Orthodox Archbishop of the Patriarchate of Alexandria
Beloved Cardinal Reinhard Marx and brethren of the Community of Sant’Egidio, I greet you all in the Holy name of Jesus Christ Our Lord and Saviour and give you the greetings and blessings of His Holiness, the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria, Theodoros II.
I pray with you for the Founder of the Community of Sant Egidio Professor Andrea, the President Marko and all the Members to carry on their apostolic ministry in the twenty first century to all the nations.
The Orthodox Church does not forget poverty and oppression, and it is abundantly clear from the Bible that they are always on God's mind. This is clear in the Old and New Testaments. In Deut. 26:5-9 we read: “The Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, and imposed hard labor on us. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction and our toil and our oppression; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with great terror and with signs and wonders; and He has brought us to... this land flowing with milk and honey”. Similar sentiments are echoed in the Gospel of Luke. We read in Luke 4:16-21. “…And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read...The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He appointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord... Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Even the great King David tells us in Psalm 140:12: “I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and justice for the poor.” Isaiah shares similar beliefs in Isaiah 25:4 we read: “For you have been a defense for the helpless, a defense for the needy in his distress”. Of course there are many other examples we could cite but the most famous is that expressed by the Lord during the Beatitudes in Luke 6:20-21: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours in the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh”.
Generally speaking, people who are relatively economically stable have a poor attitude towards the poor, mostly one of disdain and fear. Very often people are suspicious when they encounter the poor and we simply believe they are either lazy or inferior. Many Orthodox and other people are kind hearted but prefer not to look at the poor too closely as they find this to be depressing.
Such attitudes are however contrary to what God expects from us and miles away from the attitude He expects us to have. God is a God of agape and human need arouses compassion and action in God. Often we believe: "Of course God loves the poor; He loves all of His creation." But it's not as simple as that; God's character is presented as a model for our own as we are created in His image. If God values the poor, we have to think about what that means for us who are better off. In
Jeremiah 22:3, God tells us to: “Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” In Luke 12:33 He tells us clearly: "Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves purses which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near, nor moth destroys." In Matthew, the message is sternly stated in 5:42: “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.”
We see the same message given to us in the Torah, the writings of the Prophets and in David’s Psalms; Jesus tells us directly in the Gospels and its also in Paul’s Epistles. Yet today, sadly, not many churches emphasize serving the poor as much as the Word of God tells us to.
In difficult economic times around the globe, we all have plenty of reasons why we can't go out and feed the hungry, why we daily turn away the needy borrowers. This shows our sinful natures. God wants all of us to help the needy. When we serve the poor we are doing the right thing. We obtain spiritual reward and often also material reward. In Proverbs 22:9 we read: “He who is generous will be blessed, for he gives some of his food to the poor” and in Isaiah 58:10: "And if you give yourself to the hungry, and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness, and your gloom will become like midday. And the LORD will continually guide you, and satisfy your desire in scorched places, and give strength to your bones; and you will be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose waters do not fail."
Luke 12:44 gives us a strong message: "Sell your possessions and give alms; make yourselves purses which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near, nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." We also in Matthew 19:20 when the young man spoke to Jesus, "All these commands I have kept; what am I still lacking?" Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me."
Jesus is asking us to go way past our comfort zones in giving things away to those in dire need, and of course, in not getting them back. The poor may be of different races, or not speak our language. They could be individuals who are not moral enough for us and they may be illegal immigrants that we burn in frenzies of xenophobia.
Interestingly, the first person in the Gospel of John to whom Jesus clearly confesses to being the Messiah is a Samaritan woman who was also an adulterer. They were despised by the orthodox Jews of the time. What does this teach us? Can we give too much? We Greeks believe in moderation in all things. Unfortunately, we get this idea from our ancestors and not the Bible. Jesus asks us to give freely.
God warns us many times about indifference to the poor and needy. In James 5:1-6 “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. ...Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and with you have withheld, cries out against you; and the outcry of the harvesters has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.”
