Orthodox River

Concerning Almsgiving and the Ten Virgins

Source: St. John Chrysostom On Repentance and Almsgiving: The Catholic University of America Press

  1. I wonder, do you remember at what point our last homily began, or where it ended; or from what supposition the words of the previous homily commenced and at what conclusion they arrived? I think you have forgotten, but I remember. I neither scold you nor condemn you for forgetting this. Every one of you has a wife. She totally devotes herself to her children and she takes care of all the household’s domestic affairs. Others occupy themselves with military affairs; others are craftsmen. Each one of you engages in a different service. However, I always engage myself in these liturgical affairs. I attend to these and employ myself in them. Therefore, no one should blame you—I do not blame you for forgetting where we left off. Rather, I should praise you for your earnestness, because you do not abandon me any Sunday.

  2. You abandon everything and present yourselves in Church. This is a great laudation for our city: it possesses an earnest and attentive population, and not noise, suburbs, and spacious houses covered with streams of gold. For we recognize the nobility of a tree not from its leaves, but from its fruits. This is the very reason we surpass the irrational animals: we possess reason and we share in and love the word. For a man who does not love the Logos is much more illogical than the brutes. He does not know why he is honored and from what source his honor comes. The prophet was right in saying, “Man, being in honor, does not understand. He is compared to the senseless cattle and is like them.”1 Although you are a reasonable human being, you do not love the Logos? Tell me, what pardon will you have? Therefore, you who are vehemently excited about the discourse of virtue and regard everything else as being secondary to the divine words are more closely related to me than all others.

  3. Onward now! Let us begin our subject and state what follows from the previous discussion. I owe you and gladly pay the debt, for the debt does not lead me into poverty. Rather, it gathers wealth for me. In worldly affairs, debtors avoid moneylenders so that they will not have to repay them. However, I closely pursue to render what is rightly due. And very fairly so, because in worldly affairs reimbursement yields poverty. But with reference to the Logos, the return produces wealth.2 I shall explain. Let us say that I owe someone money. If I repay him, the money cannot be both with me and with him. Instead, it reverts back to the rightful owner and is indissolubly bound to him. However, if I pay in word, I possess it and all of you do, too. If I withhold the word for myself and do not share it, then I am poor. When I cast it away, then I gain the profit together with all of you.

  4. Onward now, let us pay off the debt. And what is this debt? With the previous discourse, we were training you for repentance. We were saying that there are many and diverse roads toward repentance for salvation to become easy for you to achieve. If God had given us one road toward repentance, we would have adjourned our assembly and discourse and notified you. If we do not pursue repentance, we cannot be saved! Now, however, He cuts off this excuse from you, and He has given you not one road, not two, not three, but many and diverse ones so that with this multitude of roads you can easily make your ascent into heaven.

  5. We were saying how repentance is easy, and that there is no burden in it. Are you a sinner? Enter into the Church, say, “I have sinned,” and you dissolve the sin. Afterwards, we revealed a second road—to mourn the sin—and we said, “How toilsome is this?” The question is not about paying money, or walking a long road, or anything else like this, but simply mourning the sin. We brought this forward from the Scriptures, that God changed His decision about Ahab because of Ahab’s mourning and melancholy. God said this to Elijah: “Did you see how Ahab behaved before me, mourning and being melancholy? I will not act according to my anger.”3 Next, I provided you with yet a third road for repentance; and I introduced to you, from Scripture, the pharisee and the publican. On the one hand, the pharisee, arrogantly making false pretensions, fell from righteousness; on the other hand, the publican, being humble, descended from the temple containing the fruit of righteousness, and without expending any toil became righteous. He hurled words of repentance and received forgiveness. Therefore, let us proceed. Let us follow the thread of our discourse, and let me escort you to a fourth road toward repentance. Which one? I mean almsgiving, our excellent counselor, the queen of the virtues, who quickly raises human beings to the heavenly vaults.

