Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Between Existing and Witnessing to the Truth
"Antioch" is not merely a city. It has become a civilizational, religious, and historical symbol. "The City of God, Antioch the Great" is the city in which was born the name by which the followers of Jesus of Nazareth came to be known: "And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians" (Acts of the Apostles 11:26). One cannot speak of Christianity in the Arab East without talking about the great influence left by Antiochian theology and figures of the Antiochian Church on the entire Christian world.
The role of the city of Antioch declined, but it remained a symbol affirming the unity of Christians living in the Eastern Arab nations that constituted, according to ancient administrative divisions, the geographical unit of one local church whose affairs were governed by a Holy Synod composed of her sons. Modern states were established after the dissolution of the Ottoman state, but the church remained Antiochian and was not divided according to the newborn states. Rather, she insisted that she transcended borders and nations. The unity of her Arab Christian children, Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi, Palestinian..., is too strong for its bonds to be broken by political or administrative boundaries.
These words do not come from partisan motives or from current political considerations. They are rooted in the Antiochian Church's consciousness of her identity and witness. No one can doubt the loyalty of the children of the Church of Antioch toward their nations. However, the majority of them believe that their national loyalty in no way negates their commitment to the causes of the rest of the children of their church who belong to the entire territory of Antioch. Thus, we see the importance of the role that the Antiochian Church can play in the events that the nations of the Arab East are witnessing.
During what is called the era of the Arab renaissance in the 19th century until the middle of the 20th century, Antiochians adopted ideas produced by the European Enlightenment. In civil society, secularism, socialism, Arab and Syrian nationalism, they saw common linguistic, civilizational, cultural, national, geographical, social, or human bonds with their fellow-citizens and partners from among the Muslims and other people of the region in a single destiny. They saw in these ideas a way to liberation from the domination of a state clothed in religion that forbids them from their natural right to enjoy full citizenship without any disability. They were the point of the spear against ignorance, colonialism, and narrow sectarian affiliations and against the domination of backward religious thinking and the confusion of religion and politics.
Today we notice a regression on the level of the role entrusted to the Antiochian Church and to Antiochians, especially in matters connected to her witness and mission based on the living Antiochian heritage, from the Gospels to the writings of the fathers and teachers of the Church. In the context of events that will change the face of the region and the disappearing-- or almost disappearing-- stability of the future for its residents, the voice of the Church comes out with the truth.
For various reasons, the number of Middle Eastern Christians has continuously declined for four centuries. The Church's silence or at times her collusion, resulting from her fear for the fate of the Christian presence, will inevitably lead to the death of her witness and mission in today's world and at the same time it will in no way preserve the Christian presence. Fear over continued existence will lead to the loss of that existence and that witness at the same time. If only the Knower of the Unknown knows the future of existence, then "Antiochians" must not fear anything except losing their witness. Between existing and witnessing remains the hope that they will be able to carry out their witness without fearing for their existence.
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Press Release from the Patriarchal Residence
On the Occasion of the Meeting of His Beatitude Patriarch Ignatius IV
With Orthodox Deputies in Lebanon
Balamand Monastery, August 12 2011
His Beatitude Ignatius IV (Hazim), Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, held a meeting with his children, ministers from the Orthodox community, on Thursday, August 11 at the Greek Orthodox metropolitan’s residence in Beirut. He held a meeting with his children, deputies from the community on Friday, August 12 at the patriarchal residence at the Monastery of Our Lady of Balamand. During the two meetings, there was an extensive dialogue about the Orthodox role in Lebanon in particular and more generally in the Arab East and the emigration.
This is the first time that such meetings have been held in the presence of the patriarch and they will be repeated on account of the delicate historical stage through which the countries of the Arab East are passing and on account of the leading role of the Orthodox, not only because they are the largest and most widespread Christian community in the region, but also because they are distinguished by their openness to Muslims and Christians of other Middle Eastern Churches.
