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Philanthropy entails serving the poor by giving one's time, money, goods, or efforts to support a charitable cause, usually over an extended period of time and in regard to a defined objective. In a more fundamental sense, philanthropy may encompass any altruistic activity which is intended to promote good or improve human quality of life. The word Philanthropy comes from the Greek words philos (love) and anthropos (man), or love of mankind.

Theological Foundations

The contemporary Orthodox Christian author Demetrios J. Constantelos observes philanthropy in Christian teaching when he says, "Philanthropy is a virtue that was instituted by Jesus Christ and the supreme act of philanthropy is God becoming man that we might be saved." He also points out, "In the divine services of the Orthodox Church we are constantly reminded of God's philanthropia for man."

Scriptural References to Philanthropy

Throughout the Old and New Testament Scriptures, there are numerous instances in which the faithful are exhorted to help the poor:

Deuteronomy 15:7, 11: "Thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother. Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land."
Book of Psalms 112:9: "He hath dispersed, he hath given to the poor; his righteousness endureth forever; his horn shall be exalted with honour."1
Proverbs 19: 17: "He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord, and that which he hath given will he pay him again."1
Isaiah 58:7-8: “Break your bread for the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house. If you see a naked man, clothe him… Then your light shall break forth as the morning…and the glory of God shall cover you.”
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."
Isaiah 58:66ff: "Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?"
Micah 6:8: "He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?"
Gospel of Matthew 6:2-4: "[Jesus said:] 'When therefore you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.' "
Gospel of Matthew 19:20ff: "The young man said to Him, '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.' "
Gospel of Luke 3:11: "[Jesus] answereth and saith unto them, 'He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.' "
Gospel of Luke 4:16-21: "And [Jesus] 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.' "
Gospel of Luke 12:44: "[Jesus said:] '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.' "
Gospel of Luke 6:33ff: "[Jesus said:] '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.' "
Gospel of Luke 14:12-14: "[Jesus said:] 'When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and repayment come to you. But when you give a reception, 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.' "
The Acts of the Apostles 4:32-35: "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."
2 Corinthians 8:9: "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich." 2
1 John 3:17: "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?"

The Church Fathers on Philanthropy

"And on the day named after the sun all, whether they live in the city or the country side, are gathered together in unity. Then the records of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read for as long as there is time. When the reader has concluded, the presider in a discourse admonishes and invites us into the pattern of these good things. Then we all stand together and offer prayer. And, as we said before, when we have concluded our prayer, bread is set out to eat, together with wine and water. The presider likewise, offers up prayer and thanksgiving, as much as he can, and the people sing out their assent saying the amen. There is a distribution of the things over which thanks have been said and each person participates, and these things are sent by the deacons to those who are not present. Those who are prosperous and who desire to do so give what they wish, according to each one's choice, and the collection is deposited with the presider. He aids orphans and widows, those who are in want through disease or through another cause, those who are in prison, and foreigners who are sojourning here. In short, the presider is a guardian to all those who are in need."

~ St Justin the Martyr

"Let each one simply walk on the way, and reach out for what is ahead, and let him follow the footsteps of the one who leads the way so clearly, who makes it straight and guides us by the narrow path and gate to the broad plains of blessedness in the world to come. And if, following the command of Paul and of Christ himself, we must suppose that love is the first and greatest of the commandments, the crowning point of the law and the prophets, I must conclude that love of the poor, and compassion and sympathy for our own flesh and blood, is its most excellent form. For God is not so served by any of the virtues as he is by mercy, since nothing else is more proper than this to God… We must open our hearts, then, to all the poor, to those suffering evil for any reason at all, according to the Scripture that commands us to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.’ Because we are human beings, we must offer the favor of our kindness first of all to other human beings, whether they need it because they are widows or orphans, or because they are exiles from their own country, or because of the cruelty of their masters or the harshness of their rulers or the inhumanity of their tax-collectors, or because of the bloody violence of robbers or the insatiable greed of thieves, or because of the legal confiscation of their property, or shipwreck – all are wretched alike, and so all look toward our hands, as we look towards God’s, for the things we need."

~ St Gregory of Nazianzus

"Do not despise these men in their abjection; do not think them of no account. Reflect what they are and you will understand their dignity; they have taken upon them the person of our Savior. For he, the compassionate, has lent them his own person wherewith to abash the unmerciful and the haters of the poor… The poor are the treasures of the good things that we look for, the keepers of the gates of the Kingdom, opening them to the merciful and shutting them on the harsh and uncharitable. They are strongest of accusers, the best of defenders – not that they accuse in or defend them in words, but that the Lord beholds what is done toward them, and every deed cries louder than a herald to his who searches all hearts."

~ St Gregory of Nyssa

"Hold in awe the Christ who is above; but recognize him here below. Have Christ above granting his bountiful gifts, but recognize him here in his need. Down here he is poor; up there he is rich."

