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Justice as Asceticism: Part 3 of 3

It may surprise us to hear that for St. John Chrysostom, fasting is not the highest virtue. Rather, it is:

“almsgiving, our excellent counselor, the queen of virtues, who quickly raises human beings to the heavenly vaults” (CATV 1.5). [2]

Chrysostom, in a series of sermons on repentance and almsgiving, points his listeners down the many roads to repentance. A sinner may confess, mourn the sin, practice humility, pray, and give alms (CATV 1.5, 4.15), but the greatest of these roads is clearly almsgiving. Almsgiving is so great a virtue that it surpasses virginity! The five virgins who neglected to fill their lamps with oil, which John interprets as their desire for money over the poor, fail to enter the wedding banquet. Their travail in maintaining their virginity was of no account as they failed to act in mercy and justice as well. Over one such virgin John exclaims,

“I wish that you had longed for a man, for the crime would not have been so severe, because you would have desired matter of the same essence as yourself. Now, however, the condemnation is greater, since you desired foreign matter. Truly, even married women should not display inhumanity with the excuse that they have children” (CATV 3.13).

The refusal to give alms is not simply a neglect of the poor, but a valuing of material things over the image of God, and as a result, is a display of inhumanity.

Chrysostom goes further. He compares the existence of the poor to the gladiatorial games of the day. The rich, debating over the ‘deserving poor,’ set themselves up as judge over the needs of others like

“those who set up those games and give no prizes at all until they see others punishing themselves” (1Cor 188B). [3]

John accuses the rich of being unwilling to

“lend an ear to people who are quite modest, who weep and call on God” (1Cor 188C).

More concerned with checking the accounts of the poor than being generous, the rich force the poor to clearly demonstrate their misery. It is not enough for the poor to appear to have a need, to be cold, weak from hunger, or half naked; the poor need to make it obvious. They need to mutilate themselves, chew on old shoes, perform in the streets. John mocks this attitude, asking why a person would choose such an appearance:

And even if they are pretending, they’re pretending because of necessity and want, thanks to your cruelty and inhumanity which require such masks (and) aren’t inclined to mercy. For who is so wretched and miserable that, in the absence of a pressing necessity, they would submit to such disgrace, bewail their lot and put up with a punishment of that magnitude for the sake of a loaf of bread? [4]

The poor are not merely an object of pity. According to John, they have dignity, the same dignity the rich believe themselves to have. Nobody chooses out of pure pleasure to beg for bread, to endure the blank gazes or shameful stares of passersby, to be openly scolded for laziness or deceit. John does not hesitate to use sarcasm: the ‘pretence’ of the poor announces for all to hear the inhumanity of the rich (1Cor 187B). John asks the rich: Why do the poor go to such great and gruesome lengths?

“Since you haven’t learned to pity poverty but take pleasure in misfortunes, they satisfy your insatiable desire, and both for themselves and for us they kindle a fiercer flame in hell” (1Cor 187D).

Chrysostom says two things about wealth. First,

“our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it” (OWP 49). [5]

Second, God allows us wealth

“not for you to waste on prostitutes, drink, fancy food, expensive clothes, and all the other kinds of indolence, but for you to distribute to those in need” (OWP 50).

Wealth is theft not because it was stolen as a means of gaining wealth, but because keeping it is to deprive others of their needs:

“To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others” (OWP 49).

St. Basil echoes this thought:

“The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you put in the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help.”

St. Basil, himself a monk, chose to create a small city outside of his city, a self-sustaining community whose purpose was to care for those left out in the cold. His monastery was a vibrant community of justice, a home for the widow, the orphan, the sick, the needy, as well as a community of worship.

As Christians living lent in a world surrounded by need, how is it possible for us to do anything less than seek justice? This does not mean that we do not fast from food. But perhaps it is not fasting from food that is the most important. Isaiah is addressed to those of us who

“serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers” (Is 58.3).

We must fast from injustice, and do justice. Remember that for Chrysostom, watching the poor is the same as contributing to their suffering. If our fast does not include works of mercy, our effort might not matter. If our fast is not primarily about works of mercy, it might not matter. Lent is about our transformation via repentance, fasting, the doing of mercy, and praying. In the words of our Mexican host, we are to do and be a ‘work of mercy.’

Bishop Phillip Brooks once said,

“Do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger men. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers; pray for power equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work will be no miracle; but you shall be a miracle.”

The miracle our world needs is not people who can live on bread alone, but people who embody the justice of God. As people with wealth, a wealth of money, of capital, of talents, of opportunity, how will we use it to benefit those who do not have what we have been given?

[2] “Concerning Almsgiving and the Ten Virgins,” [CATV] 1.5, in John Chrysostom, On Repentance and Almsgiving, trans. Gus George Christo, The Fathers of the Church, a New Translation ; V. 96 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1998).

[3] “On 1 Corinthians Homily 21,” [1Cor] 168-176, in Wendy Mayer, John Chrysostom, and Pauline Allen, John Chrysostom, ed. Carol Harrison, The Early Church Fathers (London ; New York: Routledge, 2000).

[4] 1Cor 187A-B

[5] John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty, trans. Catharine P. Roth (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1984), 109-110. [OWP]