There is no clearer picture painted for us than in Luke 16:19-25. "Now there was a certain rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, gaily living in splendor every day. And a certain poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table; besides, even the dogs would come and lick his sores. Now it came about that the poor man died and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham's bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. And in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom.
And he cried out and said, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue; for I am in agony in this flame.'
But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony...'"
When we exploit workers, oppress immigrants and basically rob the needy instead of helping them we sow the seeds of our own destruction. By ignoring the poor we become criminals. Sodom wasn't destroyed because of sexual immorality; it was destroyed because it "had arrogance, abundant food, and careless ease"-- and isn't that a pretty good description of the Western world today?-- and it "did not help the poor and needy". But God is a just God and the wheels of fortune turn. There isn't the slightest suggestion that the rich man being punished in hell was responsible for the fall of Lazarus... except in a general sense: he was responsible as a fellow human being, as a man who was clearly well aware of the one suffering at his door and yet he did nothing to help this man-much like we do when the needy approach us.
In 1 John 3:17 we read: “But whoever has the world's goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?” and in Luke 6:33 "And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, in order to receive back the same." Let us give with true agape and cheer or not give at all because according to 2 Corinthians 9:7: “Let each one do just as he has purposed in his heart; not grudgingly or under compulsion; for God loves a cheerful giver. ‘
In Acts 4:32-35 we see: “And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. And with great power the apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles' feet; and they would be distributed to each, as any had need.” If we give we must do so sincerely and not only give to those who've given us things. We must also give without others seeing. In Acts 4 we read that: “There was not a needy person among them.” Today with all our innovation and technology and higher levels of education and far more resources than two thousand years ago, we cannot say the same as mammon has overpowered us. Since, like a good king, the Lord is concerned with his poor subjects, so should we be. In 2 Corinthians 8:9 we read: “for you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.”
In Matthew 25:31-46 we are warned that: "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. And all the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on His left.
Then the King will say to those on His right, 'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.' Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite you in, or naked, and clothe You? And when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?'
And the King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.'
Then He will also say to those on His left, 'Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.'
Then they themselves will also answer, saying, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?' Then He will answer them, saying, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
My beloved brothers, our own salvation to a large extent depends on how we treat the poor in society and how we become Christ-like in our agape. Let us all embrace the poor with contrite hearts and total agape. This is what Jesus does.
For example, through the behaviour of the prodigal person of the parable of the Gospel as the basis we can speak about the profligacy of our time, which is expressed with the unacceptable situation observed in the unfair suffering of the word-wide population. 10 % of the population of this earth enjoys the use of 90 % of worldwide production and 90% of the population constitutes simultaneously an irony because 10% of the population happens to be Christians. The result of the present profligacy of Christians, with the latest statistical facts based on UNICEF is as follows:
1. One third of the children of Africa are under-nourished.
2. About 13 million children die everyday in the undeveloped countries, because they do not have access to some of the goods that Christian children have.
3. Three million children die from dehydration, which brings about diarrhoea.
4. Every year, about 300.000 children are blinded through a lack of vitamin A.
5. In Asia 1 000 000 children, girls and boys, are enslaved to prostitution by European and American Christian business people.
6. 97% of children die before the age of five.
7. About 10.000 000 children suffer from aids, due to the irresponsibility of those who are of age.
8. About 10.000 000 children are orphans, because their parents die from poverty and various illnesses.
9. About 130.000 000 children do not have the means to receive an education at school.
10. Most children’s deaths could be prevented with the provision of basic vaccination which costs just R100 per child.
11. In third world countries 1.5 million people do not have the luxury of clean water and 2 billion do not also have a basic approach to hygienic methods.
The profligacy of our time will only be confined with the repentance of the prodigal people of our Society and with the equal treatment of the innocent people of our planet.
In the face of their personal ego for greater economic gain, the civilized population of the West has learnt to throw milk away and the excesses of their produce is dumped in rubbish heaps. The profligacy of the people of the West is not merely a social injustice, at the expense of our fellow human beings who suffer, who do without all those things that other people throw away and waste, it is that which drives the destruction of those who are ill-treated as well as those who ill-treat, because our survival is assured only with our good will to continually and justly support the terms of our peaceful co-existence.
