According to Eric Costanzo’s study of John Chrysostom’s theology of alms (Harbor for the Poor), John considered the judgment scene of Matthew 25 as “this sweetest passage” concerning God’s role in almsgiving and the place of alms in the church.

Costanzo writes, “John used this text to illustrate further the idea that the systems of the church, while initiated by God, are useless if they fail those in need. It is senseless, he argued, to honor Christ’s body in the church, or at the Lord’s Table, if one ignores His body represented by the living poor” (73).

John frequently drew parallels between the Supper and alms, considering alms a kind of sacrament subordinate only to baptism and the Eucharist (113-115). Drawing out this analogy between Eucharist and alms, and between the poor person and Jesus, he asked, “what is the profit, when His table indeed is full of golden cups, but He perishes with hunger? First fill Him, since He is hungry, and then abundantly deck out His table also. Do you make Him a cup of gold, while you do not give Him a cup of cold water? And what is the profit? Do you furnish His table with clothes bespangled with gold, while to Him you do not afford even the necessary covering? And what good comes of it?” (74). Decorating Christ’s table is useless, in short, if you ignore Christ in the person of the least of His brothers.

For John, the poor were not only recipients of alms, but had an essential role in the community of the church. As Costanzo puts it, John aimed “to integrate the poor into the missionary activity of the churches. In order to combat many of the presuppositions with which those of means viewed the poor, John sought to demonstrate that the poor had much to contribute for the good of the Christian mission and society as a whole. Many of the working poor were given tasks within and around the church properties, while others, such as widows, orphans, and virgins, participated in ecclesiastical duties.” The poor were not merely recipients but respondents to the gospel and its gifts, “interpreters” even of its message.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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