~ St Augustine of Hippo

“Find out how much God has given you and from it take what you need; the remainder is needed by others.”

~ St Augustine of Hippo

St Basil the Great on Wealth and Almsgiving

St. Basil the Great

“[T]hrow open all the gates of your treasury, supplying generous outlets for your wealth. Like a mighty river that is divided into many streams in order to irrigate the fertile soil, so also are those who give their wealth to be divided up and distributed in the houses of the poverty-stricken…[W]ealth left idle is of no use to anyone, but put to use and exchanged it becomes fruitful and beneficial for the public.” (I Will Tear Down My Barns)

“At this very moment, what prevents you from giving? Are not the needy near at hand? Are not your barns already full? Is not your heavenly reward waiting? Is not the commandment crystal clear? The hungry are perishing, the naked are freezing to death, the debtors cannot breathe, and will you put off showing mercy until tomorrow? … Make your brothers and sisters sharers of your [wealth]; give to the needy today what rots away tomorrow.” (I Will Tear Down My Barns)

“The bread you are holding back is for the hungry, the clothes you keep put away are for the naked, the shoes that are rotting away with disuse are for those who have none, the money in your vaults is for the needy. All of these you might help and do not—to all these you are doing wrong.” (I Will Tear Down My Barns)

St John Chrysostom

St John Chrysostom on Wealth and Almsgiving

“The almsgiver is a harbor for those in necessity: a harbor receives all who have encountered shipwreck, and frees them from danger; whether they are bad or good or whatever they are who are in danger, it escorts them into his own shelter. So you likewise, 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.” (Second sermon on Lazarus and the rich man)

“…the rich man did not take Lazarus’ money, but failed to share his own…indeed this also is theft, not to share one’s possessions [with the poor]… For our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it. . . The rich man is a kind of steward of the money which is owed for distribution to the poor… Therefore, let us use our goods sparingly, as belonging to others…How shall we use them sparingly, as belonging to others? When we do not spend beyond our needs, and do not spend for our needs only, but give equal shares into the hands of the poor.” (Second sermon on Lazarus and the rich man)

“Not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth, but theirs. If we have this attitude, we will certainly offer our money; and by nourishing Christ in poverty here and laying up great profit hereafter, we will be able to attain the good things which are to come, by the grace and kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (Second sermon on Lazarus and the rich man)

"Do you wish to see [the Lord's] altar?… This altar is composed of the very members of Christ, and the body of the Lord becomes your altar… venerable because it is itself Christ's body… You venerate the altar of the church when the body of Christ descends there. But you neglect the other who is himself the body of Christ, and remain indifferent to him when he dies of hunger. This altar you can see lying everywhere, in the alleys and in the markets, and you can sacrifice upon it anytime… And as the priest stands, invoking the Spirit, so do you too invoke the Spirit, not by words, but by deeds.” (Homily 20 on 2 Corinthians)

“And well does [Saint Paul] … having made mention of almsgiving, call 'it grace,' now indeed saying, "Moreover, brethren, I make known to you the grace of God bestowed on the Churches of Macedonia;" and now, "they of their own accord, praying us with much entreaty in regard of this grace and fellowship:" and again, "that as he had begun, so he would also finish in you this grace also." For this is a great good and a gift of God; and rightly done assimilates us, so far as may be, unto God; for such an one is in the highest sense a man. . . Greater is this gift than to raise the dead. For far greater is it to feed Christ when hungry than to raise the dead by the name of Jesus: for in the former case you do good to Christ, in the latter He to you. And the reward surely comes by doing good, not by receiving good. For here indeed, in the case of miracles I mean, you are God's debtor. In that of almsgiving, you have God for a debtor. Now it is almsgiving, when it is done with willingness, when with bountifulness, when you deem yourself not to give but to receive, when done as if you were benefitted, as if gaining and not losing; for so this were not a grace.” (Homily 16 on 2 Corinthians)

History of Orthodox Philanthropy

In the Christian Byzantine Empire, philanthropy was considered to be a civic and ecclesiastical virtue. Benevolence and giving were also seen as a form of worship and service to God. Early Christians put hospitality into action by founding many of today's social institutions, including orphanages, hospitals for the destitute, homeless shelters, and refuges for the poor. Later Christians also pioneered the development of schools for the needy.

Unmercenary Saints Cosmas and Damian, who offered medical services to the needy free of charge, obeying the commandment of Christ to the twelve Apostles: "Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. Freely you have received; freely give" (Matthew 10:8).

