Not only a prominent theme in the Bible, concern for the poor is a common point of emphasis in the writings of the Fathers of the Church, and the Cappadocian Fathers—St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian and St. Gregory of Nyssa—are no exception.
Consider, for example, the teaching of St. Basil the Great:
“When someone strips a man of his clothes we call him a thief. And one who might clothe the naked and does not —should you not be given the same name? The bread in your board belongs to the hungry; the cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked, the shoes you let rot belong to the barefoot; the money in your vaults belongs to the destitute. All these you might help and do not—to all these you are doing wrong.”
St. Basil’s exhortation cuts to the quick of the situation of many Orthodox believers, as well as others, in North America. Though we did not steal our money and possessions from others, we have more than we need. When that is the case, we have an obligation to share from our overabundance with those who lack basic necessities. If we fail to do so, we incur the guilt of a thief. Indeed, we have a greater guilt, for we have ignored the needs of the Lord Jesus, Who identified Himself with “the least of these.”
Likewise, according to James Thornton, St. Gregory the Theologian understood charity as “an absolute obligation for all Christians.” In St. Gregory’s own words:
“[N]ow if following Paul and Christ Himself, we have to maintain that charity is the first and greatest of all commandments, the sum of all the laws and prophets, I suggest that the main part of charity is the love for the poor and mercy and compassion for our fellow brethren.” He admits to being “frightened by the possibility of being numbered among the goats on the left hand of the Sovereign Judge … not … because they have done something forbidden; nothing of the sort attracts condemnation on them, except their having failed to care for Christ Himself in the person of the poor.”
Appealing directly to the gospels, St. Gregory stresses the urgency of ministry to the poor:
[W]hile there is yet time, 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, [or] with precious ointments [or] in his tomb [or] with gold, frankincense and myrrh, … but let us give him this honor in his needy ones, in those who lie on the ground before us this day…
Furthermore, St. Gregory of Nyssa teaches that fasting is “an extension of Christ’s requirement to give alms” and should turn us away from a host of passions. His exhortations on the topic are worth quoting at length:
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, 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 is the poor’s? What piety is it to drink water and thirst for blood, weaving treachery in the wickedness of your own heart? Judas himself fasted with the eleven, but since he did not curb his love of money, his fasting availed him nothing to salvation…
St. Gregory calls Christians to a genuine fast:
“Loosen every bond of injustice, undo the knots of covenants made by force. Break your bread to the hungry; bring the poor and homeless into your house. When you see the naked, cover him; and despise not your own flesh.” The Lord has given His dignity to the poor, who “are treasurers of the good things that we look for, the keepers of the gates of the kingdom, opening them to the merciful and shutting them on the harsh and uncharitable… [T]he Lord beholds what is done towards them, and every deed cries louder than a herald to Him who searches all hearts.”
When we imitate God’s generosity by giving to the poor, St. Gregory says elsewhere, we grow in the divine qualities of “mercy and kindness,” which “inhabit a person, divinize him and stamp him with imitation of the good in order to bring to life our original, immortal image which transcends conception.”
Saints Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and Gregory of Nyssa are held in extraordinarily high esteem in the Orthodox Church as the men who guided the Orthodox formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity in the fourth century. In this light, no one may dismiss their common call for generosity to the poor as a fundamental dimension of the life in Christ. Not an optional undertaking for those so inclined, turning away from our greed to care for the needy is a requirement of the Christian life.
They defined this requirement strictly, for “when the Cappadocians spoke of giving to the poor,” writes Justo Gonzalez, “they did not mean setting aside a small portion of one’s wealth for that purpose. They spoke of ridding oneself of all that was not strictly necessary.” Though they “retained some of their wealth,” these Fathers clearly put into practice what they preached, supporting “a large complex of buildings that provided shelter for travelers, medical care for the ill—especially those, such as lepers, whom society at large despised—food for the hungry and occupation for many who otherwise would be unemployed.” Though they did not literally give away everything they owned, they used their wealth generously, effectively and prudently to relieve the suffering of the poor, sick and needy, and thus showed the love of Christ.
Patristics scholar Susan R. Holman concludes that the Cappadocians “elevated” the poor “into the religious liturgy, that is, Christian practice and worship.” Their preaching raised people who were typically despised, rejected and thought to have no claim on anyone or anything, to the exalted status of members of Christ’s Body. Hence, those who encounter the poor encounter the Lord; and those who wish to find salvation will do so through a life characterized by generosity to those in need through both fasting and almsgiving.
Reflecting their shared Orthodox beliefs on the incarnation, the Cappadocians taught that the poor “hold a direct line of access to the highest realm of deity; their generate nature in no way limits this access and is in fact one of its most characteristic features.” In a faith that teaches that the Son of God became a human being with a real body, it should not be surprising that there is a profound spiritual significance to the unmet bodily needs of human beings.
“As the Cappadocians use traditional New Testament images to identify the poor with Christ,” Holman writes, “the body of the poor—in its most literal, mutable sense—gains social meaning. The rhetorical expression of this body gains a language and a voice of its own … as the body of the Logos.” It would be difficult to find a more radical transformation of the status of the poor than this one. Those thought to be “nobodies” by the world are now raised to the glory of the Body of Christ. We encounter and serve the Lord in them, and through this asceticism we ourselves—and our society—are transformed as well.
This essay is an adaptation of a section of Fr. Philip’s book The Goodness of God’s Creation (Salisbury, MA: Regina Orthodox Press, 2008).