It is natural for the leader of the Orthodox community to meet with those who represent the community to Lebanon, who bear the concerns of their community and who seek the good of those whom they represent. Each one of them has his place and his role in the community and in Lebanon.
His Beatitude expressed his love for those present and his respect for the responsibilities put on their shoulders, stressing the role that the Orthodox in Lebanon, in the Arab East, and in the emigration must play in the mother countries. This should be on the basis of their faith, their moral principles, their belonging to their nation, and their role in directing overall policy. His Beatitude likewise affirmed the special place that Lebanon and the Lebanese, Christians and Muslims, occupy in his heart and mind and their permanent presence in his prayers and supplications.
The patriarch, the ministers, and the deputies who were present agreed that the Church respects political diversity and complete freedom for all her children in choosing their political orientation, though they are all called to a single common denominator that is loyalty to the nation, striving to develop it on the basis of freedom, justice, and equality, and working with their brothers in citizenship for the good of the nation and of humanity.
With regard to the Orthodox role in directing general policy and offering administrative services, His Beatitude, the ministers, and the deputies who were present agreed to work so that the Orthodox community receives its rights in terms of recognized political and administrative positions. This is not in order to serve narrow self-interest, but in order to secure what is soundest and most effective in politics and administration, knowing that the Orthodox community has many members who are competent and capable of assuming positions in all fiends. They likewise stressed that securing opportunities for service in general departments in Lebanon for citizens from the Orthodox community should not come through quotas but through making them available to the community so that it can have the honor of serving the nation in the best way.
In closing, those present again affirmed the efforts of the Orthodox in Lebanon since its founding toward building a nation and establishing a state for all, without division or discrimination.
Monday, August 22, 2011
The Episcopacy and Love of Authority
No one should take the words in this essay personally. Our words here are about a rampant sate of illness that most of us suffer from!
The love of authority is a passion, and there is none closer to man’s heart. The reason for this is that it is closest to what the serpent—Satan-- falsely promised him in the Book of Genesis (Genesis 3:5), that if he, that is man, disregarded God’s word and rejected His commandment, his eyes would open and he would become like God, knowing good and evil. For this reason, every other passion besides the love of authority in practice is born from it and leads to it!
It has been said that “the love of money is the root of all evils,” and the love of authority is behind the love of money and thus it is what gives all the evils a purpose and a definite direction on the way to sin.
The opposite of love of authority is obedience to God in the person of one who is marked with God’s will for us, in an act of complete emptying from our own personal will. It is not necessarily the holiness of the other person that shows us God’s will with certainty in the person of another. Rather, it is our complete emptying of our personal will in God’s name, through the other person.
Every person who does not obey God in the way outlined above cannot help but be governed by the love of authority, either openly or in a disguised way. In contrast to this, for every person who obeys God there is nothing easier than to obey others. Obedience to God, obedience to God alone, obedience in its deep sense, in Spirit and in truth, is behind eagerness to obey guides or authorities (Hebrews 13:17) and likewise our submission to each other (Ephesians 5:21). This is not exclusive submission and so it is not degrading. Rather, it is a submission obedient to God, in love, in others and so it is blessed! Here is hidden the ultimate power of the soul in a human, not the ultimate weakness and humiliation, as it appears to those who do not know!
Within this perspective fall the relationships between a man, wife, and children within a single household or between a worker and his supervisor or between an employee and his boss or between people, all people, in the world, regardless of the situations they are in.
Just as in the world, so too in the Church. Within the Church, all the faithful without exception are subject to this existential struggle between the love of authority and obedience to God. Within the episcopate, is seems that this matter is even more clear with regard to its position within the life of the Church. What are the signs of desire for the office of bishop within the framework of this perspective?
