Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

An Orthodox Theological Response to Poverty

Fr. William C. Mills

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Poverty is certainly a devastating social problem here in North America and throughout the world. We often hear about starvation, famine, and homelessness on the African continent especially in Sudan and Ethiopia as well as in the cities and countryside of India, and in the barrios in Central and South America. Many people living in major cities simply cannot make a living with their current income and are considered "working poor" -- those who work but due to high levels of debt and expensive housing costs simply cannot survive.

Poverty effects people from all walks of life and from all social, cultural, religious, and racial backgrounds. Poverty is not gender specific since there are equal amounts of both men and women who are either homeless or barely getting by. While numerous government programs are available to help the impoverished, the need is so much greater. As Orthodox Christians we cannot look the other way and allow our fellow brothers and sisters beg for food, clothing, and shelter. Thus, it is up to our missions and parishes to assist those in need. Our scripture readings, hymns, and rich theological tradition emphasize the love of the neighbor. If we pay attention to our own theological tradition, hopefully our eyes and hearts will be open to the world around us.

A Scriptural Understanding of Love

According to the Scriptures, loving God is intimately connected with loving the neighbor. The shortest scriptural definition of God is found in 1 John 4, "God is love." Later in the same epistle we are told that God loved us before we loved him and that if we say that we love God and hate our brother we are a liar, "for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 John 4:20). The scriptures teach us that our love for the Lord is intimately connected with the neighbor, which we see in the parable of the Good Samaritan. When a Samaritan traveler notices that there is a hurt man on the side of the road he puts the man on his own beast, brings him to a local inn, and pays for the room and whatever else the hurt man needs. In other words, the Samaritan used his own time, energy, effort, and money, in order to help a fellow person in need.

However, God's ultimate love for his people is seen in Jesus' death on the cross. Jesus' death shows us that laying down of ones life for another person is the most perfect act of love. This crucified love is seen throughout Jesus' earthly life as he healed and restored people to physical health and well-being, as he healed people from demonic possession, and as he fed and nourished people with the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Throughout his ministry, Jesus welcomed the stranger, the poor, the naked, and the outcast. Finally, before his death, Jesus stooped down and washed the feet of his disciples telling them that if they want to be a part of him that they should go and wash one another's feet. The humble act of washing feet is a wonderful symbol to keep in front of us if we want to fulfill our vocation as Christians.

Praying For the Poor

Many of our prayers refer to Jesus as the philanthropos -- "lover of mankind" which is mentioned at least six times during the Divine Liturgy. It is from the Greek word philanthropos where we get the word philanthropy. At the prayer of the First Antiphon we hear the following petition, "O Lord our God, Thy power is incomparable. Thy power is incomprehensible. Thy mercy is immeasurable. Thy love for mankind is inexpressible. Look down on us and on this holy house with pity, O Master, and impart the riches of Thy mercy and Thy compassion to us and to those who pray with us."

Each week when we gather for the weekly Divine Liturgy we hear the same hymns and prayers which permeate our minds and hearts, hopefully inspiring us to act upon our faith. In other words, the prayers and hymns should ignite a fire in so that we can live out our faith in the world, serving and loving our neighbor. It also needs to be said that even the Divine Liturgy itself is a supreme example for the love of the poor as we offer the gifts of bread and wine for the entire world as we hear in the Liturgy, "Thine own of thy own, we offer unto Thee in behalf of all and for all."

Not only are we reminded about serving the poor but the Church sets aside an entire festal season of Great Lent which reminds us about our command to go out and wash one another's feet. However, if we fail to serve the poor and needy we are reminded to do so during the services that lead up to the season of Great Lent. Great Lent is a forty day period where we focus on repentance and care for the neighbor. We hear about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and engaging in acts of charity. These areas instill a sense of repentance as we make our journey through Great Lent:

Consider well, my soul; dost thou fast? Then despise not thy neighbor. Dost thou abstain from food? Condemn not thy brother. Come, let us cleanse ourselves by almsgiving and acts of mercy to the poor, Not sounding a trumpet or making show of our charity Let not our left hand know what our right hand is doing Let not vainglory scatter the fruit of our almsgiving But in secret let us call on Him that knows all secrets Father, forgive our trespasses, for Thou lovest mankind.

Similar hymns are found throughout the season of Great Lent and especially during Holy Week as the great philanthropos, Jesus himself, gives his entire life for the life of the world and its salvation, who pays the ultimate price for us on the wood of the cross.

