Metropolitan Kallistos Ware: Almsgiving
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware continues his 4-part Lenten series, speaking this week about almsgiving.
* I’ve read that the word for “alms” used in Scripture can actually be translated as “mercy,” so almsgiving would be a giving of mercy. Is that true?
* How can we can find the time and energy for volunteering at a soup kitchen or visiting a shut-in when we already feel overwhelmed in our daily lives?
*Why is it so important that we open ourselves up to the suffering of others through almsgiving?
* When we look at Scriptures of the Holy Fathers, what is the key element in almsgiving?
Also on today’s broadcast, we hear an excerpt of an interview with Melissa Tsongranis, from the Center for Family Care of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. She speaks about observing Lent in your home, and you can hear the full interview here.
Transcript of Come Receive the Light: Metropolitan Kallistos Ware on the subject of almsgiving
FATHER CHRISTOPHER METROPULOS: I’ve read the word “alms,” used in Scripture, can actually be translated as “mercy.” So almsgiving is actually a giving of mercy, is that true?
METROPOLITAN KALLISTOS WARE: That is correct, on my understanding. The Greek word for “mercy” in Greek is “eleos.” And the word for “almsgiving” is “eleemosyne.” So one can see that’s the same root there–e-l-e-o-s, eleos, underlying both words. So, we could, instead of saying “almsgiving,” say “acts of mercy.” There’s another connection. Sometimes the Greek Fathers link the word “eleos,” meaning “mercy” with the word “elaion” — e-l-a-i-o-n, meaning “olive oil.” Now, that, I think, is bad etymology, but it’s good theology. Because exactly “eleos” “mercy” means the love of God, poured out–like oil to heal.
Oil in the ancient world was an instrument of healing. The Good Samaritan, when he found the man who had been beaten up by thieves, bound up his wounds, we are told, and poured in oil. Because oil was seen as a healing agent in the ancient world. So, yes, “eleos/mercy,” which is what lies behind the word “almsgiving,” has as its basic idea the love of God healing us. And so when we practice almsgiving, what that means in the deep sense is not just giving a bit of money, but it means sharing God’s mercy with other people in such a way as to heal them.
FATHER CHRISTOPHER METROPULOS: We are all extremely busy and some people think that they really have absolutely no time left, that we can barely keep up with our responsibilities. So, how do you feel we can find time and energy for volunteering at a soup kitchen or visiting the shut-ins?
METROPOLITAN KALLISTOS WARE: This is a real problem. As you’ve just said, we live in what has been called a “Time Starved Society.” I’m not sure what has gone wrong. After all, we today have many labor saving gadgets, which earlier ages didn’t have. It took them much longer, for example, to clean their house when they didn’t have Hoovers. But, somehow, though we have all these labor-saving devices, we seem to be short of time in a way that people weren’t in earlier ages.
In the end, though, we have time for the things that we really want to do. It’s a question not really of how much time we have, but what are our priorities? There, I think, lies the difference between our society today and earlier periods. In earlier periods life was simpler; they did not have so many luxuries. They did not have so many distractions. We have filled our life with all kinds of things that people did not have in earlier times. So, yes, we need to simplify our life. And we need to ask ourselves what is it that really matters? To what should I give priority? And perhaps our life has become too full of things–of objects–and we ought to have more time for persons.
FATHER CHRISTOPHER METROPULOS: In reviewing some of the information for our talk today, our interview today, the issue came up–this is another issue that did come up–that the reason people don’t donate more, both in terms of their time and their money, is that once you start to think about suffering in the world, it can feel overwhelming. Why is it so important that we open ourselves up to that suffering rather than hiding it or pretending that it doesn’t exist?
METROPOLITAN KALLISTOS WARE: The suffering in this world is very great. That is certainly true. And sometimes, confronted with the severity of suffering, we feel–“What can we do?” We feel helpless. And that makes us do nothing at all. Here it’s a good thing to remember the proverb, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” We can’t solve all the problems of the world–all the world’s anguish and distress. But we can do something. We can light a candle in some way. We can do some small acts of kindness, which will bring light into the lives of others. So, I cannot do everything. But that doesn’t mean I should do nothing. In the face of the enormity of problems in the world, natural disasters and unjust political systems and the suffering of the destitute and the homeless, I can at least do something to alter that.