  6. Almsgiving is a great thing. For this reason Solomon exclaimed, “Man is great, and a merciful man precious.”4 Almsgiving’s wings are great. She cleaves the air, surpasses the moon, and goes beyond the sun’s rays. She rises up to the very vaults of the heavens. She does not stop there; rather, she surmounts heaven and overtakes the multitudes of angels, the choirs of archangels, and all the higher powers, and she stands next to the royal throne. And you shall be taught from this very Scripture that says, “Cornelius, your prayers and your alms have ascended before God.”5 “Before God” means that even if you have many sins, you should not be afraid if you possess almsgiving as your advocate. For no higher power opposes it. She pays the debt demanded by sin. She has her own bill of sale that she holds in her hands. For it is the Lord’s own voice that says, “As you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”6 Therefore, regardless of how many other sins you have, your almsgiving counterbalances all of them.

  7. Or did you not pay attention to the example of the ten virgins in the Gospel, to how the ones who did not possess almsgiving remained outside of the bridal chamber even though they trained in virginity? “Because there were,” the Gospel says, “ten virgins, five foolish ones and five prudent ones.”7 The wise ones had oil; since the foolish ones did not, however, their lamps were extinguished. The foolish ones approached the wise ones and said, “Give us oil from your vessels.”8 I am ashamed; I blush and weep when I hear that a virgin is foolish. After they had achieved so much virtue, trained in virginity, elevated their bodies to heaven and competed for superiority over the heavenly powers, I hear this statement and blush. After they had endured the burning heat and trampled upon pleasant lusts subsequent to the fiery furnace, then they heard that they were foolish and justifiably so. For although what they had accomplished was great, they were beaten by something petty. The Gospel says, “The foolish ones approached the wise ones and said, ‘Give us oil from your vessels.’ And they said, ‘We cannot give you any, in case there is not enough both for us and you.’”9 They did this neither out of cruelty nor out of wickedness, but because of the brevity of the opportune time. The Bridegroom was going to arrive momentarily. They also possessed lanterns; however, although their lanterns contained oil, the ones of the others were empty. For virginity is the light, almsgiving the oil. Therefore, when the light does not have oil to burn safely and steadily, it is extinguished. Virginity is likewise extinguished when it lacks almsgiving.

  8. “Give us oil from your vessels.” And they answered, “We cannot give you any.” This statement was derived not from wickedness but from fear. “Perhaps there will not be enough for both us and you. “Likewise, if all of us ask to enter the bridal chamber, perhaps we could all be left outside. “However, go and buy from those who sell it [the oil].” Who are the dealers of this oil? The poor, the ones who sit in front of the church in order to ask for alms. How much do they sell it for? As much as you want. I do not put a price on it so that you may not qualify for poverty. Buy as much as you can. Do you have one obol?10 Buy the sky. Not because the sky is cheap, but because the Lord is a lover of mankind. You do not even have one obol? Give a glass of refreshing water. ‘‘The one who offers one glass of refreshing water to one of the least of these for my sake will not lose his reward.”11 Heaven is a business and an enterprise, and we are negligent. Give bread and seize paradise. Give small things and grasp great ones. Give mortal things and take firm hold of immortal ones. Give corruptible things and capture incorruptible ones. If there were a festival that had a fair price and abundant provisions, where many items were sold cheaply, would you not have sold your properties publicly and put everything aside to obtain securely that merchandise? When it concerns corruptible things, you show such readiness; when the merchandise is immortal, however, why do you show much indolence and faintheartedness?

