Chrysostom: On giving to the poor

Sometimes when I read the early church fathers I find their writings impenetrable. This might be because the translation is hard work or because the debates and concerns just don’t connect. Other times I am stunned by the power of prose and the immediacy with which it speaks to us today in different cultures, 1800+ ¬†years later. This quote is in the second category. Watch how Chrysostom demolishes our arguments for not giving to the poor.

“Immediately accusations are brought against the applicant. 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.”

How often have you heard the complaint about the beggar being idle or not making an effort to work? And many will answer Chrysostom by saying, ‘we did work’ for what we have. But did you get everything that way? Your childhood home, parental care, education, food, clothing, opportunity? How much of that was yours through no effort of your own but instead your good luck to be born where and when you were?

But John isn’t finished, we have more objections to pull down.

“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 or of a garment? But, you say, he will sell it immediately. And do you manage all your affairs well?”

I’ve heard countless the times the argument that we shouldn’t give money to the beggar because he will misuse the gift, spend it on drink or worse. And have you never spent money on something you shouldn’t? Hypocrite, John calls us, and he’s right.

“But what? Are all poor through idleness? Is no one so from shipwreck? None from lawsuits? None from being robbed? None from dangers? None from illness? None from any other difficulties? If, however, we hear any one bewailing such evils and crying out aloud and looking up naked toward heaven, with long hair and clad in rags, at once we call him, ‘The impostor! The deceiver! The swindler!’ Are you not ashamed? Whom do you call impostor? Do not accuse the man or give him a hard time. But, you say, he has means and pretends.”

The other claim I’ve heard as an excuse not to give is that really this beggar doesn’t need it, he has a Rolls Royce somewhere, he’s probably better off than I am. Well, John has an answer to that too.

“This is a charge against yourself, not against him. He knows that he has to deal with the cruel, with wild beasts rather than with rational persons. He knows that even if he tells his pitiable story, no one pays any attention. And on this account he is forced to assume a more miserable guise, that he may melt your soul. 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 guise we reproach him too. What then are they to do? Oh, the cruelty, Oh the inhumanity.”

So what then are we to do?

“‘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 God, 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 the season of kindness, not of strict inquiry; of mercy, not of account. He wishes to be maintained; if you are willing, give; but if not willing, send him away without raising doubts. Why are you wretched and miserable? Why do you not pity him yourself, but even turn away those who would as well? For when such a one hears from you, ‘This person is a cheat; that a hypocrite; and the other lends out money,’ he neither gives to the one nor to the other, for he suspects all to be such. For you know that we easily suspect evil, but good, not so easily.”

So, think again next time you rush by the beggar in the street.

All quotes from Chrysostom’s On the epistle to the Hebrews

2 thoughts on “Chrysostom: On giving to the poor”

  1. Andy in Germany says:

    That’s an interesting one. We’re trying to see how God wants us to work in this area. One interesting experience I had was when I went to a large state run place for the homeless in Stuttgart where they advised us not to give money to people on the streets within Stuttgart because here there are enough beds for the homeless they know about on the streets. (this was from someone who knows what he’s talking about, not a politician) so these days I get some bread and try and talk to the people I can.
    The most remarkable story so far was an Albanian girl living with her friend trying to ge through the beauracracy to ge training as a nurse, and begging to get her share of the rent.
    Unfortunately she was shouted at a by a security guard and I didn’t learn any more. I asked the guard to show a little more respect next time, maybe it’ll have an effect.

    1. Phil Whittall says:

      Hi Andy,
      It’s never easy but we always seem to default on the not giving option. So as long as there’s giving of something, somehow to someone and almost everyone begs for a reason. It’s a pretty undignified thing and most people don’t get there lightly – like the Albanian nurse.

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