At this time of the Nativity Fast, we are invited to await the bridegroom's coming with prayer, fasting and almsgiving so that like John the Forerunner to proclaim the way of hte Lord. Fasting and prayer are talked about so much that I wanted to talk about giving to the poor. I was motivated to do this when I read something last week and I'll get to that in a momen.t
When it comes to charitable giving, it is easy to write a check or give a credit card number over the phone without really thinking about it. It's easy to do and it does help those in need. However, if ever on the streets we were to see some vagrant or person down on their luck, we will do our best to avoid them or be reluctant to give, justifying to ourselves that he'll use the money for drugs or for alcohol. We don't even look them in the eye. We're told stories about people who offer to buy homeless people a decent lunch or dinner, but then refuse, we think, because they want the money for those illicit substances. That said, I've always been told that when we give, regardless of how little or how much, to those "the least of these, my brethren" as our Lord says, we are giving to Christ. So, regardless of how the person may use a dollar you give him, you are still giving to our Lord. The dollar or so shoulnd't come with strings attached just as our Lord came to us out of his abundant mercy not because of anything we had done for Him except disobey.
Last week was the commemoration of our Father among the Saints, St. John Chrysostom, whose Divine Liturgy, homilies, prayers and thelogical treatises are still very much present in the life of the Orthodox Christian. I read his biography as compiled in the Lives of the Saints, Volume 3 originally compiled by the Great Russian Saint, Dimitri of Rostov which was taken from sources such as George, Bishop of Alexandria, the Emperor Leo the Wise, Symeon the Translator (Metaphrastes), Nicephorus and Socrates Scholasticus among others. In this life, we read the following passage:
Theodoricus understood that the Empress [Eudoxia, wife of Arcadius, Eastern Roman emperor] did not intend to use his [Theodoricus'] money for the needs of the realm but to gratify the insatiable avarice of her own heart. He went to the blessed John, told him of the designs of the Empress, and tearfully besought the saint to defend him from her. John immediately sent a letter to the Empress, meekly and kinly exhorting her to cause no offense to Theodoricus. The Patriarch's wise words put the Empress to shame, and although she was furious with him, she did as he wished. From that moment, Theodoricus resolved to obey the exhortations of the saint concerning the giving of alms, for John counselled everyone not to lay up treasures on earth where the hands of the vnous can take them away, but rather to store them in heaven where they are coveted and stolen by no one.
To me, it sounds like St. John Chrysostom counselled Theodoricus to be careful of whom he gives alms to. It was to be given to the protection of the Empire though it is not indicated in what fashion exactly, but the Empress would have surely appropriated it for herself. And so Chrysostom appears to rebuke him for that, advising him to know the motives of the person to whom you are giving. Theodoricus had his money returned and he gave all his wealth to the Church instead except that which was needed to care for himself and his family. But Chrysostom wrote yet another letter to Eudoxia, saying:
But if it is your intention to take from Christ what Theodoricus has given Him, be certain that you will not offend us, but rather Christ Himself.
Give to the poor for Christ's sake or be discerning and skeptical and cynical? St. John seems to want it both ways. But upon further reading of this passage, I realize that as I said above, and St. John seems to agree with me that when we give, we give to Christ. How that gift is used, whether for good or for ill, is up to the person for whom the gift is attended. And he will likewise reap benefits or judgments depending on it. Thus, it's not up to us and we should still give because it is exactly as what Christ did for our sake. Make ready, O Bethlehem!