Poverty / riches


While fasting with the body, brethren, let us also fast in spirit. Let us loose every bond of iniquity; let us undo  the knots of every contract made by violence; let us tear up all unjust agreements; let us give bread to the hungry and welcome to our house the poor who have no roof to cover them, that we may receive great mercy from Christ our God.

No, that’s not Occupy Wall Street, or striking miners, far left radicals, or even Dorothy Day. It is the first sticheron for Vespers on the first Wednesday in the first week of Great Lent – taken from my new Lenten Triodion that arrived on the first day of Lent.

May you give bread; that is to say, let us have nourishment from our just efforts. If your profit does not belong to others, if your income is not the result of another’s tears, if no one is hungry because you are full, if no one groans because of your abundance, such then is the bread of God, the fruit of justice, the ear of the corn of peace, undefiled by being mixed with the seed of tares. But if you cultivate what belongs to others and fill your eyes with injustice, confirming your unjust gains with written documents, then you may indeed say to God: ‘Give bread’, but another will hear this cry of yours, not God. One who pursues righteousness receives bread from God, whereas the man who cultivates injustice is fed by the inventor of injustice.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa, On the Lord’s Prayer, 4, quoted in The Wisdom of the Greek Fathers compiled by Father Andrew Louth (Lion Publishing, 1997), 35.

It may be rather late to mention this, but if anyone would like to give to a worthwhile project this Christmas, the Buckets of Love project of Catholic Welfare and Development (CWD) in Cape Town, is providing buckets of basic foodstuffs to needy families and looking for people to sponsor them. CWD is a very reputable organisation, whose various other projects are also worth supporting. They also provide e-cards and downloadable printable cards to send as alternative gifts.

I’ve been re-reading Sergei Hackel’s biography of Mother (now Saint) Maria Skobtsova, Pearl of Great Price: The Life of Mother Maria Skobtsova, 1891-1945. I may write again on some of her perspectives on monasticism (which evoke somewhat conflicting responses in me). But for now I note something that has also struck me in other books I have read in the last year or two, notably in Gillian Crow’s biography of Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh, This Holy Man: Impressions of Metropolitan Anthony, namely the really desperate situation of the Russian émigrés in France in the period between the first and second world wars. It is easy to wax lyrical about the theological fruitfulness of the theological renewal associated with the emigration – and it certainly was fruitful – and yet, certainly for me as a westerner reading books in translation, it is all-too-easy to forget both that it was Russian and that occurred against the backdrop of appalling social dislocation and need.

This connects with something I was sometimes conscious of in the Netherlands, namely, the strange combination of proximity and distance between the past and the present. I lived for years in a building that had been occupied by the Hitler’s troops during the Second World War, and in a community that had lost two of its sisters to the Nazi camps. On many days I walked past a memorial to them. And yet that past somehow seemed very remote and I was sometimes struck between the contrast between it, and the affluence and apparent security of the present. Not only did the past seem remote, but I had to consciously remind myself that there are also people today in similarly desperate situations. We can somehow domesticate both the past and those aspects of the present that would otherwise be threatening to us, keeping it at a distance, whether by interpretive strategies, border controls and the way society is organised, or simply by self-centredness.

Being back in South Africa it is in some ways more difficult to escape this as one cannot go very far without being aware of desperate social need. But we too – or let me speak only for myself, and say I too – can too-easily forget the horrors of the past and find ways of trying to escape the challenge of the present. And in that context it may be reassuring, if challenging, to realise that the theological fruitfulness of the Russian emigration also occurred against a similarly challenging background.

Basil’s social doctrine was grounded in the conviction that all people are equal and share the same human nature. The poor, the rich and the emperor are all companions in slavery, that is, they are all dependent on God.[1] Moreover, human beings are social creatures and communal life and interaction with one another require a generosity that can alleviate the needs of the destitute. The scriptural command to “Give to anyone who asks” (Mt 5,42) calls us to a sharing and a mutual love that are characteristic of human nature.[2] The Acts of the Apostles (4,34-35) teaches us how this is to be put into practice. In the first ecclesial community of Jerusalem, the Christians sold their goods and gave the money to apostles to distribute to those who needed it.

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Let us also then touch the hem of His garment, or rather, if we be willing, we have Him entire. For indeed His body is set before us now, not His garment only, but even His body; not for us to touch it only, but also to eat, and be filled. Let us now then draw near with faith, every one that hath an infirmity. For if they that touched the hem of His garment drew from Him so much virtue, how much more they that possess Him entire? Now to draw near with faith is not only to receive the offering, but also with a pure heart to touch it; to be so minded, as approaching Christ Himself. For what, if thou hear no voice? Yet thou seest Him laid out; or rather thou dost also hear His voice, while He is speaking by the evangelists.

Believe, therefore, that even now it is that supper, at which He Himself sat down. For this is in no respect different from that. For neither doth man make this and Himself the other; but both this and that is His own work. When therefore thou seest the priest delivering it unto thee, account not that it is the priest that doeth so, but that it is Christ’s hand that is stretched out.

