Not Yours, But You: Almsgiving in the Modern Age

On the Pauper’s Bench, Francois Bonvin, 1864
On the Pauper’s Bench, Francois Bonvin, 1864

In the Gospels there are many “hard sayings” of our Savior. Of these hard sayings, there are also many which have been all but forgotten — even by those who sincerely strive to be faithful Christians. Of these hard and forgotten sayings, I would like to call our attention today to one in particular:

When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.

If we are honest with ourselves, I think most of us will find that the idea of taking Christ at His word here makes us deeply uncomfortable. Now, I am not trying to suggest that Christ is forbidding us from ever inviting our friends and family over to dinner. But I do think that He was quite serious was He commanded us to invite “the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind.”

How many of us actually do so? More than that, how many of us are able to even consider doing so without experiencing a profound feeling of dismay?

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps many Christians really do make a habit of inviting homeless and disabled strangers into their homes for dinner. They sure used to:

Nor were the poor stigmatized [during the Middles Ages]. If anything they were thought to be morally superior to the rich, particularly if they had voluntarily renounced secular wealth and power. Monks, nobles, and wealthy persons would wash the feet of the poor and invite them to dine. St. Louis, King of France in the 13th century, cut bread and poured drink himself for the paupers whom he fed at his own table.

If one reads the lives of the saints, it is clear King Louis was far from an isolated exception. And although hospitality towards the poor is a quintessentially Christian phenomenon, it is also one with echoes in many ancient cultures and religious traditions throughout the world. Yet in the modern West, hospitality is all but dead:

In a recent issue of The Alabama Baptist, state leader Dr. Rick Lance tells of a foreign exchange student who was completing his education in the United States and about to head home. To his roommate, he said, “You can have this suitcase and everything in it.”

The friend said, “What’s in it?”

The exchange student said, “When I left home for America, my family filled it with gifts to be presented to families inviting me into their homes. But no one ever invited me, so everything is still in the suitcase.”

Rick says this is just about the saddest story he has heard in a long time.

But this is by no means to say that the poor are entirely forgotten. On the contrary, modernity has facilitated the creation of vast social organizations and welfare programs dedicated solely to feeding, clothing, and housing the poor. The War on Poverty might have fallen out of fashion as a catchphrase, but not for lack of funding: the US government spent $754 billion last year on domestic welfare programs alone (this does not include foreign aid).

Almsgiving has become systemized. Charity has become organized.

But the word “alms” comes from the Greek word “ἔλεος” — mercy, the same word used in the eternal refrain of the faithful in Orthodox worship: “Lord, have mercy.” To give alms means to participate in the mercy and the divine love of God.

It most emphatically does not mean to merely give someone a handout.

Likewise, the word “charity” once meant “love.” And not just any love — no, it once meant divine love, the love of God, a love so great and so eternal that St. Paul once thundered forth some of the most famous words in all Christendom: “and now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”

Nowadays, the word “charity” means a check that we write once a month and stuff absentmindedly into an envelope, never to be thought of again.

And so it has come to pass that we Americans can spend hundreds of billions of dollars each year on “charity,” and yet for the most part it would never even occur to us to invite so much as one destitute stranger into our homes. More than this, I truly believe that most of us would far prefer to part with hundreds or even thousands of our hard-earned dollars rather than to spend even one such evening “entertaining strangers.”

Though this bizarre and depressing phenomenon has perhaps reached its apogee in modern times, it has its roots at least several centuries into the past. In the 19th-century novel Bleak House, Charles Dickens described the “telescopic philanthropy” of Mrs. Jellyby, whose constant obsession with missionary work halfway around the world blinds her to the misery she causes her to her own family. Likewise, in The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky there occurs a character who states:

I love mankind, but I am amazed at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons. In my dreams, I often went so far as to think passionately of serving mankind, and, it may be, would really have gone to the cross for people if it were somehow suddenly necessary, and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days, this I know from experience. As soon as someone is there, close to me, his personality oppresses my self-esteem and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I can begin to hate even the best of men: one because he takes too long eating his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose. I become the enemy of people the moment they touch me. On the other hand, it has always happened that the more I hate people individually, the more ardent becomes my love for humanity as a whole.

Both novels present these characters with some degree of humor, but the tragedy here is deadly serious — and one which, if we are honest, is not so far from our own hearts.

