The Least of These

by Albert Raboteau

St. Basil, St John Chrysostom, St. Gregory of NyssaIn his book Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, the historian Peter Brown argues that “a revolution in the social imagination” occurred between 300 and 600 AD and that it was closely associated with “the rise to power of the Christian bishop.” In that three-century period, Brown notes, the Christian bishop was regarded “as the guardian of the poor.” In 362 the last pagan emperor, Julian “the Apostate,” wrote to a pagan priest, “For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans [the Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.”

It was the Cappadocian Fathers – St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus – who elucidated this novel virtue and its central importance to the community life of Christians.

Around the time of a severe drought followed by famine in the year 369, in three homilies on wealth and possessions, St. Basil stressed that property is something entrusted to us rather than something we own. In the first homily, “On Greed,” he preached on the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-18):

Who, then, is greedy? The one who does not remain content with self sufficiency. Who is the one who deprives others? The one who hoards what belongs to everyone. Are you not greedy? Are you not one who deprives others? You have received these things for stewardship, and have turned them into your own property! Is not the one who tears off what another is wearing called a clothes-robber? But the one who does not clothe the naked when he was able to do so – what other name does he deserve? The bread that you hold on to belongs to the hungry; the cloak you keep locked in your storeroom belongs to the naked; the shoe that is moldering in your possession belongs to the person with no shoes; the silver that you have buried belongs to the person in need. You do an injury to as many people as you might have helped with all these things!

Preaching on the same text, Martin Luther King Jr. linked poverty and race:

You see this man was foolish because the richer he became materially the poorer he became spiritually…. This man was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on others…. Now this text has a great deal of bearing on our struggle in race relations…. For what is white supremacy but the foolish notion that God made a mistake and stamped an eternal stigma of inferiority on a certain race of people?… And there was a final reason why this man was foolish. He failed to realize his dependence on God … because he felt that he was the creator instead of the creature…. God never intended for a group of people to live in superfluous, inordinate wealth while others live in abject deadening poverty. God intends for all of His children to have the basic necessities of life, and He has left in the universe enough and to spare for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth.

In another of Basil’s homilies, “Against the Wealthy”, delivered in 369, he interpreted the Gospel story of the rich young man in Matthew 19. Here he diagnosed the tendency of wealth to feed the ever-spiraling need to gain and maintain dominance over others:

[S]o those who progress to great power take on, at the expense of those they have already subjected, the ability to do still greater injustice; the growth of their power becomes a superabundance of wickedness … Nothing can withstand the force of wealth; everything bows to its tyranny, everything trembles before its lordship; each of those who has suffered unjustly is more concerned not to experience some new evil, than to bring the perpetrator to justice for what has happened before. He drives away your yokes of oxen; he plows and seeds your field; he harvests what does not belong to him. And if you speak out in resistance, you are beaten; if you complain, you are held for damages and led away to prison…

Directly addressing the rich young man rhetorically, Basil contends that his failing is his treasuring of possessions over love of God and neighbor:

If what you assert was true, that you have kept the command of love since your youth and have distributed what you have as much to others as to yourself, how is it you have this excess of wealth? For care of the needy consumes our wealth, when each person receives a small amount to meet his or her own necessities, and all divide up what they have equally and use it for those in need. But you seem to have many possessions. How is that? Is it not clear that you have considered your own enjoyment more precious than the comfort of the masses? Surely the more you abound in wealth, the more you are lacking in love!

St. Gregory of Nazianzus tells us that Basil enacted the Christian social vision he preached by establishing a hospice and soup kitchen on his family’s country estates to feed those suffering during the famine caused by the drought of 369. Eventually Basil developed a large complex of apartments for the bishop, his guests, needy travelers, and the poor. “Here the sick received medical and hospice care … The poor who could work were employed or trained in various trades.”

Basil’s younger brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and his lifelong friend, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, also expounded the requirements of Christian philanthropy. Gregory of Nyssa, in “On Loving the Poor,” declares that fasting is meaningless unless linked to acts of social justice:

There is a kind of fasting which is not bodily, a spiritual self-discipline which affects the soul; this abstinence is from evil, and it was as a means to this that our abstinence from food was prescribed. Therefore I say to you: Fast from evil-doing, discipline yourselves from covetousness, abstain from unjust profits, starve the greed of mammon [and] keep in your houses no snatched or stolen treasure. For what use is it to touch no meat and to wound your brother by evil-doing? What advantage is it to forgo what is your own and to seize unjustly what belongs to the poor?… Loosen every bond of injustice, undo the knots of covenants made by force. Break your bread with the hungry. Bring the poor and homeless into your house. When you see the naked, cover him; and despise not your own flesh.

Preaching on the Last Judgment scene in Matthew 25, a text that appears repeatedly in the sermons of the Cappadocians, Gregory of Nazianzus proclaimed:

I am fearful of that “left hand side” and of “the goats” … because they have not ministered to Christ through those in need…. Let us take care of Christ, then, while there is still time: let us visit Christ in his sickness, let us give to Christ to eat, let us clothe Christ in his nakedness, let us do honor to Christ, and not only at table, as some do, nor just with precious ointment, like Mary, nor just with a tomb, like Joseph of Arimathea, nor just with gold, frankincense and myrrh … but let us give him this honor in his needy ones, in those who lie on the ground here before us this day.

St. Maria Skobtsova of ParisThe special identification of the poor with Christ is stated even more boldly in his sermon “On Almsgiving”:

Do not look down on those who lie at your feet, as if you judged them worthless. Consider who they are, and you will discover their dignity: they have put on the countenance [prosopon] of our Savior; for the one who loves humanity has lent them his own face, so that through it they might shame those who lack compassion and hate the poor.