  9. Give to the poor, so that even if you keep silent (and thousands upon thousands of mouths defend you) almsgiving will take your side and plead on your behalf. Almsgiving12 is the salvation of the soul. For this reason, just as wash basins are found before the church’s doors filled with water so that you may wash your hands, the poor sit outside of the church so you may wash the hands of your soul. Have you washed your physical hands with water? Wash the hands of your soul with almsgiving. Do not use poverty as your excuse. The widow granted hospitality to Elijah during her worst state of poverty, and poverty did not hinder her. Rather, she received him with great happiness. For this reason, she issued worthy fruits and reaped the ear of almsgiving. The listener, however, may be saying, “Give me Elijah.” Why do you ask for Elijah? “I give you the Lord of Elijah and you do not nourish Him. If you had found Elijah, how would you have shown him hospitality?” [says the Lord]. The decision is Christ’s, who is the Lord of all. “Whoever does it to one of the least of these does it unto me.”13 If the King were to invite someone to supper and say to the servants attending Him, “Thank him very much on my behalf. He supported me and showed me hospitality when I was in poverty. He readily provided many benefits for me in difficult times”; how could everyone not spend all his money on the one to whom the King showed so much gratitude? How could everyone not speak in his defense? How could everyone not be ready to run beside him and treat him affectionately?

  10. Do you see how much force the statement possesses? If this matter carries so much honor for a king, who is a human being, just think of Christ inviting the almsgiver before the angels and every heavenly power on that day and saying to him, “He granted me hospitality on earth. He performed myriads of good services for me. He sheltered me in his home when I was a stranger.” Therefore, consider the courage that you will have before the angels, your boast in front of the heavenly citizens. How can the one who has Christ’s favor not have boldness exceeding even that of the angels? Hence, almsgiving is a great matter, my brethren. Let us embrace it because nothing like it exists. It is capable of erasing other sins and driving away the judgment. You keep silent and it exists and defends you; or better yet, you remain quiet and it thanks thousands upon thousands of mouths on your behalf. So many goods are derived from almsgiving, and we neglect and retreat from it. Give as much bread as you can. You do not have bread? Give one obol. You do not have an obol? Give one glass of refreshing water. You do not have even this? Grieve with the afflicted and you have a reward to collect. For the reward is not proportionate to your necessity, but to your free will. By speaking about this topic, however, we forgot about the virgins. Therefore, let us return to our subject.

  11. ‘Give us,’ it [the Gospel] says, ‘oil from your vessels.’ ‘We cannot give you any just in case there is not enough both for us and you. However, go and buy from those who sell it.’ Just as they were going to purchase some, the Bridegroom arrived; and as many as had their lamps beaming entered with Him, and the door of the bridal chamber was closed.”14 In truth, even the five foolish virgins came, and they were knocking on the door of the bridal chamber, saying, “Open up for us.”15 And the Bridegroom answered them from inside: “Depart from me. I do not know you.”16 And what did they hear after so much toil? ‘‘I do not know you. “This is what I was telling you. They achieved the great wealth of virginity purposelessly and vainly. Just imagine how they were banished after so many struggles. After they had bridled the intemperance, competed with the heavenly powers, despised matters pertaining to this life, after they had brought the great burning heat under their own power, conquered in the trenches, flown from earth to heaven; after they had preserved the seal of the body, acquired the great state of virginity, competed with the angels; after they had trampled upon the needs of the body, forgotten about human nature, achieved with a body those things accomplished by the bodiless; after they had obtained the vast and unassailable wealth of virginity, then they heard: “Depart from me. I do not know you.”

