Finding Christ in the Beggar, Finding Christ in the Chalice

If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door,
you will not find Him in the chalice.
– St. John Chrysostom.
1

The modern world is rife with utilitarianism, in all its aspects. This attitude even infects the way we think about people. This is contrary to the Gospel, but it is difficult not to fall down this particular pit, as it is so large and well disguised. As you do even to the least of these, you do to me.2 All are useful to Jesus, even the least. Our usefulness to the Kingdom of God goes beyond money, management skills, or speaking ability. It goes to the heart of being itself, to our individual humanity. To Christians there are no useless eaters, no Lebensunwertes Leben.

One way in which our utilitarianism can affect us is in our dealings with the needy. It is easy in our world to ignore the needy, thinking there are agencies whose job it is to deal with them, or that the problem is too big for our little aggregate drops in the bucket, or that the needy have created their own problems and need to help themselves. We may even try to calculate how much of our taxes go toward the government agencies charged with care of the poor and reduce our charitable giving by that amount.

If we do come to a realization that we need to help, there is another trap awaiting us: that of thinking that helping the needy is all about physical relief. While relief of misery is important, we can’t eradicate it, only God can do that. This is why giving to agencies is inadequate both materially and spiritually.

Sell all you have and give to the poor.3 Jesus’s advice to the rich young man was not necessarily about the needy. The original question was, “How can I get to heaven?” Jesus answers with the requirements of religion but adds something much greater at the end. If you would be perfect, sell all you have and give to the poor. He is no longer talking about getting by and squeaking through the narrow gate with clothing tattered; he is telling the rich young man how to be perfect. We concentrate on the result of the second part of this, but charity isn’t about the poor “getting stuff,” though that is a good thing; it is also about how lessening the burden of materialism changes us.

The widow gave from what little she had.4 When we give of our surplus it is good, but the widow giving all that she has is at the end of a transformation. Her very widowhood has put things in perspective. What does money mean to her when she has lost her precious husband? And somehow we know that if she hadn’t had her mite to give, she would have poured herself out in prayer.

“When I give money to panhandlers it always seems to end up being used for drugs.” “Always seems to,” as if we are all-seeing and all-knowing. This is a common attitude, as if all poor people are the same and they all respond to a handout in the same way and they are all on drugs. Justice is easier than mercy, so people naturally seem to want justice before mercy, and hence we confuse rendering evil for evil with the spiritual work of mercy. We end up gloating over our moral superiority, like the Pharisee against the publican,5 as we think we are correcting a brother. But do we think of him as a brother? The lack of humility drives people away from the community, scattering the sheep. We don’t save the world by our charity — the world has already been saved by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ — but this is a time of testing our charity.

And hospitality do not forget; for by this some, being not aware of it, have entertained angels.6 And these angels are the eyes of God, as explained in Genesis 18–19, when Abraham feeds angels, who then leave to investigate Sodom. We believe that there are angels who can interact with us. It adds another dimension to Jesus saying that whatever we do to the least of these we do to Him. And angels can certainly appear as “the least of these” to see how we respond, not that God doesn’t already know, but to give us yet another chance.

It is said in many different ways by many people: If any man will not work, neither will he eat.7 Paul was writing about those who were freeloading in the community of Christians. We have to decide inside ourselves when, if ever, are we called upon to violate God’s law to stem the deterioration or demise of our culture. Can one person make such a difference by refusing to give alms that it overrides the imperative to help? Man invariably metes out injustice when he tries to distribute a certain measured amount of justice.8

The poor will always be with you.9 Not only are the poor always with us, but they have always been the same. The poor of today are not different than previously. We can use this as an excuse to look the other way. And it is often easier to help today versus in a primitive culture in a desert, where resources fluctuated more in availability. The nature and causes of poverty are the same today as always, there just may be more possible causes in each general category, whether it be sickness, disability, addiction, or laziness. And today widows and orphans are better off in some places because of differences in physical and social infrastructures, such as the previously mentioned government agencies. There are modern changes in abundance of food, efficient distribution, and more and better housing.

The other protective covering that man has constructed between himself and God is rationality. It says: certainly man should be good, but everything within reason. He should be philanthropic — with moderation. He should consider the welfare of others — but of course with an eye to their deservingness and strictly within the boundaries of his own interests.10

Are there undeserving poor to be distinguished from deserving poor? Or is this used as an excuse to look the other way? Oblation is a pouring out and we pour ourselves out in charity. We become the offering in the chalice. The poor also make an oblation, in ignorance, sickness, the inability to weather the vicissitudes of life.

Does God always provide? We certainly know of incidents when He has miraculously provided, perhaps even in our own lives, as in the incident of the widow’s cruse.11 Eventually God provides but maybe not right now, not until Judgment Day. As things are set right finally on the last day, our degree of charity will weigh heavy on the balance. And those who have been the instruments of our testing will be rewarded at last for their faith.

  1. Attributed to St. John Chrysostom, this may be a short paraphrase of Homily 50.4 on the Gospel of Matthew.
  2. Mt 25:31–46.
  3. Mt 19:16–21; Mk 10:17–21; Lk 18:18–22.
  4. Mk 12:41-44; Lk 21:2-4.
  5. Lk 18:11.
  6. Heb 13:2.
  7. 2 Thes 3:10.
  8. Romano Guardini, The Lord (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1996), 95. Part 2, Chapter 1: “The Fullness of Justice.” Kindle version.
  9. Mt 26:11; Mk 14:7.
  10. Guardini, The Lord, 95.
  11. 3 Kings 17 (1 Kings 17 in editions otherwise numbered).
Ann R. Morrill About Ann R. Morrill

Ann R. Morrill lives in Grove City,Ohio, where she works as a scientist. She is an oblate of St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana. She enjoys reading, the outdoors, and playing old-time banjo.

Comments

  1. This article has a beautifully correct concern for the poor. I would caution people to put money for alms in a pocket seperate from their wallet. I have been in a situation where a rather big beggar wanted to rob my whole wallet. Thank God he did not. Ever since then I never pull my wallet out when I am going to give alms. As for the drug abuse comment in this article, sometimes you can tell a person is addicted to drugs by their physical appearance. For example, the needle marks in their arms. When people say they are hungry I much rather buy them food. Yes, this takes longer but the people appreciate it.

  2. “Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” Very timely and well-written article. Thank you.

  3. Tom McGuire says:

    I share Tom’s views of this article, “Very timely and well-written”. St John Chrysostom has much to teach us, here is one of my favorite quotes from him:
    “Not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth, but theirs.”

    – John Chrysostom

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