Fr. Theodore Paraskevopoulos · December 7, 2010
Fr. Ted challenges us to give away the best of our possessions, rather than just what we can not use for ourselves.
I was looking at the Winnipeg Harvest containers that we have outside by the door. As you all know, especially around Christmas-time, we do a food drive and a clothing drive, and we try to collect as many things for families that are in need throughout Winnipeg, especially now when it is Christmas-time.
I was looking at all the different things that people had donated, and I went home and I was looking through the kitchen to see what I could give as well, and something occurred to me. It’s that when we go home and we open up the kitchen and we choose the kinds of things that we want to donate, what are they really? What are the usual things that we give?
We usually give the things that we don’t need. We go through everything and we say, “Well, this stuff we need for the house. This is the really good pasta, the really good sauces, the really good canned foods.” Then we usually choose the stuff that we don’t really like, or the things that we don’t really need, or the things that other people gave us as gifts and we don’t want them any more.
We take those things and we give those to the poor, and we keep the good stuff for ourselves. And if you look, most of the time that is what we do. I’ve done it. We do the same thing with clothing. When there are clothing drives, we do not give our best clothing to the poor. Heaven forbid. We give the things that are ripped and old and tattered and things that are out of style that we really don’t want to wear because we won’t be stylish.
Even though it is always good to give to the poor—it’s never a bad thing—we have to think, when we are doing these things: what statement we are making when we separate our goods in this way and give only the things that are secondary, only the things that are not good enough for us?
In essence, when we do this action, we are saying—and we are being hypocritical when we do it—outside we are saying, “Look, I’m giving to the poor, it makes me feel great, and it makes our family feel great because we’re giving.” And yet, we are only giving things that we wouldn’t use, so in essence we are saying that the people whom we are giving to, the people whom we are being “kind” to—those people are below us, because these kinds of things are not good enough for us, but they are good enough for them. So we separate ourselves, and we place ourselves above those who are in need.
And yet, if we look back in the early Church, the first Christians had a completely opposite understanding of what it was to give to the poor and to give to those in need. The first Christians had the idea of giving the first fruits of our labors. What are the first fruits? They are the best of what we have. If we are farmers, it is the best crop that we have. If we make things, it is the best things that we make.
They always had this tradition of always giving back the 10 percent. We’ve heard about this before, the tithing, which we don’t do, but they also gave back the first fruits of whatever God had given them, back to, not only to the Church, but to their fellow man, to be used for those who needed it.
We have somehow lost that. Now, in today’s day and age, we keep the first fruits for ourselves, and we give the things that we don’t really like away. It’s a little bit hypocritical, because we end up doing charity for our own good, and we end up doing charity for our own ego, to make ourselves feel better—that we’re good Christians and we’ve helped somebody at Christmas—to make ourselves feel a little bit better for the hundreds of gifts that we get on Christmas morning.
I was sitting here last week—if you remember, those of you were here last week, we had Youth Sunday, and we had a very good speaker from Los Angeles come in, my good friend, Christopher Rocknage, from the Serbian Orthodox Church. We were sitting and discussing this after the talk. We were talking about giving alms and how the Church can help people in the surrounding community.
He came up with a very, very, good, I guess you could say, exercise. I don’t think that most of us could do it. He said on Christmas morning, if you really want to teach your children and your family about giving, what it really is to give, for pure love, not for selfish gain, sit down on Christmas morning and open all the gifts. Everybody is happy, the children go crazy, and when they’re done opening all their gifts, you ask them to choose the one gift that they really love; it’s their favorite one of the whole year.
Almost all children have some kind of favorite gift that they got, the thing that they’re really waiting for that year. Ask them to choose that most precious and valuable gift to them. When they have chosen it, you ask them to give that one away. They won’t be able to do it. We won’t be able to do it as adults. But that is where we show how good of a Christian we are.
I’m not saying we should go impose that, necessarily, on our children, because everybody is at a different level, and yet, that really tests us on if we are willing to give our first fruits, if we are willing to give away the things that matter most to us. This is where we’re tested as Christians.
I remember there was a very holy man who used to live on Mt. Athos, which is a place in Greece where there are all these monasteries. He was a monk, he has passed away now, and they are actually going to make him a saint. His name was Elder Porphyrios. He used to have a saying that he would tell people who came to see him. They used to climb all the way up the mountain and go to see him in this little hut that he used to live in.
Once somebody asked him about fasting, and about the Christmas season, and how can we help our fellow man. He said, “Here is how you can help your fellow man: I want the rich people to fast, and I want the poor people to give alms.”
Think about that for a second: “the rich people to fast and the poor to give alms.” You would think it would be the other way around: that the rich people should give away all their money, because they have a lot of it, and it would be really easy for the poor people to fast, because they are already starving.
And yet, he turned it around. Why? Because he knew that for a rich person to give $10,000 is not really that difficult, because they have another million, so it’s easy to give money. For a poor person it’s easy to fast, because he is already hungry. But ask somebody who is rich, who is used to a life of decadence and eating whatever they want, when they want, ask them to practice self-control. That is something that will be very difficult for them to do. Then turn to the poor person who has two pennies in their pocket, and ask him to give that to somebody else who needs it even more—very, very difficult to do.
These are the moments where we are truly tested as Christians, and we really have to separate why we do things and analyze our actions. Are we doing things because society tells us it’s good to give to the United Way, it’s good to give to Christmas Cheer Board, it’s good to give something, no matter what it is, or are we truly giving because we love other people more than we love ourselves?
It seems to me, and I put myself in this category, that usually we love other people, but nowhere near as much as we love ourselves. And this is reflected in the kinds of things that we give. We are called, especially by Christ, to give more even than ourselves, to give the things that we love the most, so that we’re not attached to them. That is practicing true love. That is practicing charity. That is when we are not hypocrites, but we truly prove, not only to God and to ourselves, but to our fellow man, that we are truly living the gospel of Christ. Amen.