  12. I beg of you, do not think that the magnitude of virginity is something trivial. Virginity is such that none of the ancients could observe it. This is the reason why the grace of God is now great. Those things that were dreadful to the prophets and the ancients became contemptible. What things were so burdensome and impossible? Virginity and contempt of death. Now, however, even simple maidens despise them. For the wealth of virginity was so burdensome that none of the ancients could practice it. Noah was righteous and favored by God, but he had relations with a wife. Likewise, Abraham and Isaac, who inherited God’s promise together with Noah, each had relations with a wife. The prudent Joseph rejected the great act of adultery;17 however, he also had relations with a wife because to profess virginity was too severe. Virginity became mighty from the time its rose blossomed.18 Therefore, none of the ancients could practice virginity, because to bridle the body is a great matter. Revive the state of virginity in your thought,19 and learn well the magnitude of this virtue. Moreover, virginity engages in an endless war every day, one worse than that against the barbarians. For the war against the barbarians stops at critical times when treaties are ratified. Sometimes they engage in fighting and other times they do not. Ranks of soldiers and specified times exist. However, the war that one fights for virginity has no interruption, because the enemy is the devil and he does not know to observe the opportune time for attack, nor does he wait to organize himself before battle. Rather, he always stands ready and seeks to find the virgin unarmed, in order to wound her fatally. A virgin can never terminate this war, because she carries the tumult and the warrior around inside of herself. Although convicts are not agitated so much even if they see the lord for a due measure of time, the virgin, anywhere she may go, brings with her the judge, and carries around the combatant; and the warrior does not give her one evening of comfort, either at night, in the morning, or at noon, but always fights her, places the passion under her feet as a foundation, and betrays the marriage in order to expel the virtue far away from her, originate within her the wickedness, banish prudence from her, and sow within her prostitution. He ignites well the furnace of passion, which burns cowardly and secretly, every hour. Imagine the magnitude of toil in this achievement. However, the foolish virgins heard after all these things: “Depart from me. I do not know you.”

  13. Recognize the greatness of virginity. When she has her sister, almsgiving, accompanying her, nothing dreadful prevails over her; rather, she is superior to everything. The foolish virgins did not enter into the bridal chamber, because they did not possess almsgiving along with[^20] virginity. This statement is worthy of much shame. You overthrew pleasure, but did not despise money. O virgin, you, who denied the worldly life and crucified yourself to it, yet love money! I wish that you longed for a man, for the crime would not have been so severe, because you would have desired matter of the same essence as yourself. Now, however, the condemnation is greater, since you desired foreign matter. Truly, even married women should not display inhumanity with the excuse that they have children. And if you tell one, “Give me alms,” and she says, “I have children; I cannot,” tell her, “God granted you children. You received fruit in your womb so that you may become benevolent, not inhuman. Do not take the reason for benevolence as an excuse for inhumanity. Do you want to leave your children a good inheritance? Leave them almsgiving so that everyone may praise you and so that you may leave behind your memory well known.” However, you who are childless and crucified to the world, why do you gather money?

  14. However, our sermon has a soul and deals with the road of repentance and with almsgiving. We were saying that almsgiving is a great possession; thereafter, the high sea of virginity received us. Hence, you have almsgiving as a foremost and great repentance, one that can ransom you from the bondage of sins.

  15. However, you have yet another road of repentance—again, one that is easily handled—through which you can be delivered from sin. Pray every minute of the day, and be neither fainthearted nor lazy in asking for God’s love toward mankind. When you stand fast, He20 will not turn away from you, but will forgive your sins and grant your requests. If you are heard praying, continue to give thanks in the prayer; if you are not heard, remain praying so that you may be heard.

  16. Cease saying, “I prayed for many things and was not heard.” For even this occurs often to your advantage. Since He realizes that you lose heart and are indolent, and that when you attain your need you depart and no longer pray, God protects you with the pretext of need so that you may converse with Him more closely and devote yourself to prayer. For if you are lazy when you find yourself in such necessity and want, and do not persist in your prayer, what will you do if you lack even one of these things?21 Therefore, God does this for your benefit, wanting you not to abandon prayer. Thus, keep praying and never be lazy, because prayer can accomplish many things, my beloved. Never approach prayer thinking that it is a trivial matter.

  17. Learn this from the holy Gospels, that prayer remits sins. Therefore, what are they saying? The Kingdom of the Heavens resembles a certain man who closed his door and reclined to sleep along with his children. In the evening, someone came wanting to receive loaves of bread from him and knocked on his door, saying, “Open up for me, because I have need of loaves of bread.” And he answered, “Now I cannot give you any, because we and our children22 have lain down to sleep.” However, he persisted in knocking on the door. Again He said to him, “I cannot offer you any, because we and the children have lain down to sleep.” Although he heard these things, he persisted in knocking and did not withdraw until the master of the house said about him, “Arise, give him whatever he wants and let him depart.”23 Therefore, the Gospel teaches you to pray unceasingly. Even if you do not gain anything, stand fast; perhaps you may gain something in the future.

