The Poor are Our Gateway to the Kingdom
Some readers might be surprised by this title, but it expresses the theology of our Church and our view of the poor. I will rely first of all on a simple testimony from the great theological saint Gregory of Nyssa, who spoke the very words of this title, “the poor are our gateway to the Kingdom.” He says, “These poor are the ones who store away the good things that we look upon. They are the gatekeepers of the Kingdom. They open the gates before the merciful and shut them in the face of the cruel ones who do not do good. They are the strongest accusers and the best defenders. They do not accuse and defend with words, but the Lord sees what is done to them. Every action cries out in a loud voice before God, the searcher of hearts.”
When we approach fasting, its complete foundation is the dimension that today we call “the social dimension” which in the Gospel is “the dimension of love”. In order to enter into the holy fast, we must be aware that we have to fulfill within it the dimension of love. From the beginning of Christianity, we have abundant testimonies starting from the second century that Christians had in the church a “common box”. When one of the faithful was in need of help, they would fast, cutting themselves off from food and subsisting for that day only on bread and water. They would bring the price of the food to the church and put it in the common box and it would then be distributed to believers in need.
So the dimension of love is the foundation. The first Christians understood this and embodied the words of the Gospel, which often speaks of love and of serving the needy, whatever their need is. Here we need to make a simple review of the concept of poverty in the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments. Through it, we will touch on some of the testimonies found in the Bible about the importance of giving, serving, and helping.
The Poor in the Old Testament
In the Old Testament, when people did not know the full dimension of faith in Christ and their life was focused on the earth more than on the heavenly kingdom, they looked at wealth as a blessing from God and at poverty as a curse from God. However, in the Old Testament the Bible emphasizes the necessity of helping those in need and of taking care of strangers, especially widows, orphans, and the poor. This emphasis on helping the poor was even though poverty was a curse from God and a sign of God’s displeasure with a person. This was until the prophets in the Old Testament changed this view and condemned the rich who exploited the wealth of the poor and profiting from their account. They rebuked them for their hardness of their hearts since they were not concerned with helping the poor. The Prophet Isaiah said in chapter 58, “Is it a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; When you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like the morning, Your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’”
And so with the prophets began the connection between helping the needy and perfecting worship. That is, helping the needy became a part of worship and worship by its very definition was not accepted by God if it was not connected to serving the needy. The Prophet Isaiah mentions this in another text, in the first chapter of his book, where he mentions that we must care for the poor and have justice for the orphan. “Defend the fatherless, give justice to the oppressed, plead for the widow. ‘Come now, and let us reason together,’ says the Lord, ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.’” The Prophet Isaiah said these words after rebuking the people for their luxurious worship, which God loathed and turned His face from. He said to them, “I turn my nose away from the smell of your incense so that I will not smell it. Your songs are abhorrent to me and your fasts are heavy for me.” That is, all the worship that the people undertook was unacceptable to God because they did not care for the orphans, the widows, the poor, and the needy. So we see a great development with the prophets of the Old Testament when they began to show the believing people that love, living love for the poor and needy, is a part of worship and that worship by its very definition, whether it is prayers or fasting, is unacceptable when it is not actively connected to love.
In the Book of Daniel, the prophet says, “Break off your sins with alms, and your iniquities with mercy to the wretched. Perhaps there may be a lengthening of your prosperity.” This is the very same idea that continues with us to today and doing good is taken into account by God, who when He notices it gives the one who does it good things in return. There are many who love to give and to offer help and donations, but the reason for them doing this is not love for the needy so much as selfishness: if I give, God will bless me and give me more. The Bible is in agreement with this viewpoint and confirms it to the degree that in the New Testament the Fathers of the Church consider almsgiving and assistance to the needy to bring about forgiveness of sins.
The Book of Jesus ben Sirach says, “Just as water puts out fire, so too does almsgiving do away with sins.”
And in the Psalms, “Blessed is the one who looks after the poor. On the day of evil, the Lord will save him.”
In the Book of Tobias, “Prayer is good with fasting and almsgiving because almsgiving saves from death and purifies one from sins.”