It has been said that “If one desires the office of bishop, then he desires a good work (1 Timothy 3:1)” and so the basis of this desire, scripturally and historically, is obedience to God and its basic framework is keeping the commandment. If keeping the commandment is not the basic framework and obedience to God the basis for a believer’s desire for this, then his wanting the office of bishop is not blessed and is not at all counted as a good work, but rather an act of showing off and intrusion! In this case, a man is seeking the office of bishop for himself, motivated by love of authority and he is not seeking it out of love for God. In its true meaning, the office of bishop is not in the titles, not in the consecration, not in the robes, and not even in the administrative function and social position. The office of bishop, at its base, is in service to the Lord Jesus and his Church with all one’s heart and all one’s soul and all one’s strength! This is exactly what has guided the Church, generation after generation, toward care, great care, in choosing bishops, so that the Church does not inadvertently choose for Christ’s flock a wolf instead of a shepherd, an exploiter instead of a servant, a corrupter instead of a pious teacher, and thus an agent of Satan rather than a witness for the Lord’s Christ. This is why, in his letter to Timothy the Apostle Paul followed the words above about desire for the office of bishop with words about the attributes, or rather the prerequisites, for a worthy bishop. “Blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, clear-minded, forbearing, not given to anger, not a lover of money, ordering his household well, whose children are obedient to him in all honor, not new to the faith, with a good testimony from those on the outside” (1 Timothy 3:2-7). These qualities would not be enumerated if the purpose was not to make a careful consideration of the characteristics of a candidate for the office of bishop, in order to make sure that they are found abundantly in his person. Up-close knowledge, especially with regard to his spirit, is an absolutely necessary condition for choosing a bishop. Thus it is unacceptable to be negligent in making a serious examination of a candidate for the office of bishop. Nor is it acceptable to be satisfied with generalities, passing impressions, or someone or another’s superficial testimony about him before including him in the list of eligible candidates! This is to not even speak of the influence of centers of power, from within the Holy Synod or from without, on deliberations that are not always of a churchly nature or with pure intent! Once, one of the metropolitans commented in front of me about choosing new bishops, saying, “We always come to the sessions of the Holy Synod like schoolboys who haven’t memorized their lessons like they should! Decisions are made arbitrarily and hurriedly. Elections are held and some don’t know who they are electing and what sort of person they are voting for!”
It is likewise unacceptable for a bishop to be accountable in his private affairs to God only and not to the Church of Christ, synod and laity. One who makes a review of the canons of the Church notices that the Church follows and takes an interest in minute details of the life of a bishop, so that the bishop will remain truly without blame, as the Apostle taught, and so that he will not be a cause of scandal for the faithful. An example of this is canon 25 of the Canons of the Holy Apostles: “Any bishop found to have committed fornication or a false oath or theft, let him be deposed of his office.” In canon 70 of the Council of Carthage: “Bishops, priests, and deacons must not approach their wives during their period. If they disobey this, let them be removed from their rank in the Church.” There are canons that affect bishops if they consume intoxicants, practice usury, strike someone, or take up worldly employment. Even if a bishop, a priest, or a deacon is a habitual backgammon player, he should stop this or be deposed (Canon 12 of the 7th Council…). Likewise, if he prays with heretics he should be cut off (Canon 45 of the Apostolic Canons), and likewise a priest!
Thus it is essential to be sure of the spiritual identity of a candidate for the office of bishop before anything else. Then a continued examination of the bishop is necessary after he becomes a bishop so that he will remain blameless under penalty of being deposed. Otherwise, we treat the matter in the same way that the people of this fallen world deal with it in backward countries, and the way they treat employees in public and private offices. What can result from this in the Church is dangerous, whether on the level of the health of the flock, the level of the soundness of the Orthodox faith, or on the level of the soundness of canonical practice. Neglecting to choose a bishop carefully and also examining his behavior after choosing him are both unacceptable and should be strongly protested because ignoring corruption is negligence toward Christ’s Church! Its consequences are dire, not only for the Church’s present but even for her future and her continued existence!
