You that are rich cannot do good works in the church, because your eyes, saturated with blackness and covered with the shadows of night, do not see the needy and the poor. Do you, rich and wealthy, think that you celebrate the Lord’s feast? You do not at all consider the offering. You come to the Lord’s feast without a sacrificial offering and take a part of the sacrifice that the poor offered. Look in the Gospel at the widow mindful of the heavenly commandments, doing good in the very middle of the pressures and hardships of poverty. She throws two mites that were her only possessions into the treasury. … She was a greatly blessed and glorious woman, who even before the judgment day merited to be praised by the voice of the Judge. Let the rich be ashamed of their sterility and their misfortunes. A poor widow is found with an offering. Although all things that are given are given to orphans and widows, she who should receives gives that we may know what punishment awaits the rich person. By this teaching, even the poor should do good. We should understand that these works are given to God and that whoever does these deserves well of God. Christ therefore calls these “gifts of God” and points out that the widow has placed two mites among the gifts of God, that it can be more apparent that he who pities the poor lends to God.
Cyprian, Works and Almsgiving 15, quoted in Arthur A Just (ed), Luke, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament III, (Intervarsity Press, 2003) 316.
Today’s Gospel according to the Roman Lectionary is St Luke’s account of the widow’s mite (Lk 21: 1-4). Saint Cyprian’s harsh words against the rich remind me of the equally harsh words of Saint Basil in his Sermon to the Rich, a translation of which Peter Gilbert posted and commented on a while back. There are interesting parallels between these two bishops. Both came from rich, aristocratic backgrounds. Both embraced an ascetical lifestyle giving away most of their possessions. However, they apparently retained access to resources for in times of crisis both led by example in giving away their possessions in order to ease the suffering of others. And both should, I suspect, make us feel rather uncomfortable.
Update: for some equally harsh words by Saint John Chrysostom, see here.