Perhaps the most striking and frequent references to the poor in patristic social teaching occur in the sermons preached by St. John Chrysostom after his election, in 398, as Archbishop of Constantinople. Chrysostom vividly paired caring for the poor with participation in the Divine Liturgy:

Do you wish to see his altar?… This altar is composed of the very members of Christ, and the body of the Lord becomes your altar … venerable because it is itself Christ’s body…. This altar you can see lying everywhere, in the alleys and in the agoras and you can sacrifice upon it anytime … invoke the spirit not with words, but with deeds. Nothing kindles and sustains the fire of the Spirit as effectively as this oil poured out with liberality….When you see a poor believer believe that you are looking at an altar; when you see this one as a beggar, don’t simply refrain from insulting him but actually give him honor; and if you witness someone else insulting him, stop them, prevent it. Thus God himself will be good to you, and you will obtain the promised good things.

And preaching on Matthew 25:

Do you want to honor Christ’s body? Then do not scorn him in his nakedness, nor honor him here in the church with silken garments while neglecting him outside where he is cold and naked…. Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? First fill him when he is hungry; only then use the means you have left to adorn his table…. What is the use of providing the table with cloths woven of gold thread, and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs?

Contemporary activists and theologians have revisited these patristic themes in discussing the social mission of Christianity today. Listen, for example, to the words of an Orthodox priest from Romania, Fr. Ion Bria, echoing Chrysostom’s connection between liturgy and human rights:

What does sanctification or theosis mean in terms of ecology and human rights? Christian community can only proclaim the Gospel – and be heard – if it is a living icon of Christ. The equality of the brothers and freedom in the Spirit, experienced in the Liturgy, should be expressed and continued in economic sharing and liberation in the field of social oppression. Therefore, the installation in history of a visible Christian fellowship which overcomes human barriers against justice, freedom and unity is a part of that liturgy after the Liturgy.

The same passage from Matthew 25 that attracted the Cappadocians and St. John Chrysostom, captivated the recently canonized martyr, St. Maria Skobtsova, a Russian Orthodox émigré nun who lived in France:

The way to God lies through love of people. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says “I”: “I was hungry, and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.” To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need…. I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.

The identification of Christ with the poor and the despised led her to found Orthodox Action in Paris which established houses of hospitality, rest homes, schools, camps, hospital work, aid for the unemployed, assistance to the elderly, all to carry out the Gospel social imperative, and it led ultimately to her internment and martyrdom in Ravensbrück for protecting Jews during the Nazi occupation.

The identification of Christ with the poor opens out into reflection upon the Trinity as a model of interpersonal communion. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware has written:

Every form of community – the family, school, workplace, the local Eucharistic center, the monastery, city, nation – has as its vocation to become, each according to its own modality, a living icon of the Holy Trinity. When as Christians we fight for justice and human rights, for a compassionate and caring society, we are acting specifically in the name of the Trinity. Faith in the Trinitarian God, in the God of personal interrelationship and shared love, commits us to struggle with all our strength against poverty, exploitation, oppression and disease…. Precisely because we know that God is three-in-one, we cannot remain indifferent to any suffering, by any member of the human race, in any part of the world. Love after the image and likeness of the Trinity signifies that, in the words of Dostoevsky’s starets Zosima, “Each of us is guilty of everything before everyone.”

The only iconic representation of the Trinity permitted in the Orthodox Church is the image of the Hospitality of Abraham. The icon depicts the three visitors whom Abraham and Sarah tend at the Oak of Mamre, as three angels, sitting at table, each with his head tending toward the others, forming a circle. It is a reminder that it is our mutual acts of compassionate care that draw us into the never ending circle (circumcession or perichoresis) of self-emptying Divine love.

To summarize, let me suggest what seem to me to be several important implications of seeing Christ in the poor:

  • Presence through personal encounter is essential. Hearing the stories of the poor, gaining a vision of their lives and of life through their eyes can change our lives.
  • Caring for the poor and oppressed is inextricably tied to worship. It is the Liturgy after the liturgy for the transformation of the world.
  • Excess possessions are robbed from the poor. As St. Elizabeth Bayley Seton aptly put it, “Live simply so that others may simply live.”
  • Consumption readily leads us to an addictive ever-spiraling cycle of manufactured needs-fulfillment-more needs, based on the illusion that we have no needs that we cannot fill.
  • Wealth tends to displace our need for God in a spurious attempt to fill the emptiness which only God can fill. Engagement with poverty can help to teach us this lesson, just as fasting teaches us our hunger for God.
  • We need, as Martin Luther King put it, to move from being a “thing-oriented to a person-oriented society.”
  • We need to work for reconciliation across the economic, social, and racial divides to re-member the sundered body, by observing occasions for remembering and by creating occasions for repentance and for mourning the victims of racism and oppression, both those who suffer and those who perpetrate the suffering.

These elements are basic strands of the ancient and living tradition of social concern expressed in the early Church as well as in African-American Christianity, a tradition that Martin Luther King so eloquently articulated and exemplified. ❖

Albert Jordy Raboteau, a native of Mississippi, is Professor of Religion at Princeton University. His written work includes Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South; A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History; Canaan Land: A Religious History of African Americans; and A Sorrowful Joy: a Spiritual Memoir. He is a member of the Orthodox Church in America, serves as chair of the board at Emmaus House, a house of hospitality in Harlem, and is a member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

❖ IN COMMUNION / Feast of St. Ephrem the Syrian / Winter 2011/ Issue 59