When Abba Anthony thought about the depth of the judgments of God, he asked, “Lord, how is it that some die when they are young, while others drag on to extreme old age? Why are there those who are poor and those who are rich? Why do wicked men prosper and why are the just in need?” He heard a voice answering him, “Anthony, keep your attention on yourself; these things are according to the judgment of God, and it is not to your advantage to know anything about them.”
The questions pondered by Saint Anthony the Great are questions that plague many of us. We may find comfort in knowing that God has, in His infinite wisdom, allowed such differences to exist, or we may remain confounded by what we consider a lack of divine justice. In either instance, there is great merit to keeping attention on oneself; focusing on the time that we have been given, the proper management of the gifts we have been entrusted by Him, and living righteously – all unto salvation.
To those who remain in need, St. Basil the Great preached:
You then, preserve a little longer in the face of calamity, like the noble Job. Do not be turned aside by the billowing waves, nor cast off the precious cargo of virtue that you bear. Preserve gratitude like a precious deposit within your soul, and from it you will receive a double portion of delight. Remember the apostolic word, “Give thanks in all circumstances.”
His words are reminiscent of the first century text, the Letter of James, which identifies those who are materially poor as being the inheritors of the Kingdom: “Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised those who love him?”
This should not suggest that those who were or are in want should remain in want; their needs ought to be met by others to whom God has entrusted much. Nonetheless, Saint Basil writes in another place:
Are you poor? Do not be discouraged. Too much sorrow becomes a source of sin: sadness inundates the mind, helplessness produces bewilderment, and perplexity generates ungrateful thoughts. Place your hope in God. Can it be that He does not understand your difficult position? If God has the ability to provide food, but delays in giving it, it is in order to test your resolution and examine your disposition, to see whether your inner state is like that of the licentious and senseless. So long as such people have food in their mouths, they gush with praise, flattery, and admiration. But if the setting of the table is only a little delayed, they begin hurling insults like stones at those whom they previously extolled as godlike on account of their satiety.
In another instance, St. Basil goes so far as to suggest that even when we think we are at our lowest or in our greatest need, there is another in a far worse predicament than us, which should compel us to act out of compassion:
Are you poor? You know someone who is even poorer. You have provisions for only ten days, but someone else has only enough for one day. As a good and generous person, redistribute your surplus to the needy. Do not shrink from giving the little that you have; do not prefer your own benefit to remedying the common distress. And if you have only one remaining loaf of bread, and someone comes knocking at your door, bring forth the one loaf from your store, hold it heavenward, and say this prayer, which is not only generous on your part, but also calls forth the Lord’s pity: “Lord, you see this one loaf, and you know the threat of starvation is imminent, but I place your commandment before my own well-being, and from the little I have I give to this famished brother. Give, then, in return to me your servant, since I am also in danger of starvation. I know your goodness, and am emboldened by your power. You do not delay your grace indefinitely, but distribute your gifts when you will.” And when you have thus spoken and acted, the bread you have given from your straitened circumstances will become seed for sowing that bears a rich harvest, a promise of food, an envoy of mercy.
As those in need are encouraged by Basil to share what little they have with those in greater need, the Lord commands those who have been entrusted with much to dispense much in order to gain His mercy. Saint John Chrysostom illustrates how the poor serve those who have as the image of Christ:
I was naked on the cross for you; or if not this, I am now naked through the poor. I was then bound for you, and still am so for you, that whether moved by the former ground or the latter, you might be minded to show some pity. I fasted for you; again I am hungry for you. I was thirsty when hanging on the cross, I am thirsty also through the poor, that by the former as also by the latter I may draw you to myself, and make you charitable to your own salvation.
In another homily, Chrysostom allows the risen Christ to speak directly to the Church through the poor:
For it is no costly gift I ask, but bread and lodging, and words of comfort… Be softened at seeing me naked, and remember that nakedness with which I was naked on the cross for you or, if not this, then that with which I am now naked through the poor…. I would like to be a debtor to you, that the crown may give you some feeling of confidence. This is why, though I am able to support myself, I come around begging, and stand beside your door, and stretch out my hand, since my wish is to be supported by you. For I love you greatly, and so desire to eat at your table, which is the way with those who love a person. And I glorify this.
As recipients of God’s mercy through philanthropy, those in need are tasked with specific duties unto salvation by Saint Tikon of Zadonsk. He writes:
The poor that receive alms must be grateful both to God Who showed His mercy through a man, and to the man that gives it and helps them in their need, and they should love him as their benefactor, and honor him and remember him in their prayers. It is, then, the obligation of the rich to give, and of the poor to receive gratefully, and to pour forth heartfelt prayer for the giver.
Whether materially wealthy or materially poor, the greatest blessing is being rich toward God. I therefore close with the words of the early Latin Apologist Minucuis Felix:
The mind is lulled to sleep by luxury, but it is strengthened by frugality. Besides, who can be poor if he does not want? Is a person poor if he doesn’t want the possessions of others? Can he be poor if he is rich towards God? No, the person who is poor is the one who desires more even though he has much.
And consider this. Who can be as poor as the day he is born? Birds live without any income. Every day the cattle are fed. Just as the person who travels on a road is happier the lighter he walks, so is he happier who carries himself along in poverty in this life and does not breathe heavily under the burden of riches.
Let me be clear, though, that if we thought wealth was useful for us, we would ask God for it. We are confident that God would answer us in some measure, because he possesses everything. But we would rather despise riches than possess them. What we want is innocence, and what we pray for is patience. We prefer being good to being lavish.