to do good works.” So wrote St. Greogry the Theologian near the end of his Oration XIV, On the Love of the Poor. This theme is basic to the oration from the start:

Beautiful is contemplation (theoria=the knowledge and vision) of God, as likewise beautiful is action (praxis). The one is beautiful because it conducts our mind upward to what is akin to it. The other is beautiful because it welcomes Christ, serves him, and confirms the power of love through good works (sec. 4)…. Of all things, nothing so serves God as mercy because nothing else is more proper to God (sec. 5)…. We must, then, open our hearts to all the poor [and] those in distress from whatever cause (sec. 6).

“Opening the Doors of Compassion: Cultivating a Merciful Heart”, In Communion, Spring 2012, p. 4)

 

Poor Lazarus and the Rich Man

The Lord Jesus told this parable“There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.’

But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.'”  (Luke 16:19-31)

St. Gregory Palamas comments:

The rich man,” it says, “also died, and was buried” (Luke 16:22). Perhaps when Lazarus died he did not even have a grave, as there was no one to bury him. No mention at all is made of a grave in his case but the account then goes on to say that the rich man “was buried.”…There was a time when the rich man had seen Lazarus cast down in front of the gate, a victim of hunger, writhing on the ground in the dust unable even to move, and he turned a blind eye.

Now that he is lying in the depths being tortured and cannot escape his torments, he looks up and sees Lazarus comfortably settled high above, passing his time in profound ease and dwelling in Abraham’s bosom, and instead of resolving to ignore him, he thinks he has a right not to be overlooked by the man he formerly disregarded. In the place where mercy belonged, he had neither looked for it nor practiced it, but there where justice is merciless, he seeks mercy to no avail.

…That rich man, brethren, who had Moses and the prophets, none of whom had risen from the dead, seems to have had some sort of excuse. We, by contrast, hear, along with them, Him who rose from the dead for our sake, saying, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matt. 6:19, 20), “Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away” (Matt. 5:42), and “Give alms of such things as ye have; and behold, all things are clean unto you” (Luke 11:41). If someone eats and drinks with drunkards but is hard hearted to the poor and gives them nothing, “The Lord”, says the Scripture, “will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers” (Luke 12:46).     (The Homilies, p. 378, 381)

For an interesting and  different translation and interpretation of this parable see:  The Vale of Abraham.

Being Stewards of God’s Blessings

God says, “The earth has brought forth her increase, and you have not brought forth your tithes; but the theft of the poor is in your houses..”

Since you have not given the accustomed offerings, He says, you have stolen the goods of the poor. He says this to show the rich that they hold the goods of the poor even if they have inherited them from their fathers or no matter how they have gathered their wealth. And elsewhere Scripture says, “Deprive not the poor of his living.” To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others. By this we are taught that when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal. For our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it. If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty.

This is why God has allowed you to have more: not for you to waste on prostitutes, drink, fancy food, expensive clothes and all the other kinds of indolence, but for you to distribute to those in need. Just as an official in the imperial treasury, if he neglects to distribute where he is ordered, but spends in stead for his own indolence, pays the penalty and is put to death, so also the rich man is a kind of steward of the money which is owed for distribution to the poor. He is directed to distribute it to his fellow servants who are in want. So if he spends more on himself than his need requires, he will pay the harshest penalty hereafter. For his own goods are not his own, but belong to his fellow servants.

(John Chrysostom, Daily Readings from the Writings of John Chrysostom, p. 44)

We Americans love the bounty with which God has blessed our country.  God has blessed us with this bounty so that we can generously share the blessings with others.  The bounty belongs to the Lord, we are but stewards of the abundance with which God blesses us.

Keeping the Apostle’s Fast

“This fast,” he said, “is very good, if you keep the commandments of the Lord. So observe this fast which you are going to keep in this way: First of all, guard against every evil word and every evil desire, and cleanse your heart of all the vanities of this world. If you observe these things, this fast will be complete. And here is what you will do: when you have finished the above-mentioned, on that day when you are fasting, you will taste nothing except bread and water, and you will be aware of the amount of the cost of your food you would have eaten on that day which you are going to keep. Having set it aside, you will give it to a widow or an orphan or someone else in need, and in this way you will be humble minded, so that from your humility the one who receives may fill his soul and pray to the Lord for you.

Offering Mercy to Christ

If, then, you complete the fast in this way, as I command you, our sacrifice will be acceptable before God [cf. Phil. 4:18; Isa. 56:7; 1 Pet. 2:5], and this fast will be recorded, and the service done in this way is good and joyous and acceptable to the Lord. This is the way you shall observe these things, with your children and all your house; if you observe them, you will be blessed and as many as hear them and keep them will be blessed, and whatever they ask from the Lord they will receive.”

(Shepherd of Hermas, The Apostolic Fathers, p. 213)

Even A Little Charity is Good

Total black and white, all or nothing thinking is not in the Tradition of the Church always viewed as wise, correct, true or loving.  There are many examples in the writings of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church where they note wisdom, truth and love require of us a more nuanced understanding of the Christian life.

Additionally, Christians have been plagued in their piety by all types of doubt and worry about their own motives for doing good.  We give to charity, but want people to notice our generosity.  We give to charity but mostly because it is a tax break for us.  The deed is good, but the motive wrong.  So is the blessing taken away?  Or what if we have good intention to be charitable, but not the means?  Are our intentions of no value?

The desert mothers and fathers in particular often put forth godly wisdom to counter the the exacting doubts of our minds.

A brother said to Abba Poemen: “If I give my brother a little bread or something else, the demons denigrate the deed as being done to please men.”

The elder said to him: “Even if it is done to please men, let us give the brother what he needs,” and he told him this parable:

“There were two men, both farmers, living in one city. One of them sowed and reaped a small crop of poor quality, while the other neglected to sow and reaped nothing. When there is a famine, which of the two will be found to live?”

“The one who reaped a small crop of poor quality,” the brother replied.

Said the elder to him: “So it also with us; let us too sow a little even if it be of poor quality so that we do not die by famine.”

(Give me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 235)

Even if we give only a little to charity at Christmas it is still a blessing for the one in need.  It is also a blessing for the one who gives.

Chrysostom on Charity at Christmas

Today, I stand before you to make a just, useful, and suitable intercession. I come from no one else; only the beggars who live in our city elected me for this purpose, not with words, votes, and the resolve of a common council, but rather with their pitiful and most bitter spectacles. In other words, just as I was passing through the marketplace and the narrow lanes, hastening to your assembly, I saw in the middle of the streets many outcasts, some with severed hands, others with gouged-out eyes, others filled with festering ulcers and incurable wounds, especially exposing those body parts that, because of their stored-up rottenness, they should be concealing. I thought it the worst inhumanity not to appeal to your love on their behalf, especially now that the season forces us to return to this topic.

…but during the season of winter, the battle against them is mighty from all quarters, and the siege is twice as great–the famine that devours the viscera from within and the frost that freezes and deadens the flesh from without.

Therefore, they need more nourishment, a heavier garment, a shelter, a bed, shoes, and many other things. And, indeed, what is altogether grievous, they cannot find work easily, since the season of year does not allow it. Therefore, their need of the bare necessities is much greater, and besides, work passes them by, because no one hires the wretched, or summons them to service. (St. John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church, p. 131 & 132)