And if all of us, in one way or another, will do something, then changes will indeed begin to happen. So let us not feel helplessness or despair in the face of the world’s sufferings. Let us not lead that to make us turn away. And, yes, helping other people does mean making ourselves vulnerable, making ourselves uncomfortable. In some ways it’s easier to shut ourselves off to live in our own narrow circle of activities–not care about the wider difficulties of the human beings around us–to try to help other people, to love them, is to make ourselves vulnerable. It does mean taking certain risks. But if we don’t do that we won’t be real persons after the Image and Likeness of God.
FATHER CHRISTOPHER METROPULOS: And your Excellency, when we look at the Scriptures and the Fathers, what is their key element there in almsgiving, I mean, is it about money or spending time connecting with the less fortunate. Is it about a contribution or a combination thereof?
METROPOLITAN KALLISTOS WARE: Almsgiving, works of mercy, means to give to others not what I have, but what I am. Not just to give them my money, or bits of it, but to share myself with others. So, yes, almsgiving does indeed mean contributing money. In our modern society it’s not so easy to know when we see beggars in the street when we should give to them or not. But, on the whole, the Orthodox teaching is we should give But it’s perhaps important also to give to various charitable causes. And then we have a reasonable assurance that our money will be well used. Give money. And give enough for it to make a difference to ourselves.
I recall what King David says in the Scripture “I will not offer to the LORD that which costs me nothing.” (2 Samuel 24:24) We should not offer almsgiving that costs us nothing. That’s not something precious in the sight of God. We should give enough of our money to mind and to notice. Early Christians used to give one tenth of their money each year, tithing. Some Christians today, in Protestant circles, do that. And some Orthodox do it. But to many people, if you speak of tithing, they say “I couldn’t possible give as much as that.”
Well, perhaps we can’t give as much as one tenth of our income. But let us give enough for it to involve a sacrifice. But, yes, it is also to give time to others and to give them our attention–not just to turn our backs on them–to share something of our own life with them–not to shut ourselves off and merely to follow our own chosen program of life.
So, yes, the familiar tasks of which we often speak–helping in a soup kitchen, visiting the sick, finding time to write letters to people, make a phone call to somebody who we know is lonely and passing through difficulties–all of this comes under the heading of almsgiving, works of mercy.
Make time. That’s an interesting phrase. Time is not the master. We can choose what we wish to do with our time. And we shouldn’t think that we have no options. We do have possibilities of choice. It is, as I’ve said, a question of priorities.
FATHER CHRISTOPHER METROPULOS: You mentioned several quotes, and you quoted them. Are there any others that you feel are sort of favorite on almsgiving that you’d like to talk about?
METROPOLITAN KALLISTOS WARE: Yes. First of all, I think of the Sheep and the Goats in the Parable of Christ in Matthew Chapter 25, where Christ says at the Last Judgment what you’re going to be asked is “Did you feed the hungry? Did you give drink to the thirsty? Did you take the stranger into your home? Did you visit the sick and those in prison?” Now that’s what we’re going to be asked at the Last Judgment. Not, “Did you preach fine sermons? Not, “Did you make many prostrations and spend a long, long time on your prayers?” But what did you do to help other people in practical and specific ways? That’s what we shall be asked at the Last Judgment. And then I think of what Christ says in that Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” (Matt 25:40) Let us think how Christ is looking at us through the eyes of all those round us who are in distress and in need.
And then I would add two other short sayings. The first is from St. Paul, 2 Corinthians 9:7. “God loves a cheerful giver.” It’s easy to give and yet to make the other person to whom we give feel humiliated. Somehow to make ourselves seem superior. It’s easy to give and to do so, implying, this is very difficult for me. We should be cheerful, generous, eager when we give to others. The Lord loves a cheerful giver.
And then I think also of a Latin proverb. Bis dat qui cito dat. “He gives twice, who gives quickly.” So, if we see a need, let’s respond at once to it, not delay, not put it off.