THE GREAT STEWARD OF THE CHURCH
St. John the Almsgiver was a seventh century Patriarch of Alexandria. What does Patriarch John have to do with Stewardship? If we look more carefully at his life, we will see that he was one of the great Stewards of the Church of Christ. His was the true embodiment of giving because of the many philanthropic programs he initiated as Patriarch.
Those who knew him spoke of his great compassion for the needy. He would never think of ignoring a beggar, a prisoner, or any afflicted person that he met in the street. As often as he gave, though, he never seemed to run out of resources for the work of the Church. God abundantly blessed him in every conceivable way because of his charity to others. The following episodes in the life of St. John the Almsgiver allow us the opportunity to learn from this great Steward of the Church who taught us about giving.
An indication of the kind of Patriarch that he was to become is given to us upon the occasion of his enthronement to the Patriarchal See of Alexandria. His first act as Patriarch was to summon the treasurers and financial administrators of the various branches of the Church. He addressed them in the following words:
“It is not right, brethren, that we should prefer anyone over Christ.”
The whole assembly which had gathered together was deeply touched by his words and in complete agreement with him. Then the holy man continued:
“Go, therefore, through the whole city, please, and make a list of all my masters down to the last. “
But his listeners could not imagine who his masters could be. In astonishment they asked him to reveal the names of those who were above him in stature. After all, he was the Patriarch. He opened his mouth and again said:
“Those whom you call poor and beggars, these I proclaim my masters and helpers. For they, and they only, are really able to help us and bestow upon us the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Once his command was carried out with all speed, he instructed his private treasurer to set aside a daily sum sufficient for the needs of these poor; and there were more than seven thousand of them.
St. John, we are told, was in the habit of sleeping on the cheapest of beds and using only very poor coverings in his room. One of the city’s wealthy landowners once went into the Patriarch’s room and saw that he was only covered with a torn and worn quilt, so he sent him a new quilt costing thirty-six nomismata. He urged the Patriarch to cover himself with the quilt, remembering the one who gave it to him in prayer.
John took and used it for one night because of the giver’s insistence, but throughout the night he kept saying to himself, “How can I lie under a blanket costing thirty-six nomismata while Christ’s brethren are pinched with cold? How many are there this minute grinding their teeth because of the cold? How many have only a rough blanket half below and half above them so that they cannot stretch out their legs but lie shivering, roiled up like a ball of thread? How many have no second garment either in summer or winter and so live in misery? Mad yet, I who hope to obtain everlasting bliss, am being kept warm by a blanket worth thirty-six nomismata. Indeed, if I live like this and pass my life in such ease I cannot expect to enjoy the good things prepared for us on high; but I will certainly be told, as was the other rich man:…You in your lifetime received good things, and Lazarus, in like manner, evil things; but now he is comforted here and you are in anguish’”
“Blessed be God!” I shall not be covered with it another night. For it is right and proper that one hundred and forty-four of my brothers and masters should be covered rather than me, one miserable creature.” For four simple blankets could be purchased for one nomisma. Early on the following morning, therefore, he sent it to be sold, but the man who gave it to him saw it and bought it for thirty-six nomismata and again brought it to the Patriarch.
When the wealthy landowner saw it put up for sale again the next day, he bought it once more and carried it to the Patriarch and implored him to use it. When he had done this for the third time, the Saint said to him jokingly, “Let us see whether you or I will give up first!” For the man was exceedingly wealthy and the Saint took pleasure in getting money out of him for the sake of the poor. The Patriarch used to say that if, with the object of giving to the poor, anyone were able, without ill-will, to strip the right down to their shirts, he would do no wrong, especially if they were heartless skinflints. For in so doing, he would save their souls.
One day the Patriarch heard of a generous giver and so he sent for him privately and said jokingly, “How is I that you became so generous? Was it natural for you, or did you have to force yourself?” The man answered, “I used to be very hardhearted and unsympathetic and one day I lost my money and was reduced to poverty. Then my reason began to say to me, ‘Truly, if you had been generous, God would not have forsaken you.’ And immediately I decided to give five coppers a day to the poor. But when I started giving them, Satan immediately checked me by saying, ‘Those coppers would really have been enough to buy a bath ticket or vegetables for your family.’ When I felt at once that I was taking the money out of my children’s mouths and so I gave nothing. But I noticed that I was being mastered by greed, so I said to my servant, “I want you to steal five coppers each day without my noticing it, and give them to charity.’”
“My servant, a worthy fellow, began by stealing ten coppers, and occasionally even more. As he noticed that we were being blessed, he began to steal larger sums of money and give them away.”
“One day I was expressing my astonishment at God’s blessings to us! I said to him, “Those five coppers, boy, have greatly benefited us. So now I want to give ten.’ At that the servant said to me with a smile, “Yes, be thankful for my thefts, since but for them we should not even have bread to eat today. However, if there can be a just thief, I am he!’ And he told me that he had given larger amounts than the five or ten coppers. So it was through my servant’s faith that I grew accustomed to giving with all my heart.” The holy Patriarch was much edified by this story.
One last story in the life of St. John has to do with his practice of giving money to every poor person that he met. A stranger to the city, one who noticed the remarkable sympathy of the Holy Patriarch, decided to put him to the test. The stranger dressed himself up in old clothes and approached the Patriarch as he made his rounds of the hospitals. He came to John and said, “Have mercy on me for I am a prisoner of war.” John said to his purse-bearer, “Give him six coins.” After the man had received his money he left, changed his clothes, met John in the street a second time and falling at his feet said. “Have pity on me for I am in need.” Again the Patriarch said to his purse-bearer, “Give him six coins.” As the man left, the purse-bearer nudged the Patriarch to let him know that it was the same man. This time the Patriarch responded, “Give him twelve coins, for it might be my Christ come to test me.”
Our Church, too, calls upon each of us to become Stewards. Unlike the man in disguise, our Church comes openly seeking support for the worthy work of the Church. If Patriarch John was doubly generous to the disguised man, thinking that he might be Christ, how generous should we be to the Church which is the body of Christ?
Rev. John Chakos