What can the poor do for us? John Chrysostom on the poor

When therefore thou seest a poor man, and sayest, “It stops my breath that this fellow, young as he is and healthy, having nothing, would fain be fed in idleness; he is surely some slave and runaway, and hath deserted his proper master:” I bid thee speak these same words to thyself; or rather, permit him freely to speak them unto thee, and he will say with more justice, “It stops my breath that thou, being healthy, art idle, and practisest none of the things which God hath commanded, but having run away from the commandments of thy Lord, goest about dwelling in wickedness, as in a strange land, in drunkenness, in surfeiting, in theft, in extortion, in subverting other men’s houses.” And thou indeed imputest idleness, but I evil works; in thy plotting, in thy swearing, in thy lying, in thy spoiling, in thy doing innumerable such things.

And this I say, not as making a law in favor of idleness, far from it; but rather very earnestly wishing all to be employed; for sloth is the teacher of all wickedness: but I beseech you not to be unmerciful, nor cruel. Since Paul also, having made infinite complaints, and said, “If any will not work, neither let him eat,” stopped not at this, but added, “But ye, be not weary in well doing.” “Nay, but these things are contradictory. For if thou hast commanded for them not to eat, how exhortest thou us to give?” I do so, saith He, for I have also commanded to avoid them, and “to have no company with them;” and again I said, “Count them not as enemies, but admonish them;”6 not making contradictory laws, but such as are quite in unison with each other. Because, if thou art prompt to mercy, both he, the poor man, will soon be rid of his idleness, and thou of thy cruelty.[1]

Isn’t it interesting how the same questions about the poor remain with us today? In my experience, many Christians want to ensure that the poor “deserve” their money before they give it away. In doing so, do we forget the gospel? Do we forget that we didn’t deserve God’s mercy toward our idleness? In many ways we were far worse than the idleness accusation leveled by those in Chrysostom’s day. As strangers to the gospel, we were actively going our own way (Isaiah 53). Of course we are great at “theologizing” our decisions to withhold from the poor: “God requires me to be a good steward of my money” or “I don’t want to facilitate their bad habits.” However, is this an act of cruelty? Maybe so. What if they really need it, but we withhold it? What if they are a fellow Christ-follower? (which of course we always doubt their profession!) Most times, people are asking for an insignificant amount of resources from us. Five dollars or even twenty dollars for most working families out of a weekly budget will not impact the families life in a significant way. In light of this, maybe John Chrysostom is right in advising God’s people to give to the poor to avoid cruelty.

[1] John Chrysostom. Homily 35 on St. Matthew in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series, Volume X: Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew ( ed. Philip Schaff;New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 235.


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