At the beginning of the 7th century, the patriarch or archbishop of Alexandria in Egypt was a very holy man named John. Today he is known as St. John the Almsgiver because of his extreme generosity to the poor. He came from a rich noble family, and after his wife and children died, he spent his fortune caring for those in need. Upon becoming patriarch of Alexandria, he first asked for a list of his “masters,” and when Church officials inquired whom he meant, he answered, “The poor—for they have such great power in Heaven to help those who’ve been good to them on earth.” It turned out there were 7,500 persons living in poverty in Alexandria, and the new bishop took them under his personal protection; every Wednesday and Friday he sat on a bench in front of the cathedral, where impoverished and suffering citizens could approach him and make known their needs. When John found 80,000 gold pieces in the cathedral treasury, he immediately gave the money to the city’s hospitals and monasteries. His assistants complained he was bankrupting the diocese, but he assured them that God would provide, and he explained that as a young man, a beautiful woman, representing Charity, or compassion to the poor, appeared to him in a vision and said, “I am the eldest daughter of the King, and if you will be my friend, I will lead you to Him.”
First as a married man, then as a widower, and finally as a bishop, John spent the rest of his life acting upon this revelation, and his example inspired many people to be generous. John himself lived very simply; for instance, he had only one blanket for his bed, and it was thin, old, and tattered. When a friend learned of this, he sent the saint a luxurious and expensive blanket. The saint used it that night, but felt guilty for being so warm and comfortable while his “masters” went without, so he sold the blanket the next day, and gave the money to the poor. The friend heard about this, found the blanket, bought it back, and again sent it to the saint. The process was repeated a second time, and then a third time, with St. John saying with a smile, “We’ll see who gets tired of this first.” Needless to say, he won that contest (Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Vol. I, pp. 153-154).
St. John the Almsgiver told a story about a miser, a wealthy but selfish man, who was baking bread when a beggar asked him for a crust. The miser ignored him at first, but the beggar’s persistent pleading caused him to throw the entire loaf at him. That night the miser dreamt he had died and was being judged. An angel stood before God, holding huge scales. The man’s many sins were weighing down the scales, and his few good deeds placed on the other side seemed to make no difference—but then another angel placed a single loaf of bread on the scale, and it counterbalanced all his faults. The miser awakened, and had enough sense to realize the dream was an urgent warning. From then on he became quite generous to the poor, and soon made great progress in holiness (Tonne, Volume I, #55). Generosity to those in need is an extremely important part of our relationship with God, and a major element or criterion on which we will be judged. Jesus gave His life for our salvation, without holding anything back. We’ll be able to accept and rejoice in this supremely valuable gift only if we try to live in this same spirit.
There are several interesting and important points to note about Our Lord’s parable in the Gospel of Luke (16:19-31). First of all, the rich man was condemned to hell not for any direct sins he committed, but for a sin of omission: he neglected to help Lazarus when he could easily have done so. That omission was enough to render him unworthy of eternal life. Secondly, Jesus doesn’t say the rich man was expected to do anything difficult or dramatic, such as willingly trading places with Lazarus; all he needed to do was to treat the beggar with compassion, even as he himself continued to enjoy a very comfortable life. Thirdly, the rich man knew very well who Lazarus was, for he mentioned him by name while suffering in hell—proving that he had known him when he was alive on earth, but had deliberately chosen to ignore him. He couldn’t claim that he hadn’t known Lazarus was suffering; he was following the tragically foolish example of the rich people denounced by the prophet Amos (6:1, 4-7), who indulged themselves while choosing to ignore the suffering of the poor—and who ended up experiencing a severe judgment. God identifies Himself in a very personal way with those who are lowly and impoverished—and if, to use St. Paul’s words (1 Tm 6:11-16) we are to “pursue righteousness [and] compete well for the faith,” we too must have a special concern for those who are unable to care for themselves.
In some ways, it was easier to practice generosity in earlier centuries. Back then, we might give a coin or two to a beggar we encountered on the road, or share a bit of food with a poor person who came to our door; we would see the object of our compassion, and have a direct involvement in the process. Now, with various government poverty programs and private charities too numerous to count, it’s tempting to think, “Hey, it’s not my problem,” or “My little contribution won’t make a difference.” However, the truth is that most Americans of the 21st century—even during a poor economy—will be judged by a higher standard than most other people in history. We have more resources and opportunities than virtually everyone else who’s ever lived—and the Lord expects us to be generous in response. The Church often stresses the importance of stewardship, or the sharing of our time, talent, and treasure; the emphasis isn’t on how much we give, but whether we share of ourselves with a generous spirit. Spending our time with a lonely or suffering person; using our talents to help needy individuals, or our parish and community; and supporting the Church and worthwhile charities, are all essential elements in true Christian discipleship. The needs of this world can seem overwhelming, but let’s remember that the rich man wasn’t condemned for failing to organize a poverty program or establish a charitable foundation; his sin was in ignoring the beggar who lay at his very doorstep. In the same way, Jesus doesn’t require us to attempt the impossible, or do heroic things in far-distant lands; He simply wants us to be alert to our everyday opportunities to make suffering persons’ lives a little easier. A small act of compassion, multiplied by a lot of love, goes a long way—and as St. John the Almsgiver discovered and taught, Charity is the eldest daughter of our heavenly King, and those who befriend her are assured of a loving welcome into His Kingdom.