St. John Chrysostom on Helping All Without Judging
by Christopher Dodson
North Dakota Catholic Conference
How should we respond to those in need, such as those who are hungry, homeless, without healthcare, or struggling with addiction? Do we address their needs, without inquiring as to why they are in need? Do we inquire and then decide whether they are truly deserving of help?
Many people feel that we should not help those who have brought their problems on themselves through laziness, drug or alcohol use, self-centeredness, illegal entry into the country, or other undesirable behaviors. Providing assistance in those cases, it is thought, only encourages more bad behavior.
The Church's teachers, however, have long cautioned against judging a person's worthiness as a condition for providing assistance.
One Church Father was particularly eloquent on this point. His eloquence should not come as a surprise considering he is known as Saint John Chrysostom (the “Golden Mouth”.) Saint John Chrysostom lived about 350 to 407 A.D. in what is present day Turkey, mostly in Antioch. Throughout his life as a deacon, priest, and bishop, Saint John preached about the needs of the poor and the obligation of everyone to fill those needs. As bishop, his denunciations of the lifestyles of the rich eventually drew the wrath of the Empress. She arranged to have him exiled, where he died of exhaustion after soldiers forced him to march in oppressive heat.
While a priest in Antioch, Saint John gave a series of homilies on the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. In one of these homilies, Saint John urged his parishioners to give to those in need without judging a person's worthiness, citing Abraham, Paul, and Christ himself. Chrysostom's words are worth quoting.
“For if you wish to show kindness, you must not require an accounting of a person's life, but merely correct his poverty and fill his need.”
“The poor man has one plea, his want and his standing in need: do not require anything else from him; but even if he is the most wicked of all men and is at a loss for his necessary sustenance, let us free him from hunger.”
“When you see on earth the man who has encountered the shipwreck of poverty, do not judge him, do not seek an account of his life, but free him from his misfortune.”
“Charity is so called because we give it even to the unworthy.”
“Need alone is the poor man's worthiness . . .”
“We do not provide for the manners, but for the man.”
“We show mercy on him not because of his virtue but because of his misfortune, in order that we ourselves may receive from the Master His great mercy . . .”
Saint John Chrysostom emphasized that helping the needy is not just about the needy. It is also – if not mostly – about our relationship with God. God calls us to serve, not judge worthiness. “God has excused you from all officiousness and meddlesomeness,” said the Saint. Saint John also hints that, in the end, none of us are truly worthy.
Asking why a person is homeless, poor, addicted, sick, or otherwise in need has its value, but not for the purpose of determining whether the person deserves help. The person deserves help because he or she needs it. Instead of using the information to determine worthiness, discovering why a person is homeless helps us to address the systemic problems that might have contributed to the person's plight. Addressing those problems is a matter of achieving justice, which, like charity, is also a Christian obligation.