On the Love of the Poor
This semester I am having my first-year students read about poverty in early Christianity. John Chrysostom’s sermons on Lazarus and the Rich Man are rightly famous for their urgent demand to care for the poor and thus are the standard text for introducing this aspect early Christianity. We will be reading a bit from Chrysostom but I decided to focus on a less well-known (and only recently translated) text by Gregory of Nazianzus: Oration 14: On the Love of the Poor. In this oration Gregory appeals to his congregation to have compassion for the poor and homeless, particularly those suffering from leprosy. Here is a taste:
Let each one simply walk on the way, and reach out for what is ahead, and let him follow the footsteps of the one who leads the way so clearly, who makes it straight and guides us by the narrow path and gate to the broad plains of blessedness in the world to come. And if, following the command of Paul and of Christ himself, we must suppose that love is the first and greatest of the commandments, the crowning point of the law and the prophets, I must conclude that love of the poor, and compassion and sympathy for our own flesh and blood, is its most excellent form. For God is not so served by any of the virtues as he is by mercy, since nothing else is more proper than this to God…
We must open our hearts, then, to all the poor, to those suffering evil for any reason at all, according to the Scripture that commands us to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.’ Because we are human beings, we must offer the favor of our kindness first of all to other human beings, whether they need it because they are widows or orphans, or because they are exiles from their own country, or because of the cruelty of their masters or the harshness of their rulers or the inhumanity of their tax-collectors, or because of the bloody violence of robbers or the insatiable greed of thieves, or because of the legal confiscation of their property, or shipwreck – all are wretched alike, and so all look toward our hands, as we look towards God’s, for the things we need.
Gregory of Nazianzus, On the Love of the Poor, 5-6.