What is this tragedy, in its essence? We can gain some insight from the meditations which Micah Mattix recently shared based on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics:

Friendship according to Aristotle is the “most necessary” virtue. I won’t go into Aristotle’s types of friendship (those founded on utility, pleasure, and virtue), but I appreciated his view that friendship is one of the foundations of civilization. It is what binds a city together. We see this idea in classical and modern literature, too. Friendship and hospitality (which is welcoming a stranger as a friend) are quintessentially human attributes in The Odyssey, for example, which are not shared by the gods or the sub-human cyclops. These two ideas—that friendship is the basis of civilization and a touchstone of humanity—are also found in Francis Bacon’s short essay “Of Friendship,” which is obviously drawn from classical sources. Whatever “delights in solitude,” Bacon writes, “is either a wild beast or a god. For it is most true, that a natural and secret hatred, and aversation towards society, in any man, hath somewhat of the savage beast.” It’s not that solitude is bad or unnecessary. It is that to live only in solitude is to live a sub-human life. Without friends, Bacon continues, the “world is but a wilderness.”

I want to continue with Mattix’ train of thought, but before doing so I must point out that it is precisely for this reason that the eremitic life of solitude is so incredibly dangerous for monastics who have not first spent many long years learning humility, obedience, and love in a cenobitic monastery. If a monk departs into the desert thinking that he is finally freeing himself from the burden of his brothers, then he will swiftly and undoubtedly perish. The Christian life of solitude can only be rightly undertaken by one whose heart, in the words of St. Isaac the Syrian (truly the hermit par excellence) “is burning with love for all creation.”

To return to Mattix:

It seems to me that we’ve lost this high view of friendship as an aspect of human identity, which we now regularly confuse with personality or view as a discrete construction of the autonomous will rather than as something that is composed of universal attributes. So, it is no surprise that our lives increasingly look like those of the cyclops. We live in caves, in fenced-in back yards, and “consume” each other—on television, in movies, on Facebook and Twitter. And because our lives (I’m speaking generally here about American culture) are ordered around maximizing physical pleasure, not virtue, they must end in suicide when the body’s capacity for physical pleasure wanes. The opioid crisis starts with this low view of human nature and won’t end until a grander view is recaptured, which I don’t see happening any time soon.

Mattix’ insight here is tremendous. The suicide of the West which we see all around us is, in a very real sense, the logical outcome of a society which no longer loves the poor, but merely hates poverty — a society in which men and women have chosen to give one another their money, but not themselves. A society which has departed infinitely far from the spirit in which St. Paul (whom we commemorate today on the Old Calendar) once cried out: “I seek not yours, but you.”

And let us Christians not allow ourselves to be distracted and confused by the many who preach the so-called “social gospel”: our Faith has absolutely nothing to do with an attempt to eradicate poverty. The Lord said: “ye have the poor always with you” — and what is more, He repeatedly pronounced the blessedness of the poor, while preaching woe to the rich and the comfortable. No, the War on Poverty is by no means a Christian war.

How are we to reconcile this with the tremendous emphasis on almsgiving in Christian life? After all, the charity of Christians was second perhaps only to martyrdom in attracting converts to the Faith during the early centuries of Christianity.

It is really quite simple: Christian almsgiving has nothing to do with money — it has everything to do with Christ. Almsgiving is about obeying the commandment of Christ to “make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness,” and of St. Paul to be as “they that buy, as though they possessed not; and they that use this world, as not abusing it: for the fashion of this world passeth away.”

Almsgiving is about turning the worthless things of this vain and swiftly-passing life into a means of giving to another human being the eternal love of God.

The early Christians caused astonishment to the secular society around them precisely because they showed such indifference towards wealth, freely distributing it to those whom society scorned as worthless. And yet this same contempt for worldliness has somehow been slowly transformed into a desire to make sure that everyone has plenty of stuff.

Consider the following passage from the books of Acts:

Now Peter and John went up together into the temple at the hour of prayer, being the ninth hour. And a certain man lame from his mother’s womb was carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, to ask alms of them that entered into the temple; who seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple asked an alms. And Peter, fastening his eyes upon him with John, said, Look on us. And he gave heed unto them, expecting to receive something of them. Then Peter said, Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk. And he took him by the right hand, and lifted him up: and immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength. And he leaping up stood, and walked, and entered with them into the temple, walking, and leaping, and praising God.

Here St. Peter fulfilled the true purpose of almsgiving, though he gave neither silver nor gold. Nor was it even physical healing that St. Peter principally gave; no, instead he gave to the lame man — and to all around — the most precious gift of all when he then cried out: “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord.”

Now I will ask you: what if St. Peter had merely taken out a twenty, dropped it in the man’s hat, and walked away?

Consider also what we have been warned concerning the Last Judgment, when we will stand before Christ and make an account of our lives on this earth:

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: and before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

These awesome and wondrous words of our Savior tell us that we have the chance, every single day, to meet Him in the flesh. But we will never meet Him — nor will we be found at the end of time to have fulfilled His commandments — if we think that it is merely our money that He wants. He is not asking for a check or for a handout. In the person of every stranger and every pauper that we meet, He cries out: “My son, give me thy heart.”

