Thursday, September 23, 2010

Caring for the Poor as Redemptive Liturgy

Following up on the last post and looking at the Gospel lesson for this Sunday about Lazarus and the Rich Man, I am reminded how seriously the early church took our responsibility to take care of the poor as an extension of its liturgy.

Liturgy (leitourgia) originally referred to work on behalf of the public, e.g., the wealthy would pay for public works and public religious festivals. In the New Testament, Christ is referred to as performing a leitourgia: “Christ has obtained a ministry [the Greek word is leitourgia - liturgy] which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant it mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.” (Heb. 8:6) Christ’s life of obedience, death on the cross, and resurrection is the Christian liturgy. It is public work done for the benefit of the people. The early church adopted the word to refer to its worship understood as participating in the one liturgy of Jesus.

But that worship was not understood as only what happened at church on Sunday morning. In her book, The Hungry are Dying, Bishops and Beggars in Roman Cappadocia, Susan R. Holman shows that in the early church,
"Almsgiving is regarded early as a redemptive leitourgia [liturgy]." p. 54.

Holman refers to Basil the Great who assures his audience that almsgiving is
the one action that would open to you the doors of heaven . . . . Do you realize that in giving your gold, your money, your fields, that is to say rocks and earth, you acquire life eternal? . . . . I know many who fast, pray, mourn and practice admirably the gratuitous forms of piety, but they do not give an obol to the outcasts. What good do the other virtues do them? They will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. p.108

Basil also asserted that, "as Adam brought in sin by eating evilly, so we ourselves if we remember the necessity and hunger of a brother, blot out his treacherous eating." p. 83

Here are three quotes from John Chrysostom's Second Sermon on Lazarus and the Rich Man, which can be found in On Wealth and Poverty:

[The Lord]settled the rich man opposite Lazarus in order that he might see the good of which he had deprived himself. "I sent", he says, "the poor man Lazarus to your gate to teach you virtue and to receive your love; you ignored this benefit and declined to use his assistance toward your salvation. Hereafter you shall use him to bring yourself a greater punishment and retribution." p. 48

Referring to a different parable (Luke 12:15-21) with a similar point, Chrysostom said,
When his [the rich man's] harvest was abundant, he said to himself, 'What shall I do? I shall pull down my barns and build larger ones.' There is nothing more wretched than such an attitude. In truth he took down his barns; for the safe barns are not walls, but the stomachs of the poor. p. 34

Like a lot of the early church preachers and theologians, Chrysostom asserted that our wealth is not our own:
Remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth for the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their way of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs. If we have this attitude, we will certainly offer our money; and laying up great profit hereafter, we will be able to attain the good things which are to come, by the grace and kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ. p. 55

And here are some related quotes from the early church for which I unfortunately do not have citations:

"The price of the kingdom is the food you give to the poor who need it." - Leo the Great

"I know that God has given us the use of goods, but only as far as is necessary; and he has determined that the use be common. It is absurd and disgraceful for one to live magnificently and luxuriously when so many are hungry." - Clement of Alexandria

"Some think the Old Testament is stricter than the New, but they judge wrongly; they are fooling themselves. The old law did not punish the desire to hold onto wealth; it punished theft. But now the rich man is not condemned for taking the property of others; rather, he is condemned for not giving his property away." - Gregory the Great

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