The church I served for the past 12 years was located in downtown Clifton, New Jersey, near a busy intersection, many small businesses and two bus lines. Because we were in such a prominent location, people often came to my office seeking financial assistance. As a general rule I tried to respond to whatever needs they presented without asking a lot of questions. I thought it was my responsibility to trust them and respond without questioning their stories or their motivations. I reasoned that Jesus had commanded me to give to those in need. If they were trying to get one over on me or if they misused the money I gave them, they would have to answer to the Lord, not me. I on the other hand, had to answer to the Lord whose command is to give to those in need.
Everyone got one free pass from me with no questions asked. However, if they kept returning regularly, I began to ask more questions and set more boundaries. While I was willing to be generous, I was not willing to be a chump. Eventually if I became convinced that someone was taking advantage of me, I refused to help them any longer.
I thought I was exercising a good balance between compassion and accountability, generosity and prudence. However, I recently read a story about St. John, the Almsgiver, which has me wondering if I did the right thing.
John was the Patriarch of the Church in Alexandria from 606 to 620 A.D. As patriarch he held the highest position of honor and authority in the Orthodox Church. For the Orthodox a patriarch shares the same dignity and authority as the pope. However, John did not let this honor go to his head but instead used his position to care for the needy. One of his first actions was to make a list of several thousand needy persons in order to provide for their needs out of church funds. He also worked to establish a just system of weights and measures so that merchants were no longer able to take advantage of the poor. (Source: Wikipedia article, “John the Merciful”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_the_Merciful.) He was fond of saying, ‘Those whom you call the poor, the beggars, they are the ones I declare are our master and helpers, for they are able to help us get to heaven.” He lived by the words of Jesus “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,you did it to me. (Matthew 25:40.)”
Because he was so compassionate and generous, the church called him St. John the Eleēmōn. This Greek title carries two meanings: St. John the Compassionate and St. John the Almsgiver, which accurately describe both his character and his actions.
Jacobus Voragine (ca 1229-1298) in his book, The Golden Legend, tells the following story about St. John.
One time a poor man in pilgrim’s dress came to Blesséd John and begged an alms (sic). John called his steward and said: “Give him six gold pieces!” The man took the money, went away and changed his clothes, came back and again begged alms of the patriarch, who called his steward and said: “Give him six gold pieces!” After the beggar had left the steward told the patriarch: “That’s the second time today. All he did was change his clothes, but because you asked, I gave.” Blesséd John pretended not to know this.
The supposed pilgrim and beggar, however, changed his clothes and begged alms of John a third time. The steward touched the patriarch’s arm and nodded that this was the same man.
Blesséd John responded: “Go and give him twelve gold pieces! It may be my Lord Jesus Christ, is testing me to see whether this man can go on asking more than I can go on giving!”
(The Golden Legend, translated by William Granger Ryan, 1993, p. 116)
When I first read this story I was taken aback. On the face of it John’s actions seems foolish, and yet I remember the words of the Apostle Paul: “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (I Corinthians 1: 25) The saint’s action may seem foolish, but it may also be a window to the heart of God, challenging us to go deeper in our understanding of and obedience to God’s will.
This story reminds us that when someone asks for assistance, we are the ones who are being tested and the one who is doing the testing is Jesus himself. The beggar may be brazen in her begging, but Jesus expects us to be even more brazen in our giving. That makes me very uncomfortable because it is counterintuitive. However this discomfort is a good thing, for Jesus wants to use my discomfort to make me more like him.
There may still be times when I have to say no. However before I do, I always want to ask myself the uncomfortable question: “Is Jesus testing me to see whether the other can go on asking more than I can go on giving?” If I ask myself that question, I will be more inclined to err on the side of generosity and compassion. May God make us more like St. John, the Almsgiver.