Friday, September 23, 2016

Mercy – Caring for the Poor as Redemptive Liturgy

But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. – Jesus (Luke 6:35-36)

Jesus challenges his followers to be as merciful as God. That means mercy toward everyone. But, Jesus, following the Old Testament, showed particular mercy toward the poor. He said that when we care for those in need, we care for him. (Matthew 25:31-46)

The early Church took seriously this responsibility to take care of the poor. In fact, many understood care for the poor as an extension of its worship, or liturgy.

Liturgy (leitourgia) originally referred to work on behalf of the public, e.g., the wealthy would pay for public works and public religious festivals. In the New Testament, Christ is referred to as performing a leitourgia: “Christ has obtained a ministry [the Greek word is leitourgia – liturgy] which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant it mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6). Christ’s life of obedience, death on the cross, and resurrection is the Christian liturgy. It is public work done for the benefit of the people. The early church adopted the word to refer to its worship understood as participating in the one liturgy of Jesus.

But that worship was not understood as only what happened at church on Sunday morning. The public works funded by the wealthy in the pagan Helenistic context was not about caring for the poor. Nor was care for the poor connected to pagan worship. But for Christians, the liturgy of worship, which participated in the liturgy of Jesus Christ, led to "liturgy" on behalf of the poor. In her book, The Hungry are Dying, Bishops and Beggars in Roman Cappadocia, Susan R. Holman shows that in the early church, "Almsgiving is regarded early as a redemptive leitourgia." p. 54. 

Holman refers to Basil the Great who assures his audience that almsgiving is

the one action that would open to you the doors of heaven . . . . Do you realize that in giving your gold, your money, your fields, that is to say rocks and earth, you acquire life eternal? . . . . I know many who fast, pray, mourn and practice admirably the gratuitous forms of piety, but they do not give an obol to the outcasts. What good do the other virtues do them? They will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. p.108

Basil also asserted that, "as Adam brought in sin by eating evilly, so we ourselves if we remember the necessity and hunger of a brother, blot out his treacherous eating." p. 83

Here are three quotes from John Chrysostom's Second Sermon on Lazarus and the Rich Man, which can be found in On Wealth and Poverty:

[The Lord] settled the rich man opposite Lazarus in order that he might see the good of which he had deprived himself. "I sent", he says, "the poor man Lazarus to your gate to teach you virtue and to receive your love; you ignored this benefit and declined to use his assistance toward your salvation. Hereafter you shall use him to bring yourself a greater punishment and retribution." p. 48

Referring to a different parable (Luke 12:15-21) with a similar point, Chrysostom said,

When his [the rich man's] harvest was abundant, he said to himself, 'What shall I do? I shall pull down my barns and build larger ones.' There is nothing more wretched than such an attitude. In truth he took down his barns; for the safe barns are not walls, but the stomachs of the poor. p. 34

Like a lot of the early church preachers and theologians, Chrysostom asserted that our wealth is not our own:

Remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth for the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their way of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs. If we have this attitude, we will certainly offer our money; and laying up great profit hereafter, we will be able to attain the good things which are to come, by the grace and kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ. p. 55

Similarly, St. Irenaeus of Lyon (130-200) wrote this,

And instead of the tithes which the law commanded, the Lord said to divide everything we have with the poor. And he said to love not only our neighbors but also our enemies, and to be givers and sharers not only with the good but also to be liberal givers toward those who take away our possessions.
Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter XIII, paragraph 3

And here are some related quotes from the early church for which I unfortunately do not have citations. Together with the above, they reveal how seriously and how pervasively the early Church took the responsibility to care for the poor:

Share everything with your brother. Do not say, “It is private property.” If you share what is everlasting, you should be that much more willing to share things which do not last. 
– The Didache (1st century)
I know that God has given us the use of goods, but only as far as is necessary; and he has determined that the use be common. It is absurd and disgraceful for one to live magnificently and luxuriously when so many are hungry. 
– Clement of Alexandria (150-215)

The property of the wealthy holds them in chains . . . which shackle their courage and choke their faith and hamper their judgment and throttle their souls. They think of themselves as owners, whereas it is they rather who are owned: enslaved as they are to their own property, they are not the masters of their money but its slaves. 
– Cyprian of Carthage (200-258)
The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you put into the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help but fail to help. 
– Basil of Caesarea (330-370)

How can I make you realize the misery of the poor? How can I make you understand that your wealth comes from their weeping? 
– Basil of Caesarea (330-370)

You are not making a gift of your possession to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his. 
– Ambrose of Milan, 340-397

The rich are in possession of the goods of the poor, even if they have acquired them honestly or inherited them legally. 
– John Chrysostom (347-407)

Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours but theirs. 
– John Chrysostom (347-407)

"Lift up and stretch out your hands, not to heaven but to the poor; for if you stretch out your hands to the poor, you have reached the summit of heaven. But if you lift up your hands in prayer without sharing with the poor, it is worth nothing. . . The poor are a greater temple than the sanctuary; this altar the poor, you can raise up anywhere, on any street, and offer the liturgy at any hour." – John Chrysostom (347-407)

When you are weary of praying and do not receive, consider how often you have heard a poor man calling, and have not listened to him. 
– John Chrysostom (347-407)

What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like. 
– Augustine of Hippo (354-430)

The price of the kingdom is the food you give to the poor who need it.
– Leo the Great (400-461)

Some think the Old Testament is stricter than the New, but they judge wrongly; they are fooling themselves. The old law did not punish the desire to hold onto wealth; it punished theft. But now the rich man is not condemned for taking the property of others; rather, he is condemned for not giving his property away. – Gregory the Great (540-604)

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