Here is a very painful point in the Church, the subject of bishops’ celibacy. During the past forty years I have noticed, indeed I have personally experienced, that the Apostle’s statement to Timothy about the bishop being the husband of one wife is far removed from the idea that this was the ancient practice and that with time it was replaced by a celibate episcopate. It is my conviction that this is chronologically imprecise. Bishops’ being married and likewise bishops’ being celibate were, other than in exceptional circumstances, both within the framework of piety and Orthodox faith and worship. Thus, love of God and zeal for His house were the context. Bishops’ celibacy had an evangelical, monastic, spiritual content. Celibacy in itself was never the value. For this reason the unmarried bishop was looked upon as free for divine knowledge, worship, prayer, and fasting and likewise for the service of teaching and pastoring in Christ’s sheepfold. One did not exist without the other. Being satisfied with the conditions of celibacy, performing the services well, and with a little bit of superficial personal fasting and prayer, combined with a university diploma here or there, is a disfigurement of the unmarried episcopacy! This, in the context of today, is a worldly episcopate with absolutely no connection to authentic episcopacy! Before the celibate bishop are basically two paths: either to actively strive to be filled with the fear of God and obedience to Him, and thus with His Spirit, and to undertake service for the flock entrusted to him within this personal framework, or to be a person motivated by love of authority in what he thinks and does, in his opinion, and thus the flock becomes his plantation and grist for his whims! One who does not direct his vital energies upward must live on the level of the lusts of his soul and body. This could be exemplified in secret, illicit relationships with women, in deviant relationships, in a passion for accumulating wealth, in easily slipping into selling divorces and sacraments, and in preferring the wealthy. Or the celibate could be afflicted with feelings of haughtiness and pride, have a deviant personality in one way or another, or be afflicted by mental illness! It is impossible for a celibate bishop to have chastity of heart and to be spiritually healthy outside the framework of monasticism or quasi-monasticism in the Church. Indeed, the celibate episcopate, as it is practiced today, more than not counts people obsessed with love of authority and displays of pride, expensive robes, crowns, places of honor in the Church, and that people call them “my lord, my lord!” Corrupt practice encourages corruption! Naturally, exceptions exist, but they are very rare. I was shocked when I repeatedly met people who prepared their robes for the episcopate and the priesthood in advance, sometimes at a very high price, even as I have seen in how they stand in the church, in their tone of voice, in how they treat and talk to people, their lack of suitability for the episcopacy that they think is inevitably coming to them, like actors on the stage! There are even those who think that they were born to be a bishop! I know a bishop who was made bishop as a consolation prize because he expressed before the powers that be his feelings of hurt that all his companions besides himself had become bishop, as though the Church had wronged him! Likewise, I have no doubt that if one submits to the passion of love of authority, even if he is outwardly imbued with praiseworthy qualities, the passion of love of authority will corrupt all the good within him and make his purportedly praiseworthy qualities into material for deception and play-acting. If this is the situation to which the celibate episcopacy has to a large degree led, then I do not hesitate to say that in our Church’s current climate, that if someone desires the office of bishop, seeks it, or strives for it, then his desire is suspicious and he should be completely kept away from the episcopacy. As long as this is the current climate for the episcopate, then it is a thousand times better for us to choose blameless bishops from among pious married men who are firm in the Orthodox faith, good managers of their households and capable of ministering to the faithful, than for us to choose celibate bishops who are useless, who treat divine and spiritual things lightly, and who have, sometimes secretly and sometimes openly, and sometimes barefacedly, a way of life that causes scandal to the faithful, alienates them, frustrates them, and makes them wag their tongues, causing blasphemy against God’s Church!
There is no doubt that, faced with this tragic reality, we are suffering from a situation that is not only aberrant but also an illness, a spreading epidemic because we see that there is an insensitivity and an acceptance of things as natural that are turning into corrupt thinking and practice in this matter! Do we depart from the group when the signs of the times say that there is no hope for its uprightness?! By no means! Rather, we always witness the truth to the Church and work for the truth, strive for the truth, until the truth is revived! The Church remains the Church of those who walk in the way of the truth, not of those who strangle the truth with falsehood.
The word remains so that the Lord God will open the ears of the deaf!
Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of St. Silouan- Douma
August 14, 2011
Friday, August 19, 2011
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.