The words of Jesus ben Sirach, “prayer with fasting and almsgiving does away with sins and brings blessings” reminds us of the Sermon on the Mount where Christ talked about the three pillars of the Christian faith: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
The Poor in the New Testament
In the New Testament, the idea of the prophets, which came about in the seventh century before Christ and continued to develop until the New Testament, was perfected and the viewpoint became different from the Old Testament. In the New Testament, wealth was no longer a sign of God’s blessing and poverty was no longer a sign of God’s curse. Instead, poverty came to be blessed because it helps people to not be attached to the bonds of this world. And so with the New Testament, poverty came to have a spiritual aspect: we are able to use poverty, if we find ourselves in that state, to rise above the things of this world. Poverty is not in itself blessed, but according to the New Testament, if we are poor then we are able to use are poverty in order to ascend spiritually. This viewpoint connects with some of the fathers, such as Saint John Chrysostom who considers poverty to be a very important Christian virtue. Not all are capable of it and it is not given to all. Poverty is no longer a curse from God, but the New Testament stresses that poverty must be combatted and that the poor must be aided. This is what the first Christians understood and continued to understand.
We know that Christianity is the religion that distinguishes itself in love more than any other religion and it has produced many very great people who gave up their entire life for the sake of love and for the sake of the poor. Christians are the ones who established all what we call today humanitarian institutions. All the concern for the human condition, human dignity—and humans need to live in dignity and respect—all these concepts and institutions that were founded on the basis of them came from an evangelical, Christian background.
Thus, in the New Testament, we have the parable of the Judgment that we read in the Church on the Sunday before Lent. In it, Christ goes so far as to say “I am the poor and I am the hungry. I am the thirsty and I am the sick. I am the imprisoned and I am the naked.” He completely identifies himself with the needy. For this reason, he considered every gift and assistance offered to the needy to be offered to his own person. Thus, the Christian understanding is that when one encounters someone in need, he should see it as an encounter with Christ because Christ says, “Everything that you have done for one of these little ones you have done for me.” And he says, “Everything that you have not done for one of these little ones, you have not done for me.” This means that we will be judged, not only on the basis of the work of love that we have done and for which we will receive recompense, but we will also be judged and receive punishment for the love that we could have offered but did not. Thus, with the parable of the Judgment the issue of poverty and the poor in Christianity reaches its apex, to the point that it becomes personal service to Christ.
Chrysostom says, speaking for Christ, “You have heard about me that I am robed in light, but when you clothe one naked I feel warmth and I have been covered. You believe that I sit at the right hand of my Father in heaven, but when you go to the prison and take care of the prisoners you see me sitting there.” Chrysostom also talks about giving, to encourage people to do it: “Because he is poor, feed him so that you will have fed Christ.” There is a complete identification between the poor and Christ. “If you see a wretched person, remember that even if it is evident that he is not Christ, He is the one who asks you and receives from you, in the form of the other.” This is how the poor reached a very high rank among Christians, because they are the means by which we are able to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. We will mention some of the attributes or names that the Fathers of the Church give to the poor. Chrysostom says, “How great is the place of the poor, since they are like God’s inner room. The inner room is the bedchamber, the room of God the Creator, may He be exalted, in which He is hidden. The poor extend their hands begging, but it is God who receives your alms.” In this way Christianity came to look upon the poor as having honor and as being worthy of respect, just like any wealthy person. For this reason Chrysostom also says that if our Lord deemed the poor worthy to share with Him at his table (that is, in the Lord’s table, in the holy chalice, that is the Eucharist), then by what right do you have to prevent the poor from sitting at your table, if you are rich?
When Saint John the Merciful (Patriarch of Alexandria in the seventh century) became patriarch, he wanted the people to hold a celebration for him and he told them, “Invite to the celebration my masters.” They said to him, “Master, you are Patriarch of Alexandria, you have no masters. You are master over all.” He said to them, “No. I have many masters. Invite for me my masters to the banquet of honor that you want to hold for me.” They did not understand him. They thought that he wanted them to invite the authorities of the country, important people and celebrities. The deacon came and told him that they were thinking of inviting so-and-so and such-and-such a person… He said to him, “My son, I said to you to invite for me my masters. My masters are the poor. They are the ones who will grant me entrance into the Kingdom. They are the ones whom Christ made equal to himself. We only have one Lord. Every person in whom is the Lord is a lord for us.” He always said these words until they stuck with him.
On this basis honoring the stranger, the needy, the poor, the visitor, is considered to be the basic virtue for Christians and in monasticism it is considered to be giving honor to Christ directly. For this reason monks in monasteries are very concerned with the virtue of hospitality and so they accept all people. In Orthodox monasteries especially, people visit and sleep there and if they are hungry they eat, not feeling that they are in a formal institution because what is within the monastery is an offering from God to all people. This is how this tradition has come down: In every monastery there is a large hall with all the furnishings called “the guest-house” (or in Greek archondariki) where all the guests of the monastery stay and sleep.
