Charity Transforms the World

A common theme in the post-Apostolic and Patristic writers is that Jesus Christ in His various works, reverses the deeds of Adam, thus restoring humanity to its rightful relationship with God.  Christ obeys the Father, whom Adam disobeyed.  Christ obeys the Father even to death.   Christ’s obedience leads to the resurrection of Himself and all humanity from the dead.

And while every action of Christ was seen as undoing Adam’s disobedience and sin, we who are united to Christ become part of that saving process.  So when we obey God, when we love our fellow human, when we give food to the poor for example, we are using food for what is was created and  intended – a means of expressing love and communion.  When we give in charity to feed the needy, we undo Adam’s treacherous use of food for self gain.  When we remedy the hunger of another, we return to Paradise and make all food again to be love.  So, St. Basil the Great, writes how the most simple of human gestures – sharing food, can also be the undoing of original sin so that we can participate in God’s love and salvation.

“For Basil, giving food does more than cover sin: it redeems the cosmic flaw. . . .  he asserts that ‘as Adam brought in sin by eating evilly, we we ourselves if we remedy the necessity and hunger of a brother, blot out his treacherous eating.”     (Susan R. Holman, The Hungry are Dying, p 83)

In giving food to the hungry, we blot out Adam and Eve’s turning away from God for selfish reasons.  We participate in salvation, in the work of Christ, in making the Kingdom of God present on earth.

mercytoChrist2Food

The Church’s Mission is Mercy

 

“Just as God has reached into the heart of death and pain that is part of the human experience of being alive, and has offered its redemptive transfiguration in love through the Cross of the Lord, so too the church, following in the steps of its Lord, is called to meet human suffering with personal courage and communal philanthropy and alleviate the pains of suffering in whatever way it can: physically, morally, or emotionally. This is why the church’s involvement in the social institutions of mercy (hospital and schools) or suffering (prisons and places of enslavement) is a primary element of its mission. Relieving the suffering caused by natural disasters and chronic disease constitutes a major element of the church’s necessary response: a major way of manifesting among society its belief in the glory of the human being as the radiant image of God.”(John Anthony McGuckin, The Orthodox Church, pp 192-193)

 

The Canaanite Woman is My Sister

The Gospel reading of Matthew 15:21-21 presents a hard lesson both because Jesus appears to treat the woman harshly and because we are challenged to think about people like this woman who might appeal to the parish for help but whom for various reasons we feel justified in just wanting to be rid of them.

Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then she came and knelt before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”

In the Gospel text, the word rendered in English as “knelt before” or in some versions, “worshipped”, is the Greek word prosekunei which has the implication of humbly submitting like a dog before its master by being down on the ground on all fours and waitinganxiously for the master’s command.

It is the way she submissively kneels before Jesus, on all four, like a dog, that apparently elicits the response from Jesus reported in the Gospel.  (see also my blog You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks)

But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

The Children’s Bread

The woman asks from Christ, like so many other people in the Gospel, for mercy – not for herself but for her daughter.  Jesus appears to either mock her by comparing her to a little puppy that follows its master around hoping to get some crumbs of food dropped by the master, or Jesus out and out is comparing her and her daughter to nothing more than dogs.

In the desert fathers, there is a very interesting comment about this Gospel lesson.  Abba Poemen reminds us that such unwanted nuisances such as the Canaanite woman are actually our brothers and sisters who we are commanded to care for.  The Canaanites were no friends of the Jews and often were hostile to them.  The Jews forbade intermarriage with the Canaanites.  Whatever the Canaanites represented, even as a religious threat to each Israelite, the Lord Jesus responds favorably to her, seeing in her something the Twelves Disciples cannot see.

 “Abba Poeman said:

‘We are in such trouble because we are not taking care of our brother who the Scripture stipulated we are to take in. Or do we not see the Canaanite woman who followed the Savior, crying and beseeching for her daughter to be healed – and that the Savior looked with favor on her and healed [her daughter]?’”

(Poeman in Give Me A Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p 260)

Today, many Syrian, Mideastern and Muslim refugees are very much like the Canaanite woman to us.   But it is not only them, for many of us have a distrust and dislike for any migrants, any poor, any people of different culture or color.  We want them to go away, or maybe we, like the apostles, hope God will make them go away.  But He might, instead, mercifully answer their prayers.  And He might expect us, His servants, to do the same.

