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agios_chrysostomosI have come hither today to undertake a righteous mission among you, a mission profitable and suitable for you. By no others than the poor who dwell in this city of yours have I been appointed the spokesman. I have been sent not by word of mouth, nor by vote of the citizens, nor by a decree of the senate, but by a most grievous and piteous spectacle.

For as I was hastening to preach before this congregation, I passed through the market-place and the alleys, and I saw many lying in the midst of the crossings, some lacking hands and feet, some without eyes, some filled with ulcers and running sores and exposing as much as possible those parts which because of the suppuration should have been covered. And I thought I would be most inhuman if I did not appeal to your charity in their behalf, especially since, in addition to the reasons I have just given, I am constrained thereto by the season of the year. For although it is always fitting to preach about alms (seeing that we in our dealings with other men are wanting in the great mercy of our Lord and Creator) yet at this season especially it is meet so to speak, when the cold is so urgent.

In the summer the pleasant weather is a great comfort to the poor; for they can even walk around naked with impunity, the rays of the sun taking the place of clothing, and can safely sleep on the bare pavement and spend the night under the open sky. And they do not require shoes, nor wine to drink, nor rich food. The fountains of water suffice for them. Sufficient are the cheaper vegetables, or a few parched beans; for at this season of the year food is easy to procure.

The season has another advantage for them which is no less important—the opportunity to obtain work. Those who build houses, those who plough the earth, and those who sail the sea, all have great need of their services. For just as the wealthy have lands, houses, and other sources of income; so the poor have their strength and the proceeds of the labor of their hands. Nothing else is theirs.

In summer then they have some relief; but in winter they must wage a great war on every hand, doubly besieged, hunger gnawing their vitals within and cold congealing their flesh without and giving it the semblance of death. Because of this they require more abundant food and thicker clothing, and also a roof, blankets, shoes, and many other things. And this is much harder for them because they have no opportunity to work; since the season of the year does not permit.

Wherefore, seeing that they are in want of more things and those the necessities of life, and seeing that they have no opportunity to work (no one employing these wretched men, no one calling them to labor), come, let us in place of employers hold out compassionate hands to them, and on this mission let us take as our companion Paul, the true patron and protector of the poor. For he more than anyone else concerns himself with this question. For this reason, when he divided the disciples with Peter, he did not divide the care of the poor; but when he had said, “They gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship: that we should go unto the Gentiles, and they unto the circumcision,” he added, “Only that we should be mindful of the poor: which same thing also I was careful to do.” (Gal. 2:9–10). In fact, throughout his epistles he preaches about these things, and you will not find a single letter of his without an admonition of this kind. For he knew, he knew with certainty of how great moment this question is; and therefore, as if he were placing an exquisite dome upon a building, so to his other admonitions and counsels he adds his teaching in regard to charity.

This is what he does, indeed, in this very place when, having spoken of the resurrection and after finishing everything else, he ends his sermon with these words: “Now concerning the collections for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, so do ye also. Upon the first day of the week … everyone of you …” (1 Cor. 16:1–2).

Note the apostle’s skill, at what an opportune moment he brings in this admonition. For after he had reminded them of that terrible judgment and tribunal which is to come, and of that glory in which they who have lived righteously will be clothed, and of the life everlasting, only then does he begin to speak of these other things; that the hearer, sustained by hope and made a readier listener, may receive them more eagerly, now moved by the fear of instant judgment, now rejoicing in the contemplation of the blessings in store for him. For he who can philosophize on the resurrection and translate himself completely into that future life, will count the present as naught—wealth, possessions, gold, silver, rich clothing, amusements, a lavish table, and everything of that sort; and he who considers these things as naught will more easily take upon himself the protection of the poor. And so Paul introduced his exhortation on alms after he had beautifully prepared their minds by means of that philosophy of the resurrection.

He did not say, “Now concerning the collections for beggars” or “for the poor”, but “for the saints”; instructing his hearers to honor the poor—that is, of course, if they were devout—and to spurn the rich if they despised virtue. For he calls the Emperor himself impious and wicked, if he is an enemy of God; and the poor, saints, when they are upright and virtuous. Indeed, he calls Nero the mystery of iniquity, saying, “For the mystery of iniquity already worketh” (2 Thess. 2:7); while on the other hand those who were without food and who lived by begging their bread, he pronounces saints. But at the same time, somewhat obscurely, he teaches his hearers that they should not be puffed up in spirit and exalted by an admonition like this, as if they were dispensing bounty to a lower and baser order of beings, but that they should understand and feel that their greatest honor is to share the hardships of the poor.

— St. John Chrysostomos. Sermon on Alms