Even thhe Miracle of the multiplying of the five loaves and the two fish of the Gospel, constitutes the revelation of Christ’s omnipotent strength. The story of this miracle of Christ highlights to us in a vivid manner our strengths and responsibilities in the struggle of the facing of peoples material problems. Christ, in order to feed the hungry multitudes that were following him to the desert, needed the co-operation of his disciples. He did not himself make the bread which he offered to the crowd. He could of course have done this just when he sent the quails and manna to the Jews in the desert of Sinai. But he does not undertake to do so. He asks his disciples to distribute to the crowds the few provisions that they had with them, the five loaves of bread and the two fish. “Give them something to eat” he says to his disciples when they approached him to inform him about the starvation of the crowds. And when the disciples obeys Christ’s commandment the miracle occurs.
The same, can occur in our lives when our obedience to Christ’s commandments comes first. Christ blesses the five loaves and the two fish and their multiplication becomes a reality as a result of the complicity of mankind. Man’s consent for the completion of God’s miracle is essential because only in this way is man’s freedom preserved which despite being relative does not nevertheless cease to be real. And man’s consent for the realization of the miracle is expressed as faith and trust in God. As a result, the miracle is an event which relates to the sphere of God and is of importance to man in the sense that the miracle is the result and the rewarded of the faithful person.
In our time, the economic and social problems, the ones which are associated directly with the material needs of humanity, are found daily in current events despite scientific progress and technological development, these problems remain unsolved and in fact present as much intensity as they did in the ages before. In point of fact, 5000 children die daily of starvation. The wealthy and poor exist even today, the same with the unfair treatment of innocent people and the oppression of the weak from the strong. This injustice today is also the root of the malicious who creates the social problem many in the face of this piteous reality, perhaps might pose the questions: “why does God accept this injustice which becomes the cause of the creation of misery in people’s lives? Why does He not intervene to stop the exploitation, the starvation and misery, the oppression and injustice?” One answer to this question is that we try to shift the responsibility for the problems of humanity from mankind to God. God of course in a way that surpasses our logic, with an impressive miracle could efface both injustice and misery and give in this way to our material problems an effective solution. But He refuses to do this, like He refused the devil’s request in the desert to convert the stones into bread. This does not mean that God is indifferent towards mankind. It means quite the opposite-that God respects and takes mankind into account and He wants his complicity in order to preserve this freedom. And this happens because God did not create robots but He created man in the “image and likeness of God.” Hence, that which set man apart from all of God other creations is mans freedom.
Thus, many times, God’s omnipotence in man’s life is expressed through faithful people, as we ourselves should be, who are considered to be Christians. It is necessary therefore for us to become conscious of our responsibilities. We should toil for the creation of the Kingdom of God in the world in which we live, convincing those around us, the faithless and those of little faith of the truth of Christ’s teaching from within the consequences of our life and our deeds to Christ’s commandments.
Today, the social problem instead of being solved becomes more entangled, it becomes more acute because those who have a sufficiency of goods, instead of sharing with the poor as Christ asks, prefer to squander. Hence we have arrived at the piteous situation where we see some people spending on their dogs more that what poor family heads spend on their children. We hear of lots of wealthy people squandering just for one evening of entertainment as much as it would take to support a fair number of needy families. We hear of huge amounts being spent on cosmetics, jewelry and decorations, as much as would be adequate for lots of people to be able to drink clean water and many children to be able to attend school. However, beyond the level of individuals and at a level of nations, we see, many countries burning the excess of their produce in order to preserve the high prices tender at the very time when other nations starve to death. We see wealthy nations spending as much finance on armaments as surpasses the whole of the state budget of many poor nations who also usually have a much larger population.
Therefore, for the problems to be solved, which today shake our society, our collaboration with God is required which is expressed as obedience to Christ’s commandment’s we must be prepared to share what we have with our neighbour who is suffering. And the person next-door my beloved is not merely our poor neighbour but all people who are far away from us and are suffering. Jesus Christ seeing the hungry people of our time resumes: “Give them something to eat.” If we are obedient and listen to Christ’s instigation we will find ourselves before a new multiplication of the five loaves and two fish which will be realized by God’s grace in our hands.