A Cure for Nightmares

The 4th Century monk Evagrius teaches that doing charity work can calm the mind and rid it of nightmares.  Quoting Proverbs he writes:

If you sit down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. And you will not be afraid of alarm coming upon you, nor of approaching attacks of the ungodly (Proverbs 3:24-25):

By this we know that compassion dispels the terrifying visions that befall us at night.

Meekness,

angerlessness,

patience, and

everything that is able to pacify the aroused irascibility, have the same effect, since these visions of terror tend to arise from the provocation of irascibility. […]

[One of these fathers] delivered a certain brother from the disquieting specters by which he was visited in the night by ordering him to minister to the sick and to fast while he did it. When asked about his rationale from employing this procedure, he replied:

‘Such afflictions are extinguished by no other remedy so well as by mercy.’”

(Dragon’s Wine and Angel’s Bread by Gabriel Bunge, pp 91, 90)

Orthodox Prison Ministry

The Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America has designated the Sixth Sunday of Pascha, Sunday, 17 May 2015, to be Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry (OCPM) Awareness Sunday in all parishes.   St. John Chrysostom  (d. 407AD) in a sermon offered these comments about doing prison ministry:

“Let us not, then, neglect to practice deeds of this kind and to live such a way of life.  Even if we should be unable to bring in food or to help by giving money, we still can cheer the prisoners by our words and hearten the soul that is discouraged, and assist in many other ways: for example, by conversing with the jailers, and making the guards more kind.  In fine, we shall accomplish some Good, whether little or great.

Moreover, if you say that there are not estimable, or upright, or well-mannered men in prison, but rather, murderers, and grave-robbers, and purse snatchers, and adulterers, and libertines, and men weighted down with many crimes, even by this observation  you are showing me the necessity for your visiting there.  For we have not been bidden to show mercy to the good, and to punish the wicked, but to show this kindliness to all.  Indeed, Scripture says, ‘Be as your Father in heaven who makes his sun to rise on the good and the evil, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.’ (Matt 5:45)

Well, then, do not bitterly denounce others, or be too severe a judge, but be gentle and kind.  We ought to be so for, even if we have not become adulterers, or grave-robbers, or purse-snatchers, we ourselves are guilty of innumerable other offenses that are deserving of punishment.  Perhaps we have often called our brother a fool, and this merits hell-fire for us (Matt 5:22).  Or we have looked upon women with unchaste glances, and this amounts to the committing of adultery (Matt 5:28).   Or, most serious of all, we have partaken unworthily of the Mysteries, and this makes us guilty of the Body and Blood of Christ (1 Cor 11:27).  Let us not then, be harsh judges of the rest, but let us reflect on our own guilt and thus we shall stop showing this merciless and cruel attitude.

Apart from this, we can also assert that even there we shall find many estimable men, who frequently are as good as anyone in the whole city.   Even that prison where Joseph was contained many criminals (Gen 39-41); nevertheless, that just man cared for the rest.  I say this for he was as good as anyone in the whole of Egypt; nevertheless, he lived in the prison, and no one of those in it knew him.  …

Besides, your Master also did not speak only to the just and flee from the impure.  On the contrary, He received even the Canaanite woman with much kindness, and also the Samaritan woman who was under a cloud, and impure besides (Mark 7:24-30; John 4:1-26).  Further, He received and restored to spiritual health another harlot, because of whom the Jews even reproached Him, and He allowed His feet to be washed by the tears of the impure woman, to teach us to show kindly attitude to those who are in sin (Luke 7:36-50).  Indeed, this is the essence of mercy.  …

Is there a murderer living in the prison?  Let us not, despite this, be faint-hearted in doing him good.  Is there a grave-robber or an adulterer?  Still, let  us take pity, not on their evil-doing, but on their misfortune.  And frequently, as I have said, one even will be found there who is superior to any number of men.  Moreover, if you continually visit those in prison you will not fail to come upon such a treasure.  Just as Abraham, in giving hospitality to any who chanced to come, once happened upon angels, so we also will at least happen upon great men if we do this good work.”  

(HOMILIES ON ST. JOHN 48-88, pp 146-149)

Patristic Admonition: Christmas Charity Means Sharing Blessings

“St. John Chrysostom put it thus:

‘The ascetic see his asceticism but saves no one else, while the one who gives out of charity is a blessing to all. Charity is greater than miracles and covers over all our sins, for to feed the hungry is to feed Christ and is greater than raising the dead to life. God himself becomes indebted to such a person. The wings of charity take us beyond the angels to the throne of God.’