  18. You will discover many other roads of repentance in Scripture. This repentance, even before Christ’s Incarnation, was preached through Jeremiah, who said, “Shall not he that falls arise? Or shall he that turns away not turn back again ?”24 And again, “Thereafter, I told her, ‘After you had committed fornication, come, return to me.’ “25 God gave us many other different roads so that He may sever our every excuse for laziness. If we had only one road, we would not have been able to enter the Kingdom through prayer. The devil always flees from this knife.

  19. Have you sinned? Enter into the Church and wipe away your sin. The number of times you fall down in the marketplace equals the number of times you rise up. Likewise, as many times as you sin, repent for your sin; do not become discouraged. And if you sin a second time, repent a second time. Do not be completely deprived of the hope for the proposed goods through indolence. And if you are in the depths of old age and you sin, enter into the Church and repent, because the Church is a hospital, not a court of justice. Here, the priests do not hold you responsible for your sins, but grant you forgiveness. Tell your sin solely to God—“Against you only have I sinned, and done evil before you “26—and your sin is forgiven.

  20. You also have another road of repentance, however, not a difficult one, but an altogether easy one to deal with. Which one? Weep for your sins and learn this from the holy Gospels, the example of Peter, the zenith of the apostles, the first in the Church, the friend of Christ, he who accepted the revelation not from men but from the Father, just as the Master bore witness, saying, “Blessed are you Simon Bar Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my heavenly Father.”27 This Peter, and when I say Peter I mean the solid rock, the tranquil foundation, the great apostle, the first disciple, the first one called by Christ, and the first one who obeyed. He did something not trivial but exceedingly great—he denied the Master Himself. I am saying this not to accuse that righteous individual but to give you cause for repentance. Peter denied the very Master of the world, the Guardian, the Savior of all. In other words, during the betrayal the Savior saw certain people withdrawing from Him,28 and He said to Peter, “Maybe you want to withdraw, too?” Peter said, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you.”29 What are you saying, Peter? God is the one who declares it plainly, and you fight against Him? Yet, Peter’s choice revealed the same thing, and the weakness of human nature was put to shame. When did these things happen? On the night Christ was betrayed. Peter was standing near the hot embers warming himself, and a certain girl approached him said to him, “Yesterday, you too were together with this man.”30 And he said, “I do not know this man.”31 Then he said it a second and a third time, and his denial was complete. Afterwards, Christ looked Peter straight in the face, speaking to him with a gaze.32 He did not speak to him with His mouth, in order to avoid shaming him before the Jews and oppressing His own disciple. Rather, He spoke to him with a gaze. “Peter, what I was saying before is happening.” Understanding this, Peter began crying and did not simply cry but wept bitterly. He performed a second baptism with the tears from his eyes. By crying bitterly, he wiped away his sin; thereafter, he was entrusted with the keys of the heavens.

  21. If Peter’s weeping wiped out such a great sin, how can you not cancel your sin through tears? For it was not a small accusation to deny his Master; it was great and severe, and yet the tears utterly destroyed the sin. Therefore, cry for your sin; do not cry simply or pretentiously, but weep bitterly like Peter. Let your tears gush forth from the depths of your soul so that, in this way, the Master may have pity on you and forgive your trespass. For He is a lover of man and said, “I do not desire the death of the sinner; I desire his return and that he should repent and live.”33 He wants a little toil from you, and He grants great things. He desires an opportunity from you in order to give you a life­saving treasure. Show tears and He gives you forgiveness; put forward repentance and He grants you remission of sins.
    Produce one small occasion so that you may have a fair defense; for the latter are from God and the former are from us. If we bring forward our own things, He will in turn grant us His. He has already granted His things, then, the sun, the moon. He has founded the mani­fold choirs of stars, poured forth the air, stretched out the land, and confined the ocean. He has set forth mountains, valleys, hills, streams, lakes, rivers, the myriads of genera of plants, parks, and all the other things.