Even as when he baptizes, not he doth baptize thee, but it is God that possesses thy head with invisible power, and neither angel nor archangel nor any other dare draw nigh and touch thee; even so now also. For when God begets, the gift is His only. Seest thou not those who adopt to themselves sons here, how they commit not the act to slaves, but are themselves present at the judgment-seat? Even so neither hath God committed His gift to angels, but Himself is present, commanding and saying, “Call no man Father on earth;” not that thou shouldest dishonor them that gave thee birth, but that thou shouldest prefer to all those Him that made thee, and enrolled thee amongst His own children. For He that hath given the greater, that is, hath set Himself before thee, much more will He not think scorn to distribute unto thee of His body. Let us hear therefore, both priests and subjects, what we have had vouchsafed to us; let us hear and tremble. Of His own holy flesh He hath granted us our fill; He hath set before us Himself sacrificed.

What excuse shall we have then, when feeding on such food, we commit such sins? when eating a lamb, we become wolves? when feeding on a sheep, we spoil by violence like the lions?

For this mystery He directs to be always clear, not from violence only, but even from bare enmity. Yea, for this mystery is a mystery of peace; it allows us not to cling to wealth. For if He spared not Himself for us, what must we deserve, sparing our wealth, and being lavish of a soul, in behalf of which He spared not Himself?

Now upon the Jews God every year bound in their feasts a memorial of His peculiar favors to them: but for thee, every day, as I may say, through these mysteries.

Be not therefore ashamed of the cross: for these are our venerable things, these our mysteries; with this gift do we adorn ourselves, with this we are beautified.

And if I say, He stretched out the heaven, He spread out the earth and the sea, He sent prophets and angels, I say nothing in comparison. For the sum of His benefits is this, that “He spared not His own Son,” in order to save His alienated servants.

Let no Judas then approach this table, no Simon; nay, for both these perished through covetousness. Let us flee then from this gulf; neither let us account it enough for our salvation, if after we have stripped widows and orphans, we offer for this table a gold and jewelled cup. Nay, if thou desire to honor the sacrifice, offer thy soul, for which also it was slain; cause that to become golden; but if that remain worse than lead or potter’s clay, while the vessel is of gold, what is the profit?

Let not this therefore be our aim, to offer golden vessels only, but to do so from honest earnings likewise. For these are of the sort that is more precious even than gold, these that are without injuriousness. For the church is not a gold foundry nor a workshop for silver, but an assembly of angels. Wherefore it is souls which we require, since in fact God accepts these for the souls’ sake.

That table at that time was not of silver nor that cup of gold, out of which Christ gave His disciples His own blood; but precious was everything there, and awful, for that they were full of the Spirit.

Wouldest thou do honor to Christ’s body? Neglect Him not when naked; do not while here thou honorest Him with silken garments, neglect Him perishing without of cold and nakedness. For He that said, “This is my body,” and by His word confirmed the fact, “This same said, “Ye saw me an hungered, and fed me not;” and, “Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.” For This indeed needs not coverings, but a pure soul; but that requires much attention.

Let us learn therefore to be strict in life, and to honor Christ as He Himself desires. For to Him who is honored that honor is most pleasing, which it is His own will to have, not that which we account best. Since Peter too thought to honor Him by forbidding Him to wash his feet, but his doing so was not an honor, but the contrary.

Even so do thou honor Him with this honor, which He ordained, spending thy wealth on poor people. Since God hath no need at all of golden vessels, but of golden souls.

And these things I say, not forbidding such offerings to be provided; but requiring you, together with them, and before them, to give alms. For He accepts indeed the former, but much more the latter. For in the one the offerer alone is profited, but in the other the receiver also. Here the act seems to be a ground even of ostentation; but there all is mercifulness, and love to man.

For what is the profit, when His table indeed is full of golden cups, but He perishes with hunger? First fill Him, being an hungered, and then abundantly deck out His table also. Dost thou make Him a cup of gold, while thou givest Him not a cup of cold water? And what is the profit? Dost thou furnish His table with cloths bespangled with gold, while to Himself thou affordest not even the necessary covering? And what good comes of it? For tell me, should you see one at a loss for necessary food, and omit appeasing his hunger, while you first overlaid his table with silver; would he indeed thank thee, and not rather be indignant? What, again, if seeing one wrapped in rags, and stiff with cold, thou shouldest neglect giving him a garment, and build golden columns, saying, “thou wert doing it to his honor,” would he not say that thou wert mocking, and account it an insult, and that the most extreme?

Let this then be thy thought with regard to Christ also, when He is going about a wanderer, and a stranger, needing a roof to cover Him; and thou, neglecting to receive Him, deckest out a pavement, and walls, and capitals of columns, and hangest up silver chains by means of lamps but Himself bound in prison thou wilt not even look upon.

And these things I say, not forbidding munificence in these matters, but admonishing you to do those other works together with these, or rather even before these. Because for not having done these no one was ever blamed, but for those, hell is threatened, and unquenchable fire, and the punishment with evil spirits. Do not therefore while adorning His house overlook thy brother in distress, for he is more properly a temple than the other.

And whereas these thy stores will be subject to alienations both by unbelieving kings, and tyrants, and robbers; whatever thou mayest do for thy brother, being hungry, and a stranger, and naked, not even the devil will be able to despoil, but it will be laid up in an inviolable treasure.

Saint John Chrysostom, Homily L, Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew

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.