St. John goes to the very limit in comparing charity to the Eucharist:

‘The Eucharist only is celebrated on the altar in the church while charity is found everywhere in the streets, in every public place.’

In his epistle St. James shows the true nature of charity in its hidden depth: ‘Visit the poor in their affliction.’ This is an act of being totally present, for Christ identifies himself with the suffering. For St. Cyprian, ‘to share one’s possessions is to feed Christ in the poor.’ The Didachē had long before stressed this: ‘May your charity warm your hands.’ This is an astonishing saying reminiscent of the words of the disciples at Emmaus: ‘Did not our hearts burn within us as he taught us!’ For St. Gregory Nazianzus our attitude towards the poor is rooted in the human ascent to God and becomes our response to the essential mystery. It is by charity that we acquire our heavenly ‘solidity’ and our truth, our participation in eternal, divine love.

For St. Gregory of Nyssa, to spurn the poor is to destroy the hidden unity of the world. It is to refuse the one God. The community of Jerusalem did its charity through the hands of the deacons and bestowed on them the apostolic seal of sharing the community’s possessions. Thus we can understand why St. Jerome put charity before the construction and adornment of churches. Chrysostom echoed this:

‘God has never condemned anyone for not having embellished the churches with superb ornaments but he threatens with hell those who will not give charitably.’

Charity, in the Fathers’ meaning, is radically opposed to ‘paternalism,’ the work of those ‘obliged.’ Because we are not the masters of our wealth, charity has nothing to do with what is superfluous, but real sharing.”   (In the Worlds, of the Church, A Paul Evdokimov Reader, pp 85-86)

Indebted to Christ for Being Freed of Debt

SS Peter and Paul

“It is evident from the Scripture that forgiveness of offences – debts – is central to the teaching and ministry of Christ, and fundamental to our own salvation, and the inclination to forgive even appears to be ingrained in our nature, though frequently it is not manifested and often it is ardently resisted. Moreover, Christ is firm and absolute in telling us that if we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven. It is evident, therefore, that any failure on our part to forgive, forms a barricade between us and the heavenly kingdom, a wall between us and God. Forgiveness of others and sincere repentance are intimately related, for when we search our own souls and examine our own sinful disposition and the condition of our own characters, it is easier to forgive others.  […]  

St. Paul converted by Christ

One who has not forgiven others absolutely has not repented of his own sins. He is still in bondage to Satan through his own malice and bitterness; he is still judging his neighbor. Those Christ warns, ‘Do not judge, let you be judged in the same manner.’ Which one of us could survive if we were truly judged with the same measure, criterion and rigidness with which we dare to judge others? Not only is it perfect and all-wise justice that we should be judged by the same standard with which we judge others, and that we should not be forgiven if we have not forgiven others, but no matter how present and available God’s mercy is, one who does not forgive cannot receive forgiveness, because he has not even begun to repent and not even truly sough God’s forgiveness.” (Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, Not By Bread Alone: Homilies on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, pp 54-54)

Mercy: Moving Beyond Pity

The Lord Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan to change a lawyer’s thinking from “Who is my neighbor?” to “To whom can I become a neighbor?”  We find the story in Luke 10:25-37.   

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Fr.  Theodore Stylianopoulos comments:               

“The Gospel reading for the 8th Sunday of Luke, which is the Parable of the Good Samaritan, makes exactly this point: it was possible even in the first-century Palenstine for a mortally wounded Jew to be passed up by a Jewish priest and a Levite and to be helped by a Samaritan who was a supposed enemy. MERCY OR INDIFFERENCE ARE NOT SO MUCH A MATTER OF A PARTICULAR AGE OR CULTURE, BUT A MATTER OF THE INDIVIDUAL HEART. The Samaritan showed mercy to the dying Jew. What does mercy (eleos or hesed) mean according to the Bible? It means primarily not a feeling but a helpful act showing faithfulness, grace, kindness and love. Jesus quoted a prophetic saying to the Pharisee, ‘I want mercy, not sacrifice (Mt. 12:7),’ and He instructed His followers, ‘Be merciful just as your Father (in heaven) is merciful (Lk. 6:36).’ St. Isaac the Syrian defined a merciful heart as a heart burning with love for all creation, human beings, animals, birds, even devils, a heart which cannot bear injury or anything hurtful in creation without shedding burning tears of love. In the prayers and hymns of the Orthodox Church Christ is frequently called Merciful. Christ is the embodiment of sacrificial love, a love that cannot bear the suffering of humanity but comes to the world to redeem humanity from the slavery of sin even though the cost is crucifixion.” ( A Year of the Lord: Fall, p 118)

Christ Has Entrusted You With His Gospel

Several of the hymns from the services for Great and Holy Tuesday call to mind Christ’s parable of the Master who before going on a journey entrusts to his servants some of his money.  When the master returns from his journey he demands an accounting from his servants as to what they did with the differing great sums of money he had entrusted to each of them.  Here is the parable that Jesus tells according to St. Matthew (25:14-30) :

“”For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’

He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.'”