What we have lost in all of our foundations and benefits, our welfare programs and charity drives, is precisely this: we have lost Christ, and we have lost one another. And as a result, we are well on our way to losing our hearts, our very humanity.

On this feast of the Holy Chief Apostles Peter and Paul, let us follow their example and their advice. Let us obey the words of their Divine Teacher.

Let us invite a stranger over to dinner.

16 comments:

  1. Yet, we can never let people die due to inability to purchase medications and see doctors. Society truly has to make sure persons don’t fall through the cracks or that politics deliberately let these people suffer and die. A social state is required for human life. The church must do what its always been commanded to do to alleviate the poor and cast off. As long as that’s being done, then everything as described in the article makes perfect sense.

    1. I am certainly not trying to discourage people from helping the poor! As St. John says: “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?”

      1. And the other wonderful quote from st. Chrysostom regarding the redistribution of our wealth: ‘who ever has more than they need is stealing from the poor’

    2. Jonathan:
      You seem to be conflating “society, politics, and the church”. You go from one to the other, with no real precision, in my view. If you solely mean he latter, I agree with you. But if you mean it is the state’s role to assure medical care for its citizens, I do not.
      If health care is a “right”, then EVERYTHING is a right: food, clothing, and shelter. For which would the average Joe die from faster: lack of food or lack of access to a doctor? Or, in winter, from lack of shelter or lack of prescription medicines? And if all these things are rights, then the government is our father, mother, guardian, and eventually our god. To say health care is a human right is simply to espouse communism.
      Secondly, taxing one man involuntarily to pay another man’s ‘needs’ is hardly charity. In fact, it is breaking the commandment not to steal. Does any Christian really believe God condones taking from one without consent (or in the case of taxes, under duress) in order to help another? Or that it is a proper function of the Kingdom? Does not God “love a cheerful giver”?
      And lastly, yes, if health care is a right, then all the nurses, doctors and therapists are society’s slaves.
      Remember: if the government is positioned to meet all your needs, it is also positioned to be your master.

      Note from Fr. Gabriel: I approved this comment because I don’t want to allow a political statement from one person without allowing a contrary political statement from another person. However, I also don’t want the post (which was not political in nature) to get derailed by political arguments, so I won’t approve any follow-up comments in this thread. Hopefully we can all respect one another’s Christian sincerity in this matter.

  2. I think in the society we live in this is an almost impossible task. Unless we walk the streets in usually dangerous parts of town, the poor and needy are not within our ability to help. ROCOR has the Fund for Assistance, there are local food banks and food pantries and so forth to help many people. Inviting unknown people into your home is not practical for many of us, nor is it safe. This sounds like excuses for not helping, but I’m sure I’m not alone in this thinking.

  3. I agree with the above statement. Inviting strangers into our homes these days is just not acceptable, especially if we have families, or even more so, children in the home. We are putting our families at risk and danger of rape, murder, etc. by inviting “the poor” into our homes. I put quotation marks around the poor because I think it is an important point to remember that the culture and times in which the original biblical statements were written have changed dramatically. The way society and the economy works have changed dramatically. The poor used to be people who were poor sure to purely economic reasons that no longer exist, for the most part. Yes, there were exceptions, and yes, today there are those who also fall into that category. But coming from someone who has spent a lot of time with the homeless and have nots of our modern society, I can tell you that by and large “the poor” of today’s world are an entirely different breed. They are usually riddled with drug abuse, mental illness, prior incarceration, violent tendencies, poor character development, and a history of even poorer choices stemming from very sinful lives. I do not say this to judge them in any way or to imply that I am in any better shape than they spiritually. However, it is important to note that (again, for the most part but not always), “the poor” of our day and age are not the kind of people you want in your home with your children and elderly parents, etc. It is a very nice idea to invite strangers to dinner, but it fits into a day and age that is long past and is anachronistic to our own. However, I do agree fully with the spirit of the article that they require our hearts and compassion, and I think it’s a great idea to bring a bag lunch and sit down with them on the street (in a public and busy place with help nearby, and never alone) and eat with them and chat with them and really let them know that they’re a valued person despite their situation. That’s just my two cents. I liked the article very much though as a whole.

    1. We have had homeless folks actually live with us. No problems except for occasional minor theft (change taken out of the changes jar). On the other hand, they have happily helped us by cutting the grass, doing the dishes, and cleaning the gutters. One guy painted our house! Just our experience.

