The Fathers Speak On Entitlements for the Poor
by Susan R. Holman
oth St. Gregory the Theologian and St. Gregory of Nyssa brought the poor into social consciousness, identifying them as actual kin, not based simply on blood ties or marriage, but by a kinship even more fundamental and direct. Both Gregories repeatedly refer to the poor as “brethren”—adelphoi (αδελφοι)—although St. Gregory of Nyssa clearly does not mean this in a literal or biological sense, since he also identifies them as “victims of war, strangers, exiles” and “others,” notably the ptōchoi,1 lepers and sick who are stretched out on the road, evoking for the listener the parable of the Good Samaritan. St. Gregory the Theologian suggests that many lepers were indeed literal kin to those from whom they beg, but he particularly emphasizes their common humanity: “Since we are human beings let us first give the offerings of our compassion to [fellow] humanity.” He identifies the poor as widows, orphans, exiles, strangers, slaves of cruel masters, and victims of harsh judges, greedy tax officials, shipwreck and robbery. They are, he insists, “our kindred” (συγγενής -relative or kin), “your brother,” who “is your own member, [σόν έστι μέλος] though this calamity has deformed him.” Kindness and mercy granted to dumb beasts is no less due to our “equals and our kindred” (τοις όμοφύλος καί ίμοτίμοις), literally those of “equal rank with us and of the same race.”...St. Gregory of Nyssa uses the same term, όμοφύλος (same race), to make exactly the same point.
Throughout his second poverty sermon, St. Gregory of Nyssa also uses many of the same terms of common kinship to place the power of the poor within the framework of cosmic harmony; for instance:
Do not tear apart the unity of the Spirit, that is to say, do not consider as strangers those beings who partake of our nature. ...[These poor are] human beings, dragging themselves along the road, half dead yet supremely human; ...You see a man and in him you have no respect for a brother? ...In condemning the sickness you condemn yourself and all nature. For you yourself belong to the common nature of all. Treat all therefore as one common reality.
These are only a few examples of the many other instances of kinship language that runs throughout the sermons. The poor are consistently perceived as kin on the basis of their humanity, as fellow creatures, and not by any “racial (in the modern sense) or religious identities.
In addition to their identity as kin, the needy are constructed as heavenly citizens and entitled to civic justice by virtue of their identity as bearers of the divine image. Consequently they are entitled to patronage—in modern language they have “rights”—ultimately by virtue of their relationship to God their Creator, who has endowed them with both their human nature and membership in the civic community known as the Kingdom of Heaven. These are “rights” explicitly dependent on these relational affiliations.
This citizenship depends, furthermore, on a special identification of the poor with Christ, and emphasizing the incarnate nature of deity in Christ. The metaphor of Matthew 25, in which ministering to the poor is ministering to Christ, is a dominant theme throughout St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Gregory of Nyssa’s writing on poverty relief. To see the poor “as Christ” may, to the modern consciousness, seem to make them into a passive image, a symbol that erases individuality and looks past the needy to the “more worthy” Christ for Whom they are signifiers. The Cappadocians, however, do not constrain their image to this passive model. St. Gregory the Theologian emphasizes the poor person’s active participation in the divine and liturgical image. He describes them as:
[o]ur brothers in God...born with the same nature...compounded of nerves and bones as we are; more than this, they also have received the same divine image as we have, and perhaps guarded it better.... They have put on the same Christ...[and] have been made sharers with us of the same...doctrine, the same Testaments, the same Assemblies, the same Mysteries, the same hope, Christ.
Saint Gregory the Theologian is not here implying that only Orthodox Church members deserve assistance. In fact, both he and St. Gregory of Nyssa emphasized the universal nature of God’s goodness to all creation. It is precisely in these references to divine identity where we find the language of “human rights” in the Gregories: terms referring explicitly to equality, rights and freedom. St. Gregory the Theologian exhorts his audience to “resolve to imitate the justice [ισότης]2 of God,” whose gifts are “equally upon all, the just and the unjust alike, upholding the dignity of our nature by the worthiness of His gifts.” Both authors link this justice with a return to Eden. St. Gregory the Theologian uses ισονομία, a Greek political term meaning “equality of rights:” “At the fall came hatred and strife and the deceits of the serpent...I would have you look back to our primary equality of rights [τήν πρώτην ισονομίαν] not to the later division...Reverence the ancient freedom [τήν άρχαίαν έλευθερίαν τίμησον]. Reverence yourself. Cover the shame [ατιμία] of your own kindred.”
1— ptōchoi (Πτωχοί/πτωχός) is one of two words commonly used in Greek texts of the first four centuries and traditionally designated the destitute beggar outside or at the fringes of society—the “street person,” the extreme poor. The other term is penēs (πένης) and is used to indicate the individual whose economic resources were minimal but who functioned within society, the “working poor.”
2— "Be a herald of God's goodness, for God rules over you, unworthy though you are; for although your debt to Him is so great, yet He is not seen exacting payment from you, and from the small works you do, He bestows great rewards upon you. Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright (cf. Ps. 24:8, 144:17), His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. 'He is good,' He says, 'to the evil and to the impious' (cf. Luke 6:35). How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? 'Friend, I do thee no wrong: I will give unto this last even as unto thee. Is thine eye evil because I am good?' (Matt. 20:12-15). How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? (Luke 15:11 ff.). None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it; and thus He bare witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God's justice, for whilst we are sinners Christ died for us! (cf. Rom. 5:8). But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change" (St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 60)