Thus Christianity gives very great honor to the poor. All worldly thinking that we are unfortunately influenced by from time to time talks about giving from above. It says, “we give somewhat what we are able” as though we are doing good for him. We give him alms. There is nothing called ‘alms’ or ‘charity’ in Christianity or in the Gospel because this means that you are giving without feeling. That is, when you give alms or charity it is because you feel an obligation without love springing up from within you. Giving in Christianity is giving in love. Otherwise, it has no value because you are giving to Christ himself. You are unable to give to Christ when you are dry-hearted. It does not mean anything for you to give without looking at the person, without caring. Unfortunately, sometimes in Christianity we have experiences that are not successful in Christian terms. There are groups that have founded organizations and charitable institutions that give with very much sincerity and honesty but they do not love the poor who benefit from their services and instead hate them because they are giving from above. Sometimes you see where someone has posted the saying “beware the evil of one for whom you have done good” on small boards in stores. Why? Because we give to them from above. Meaning: It is true that they take the material gift that they need in order to buy medicine or food or to educate their children, but the gift has no feeling of love. It humiliates them and they feel ashamed, like they have been rejected, and so they have a reaction against the one giving. This is not Christian giving. Christians cannot say “beware the evil of one for whom you have done good” because they love those for whom they do good and that love is also reciprocated.
What are the images of the poor?
The first image that Christ gave us is that of the Good Samaritan: the enemy who becomes, through an act of mercy, a neighbor. The Samaritan was an enemy of the Jews, but because he loved the Jew who was wounded and left for dead and saved him, he became his neighbor more than any Jewish priest and more than any Levite serving in the Temple. That is, he became his neighbor more than any authority of the religion to which he belonged, more than his own people, the people of his own religion. Thus, it is the enemy who becomes the closest neighbor to us.
The second image is very beautiful. It is given to us by Saint John Chrysostom, who says that the poor are the porters who carry us. He says that all of us, when we move to a new house, want to move our possessions and we are in need of porters to move our possessions for us. When we move to our heavenly abode, we have those who move all the valuables that belong to us and that we need in our heavenly abode above, without us paying them and without complaint. They are the poor. He says literally: “How can we not awaken from our sleep and realize that we reside in a strange country and that we will soon return to our homeland. Until now, we were not paying attention to carrying our wealth and transporting our possessions there. Those who undertake moving to their country from a foreign land have to pay for the voyage and for transport and they take great trouble to send their belongings safely. But here we encounter those who transport our belongings without trouble, without complaint, without pay and without provision, and they send them safely to our homes through the dangers of the road. And despite this, we reject them? They are the poor.”
Another very widespread image among Christians is that “the poor are intercessors.” They intercede for those who help them. And so when we do a work of mercy, we gain for ourselves an intercessor. We often notice that the poor pray for those who give to them “God give you success”, “God give you health”, “God save your children”… These prayers are very important because they come from a wounded and sincere heart. When we give, we ourselves profit. This is why the Bible says, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Giving contains joy and those who become accustomed to this joy are never sated by it. They take pleasure in giving, not in receiving. Our culture today is the opposite, being based on possessing and receiving. Thus, “one who loves the poor,” says Chrysostom, “is like one who has an intercessor in the judge’s house. One who opens his door to the destitute holds in his hand the key to God’s door. One who loans money to those who ask him is paid back by the Lord of All.”
The poor are also a living example for us and in this way they preach to us. We often talk in sermons about the transient nature of this world and how it will not remain for anyone and that at any time we are subject to falling ill or become disabled or fall into problems or an accident could happen to us. Why do we preach this? We preach this because we want to free the faithful from their material circumstances in which they live, which draw them only to worldly cares. It is the duty of the Church to preach to people and to open their eyes to another side of life. Life is not only worldly cares. Before us is the Kingdom of Heaven, where we desire to live, eternal life. We must be aware of the transience of this world so that we do not become very attached to it. Some of the Fathers of the Church also say: It is true that preachers speak these words, but the poor truly show you. They show you in reality. For this reason they are the true preachers before you and living examples who show you what the Bible tells you, that you should not be attached to the world and “let us cast aside all earthly cares and receive the King of All.”
Giving in Christianity
The Christian viewpoint is connected to considering the poor to be preferable to the rich because by helping them the rich receive a blessing by which their sins are forgiven, they become more sensitive, they are saved and so enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Who is the one who benefits? The one who pays a little bit of money or the one who receives God’s grace and His blessing? Thus giving, in the Christian understanding, is giving from below not from above. There is no preference in it. When I give, I should be completely convinced that the person to whom I am giving is actually serving me rather than me serving him. The predominant view in society is exactly the opposite. For this reason one of the effects of giving and service to the poor is that it saves us from judgment. The Bible says, “Break off your sins with alms, and your iniquities with mercy to the wretched. Perhaps there may be a lengthening of your prosperity.” It also says, “One who gives to the poor is not in need, to one who covers his eyes from many curses” (Proverbs).
