To borrow an analogy from my father-in-law, fasting is a three-legged stool. The three legs of this stool of spiritual growth are fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. If you remove any of these "legs," the stool is rendered unbalanced, shaky, and even ineffectual. Most of us have heard much about the first two legs of the stool - fasting and prayer. Few of us, however, have really heard much about the third leg.
Almsgiving - charitable giving in cash and non-cash for those of you filling out your tax forms. We are not speaking here of just emotional caring but real expressions of physical caring for those in need - the poor, the disabled, the hungry, the widowed, the orphaned, the imprisoned, and the sick.
All these are called by our Lord the least of His brethren. The context, of course, is His saying to us, "As you have done to the least of My brethren, you have done also to Me." Our response to these least of our brethren who are in need determines whether we will stand with the blessed sheep on His right hand or the damned goats on His left.
When our Lord was asked by the lawyer in the Gospel of Luke what the greatest commandment was, He replied, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself." He then illustrated His point with the parable of the Good Samaritan. In the Gospel of John, in His farewell address to His disciples, our Lord admonishes them several times to "love one another."
He calls this a new commandment, not because it did not exist in the Old Testament, for indeed this was a summation of the Old Testament teaching. What is new is that our Lord has given us an example through His own other-centered, self-sacrificial giving. At every turn our Lord provided for the care of those in need.
In the Deutero-Canonical books, Tobit calls for fasting with almsgiving and Sirach calls for the care of the widow and those in need. In the Acts of the Apostles, we can see that the care for the widows and all those in need locally as well as the poor in Jerusalem was of primary concern to the Christian community. In the Epistle of James, he warns us that anyone who says he believes in God, but does nothing to help a neighbor who is naked and hungry but tells them to go and be warmed and filled, profits nothing. Finally, the Epistles of John, using stronger language the Beloved Disciple states repeatedly that, if we say that we love God, and show no love to those around us, we are liars.
As we look at the writings of the Fathers, we see further evidence for the care for the poor and needy. In the first century, in the fourth chapter of the Apostolic Constitutions, we read about the bishop and the local Church's responsibilities for support. It begins by saying that anyone who can support himself should do so. It then says that orphans should be cared for by the Church but also by giving them a family and a trade to provide for themselves. Later it also describes the care of widows and the poor. It teaches that in keeping with the Old Testament, people should give their first fruits, their tithe, to the Church so that the widows and the poor, as well as the abused, the enslaved, and imprisoned could be given care with discernment, giving only to those in true need.
In the second century, the Shepherd of Hermas speaks of the care of the poor in his Similitudes. In his second chapter, he describes the relationship between the rich and the poor -- stating that the rich have a responsibility to care for the necessities of the poor while the poor have a responsibility to pray for the rich. In this way they cooperate for their mutual salvation. In his fourth chapter, he says that true fasting involves obeying God's commandments, living in righteousness and obedience to God. Further he says that the money we save from our fasting, - and he speaks here of eating and drinking only bread and water, - should be given to the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, or to someone else in need.
In the Third century, St. Cyprian commends his clergy to care for the widows, the sick, the poor, and strangers -- all the indigent, out of his own share, supplementing it with that of the Church.
In the fourth century, both St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom wrote and acted extensively on behalf of the poor. In Caesarea, Basil established hospitals for the poor and homes for the orphans and encouraged this practice in his writings to other bishops, priests, and lay people. He also assumed that the people should give to the poor through the Church, so that the money would be put to good use, discerning those who were in real need from those who were merely greedy beggars, unwilling but not unable to work.
St. John Chrysostom, in enumerating the responsibilities of the bishop speaks very clearly of what a great burden the care for the poor, the widows, and the orphans is. This burden is so great for three reasons according to Chrysostom - the grave importance of the ability to discern real need, the added responsibility of caring for their spiritual well being and the necessity of seeking the support of the faithful in time, talent, and treasure.
Throughout our history, it has been the franchise of the Church to care for those who are unable to care for themselves. It was required to do so responsibly, locally, and lovingly, while not ignoring those in other parts of the Church who through a crisis found themselves in a state of need they were unable to provide for on their own. We are one body - the Body of Christ.
The Orthodox tradition has always been to care for the poor and the needy by helping them to provide for themselves - to provide for peoples immediate need but to then "teach them how to fish" rather than continually handing them another fish.
Indeed, even in the West, the care for the local poor has always been the franchise of the local Church. This was the case here in America up until the Depression and the New Deal. Though the original intent was to provide work, a hand up, it became easier to give them a hand out and enslave them to our social welfare system, while at the same time taking away from the Church its franchise of the care for the poor and needy.
It is time for us to recapture and to embrace our franchise of the care for the poor and needy. The canonical Orthodox Christian Churches in America have come together to form International Orthodox Christian Charities. Through the principles of 1) dignified giving - offering people a hand up rather than a hand out; 2) professionalism - with full reportability and accountability; 3) permanence - secured through regular annual giving; and 4) working locally to effect change; IOCC has begun to work through the Orthodox Church worldwide to offer the love of Christ to all those in need.
Many of you may be familiar with the work of IOCC in the former Soviet block countries giving food to the hungry, clothing for the naked, shelter to the homeless and displaced refugees, healing to the sick and injured, and care for the orphaned in Russia, Georgia, the former Yugoslavia, Romania, Albania, Moldova, and even Chechaya. IOCC seeks to offer assistance through the Orthodox Church and related organizations in Haiti, Mexico, the Middle East and Indonesia. Emergency assistance has been provided in Greece and Sahkalin Island after earthquakes destroyed entire villages.
IOCC is the means through which we can be a united Orthodox Christian presence throughout the world, over there as well as right here, showing and speaking of the love of God for all people, especially those whom our Lord calls the least of these My brethren.
What can we do.
Pray for IOCC. Prayer provides the necessary spiritual foundation for your involvement in the charitable work of IOCC.
Pick up an information flyer and membership form. Make your annual membership pledge today. Your membership promotes the Orthodox voice in the world; to governments, to the needy who see the faith of the American Orthodox by your membership. Different levels of membership are available including Youth Memberships for your children. In 1994, for every dollar contributed, IOCC received nine dollars in commodities and grants! Your contribution is leveraged and makes a big difference. The higher the number of memberships, the greater the percentage for leverage.
It is time for us to reclaim our franchise in caring for the poor and the disenfranchised through our actions as well as our prayers. Our salvation depends on it. To God be the glory, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Should you have any questions or comments please e-mail us!