During Lent, Christians are called to intensify their penance, which chiefly includes fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Penance, then, is a rededication to the Double Commandment, to love God and to love our neighbor. We recognize that we have failed to fulfill both ends of the commandment, or at least that we have room to grow in both areas, and so we fast so as to gain spiritual discipline, we pray in order to grow closer to God, and care for our neighbors. When thinking about almsgiving, we might often forget that care for the poor is included in the love due to our neighbor. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus cautions against loving only those who love you back, or in some sense can reciprocate your love. To stop at this point would be to do nothing beyond what everyone else does (Mt. 5:46).
Our Lord picks up this theme again when He advises not to invite your friends, relatives, and rich neighbors when giving a dinner, because “they may also invite you in return and that will be your repayment” (Lk. 8:12). Rather, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Lk. 8:13). Of course, this does not mean that it is wrong to invite friends, neighbors, and relatives, but rather that this activity already yields its reward. Feeding the needy, however, causes one to have a reward with God. This theme is often mentioned in the New Testament, namely that one should store up treasures in Heaven. When one gives to the poor, they have not lent to the poor, but to God and God will repay—eternally.
This comes through nowhere as clear as in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Mt. 25:31-46). It is important to note that it seems from this parable that God is only judging on the basis of the works of mercy. This has lead the Fathers to conclude that only Christians are judged here. Both the sheep and the goats recognize Christ as “Lord,” but only those who have been charitable to the poor are accepted into the Kingdom. St. John Chrysostom recapitulates this theme again in the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Mt. 25:1-13), where he argues that the reason why the five virgins which are ultimately rejected from the feast are foolish is because they have done the hard part—keeping purity of heart and purity of doctrine—but they have neglected the easy part, serving the needy. Ever concerned with the plight of the poor, Chrysostom goes so far as to say, “If you do not see Christ in the beggar at the door step, you will not find Him in the chalice.”
In exhorting the Church to keep the faith, St. Peter says, “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8). While love of our family and friends is doubtlessly included in this exhortation, it is clear that our love would be incomplete if it did not also include love for our needy neighbors. Insofar as one does this, love blots out sin, because it draws away pride, which is the root of all sin. In addition, it forces us to have an outward gaze. St. Augustine ultimately describes the sinful person as curvatus in se, as turned in on oneself. As long as we are caring for others, we cannot be stuck in such a position.
If you are looking to increase your care for the poor during Lent—or throughout the year—St. Joseph’s Project is a great opportunity for busy college students. Every Friday afternoon, students gather to prepare and distribute food and provide company to the needy in downtown Boston. If you are not currently at Boston College, there are always ways to help, including contributing your time or money to causes which help the poor, or simply providing comfort, company, and aid to the poor you encounter in your daily life.
Featured image courtesy of Wolfgang Moroder via Wikimedia Commons