That the hymns mention this particular parable of Christ makes me think that at some point in the past, the Gospel was read as part of Holy Week, though it no longer is.  The theme is one of judgement and giving account.  So as we come to the end of Lent we are reminded that we will have to give account of what we did with the time and the spiritual gifts Christ bestowed on us through the weeks of Lent.

You have heard the condemnation, my soul of the man who his his talent.  Do not hide the Word of God.  Proclaim His wonders,  that increasing the gift of grace, you may enter into the joy of the Lord.

The hymn above again reminds us that these weeks of lenten abstinence are connected to a bigger picture of what it means to be a Christian.  Fasting was not the goal of Lent, but a tool to help us focus on what is important to our our life as Christ’s disciples.  The hymn says we each are like those in the Gospel Lesson who have been personally given a precious gift from God.  In the above hymn the priceless gift is the Word of God.  What have we done with the Word of God in our lives for these weeks of Great Lent?  We might protest, but all the emphasis was on fasting, not on the Word of God, why is this only brought up at this point?  Note in the hymn that the Word of God is a person, not a book.  The Word of God is Jesus Christ.  We were supposed to be making room in our hearts, souls and minds for Christ, the Word of God.  To borrow some computer imager, abstinence from food or sin was supposed to be freeing up space and memory in order that our spiritual lives might run better and that we would have spiritual room in our lives for Christ the Word.

Come, Faithful, let us work zealously for the Master, for he distributes wealth to His servants.  Let each of us according to his ability increase his talent of grace:  Let one be adorned in wisdom through good works; let another celebrate a  service in splendor.  The one distributes his wealth to the poor; the other communicates the Word to those untaught.  Thus we shall increase what has been entrusted to us, and, as faithful stewards of grace, we shall be accounted worthy of the Master’s joy.  Make us worthy of this, Christ our God, in Your love for mankind.

Once again in the hymn we are reminded that Christ our Lord has distributed spiritual gifts to each of us and we are supposed to be using them to increase the wealth of grace given to us and to the Church as a whole.  Good deeds such as being charitable to the poor, as well as worshiping God in the church services, and proclaiming the Word to those who do not yet know the Lord Jesus are all ways in which we increase the blessings God bestows on us.  And like the Master in the parable, God will demand an accounting from us of what we have done with the gifts He gave us, with the time we have on earth, with the blessings he bestows on us.  Lenten abstinence was meant to turn us away from ways in which we while away our time, or waste the blessings in selfish pursuit of pleasure.  We were supposed to use the time of Lent in service of God and others!

Behold, the Master has entrusted you with the talent, my soul.  Receive the gift with fear.  Repay the One who gave by giving to the poor, and gain the Lord as your friend, so that when He comes in glory, you may stand at His right hand and hear His blessed  voice:  Enter, My servant, into the joy of your Lord!  Even though I have gone astray, make me worthy of this savior, through Your great mercy.

Our works of charity and mercy are our ways of “repaying” God for the gift of existence and of eternal life.  Many of the saints used the imagery that we indebt God to ourselves when we show charity to the needy.  The hymn above reminds us of the Gospel Parable of the Last Judgment in which we are commanded to show mercy and charity to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.  The real fast according to Isaiah 58 (a text we read in the last week of Great Lent) involved being merciful and charitable.  God will accept that type of fasting and will bless us in eternity.   All that we have including our time is a gift from God to be used to love and serve God’s children.   Such is the spiritual fasting we were supposed to be doing through Lent – not wasting God’s gifts on our selfish self interests, but using them to extend God’s mercies and message to more people.  If all we did during Lent was change our diet or inflict suffering on ourselves, we fell short of the goal – to open our hearts and lives to Christ so that we might be more Christ-like in our love for neighbor and our faithfulness to our Father in heaven.