Today is Meatfare Sunday – the third Sunday of the Triodion already – the Sunday of the Last Judgement. This means that we are now but one week and some hours away from the beginning of the Great Fast – and today is the last day before the lesser fast of Cheesefare Week. So, we now prepare ourselves to embrace again the rigor of a penitential season.
The three pillars of every penitential season are – as is well-known – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These means of bringing us to repentance are revealed to us in scripture – especially in the Sermon on the Mount – and are recommended to us by the fathers of the Church – for example by St. Maximos the Confessor.[i] Today, I would like to focus in on that last pillar, which I feel is often somewhat neglected and which is particularly important when it comes to our Last Judgement.
Jesus – the son of Sirach, that is, in the book known as Sirach – teaches us not to neglect the giving of alms (Sirach 7: 10). And Jesus the Christ, in his Sermon on the Mount, assumes that we will give alms. He says “when you give alms,” he doesn’t say “if you give alms” – just as he says, “when you pray…” and “when you fast….” These things are not optional if we are Christians.
Whatever good things we have are not truly our own alone but belong also to those who do not have these good things. Giving simply helps to restore balance to the cosmos upset and distorted by all kinds of sin. We can be covetous even with what we regard as our own property, let alone the property of others, and this covetousness separates us from the God who gave us everything we have so that we can be generous with others.
Jesus also tells us how to give – in secret and not so that we may be seen by others (Matthew 6: 2). Today, he might have said, when you give to the poor, do not film it and post it on YouTube under the guise of a social experiment, but give in secret, and your Father who watches in secret will reward you (Matt 6:4).
It’s interesting – I just want to point out – we often hear this list of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – and there’s a logic to this order. After all, in one sense, almsgiving results from prayer and fasting – so it comes after. Fasting leaves us with more to give and prayer inspires us to give. Nonetheless, it’s worth pointing out that, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus puts things in a different order – he speaks first about almsgiving and then about prayer and fasting (Matt 6). So maybe this gives a little more primacy to the issue of almsgiving then we are generally wont to do.
In the Book of Tobit, the Archangel Raphael says that “prayer and fasting are good, but better than either is almsgiving accompanied by righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than abundance with wickedness. It is better to give alms than to store up gold; for almsgiving saves one from death and expiates every sin. Those who regularly give alms shall enjoy a full life” (Tobit 12: 8 – 9).
Now, first of all, what constitutes almsgiving? Well, it’s giving dollars to beggars, right? Or, it’s donating to charitable causes? Something like that. Well, these are good things and almsgiving encompasses them, but it’s interesting to look at the Greek word here: ἐλεημοσύνη. Maybe this sounds a little bit familiar because we so often repeat the phrase, Κύριε, ἐλέησον, which means Lord, have mercy. The word here has “mercy” as a root.
So the word means a bit more than giving alms as we tend to think of it, though it carries that meaning as well. It refers also to compassion and to practicing the virtue of mercy. In other words, it refers to doing the works of mercy – including the very works upon which we will be judged when the Son of Man comes in his glory, according to the teaching of Jesus Christ today (Matt 25:31).
When we give something to eat to someone who is hungry, when we give something to drink to someone who is thirsty, when we welcome a stranger with hospitality, when we give clothes to someone who needs them, when we take care of someone who is sick, when we visit someone who is in prison or bound by whatever circumstances – all of this is ἐλεημοσύνη – these are all ways of showing mercy and compassion – and they are all forms of almsgiving (Matt 25:35-36). Just note that – according to what Jesus is teaching us today – it is our practice of mercy in these ways that will determine whether or not we are entering the kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the cosmos (25:34). It is on the basis of our almsgiving – and not our fasting, for example – that we are judged.
Remember that the desert fathers kept a strict rule of prayer and fasting. Well,
A brother came to see a certain hermit and, as he was leaving, he said, “Forgive me abba for preventing you from keeping your rule.” The hermit replied, “My rule is to welcome you with hospitality and to send you away in peace.”[ii]
That’s almsgiving. Love is the highest rule and the greatest commandment and hospitality is the clearest expression of love.
It was said of an old man that he dwelt in Syria on the way to the desert. This was his work: whenever a monk came from the desert, he gave him refreshment with all his heart. Now one day a hermit came and he offered him refreshment. The other did not want to accept it, saying he was fasting. Filled with sorrow, the old man said to him, “Do not despise your servant, I beg you, do not despise me, but let us pray together. Look at the tree which is here; we will follow the way of whichever of us causes it to bend when he kneels on the ground and prays.” So the hermit knelt down to pray and nothing happened. Then the hospitable one knelt down and at once the tree bent towards him. Taught by this, they gave thanks to God.[iii]
Fasting is good because it teaches us self-control, discipline, and detachment from the things of this world and, when we have learned these things, we can be more hospitable. Again, as Raphael teaches Tobit and Tobias, “Prayer and fasting are good, but better than either is almsgiving,” and the Eastern Christian tradition is right, I believe, in emphasizing hospitality as its most cherished form of almsgiving. In giving hospitality, we sometimes give of ourselves in a more personal way than when we give money, food, or clothing. Hospitality causes us to share our homes, our time, and our very way of life. [iv]
Indeed, we must “not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrew 13:2). Remember the hospitality of Abraham to the three strangers who came to his home (Gen 18:1-5). By this, he showed hospitality to the Lord and, through his hospitality, the Holy Trinity is revealed to us. Jesus teaches us today that whatever we do to the least of these, we do to the Lord (Matt 25:40, 45). This is never more clear than in the case of Abraham showing hospitality to the three strangers who are in truth of the appearance of the Lord to him. It’s really something – isn’t it? – that the icon that we know as the Rublev Trinity was first known as the Hospitality of Abraham. When we show hospitality, the Lord is revealed to us. When we see the face of Christ in the face of all of our brothers and sisters and in every stranger that we meet, we will welcome him in them, show them hospitality, and give them all we have to give. Every person in need who comes to us is a coming of Christ and a theophany of the Lord, if we have eyes to see.
[i] “Almsgiving heals the soul’s incensive power; fasting withers sensual desire; prayer purifies the Intellect and prepares it for the contemplation of created beings” (Maximos the Confessor, First Century on Love, 79).
[iv] Light for Life, Part Three, 48