  22. Again, you offer something small so that He may grant you the heavenly. Therefore, we must neither neglect ourselves nor hinder our salvation, since we have the incredibly vast sea of philanthropy of the Lord of all, Who changes His decision regarding our sins. The Kingdom of the Heavens, paradise, and the goods “that no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him,”34 are set before all of us. Are we not obliged to do all we can in order to offer something, so that we will not be deprived of these goods? Are you not familiar with Paul, who labored so much and erected myriads of trophies against the devil; who physically marched throughout the world; who orbited the earth, ocean, and air; who circled the world as if he had wings; who was stoned, murdered, and beaten; who suffered everything for the name of God; who was called from above by a heavenly voice? Pay attention to what he said, to what discourse he preached. “We received grace,” he stated, “from God. But I also labored; I also contributed.”35 “And His grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I labored harder and contributed more abundantly than all of them.’’36 “We know,” he said, “we understand well the magnitude of the grace that we received. It did not find me inactive. All these things I introduced are evident.” Therefore, in this way, let us also teach our hands in almsgiving so that we may contribute something small.

  23. Let us weep for our sin. Let us lament for our lawlessness so that we will appear to have offered some small thing, too. Because the things that will be given to us in the future are great and surpass our power. For it is paradise and the Kingdom of the Heavens, of which may we all be worthy, through the grace and love toward man of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, belong all glory, power, and honor, now and forever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

  1. Ps 48.12. ↩︎

  2. Here, the “Logos” or “word” represents Chrysostom’s in­depth spiritual discourse concerning church attendance and almsgiving as important virtues and vital means of repenting and receiving God’s forgiveness. ↩︎

  3. 1 Kgs 20.29. ↩︎

  4. Prv 20.6. ↩︎

  5. Acts 10.4. ↩︎

  6. Mt 25.40. ↩︎

  7. Mt 25.2. ↩︎

  8. Mt 25.8. ↩︎

  9. Mt 25.8–9. ↩︎

  10. An obol equals one­sixth part of a drachma in weight; it is worth more than three halfpence. ↩︎

  11. Mt 10.42. ↩︎

  12. Water fountains where anyone entering the church had first to wash his or her hands. ↩︎

  13. Mt 25.40. ↩︎

  14. Mt 25.10. ↩︎

  15. Mt 25.11. ↩︎

  16. Mt 25.12. ↩︎

  17. See Gn 39. ↩︎

  18. I.e., Jesus, Christ, the Son of the Virgin. ↩︎

  19. Or, reason/logic. [20]: My emphasis. ↩︎

  20. “He” most probably refers to the person of God the Son. ↩︎

  21. Here, the term “things” refers to the same word in the previous statement, “I prayed for many things and was not heard.” Most probably, these designate an individual’s spiritual and physical needs that he prays to God to fulfill. ↩︎

  22. “Children” represent God’s heavenly angelic ministers. ↩︎

  23. Lk 11.5ff. ↩︎

  24. Jer 8.4. ↩︎

  25. Jer 3.7. ↩︎

  26. Ps 50.6. ↩︎

  27. Mt 16.17. ↩︎

  28. Jn 6.67. ↩︎

  29. Mt 26.35. ↩︎

  30. Mt 26.69. ↩︎

  31. Mk 14.68. ↩︎

  32. Lk 22.61. ↩︎

  33. Ez 18.23. ↩︎

  34. 1 Cor 2.9. ↩︎

  35. Here Chrysostom is speaking on behalf of Paul, whereas in the next statement Paul himself is speaking. ↩︎

  36. 1 Cor 15.10. ↩︎