Alms, or giving, also causes us to resemble God because God gave Himself and not only the good things of His creation to mankind. He gave Himself to mankind and He died for their sake on the cross. Thus when we give from what we ourselves need, from what we lack and not from our surpluses, we resemble God. This is why Chrysostom says, “One who has mercy on the poor makes a loan to God” and the Lord will repay us on the last day. And so every act of giving is a debt for God that He will return to you on the last day. This is why he does not say, “One who has mercy on the poor, the Lord will have mercy on him or the Lord will bless him” but rather says that he makes a loan to the Lord because He will return the loan at the appropriate time.
Blessed Augustine says, “How can you ask of your Lord, you who do not respond to your equal?” The poor is your equal. He is a person just like you. He asks from you and you do not respond to him while at the same time you stand there and ask God to bless you and give to you, but you are not like God. Thus, in Christian spirituality the Gospel says, “Do not turn away anyone who asks from you.” That is, do not say “no” to him. Today, many people see this to be difficult and so we say, “He does not deserve it. He is a liar. We know him.”
Giving also grants us spiritual and material blessings because in exchange for this small blessing that we have given, God gives us great blessings. Here we recall the parable of the widow who put her two mites in the poor-box. Christ said to his disciples that she put “more than anyone”. The disciples were naturally surprised by these words because they saw how people gave gold coins and large sums and they said to him, “How can you say this, teacher? She only put two mites in.” He said to them , “She was in need of her two mites to feed her children, but despite this she denied herself and her children and gave them away. For this reason her offering is accepted by God more than those given by others in their surplus. She gave out of her need.”
The subject of giving is very important on a human level. Each one of us needs to pay heed to how we must deny ourselves some things so that we may give to others, even if we have plenty. Do we have much? Then we give much! However, we must train ourselves to deny ourselves something in order to give it to others, because this benefits us. It frees us from within, from every attachment that we have.
Saint Justin (2nd century) mentions in his apology for the Christians, “We Christians, who as humans have loved the ways of acquiring wealth and property over everything else, now offer what we own to the common box and we share it with every person in need. And so there was an official box in the Church from the second century which is what we call in some parishes today the “box of love” or the “poor box.” In another apology, he says, “We have turned our attention to the outcast and the ignored. Our active love has become the bond that distinguishes us before the enemy… Look at what the pagans say about us. They say: How they love each other and how they are ready to sacrifice their life for each other!” This is why wealth is considered by Christians, and especially great Fathers of the Church, to be a grace insofar as it permits the one possessing it to give, to do works of mercy, and to help greatly. The understanding of wealth is changed, from being a blessing from God that we deserve, to being a grace that God gives us so that through it we can receive many blessings. How do we receive the blessings? It is when we give, and not when we store up. This is why the Christian tradition looks at wealth as trusteeship and not as a personal possession. Christ said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” His disciples asked him, “Then who is able to be saved?” He responded by saying, “For humans, it is impossible, but for God everything is possible.” The Fathers of the Church explain this by saying that wealth is a way, a means, a possibility, for us to receive God’s mercy, when we distribute it and give it to the needy because in the measure that we give we receive a blessing. If we are rich and we have great ability, then we receive blessings to the degree that we give of this wealth. This is why wealth is considered to be trusteeship that God has entrusted us with to distribute to His needy children. It is not our own property. This is the deep theological viewpoint.
Saint Cyprian says: Possessions are a trusteeship and the rich are their trustees. They must imitate God’s munificence and generosity in sharing material things with their neighbors so that all may have food and so that the earth may be a common possession for all.”
Chrysostom says, “Those whom I attack are not the rich, they are those who use their wealth poorly. Wealth is one thing and desiring others’ wealth is something else. It is possible for you to have wealth and to use it for acts of love and it is possible for you to have wealth that you store up.”
Saint Ambrose says, “Alms from a miser are merely the restitution of stolen goods.” This means that when I give a needy person a loaf of bread, I am only restoring to him the loaf that I stole from him.
However, on a personal level each one of us must think: How many things do I have that I don’t need? And how many times do I go back and accumulate more! In this way I can see many things that I have stolen from those who have nothing!
The saying from Saint Ambrose is very harsh. However, in reality it is good for people to live as they pray, “give us this day our daily bread.” We pray this every day. But do we put it into practice?
After this survey of the Old and New Testaments, we hope that we can apply some of these sayings, each one of us as we are able.