Sunday, September 25, 2005

The Christian's Duty to the Poor

What follows here is a quotation of a part of a sermon that John Chrysostom, perhaps the greatest preacher of the early church gave on a portion of Hebrews and Mt. 5.2.

"'Give to him who begs from you and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.' Stretch out your hand; let it not be closed up. We have not been constituted examiners into others' lives, for then we should have compassion on no one. When you call upon Gold, why do you say, 'Remember not my sins?' So, even if that person is a great sinner, make this allowance in his case also, and do not remember his sins. It is a season of kindness, not of strict enquiry; of mercy, not of account" Err on the side of compassion, not caution.

"The frost is hard, and the poor man is cast out in rags, well-nigh dead, with his teeth chattering. Both by his looks and his air you should be moved. And yet, you pass by, warm and full of drink. How do you expect that God should deliver you when in misfortune? And often you will say to yourself, 'If I had found one that had done many wrong things, I would have forgiven him, so won't God forgive me?' Do not say this. You neglect the one who has done you no wrong, yet you would be able to help. How will he forgive you when you are sinning against him?"

"And it does not even stop here. Immediately accusations are brought against the suppliant. For why does he not work, you say? And why is he to be maintained in idleness? But, tell me, is it by working that you have what you have? Did you not receive it as an inheritance from your fathers? And even if you work, is this a reason why you should reproach another? Do you not hear what Paul says? For after saying 'If anyone will not work, let him not eat,' he says 'Do not be weary in well doing.' But what do they say? He is an impostor. What do you say, o man? Do you call him an impostor for the sake of a single loaf of bread or a garment? But you say, 'He will sell it immediately.' And do you manage all your affairs well? But what? Are all poor through idleness? Is no one so from calamity or shipwreck? None from lawsuits? None from being robbed? None from dangers? None from illness? None from other difficulties? If however we hear anyone bewailing such evils and crying out loud and looking up naked toward heaven, with long hair and clad in rags, at once we call him 'The impostor! That deceiver! The swindler!' Are you not ashamed? Whom do you call impostor? Do you accuse the man or give him a hard time? But you say 'he has means and pretends'. This is a charge against yourself, not against him. He knows he has to deal with the cruel, with wild beasts rather than rational persons. He knows that even if he tells his pitable story, no one pays any attention. And on this account he is forced to assume an even more miserable guise, that he may melt your heart. If we see a person coming to beg in a respectable dress, 'This is an impostor' you say, 'and he comes in this way that he may be supposed to be of good birth.' If we see one in the contrary apparel, we reproach him too. What then are they to do. Oh the cruelty, oh the inhumanity! And why, you say, 'do they expose their maimed limbs?' Do you not see it is because of you? If we were truly compassionate, they would have no need of these artifices. If they persuaded us at the first appeal, they would not have contrived thesed devices. Who is there so wretched as to be willing to behave in an unseemly way, as to be willing to make public lamentations, with his wife destitute of clothing, with his children, to sprinkle ashes on himself? How much worse than poverty are these things?" Surely the lose of all personal dignity is more humilitating than poverty.

John Chrysostom-- Homily on Hebrews 11.7-9.


DanO said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thank for this quotation, it resonates deeply with me. Having spent several years journeying with people who are homeless and marginalised within the inner-cities of Canada (London, Toronto, and now Vancouver) I am often struck by the ways in which Christians (and others) create a superficial distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor.

I regularly talk with Christians who do not give their change to the poor because they don't want the money to be spent on drugs or other vices -- yet that judgment is based upon a brief encounter where we have no way of knowing what our few dollars (or few cents) will actually be spent on. I am not willing to call a person "undeserving" on such little evidence (of course, I tend to think that all who are poor are deserving of our change and much more... but perhaps I am biased due to my own experience of homelessness when I was a youth). It seems that in such situations it is best to be faithful to the command to "give to him who begs from you."

Grace and peace,


R. Mansfield said...

Chrysostom's homily almost sounds as if it could have been in a sermon yesterday. He addresses excuses that we still give today for not helping those who are less fortunate. Jesus said that we will always have the poor with us, but we behave as if the poor are less deserving of our generosity than they were were in Jesus' day. May we all repent.

Steve Heyduck said...

The timelessness of this message is astounding!

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Steve and other friends who have spoken on the timelessness of this message. I agree, and I can only tell you that reading John Chrysostom is a revelation, as he is so in touch with the Word of God that he frequently sounds like a timeless prophet or preacher. For those interested, I would urge you to read the great book on Chrysostom "The Heavenly Trumpet" written by a good colleague and fine NT scholar, Margaret Mitchell.