Do Acts of Mercy in Secret
We continue our ongoing reflections on Father Thomas Hopko’s 55 Maxims for Christian Living. Today’s Maxim is “.” We will hear Father Tom’s own words reflecting on both the high importance of acts of mercy (also referred to as “Almsgiving”) in the Christian life, as well as the reason for the secrecy. I encourage you to also reflect–even at another reading–on the quotes from the Fathers on almsgiving. I believe this is one of the most misunderstood and neglected aspects of our Orthodox Christian lives today.
On Almsgiving, by Father Thomas Hopko
In Christ’s teaching, alms-giving goes together with fasting and prayer. We have seen that this is also the teaching of Isaiah and of the Old Testament generally. When one prays and fasts, one must show love through active generosity to others:
“Beware of practicing your piety before men, in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do…that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father Who sees in secret will reward you” [St. Matthew 6:1-4].
As with fasting and prayer, the gifts of help to the poor must be done strictly in secret, so much so that one should, as it were, even hide from himself what he is giving to others, not letting one hand know what the other is doing. Every effort must be made, if the gift will be pleasing to God, to avoid all ostentation and boastfulness in its giving. As we have already seen, there is no real love if one does not share what he has with the poor: “…If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? (I John 3:17)
Such was the command of the law of Moses as well: “If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take heed lest there be a base thought in your heart, and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye be hostile to your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him; because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, you shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land.” [Deuteronomy 15:7-11]
Such also was the teaching of Wisdom: “The poor is disliked even by his neighbor, but the rich has many friends. He who despises his neighbor is a sinner, but happy is he who is kind to the poor. He who mocks the poor, insults his Maker, he who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished.” [Proverbs 14:20-21, 17:5]
According to Saint John Chrysostom, no one can be saved without giving alms and without caring for the poor. Saint Basil the Great says that a man who has two coats or two pair of shoes, when his neighbor has none, is a thief. All earthly things are the possessions of God. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell in it” (Psalm 24:1). Men are but stewards of what belongs to the Lord and should share the gifts of His Creation with one another as much as they can. To store up earthly possessions, according to Christ, is the epitome of foolishness, and a rich man shall hardly be saved (cf. St. Luke 12:15-21).
The reason why a rich person can hardly be saved, according to Jesus, is because when one has possessions, he wants to keep them, and gather still more. For the “delight in riches chokes the word of God, and so it proves unfruitful in man’s heart” (St. Matthew 13:22; St. Mark 4:19; St. Luke 8:14).
According to the holy Apostle Paul, the “love of money”-not money itself-is the “root of all evils.” “There is a great gain in the godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs” (I Timothy 6:6-10, cf Hebrews 13:5-6).
The point is this: he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, but he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide…so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work. As it is written, “he has distributed freely, he has given to the poor, his righteousness endures forever” (Psalm 112:9).
“You will be enriched in every way for great generosity which…will produce thanksgiving to God…” (2 Corinthians 9:6-12). The spiritual person must share what he/she has with the poor. He/she must do so cheerfully and not reluctantly, secretly and not for the praise of men. He/she also must do so, as the poor widow in the Gospel, not out of his abundance, but out of his need.
“And Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. And He called His disciples to Him, and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all they contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living” (St. Mark 12:41-44, St. Luke 21:2).
Giving alms, therefore, must be a sacrificial act if it has any spiritual worth. One cannot give merely what is left over when all his own needs are satisfied. One must take from oneself and give to others. In the spiritual tradition of the Church it is the teaching that what one saves through fasting and abstinence, for example, during the special Lenten seasons, should not be kept for other times but should be given away to the poor.
In recent times the teaching has developed that the spiritual person should work within the processes and possibilities of the free societies in order to make a social structure in which the poor will not merely be the object of the charity of the rich, but will themselves have the chance to work and to share in the commonwealth of man. In this way the poor will have dignity and self-respect through assuming their just place as members of society. “We do not want hand-outs,” say the poor, “we want to be able to learn and to work for ourselves.” The spiritual person is the one who works to make this happen; and it is right and praiseworthy to do so. The only temptations here would be to have this attitude and to undertake this action without personal sacrifice, and to that when such a “just society” will exist-if it ever will-all of men’s problems will be solved. The spiritual decadence of many wealthy persons demonstrates that this is not the case. Thus the words of Christ remain forever valid and true:
“…the poor you always have with you; but you do not always have Me…if you would be perfect, go sell what you possess and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven; and come, and follow Me” (St. Matthew 19:21; St. Mark 14:5-7; St. Luke 18:22; St. John 12:8)
The one who is truly perfect, as the Father in Heaven is perfect, is the one who gives all for the sake of others, in the name of Christ, with Him and for His sake. Such a person is most truly living the spiritual life.
QUOTES FROM THE HOLY FATHERS OF THE CHURCH REGARDING ALMSGIVING
“Mercy to the suffering is greater than fasting. The Church reads Christ’s words on the Dread Judgment on the Eve of Great Lent, so that the faithful will know that the main Lenten struggle is to have mercy on the unfortunate. For I will have mercy rather than sacrifice”. [Hosea 6:7]
“To do alms is a work greater than miracles…To feed the hungry in the Name of Christ is a work greater than raising the dead in Christ’s Name…When thou work miracles, you are God’s debtor, when you give alms, God is your debtor”. [St. John Chrysostom]
“God sells righteousness at a very low price to those who wish to buy it: a little piece of bread, a cloak of no value, a cup of cold water, a mite”. [Abba [Father] Ephrem]
“The bread you do not use is the bread of the hungry. The garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of the person who is naked. The shoes you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot. The money you keep locked away is the money of the poor. The acts of charity you do not perform are the injustices you commit”. [Saint Basil the Great]
“People give all sorts of reasons to excuse their lack of charity, their hardheartedness! Some say, ‘hard times.’ But if the times are hard for those who have a sufficiency, how much harder are they for the poor? This pretext alone should lead one to give all the more generously.” [Saint Theophan the Recluse]
“…rear the infants; train the young; support the aged; encourage the fainthearted; gather together the scattered; lead back those who wander astray, and join them in Thy Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church…protect the widows; defend the orphans; deliver the captives; heal the sick…those that are under trial, in the mines, in exile, in bitter bondage, in every tribulation, necessity and danger, do Thou remember O God…Be Thou Thyself all things to all men, O Thou Who knowest every man, his positions, each house and its need…” [Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great]