The Gospel today teaches the central importance for the Christian life of almsgiving … helping the poor and those in need. The rich man cared nothing for Lazarus, the beggar at his gate and nothing he could do after death could enable him to cross that great gulf opened up between him and God, a gulf created by his own lack of compassion and generosity. If any parable should warn us of the perils of being mean-spirited, ungenerous and hard hearted, this one should. Let us then consider alms-giving a little more closely.
God not only provides us with what we need to live, He also expects us to use these means wisely and compassionately, to His greater glory. So it is that the giving and receiving of our wealth affects our relationship with our Creator. First it is important to state that the New Testament does not condemn riches or our private possessions but it does give us many warnings about having false priorities. Jesus’ underlying command is to: “seek first the Kingdom of Heaven” and He jokes about the difficulties felt by rich people in getting to Heaven, yet although he rarely associates with the wealthy, He never condemns them.
The Church Fathers were suspicious of wealth because they thought that riches could only be gained by evil or questionable means, and Our Blessed Lord implied that He, too, thought that to be rich meant that you will have ignored the poor. It follows that the Fathers are almost unanimous in saying that riches are not evil in themselves, but that the misuse of wealth will bring damnation and earthly unhappiness. That early church Book of Prayers and Instruction, called the Didache, says: “Do not turn away the poor and needy, but share everything you own with your brothers, and do not say what you have belongs only to you.”
St. John Chrysostom put this all most powerfully. Some of his sayings about almsgiving are worth quoting in full:
“We must learn to be discerning Christians and to honor Christ in the way in which he wants to be honored. It is only right that honour given to anyone should take the form most acceptable to the recipient not to the giver. Peter thought he was honouring the Lord when he tried to stop him washing his feet, but this was far from being genuine homage. So give God the honour he asks for, that is give your money generously to the poor. God has no need of golden vessels but of golden hearts.
I am not saying you should not give golden altar vessels and so on, but I am insisting that nothing can take the place of almsgiving. The Lord will not refuse to accept the first kind of gift but he prefers the second, and quite naturally, because in the first case only the donor benefits, in the second case the poor gets the benefit.
The gift of a chalice may be ostentatious; almsgiving is pure benevolence.
What is the use of loading Christ’s table with gold cups while he himself is starving? Feed the hungry and then if you have any money left over, spend it on the altar table. Will you make a cup of gold and without a cup of water? What use is it to adorn the altar with cloth of gold hangings and deny Christ a coat for his back! What would that profit you? Tell me: if you saw someone starving and refused to give him any food but instead spent your money on adorning the altar with gold, would he thank you? Would he not rather be outraged? Or if you saw someone in rags and stiff with cold and then did not give him clothing but set up golden columns in his honour, would he not say that he was being made a fool of and insulted?
Consider that Christ is that tramp who comes in need of a night’s lodging. You turn him away and then start laying rugs on the floor, draping the walls, hanging lamps on silver chains on the columns. Meanwhile the tramp is locked up in prison and you never give him a glance. Well again I am not condemning munificence in these matters.
Make your house beautiful by all means but also look after the poor, or rather look after the poor first. No one was ever condemned for not adorning his house, but those who neglect the poor were threatened with hellfire for all eternity and a life of torment with devils. Adorn your house if you will, but do not forget your brother in distress. He is a temple of infinitely greater value.”
Here in this parish we are now providing food and clothing to the men’s homeless hostel just down the road. Let us continue to do this on a regular basis. Doubtless we shall discover other ways, right under our noses perhaps, to help the needy.
In these difficult economic times those who falling below basic subsistence levels into real poverty are growing day by day. How can we not do what we can do to help them in their need? Let us not allow a great gulf to open up between us and God by ignoring them as the rich man ignored Lazarus right outside his front door.
Of course, Christians must also work for a more fair and just society to address the problem at its source but even after doing this, the poor will always remain and we must never be blind to their plight, including those in the household of faith. So, to use an image drawn from the gospel today, let us be found in the bosom of Abraham rather than the bosom of Satan and the worship of Mammon.