  4. Many of the imprisoned return to prison after they are released because they find that society and especially Christians reject them. Homeless people are often rejected, too, and many are men and women who were formerly imprisoned and are unable to find a job, church, long-term shelter, or friendship because so many fear them. Should we love them by inviting them into our homes as Christ says to do, accepting the inherent risk to ourselves or family, and thereby perhaps leading them to Christ and true conversion? When we let fear be our main barrier to carry out this call, are we falling into a trap of believing that Jesus can’t really convert sinners when He approaches them? If we actually took up this task, which seems scary to me, it seems to me that we would be like an icon of Christ’s love to this homeless person, and Jesus promises that the homeless would be like the embodiment of Jesus himself for us who give. Maybe a place to begin for those who are able would be to contact the local Orthodox Prison Ministry and offer to invite to dinner a parollee who has had a relationship with an Orthodox priest. I, too, find the idea of inviting a homeless person to dinner to be scary, but I see the point and don’t want to rule it out.

  5. I am glad that this conversation has started because it is an interesting problem and I have been trying to find the best response to today’s poor people for a while.

    First of all, let us take into consideration that we might be speaking from differing societal contexts. I write from Scotland.

    I agree that there groups of “poor” people (who may even, in theory, have access to resources) whom it is very difficult to approach personally, and this is especially so if you have children. There are people to whom it may not even be loving to give money to.

    How to help these people is one good question, and in my experience, organised charity is in many ways better.

    NEVERTHELESS, I don’t agree that we can call the message of this article unrealistic.

    There are also many other groups of people in need who will benefit from our hospitality. If you are a member of a parish for example, you will know such people, who will not return your hospitality. Or from your neighbourhood.

    There are more and more old ladies living alone, lonely, eating canned soups. There are old partially disabled men who make their way to the church. There are young families that are struggling with the pressures of raising children alone in the modern world.

    There are many students, away from their families, who are spending their days in university peer groups and who would be very refreshed from spending sometime in a family home.

    There are many Middle aged women, divorced and alone, who are a little boring, who also need companionship.

    All of these people whom I have mentioned, as examples only, would benefit especially from being invited into a family home where there are children around.

    Loneliness and isolation are big plagues in modern society where people live, in my mind, sub-human lives. And it is very encouraging for them to share a meal with a family.

    Not to mention: the traditional family structure, with all its joys and difficulties is u fee serious attack today. And there are many young people growing up who have very little experience of a happy home. Who have not seen a functional family with kids in years perhaps. Who are being attacked by anti-family propaganda. They would benefit greatly from sharing a meal with you with your kids running around.

    What about the old parishioners that haven’t come to your parish in a decade because they are house bound? Can you pick them up mace in a while and bring them over for the afternoon?

    No we can’t help everyone. But do we do what we can?

    1. I think you are spot on here. Find out who the elderly, poor, lonely are in your Church and visit them, invite them over for dinner, etc..

  6. Your post touches on something that I have thought about myself. I am one who gives money, but often, I have little interaction with the poor.

    As for the American view of the poor, it is better understood as developing from the Calvinist theology which settled into this country with the Puritans. As Max Weber shows, in his excellent little book “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” in their fear of not being one of “the elect of God,” Calvinists had to come up with some sort of sign that they were among God’s favored people. What they came up with was financial prosperity, the success of the work of their hands.

    Thus, poverty came to be regarded as a sign that one was out of favor with God, and hence, “God’s enemy.” (as the reprobate are described in Calvinism). Due to our broken sin natures, which naturally tend us away from the love of God in judgmentalism of others and greed for ourselves, this idea gained great traction and can be seen especially in the way that media advertising makes self- aggrandizement a virtue. Our charity, as you so well point out, becomes more of an exercise in tipping the poor rather than the self-giving and sacrificial love shown by our Master, especially on the Cross.

    May God have mercy on me and all others who feel that we have helped the poor when we have tossed a coin at them and gone our way.

  7. We are inviting the poor and underprivileged into our homes by way of our prayers and keeping them safe in our hearts. We can also donate $, time, Christmas baskets, clothing and much more in a variety of ways. Just “not forgetting them” is keeping them safe in our homes and hearts while we plan to provide in small (or big) ways. We can encourage them to go to Social Services or get a Social Worker to get to the bottom of their problems if that is a help.
    One does not have to be with us physically to be blessed with the power of prayer! God bless…..

  8. Thank you Father for a post that challenges us and confronts us with one of those ‘harder’ sayings of Christ. This is ultimately about loving your neighbour as yourself, as the second and equally important component of the greatest commandment. It is true that taking a completely random stranger into your home is a scary idea for most, but it need not be done this way. If we meet someone alone, or poor, or destitute, we can start by getting to know them a little (as someone above also mentioned). Have a coffee or meal together and talk. Like all of us, this person will want companionship and friendship and, sadly, many do not. Get to know them and build the relationship (assuming the other party is interested). Finally, as someone also mentioned, these folk will not be only those on the streets – they could live anywhere. I do not know how things are in the US, but in New Zealand there are many poor and disadvantaged people who live in houses / flats. May God help us to love as we ought to …

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