Personal Witnesses to Poverty

The Church is clear in its teaching. We are commanded to love and serve the poor, the hungry, care for the sick and suffering, because we are given the model to do this in the personal example of Jesus Christ. If Jesus is the great philanthropos, we too are called to do the same. In addition to the scriptures and the liturgical hymns and seasons we are given persons of faith who are well known for their love for the poor; St. Nicholas of Myra-Lycia who distributed money to those in need, St Basil the Great who in the third century established Church sponsored hospitals and mental institutions; St. John the Almsgiver who was one of the most charitable Patriarchs in Byzantium, Joseph of Volokhlamsk who emphasized the ancient monastic tradition of hospitality and care for the poor; Elizabeth Feodorovna, a relative of Tsar Nicholas II, who when her husband Prince Sergius was killed, entered into monastic life and established hospitals for the poor and destitute in Russia.

Other holy men and women such as Paul Evdokimov and the newly canonized saint, Mother Maria Skobtsova, served soup kitchens and established houses of hospitality in World War II France. Each of these people who in their own personal and unique circumstances managed to devote their time, talents, treasure, and energy to serving the poor and the destitute. Some of these persons of faith are officially recognized as saints while others are not. Yet each person in their own unique calling serve as examples of caring for those who are less fortunate.

Towards a Solution

Clearly, poverty is a social problem that will not go away. While the war on poverty looms large, we have many opportunities to better assist those in need. Orthodox Christianity has a rich theological tradition that shows us very clearly that our vocation is one of service and love. Our job is to go out and actually do something! Below I offer several points that may focus our attention on how we as Orthodox Christians in North America focus our collective attention on poverty. These are not "quick fixes" to a very complex social and cultural problem, but they are beginning points in a life-long battle with poverty.

  1. Listen to the prayers and hymns. Our rich liturgical heritage provides us with many examples of assisting the poor and needy. Hopefully priests can focus the congregations' attention on a particular prayer, hymn, scripture lesson, or festal season that specifically addresses the world around us. Seasons such as Great Lent provide us with many inspiring examples for assisting with serving the poor.
  2. Daily Scripture reading. If we are reading and praying the Scriptures daily we will be constantly mindful of our common vocation to serving and loving others. The Scriptures, together with the prayers of the Church provide us with a "school of theology" which in its basic teaching reveals God's love for us. In turn, we share this love with the world. There are numerous resources for personal and group Bible study available on the internet as well as in parish bookstores.
  3. Take action. Missions and parishes are challenged to reach out and adopt one of the many poverty problems in their towns or cities such as collecting food for a local food bank, assist at a local homeless shelter, orphanage, or substance abuse facility. Action is required if we are serious about our faith.
  4. Remember the poor. It is common for parishes and missions to get involved in outreach programs and then forget about them. Congregations need to be constantly reminded about their vocation to serve the poor and needy.

These are just four of the many ways in which we as Orthodox Christians can assist our brothers and sisters in our towns and cities. We will not solve the poverty problem overnight, but if we at least take our rich theological and liturgical heritage seriously, we will all be better served if we begin to reach out and serve those around us!

Fr. William C. Mills, Ph.D., is the rector of the Nativity of the Holy Virgin Orthodox Church in Charlotte, NC, as well as an adjunct professor of religious studies at Queens University in Charlotte, NC. He is married to Taisia Mills and has two daugthers, Hannah and Emma.

Latest book by Fr. Mills:

A Light to the Gentiles is a collection of pastoral reflections on the Scripture readings from the gospel of Luke that are read in the Orthodox Church from mid-September until the feast of the Nativity of our Lord. The gospel of Luke is also read during the preparatory Sundays before Great Lent as well as at the feast of the Ascension and at the commemoration of various saints. The gospel also contains many familiar parables and teachings: the Good Samaritan, the Publican and the Pharisee, the Rich Man and Lazarus, and Zachaeus. Luke reminds us that the gospel is to be proclaimed to the entire world in order to bring the gospel to all peoples and nations. Thus, the gospel of Luke serves as a beacon of light that shines brightly in the world. A Light to the Gentiles is an invitation for everyone to read, accept, and obey the Word of God in their lives. This book is a resource for personal and group Bible study, adult education classes, and sermon preparation.

See more books by Fr. Mills

Posted: 22-Jul-07

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