For quite some time, I have been reflecting on the place of such practices as the works of mercy in the Christian life. In many ways, it remains fairly straightforward for us to continue to name what these practices are; however, it has become much more complicated to name what these practices are for. Are they practical, pragmatic solutions to the problems our societies perpetuate? Are they private means to public ends? Is a uniquely Christian charitable practice commendable insofar as it produces efficient, effective, and above all measurable results? Or are such practices better understood as symbols of an inward spirituality? A holy supplement to the personal life of faith?
I find such alternatives artificial and a bit misleading. Something about it seems to have radically missed the point. I say this hesitantly, of course, because I think there is a real tension being wrestled with here. Clearly the narrow reduction of works of mercy to bureaucratically calculated models of productivity and the like is a perversion and a parody of the performance of “good works” encouraged throughout the New Testament. Embodiments of goodness, charity, and mercy cannot simply describe what the church does; they constitute what the church is.
At the same time, can we simply sweep aside questions of workability, of side effects and consequences (both short and long term), of sustainability and the wise stewardship of “resources”? Is there a way to speak truthfully and faithfully of meeting real needs without reducing “the needy” to a problem to which we have the correct answer?
None of these questions have simple answers. Indeed, much of the debate continues to center around such challenges.
The more I think about it, the more it occurs to me that this type of inquiry continues to obfuscate rather than clarify our original question. What are these practices for? What is the reason? What is the end? For the early Church Fathers, works of mercy are fundamentally liturgical; that is to say, they rightly understood as embodied acts of worshipful devotion to the Triune God.
In his theological treatise, Concerning Widows, St. Ambrose of Milan offers a series of fascinating exegetical reflections exploring the liturgical shape of the Church’s works of mercy. He takes his point of departure from the teaching of Jesus regarding a poor widow making her meager offering at the temple in Jerusalem — a text that soon became paradigmatic for the early Fathers’ understanding of almsgiving, virtue, and piety.
“While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.’
“As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. ‘I tell you the truth,’ he said, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on'” (Luke 20.46-21.4).
As I read this passage again, I am struck by its wildly subversive tone. Based on calculated models, the widow’s gift would not only be considered insignificant, but even a pointless drop in the bucket (assuming the point was what again?). Not to mention the fact that it is obviously dwarfed by the more effective gifts of her upwardly mobile fellows. From a pragmatic perspective her gift would also likely be considered deeply irresponsible, for now she has given away her sustenance and has left nothing for food rations, public transportation, health insurance and the so forth. Of course, we know this passage well and Jesus’ reply has long since scandalized us; in his eye, the widow gave more than them all.
Building on these subversive themes, Ambrose uses this story to clarify the Church’s ministry to the poor. He writes,
“we are taught how fitting it is to be merciful and liberal towards the poor, and that this feeling should not be checked by the consideration of our poverty, since liberality is determined not by the amount of our possessions, but by the disposition of giving. For by the voice of the Lord that widow is preferred to all of whom it was said: ‘This widow hath cast in more than all.’ In which instance the Lord characteristically teaches all, that none should be held back from giving assistance through shame at his own poverty, and that the rich should not flatter themselves that they seem to give more than the poor. For the piece of money out of a small stock is richer than treasures out of abundance, because it is not the amount that is given but the amount that remains which is considered. No one gives more than she who has left nothing for herself” (5.27).
For Ambrose, the widow’s offering to the temple represents the Church’s right care of the poor. Rich and poor alike are called to participate in this ministry to the least, but in a way appropriate to their position. Unfortunately, Ambrose has to drive this point home in order to counter various distortions that had already arisen in his congregations.
Just as the wealthy had oppressed the poor and devoured the houses of widows, so now the rich Christians were manipulating their charitable gifts into yet another play of vanity, power, and social control.
“Why do you, rich woman, boast yourself by comparison with the poor, and when you are all loaded with gold, and drag along the ground a costly robe, desire to be honored as though she were inferior and small in comparison with your riches, because you have surpassed the needy with your gifts?” (5.28).
The rich had forgotten the reason and the purpose for their actions and thus had radically distorted their ministry into a weapon yielded against those they originally intended to serve. Not only that, but in actively disparaging and depreciating the “unworthy” gifts of the Christian poor, the rich functionally prevented them from participating in the merciful practices of the Church (which causes me to wonder, have our Churches today become so “task-oriented,” so accustomed to efficiently “dealing with problems,” that we no longer afford a giving place to those who have not?).
In contrast to this, Ambrose exhorts the widows of the Church to pattern their lives after the one casting her two coins or the one who ministered to the prophet Elijah. Importantly, Ambrose argues that such giving belongs primarily to the order of worshipful devotion. For “that, then, is to be reckoned which you give for devotion, not what you cast forth disdainfully” (5.28). Precisely as an embodied act of worship (Romans 12.1), such sacrificial offerings begin to break down our more crusty theological categories. Worship, ethics, politics become implicitly bound together in the Church’s giving to the poor. Likewise, artificial divisions between “faith” and “works” are dissolved in the simple act of this lowly widow. For none could “equal the amount of her gift, who joined faith with mercy. Do you, then, whoever you are, who exercise your life the practice of widowhood, not hesitate to cast into the treasury the two mites, full of faith and grace” (5.29).
Like the gifts of the Magi, continues Ambrose, so are the treasures bestowed upon the Church. However, these treasures are unintelligible as “possessions” to be horded; they exist to be given again. To the widows Ambrose writes,
“Your treasure is wisdom, your treasure is chastity and righteousness, your treasure is a good understanding [. . .] You have gold which you can give, for God does not exact of you the precious gift of shining metal, but that gold which at the day of judgment the fire shall be unable to consume. Nor does He require precious gifts, but the good odor of faith, which the altars of your heart send forth and the disposition of a religious mind exhales” (5.30).
The biblical examples that Ambrose alludes to throughout this chapter are illuminating. They bring to the surface the liturgical deep-structure of the works of mercy. The widow’s gift is set in the context of a liturgical procession to offer tithes at the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. In other words, her gift is explicitly presented as a sacrificial offering of worship unto God. Similarly, the gifts of the Magi are offered in a liturgical context as well: “they worshipped the Lord, brought forth gold, frankincense, and myrrh; setting forth by gold the power of a king, venerating God by the frankincense, and by myrrh acknowledging the resurrection of the body” (5.30).
Therefore, Ambrose seamlessly locates the Church’s ministry of mercy squarely within this framework. He concludes the chapter with an encouragement for the widows to persevere in good works. Importantly for our purposes here, he sums up his list of the works of mercy as “offerings of piety”; that is, as acts of worship.
“What is it, then, that you should give your two mites and gain in return the Lord’s Body? Go not, then, empty into the sight of the Lord your God, empty of mercy, empty of faith, empty of chastity; for the Lord Jesus is wont to look upon and to commend not the empty, but those who are rich in virtues. Let the maiden see you at work, let her see you ministering to others. For this is the return which you owe to God, that you should make your return to God from the progress of others. No return is more acceptable to God than the offerings of piety” (5.32).
Far from the disinterested aid of modern philanthropy, the life of charity being described here is at once gratuitous and reciprocal, outpouring from the excesses of divine grace, and redounding to the healing of the broken and the eternal glory of God.