The miracle of the multiplication of the five loaves and two fish is not something that merely happened once and was finished forever. It is an event, which if we want, we can experience daily. As long as we place ourselves at God’s disposal, obeying his commandments and allowing in this way His Love to warm our hearts. Besides the history of philanthropic deeds and missionary efforts is full of miracles similar to the one which we heard in today’s Gospel extract.
Real Christian faith my beloved, is always made manifest by deeds of love. And the practice of love as an implementation of the content of faith constitutes and essential sign of Christians life. Love in Christianity, is not mentally thought of as a simple sentimental expression but as a response to the love of God who became a man and as is owed to our neighbour who God’s picture. This love refers to the entire person and is expressed by our support in his material and spiritual needs. As saint Jacob tells us, “if there exists a brother or sister who is naked and lacking of the transient nourishment, go in peace be satisfied and be warmly clothed but do not give to them the trade of the body for what profit is to them? “Thus Christian life, as a life of faith and love towards God is linked to the love towards our neighbour. Without love towards our neighbour, our love towards God is considered non-existent: “he who loves God also loves his brothers” says Evangelist John and he continues, “ If I Say that I love God and hate His brothers, then I am a liar.” According to the Christian teaching only with the practice of love towards ones neighbours does mankind remain in God’s love and lives victoriously beyond the clutches of death. The Evangelist John Tells us “We have seen that we have gone beyond death into life, we love our brothers but he who does not love remains in death” And this love of ours is expressed by our service to our neighbour like Christ’s love was expressed to the people from the miracle of today’s Gospel extract.
Of course, no one can satisfy with money and all goods that one has all the needs of the poor, nor can he heal all the social wounds. God does not ask the impossible from anyone. >From one tap the whole world cannot quench its thirst. But those close to us and those passing though can. Let us also then do the same in our life with all the good things that God has granted us and then we will not merely be contributing to the salvation of our neighbour but also our own salvation.
With the miracle of feeding the poor people, “the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned”. (Matthew 4:16) Christ’s meeting with the people and their problems became a means for Him to show real examples to as many as he taught theoretically about the Kingdom of God. He healed his people. He gave good to the populace. He was crucified for us. He became our salvation.
In the same way, the person who finds himself close to Christ and takes part in the activity and value of the mystical life of our Church, when he encounters his fellow human being and he is faced with his problems where inside his home or in his work place or in the rest of the social space in which he lives, it becomes an occasion for him to show that which is inside him, that is, his compassion, his love, his understanding, his help and his support for his neighbour as well as his good-naturedness to forgive because he sees his neighbour as himself. Where this does not happen, that is, when somebody from the space in which we live makes a mistake or has need of our assistance and this becomes a reason for us to show our malice instead of showing love, when we show our hardness without any compassion and we are ready to condemn him and hurt him with our peevishness without any intention of forgiving him and telling him that, that which happened to him could have happened to anyone of us, then we prove that we mimic the Pharisees and the atheists even if it symptomatically happens that we call ourselves Christians: “If anyone says, ‘I love God yet hates his brother, whom he has seen, he cannot love God whom he has not seen. And He has given us this command: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (1 John 4:20-21).
Our survival depends on the degree to which we improve the conditions of cohabitation amongst ourselves and indeed with our willingness and love to build bridges of common co-existence, common understanding and common respect of every human being’s dignity. Our Church helps us to understand this way of life and puts us forward as examples of Jesus Christ who serves the people “In many ways and many times “like for example from within the miracle of today’s Gospel, where the five loaves and two fish are multiplied and the five thousand are fed and satisfied “besides women and children.
In continuity, Christ’s service for the salvation of the people will reach its pinnacle with His sacrifice on Golgotha. If therefore Christ did the maximum for us, our Church invites us also to, at the very least, with our prayers and efforts through repentance to appear consistent to Christ’s commandments, so that the hope for our salvation with God’s grace will always remain an acceptable possibility for all of us because “this is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commandments. This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God has overcome the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith”. (1 John 5:2-4)