In the discussion of a previous post, someone brought up a quotation by St. John Chrysostom found in the Orthodox Study Bible (Matthew 26: 6-13). St. John’s commentary concerns the anointing of Jesus by a woman in Bethany before His death, and the disciples’ indignant response to the waste. St. John comments that the disciples were not wrong “in principle.” He goes on to say, “If anyone had asked Christ before the woman did this, He would not have approved it. But after she had done it, He looks only to the gift itself. For after the fragrant oil had been poured, what good was a rebuke? Likewise, if you should see anyone providing a sacred vessel or ornament for the walls of the church, do not spoil his zeal. But if beforehand he asks about it, command him to give instead to the poor.”
I love these gracious words by St. John. It’s always very easy to imagine something “better” someone else could have done with their gifts to God. If I have not been asked beforehand, then I must assume that it is because God has not given to me the wisdom this person needs. It really is a kind of arrogance to think I know better than the giver how the gift should be given. I have often looked haughtily at stained glass windows and fancy (expensive) church decorations with a tinge (or maybe a truckload) of arrogance in my heart. God forgive me for not seeing the gift.
At the same time, I think I need to point out that the Cathedral in Constantinople at the end of the fifth century and Holy Nativity Mission in Langley, BC at the beginning of the twenty-first century are in very different circumstances. First of all, Holy Nativity Mission is, well, a mission. There is no emperor to fund us, no government support, no endowment, no money from headquarters, no investments, no rents. There is only us. If we do not support Holy Nativity, it will not be supported. Holy Nativity Mission is the poor.
Certainly there are poorer, and if anyone asks me whether they should give a gift to Holy Nativity or to, let’s say, the Surrey Woman’s Shelter, I will be very pained to find an answer. In the past when I have been pressed to give a recommendation, based on the life and giving patterns of Sts. Joachim and Anne, I have recommended that the gift be split, half going to the “temple” and half to the poor. Sts. Joachim and Anna “tithed” two-thirds of their income in this way: one third to the temple and one third to the poor.
St. Peter the Damascene said “As the poor should give thanks to God and love the rich who do them good, even more should the rich give thanks to God and love the poor; for they are saved by the providence of God … because of their alms.” While I embrace wholeheartedly the words of St. John Chrysostom about the priority of giving to the poor, I suggest that all the poor may not always be in homeless shelters.