In the Shepherd of Hermas, a second-century Christian apocalypse, the author, Hermas, encourages the wealthy to help the poor in any way they can. He says, "Instead of fields, then, purchase souls that have been afflicted, in so far as you can, and take care of widows and orphans and do not neglect them; spend your wealth and all your furnishings for such fields and horses as you have received from God. For this is why the master made you rich, that you may carry out these ministries." (Shepherd of Hermas 50:8-9). In addition Hermas reminds us that helping the poor is a great joy and that as Christians we have a duty to God to carry out his work. In one of his parables, that of the elm tree and the vine, an important lesson is learned: the vine and elm tree are mutually beneficial. Hermas explained this by saying that these two trees symbolize the slaves of God. The vine is a tree that produces fruit, while the elm tree does not. The vine that bears fruit grows on the elm tree because if it did not, it would grow on the ground and thus bear rotten fruit. It is only when the vine grows on the elm tree that it bears fruit because of elm tree's support. In this best case scenario, both the elm and the vine bear fruit because of their cooperation with each other. This parable applies to the "slaves of God, the poor and the rich." The parable is explained further: the rich have money, but are poor towards the Lord because they are distracted by their wealth and their prayer before the Lord is weak. It is when the rich depend on the poor that the rich find favor with God. The poor who find their needs supplied for by the rich then thank God for providing them with the one who supported them in their time of need. Ultimately, God gives both the rich and the poor benefits, for everything that we are given on earth is given to us from above. This is but one illustration of Christian philanthropy that was taught in the early Church.

Saint Basil is a classic example of a saint who cared about philanthropy and paid particular attention to the Gospel's message as recorded in Romans 13:9-10, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does your neighbor no harm, so love is the fulfillment of the law."2 This quote from Saint Paul's letter to the Romans is the true definition of what philanthropy is; this is also the second commandment of God, which is "love your neighbor as yourself." In the West, confusion between Saint Basil and Saint Nicholas has occurred in that the two accounts of their lives have intermingled. Attributes of Saint Basil in providing to the poor and giving gifts to children have instead been attributed to Saint Nicholas. Saint Basil lived in the fourth century a.d. and was the Bishop of Caesarea, a city in Asia Minor. One of his many well-known virtues was his broad charitable activities and educating children. In his city St Basil founded care facilities for the elderly and visited the sick and poor regularly. A lasting monument of his episcopal care for the poor was the Basiliad, a great institute he founded before the gates of Caesarea that functioned as a combination of poorhouse, hospital, and hostel for the homeless. Saint Basil also reminds Christians of Christ's philanthropy for man when he says, "Every time we kneel down and rise up we show by deed that because of our sin we fell down upon the earth, and that we were invited back to heaven through the philanthropia of our creator."

One important Orthodox tradition that honors Saint Basil and his philanthropy is also supposed to encourage the faithful to give to the poor. In this tradition, which occurs yearly on New Year's Day, vasilopita bread is made by selected people in the parish. (Vasilopita simply means the bread of Basil.) The bread is baked with a coin inside and taken to the church for a blessing; there it is auctioned off to the highest donation for the bread. The donation of the vasilopita is then put into a fund that goes to the poor. However, some people focus too much on the cutting of the bread in order to find the coin that is contained in the bread. The person who finds the coin is said to be lucky and will be blessed with good fortune for the upcoming new year. This emphasis of the finding of the coin could undervalue the importance of the act of almsgiving and the real honor of Saint Basil's philanthropy. This ritual is intended to emphasize philanthropy.

Orthodox Saints Devoted to Serving the Poor

Mother Maria (Skobtsova) of Paris, who selflessly served the poor and was martyred by the Nazis on Holy Saturday, 1945.

Orthodox Prayers for the Poor and the Suffering

Have mercy, O Lord, on the old and the young,
the needy, the orphans, the widows and all who are in sickness and sorrow,
distress and affliction, oppression and captivity, in prison and confinement.
Save them, together with Your servants who are under persecution for Your sake
and for the sake of the Orthodox Faith. Remember them, visit them, strengthen and comfort them,
and by Your power grant them speedy relief, freedom, and deliverance.
(from the Commemoration of the Living)

Deliver the captive; rescue the distressed; feed the hungry;
comfort the faint-hearted, convert the erring; enlighten the darkened;
raise the fallen; confirm the wavering; heal the sick;
and guide them all, good Lord, into the way of salvation, and into Your sacred fold.
(from the Divine Liturgy of St. Mark)

Principles of Orthodox Philanthopy

Several principles of compassion must be considered for a social welfare program to be successfully implemented:

  • poverty results when family and social affiliations are severed with financial difficulties being manifest soon after;
  • bureaucracy impedes charity, and care must be taken to ensure help for people in need;
  • a recognition of the image of God in each person
  • seeing people in need as icons of Christ (Matthew 25:35-40), to be venerated
  • the mystical presence of Christ in and with the poor
  • God is essential: spiritual aid must be forthcoming for charity to be effective.

See also