The Obligations Of Charity Transcend Those Of Justice

The Obligations Of Charity Transcend Those Of Justice March 12, 2024

Anonymous: St Symeon The New Theologian [Feast, March 12] / Wikimedia Commons
What is given out of love is greater, more invaluable, than what is given in spite. “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it” (Prov. 15:17 RSV). Many people will do what is considered just because they know they have to do so, not because they want to do so. They don’t want to face the consequences which happens if they don’t. They might follow the law, but as their heart is not in it, and they would be doing differently if there was no law telling them what to do. It is better that they follow the law when it is just and necessary, even if they do not want to do so, than not, because doing what is just is better than doing what is unjust. Nonetheless, it is better for someone to do what is good because their heart is in it. It is even better if they do more than what is merely expected of them, for then they have transcended the simple expectation of justice and have begun to engage charity.  Charity is greater than justice, but justice is better than its lack. This is why charity should not be turned into a tool to counter justice, to deny the expectations of justice, for it is not charity which does this, but its simulacrum. “Vice mimics virtue and cockle works to pass for wheat, which it resembles, though a discriminating palate is not thereby deceived.”[1]

Caritas, love, is patient and kind, always giving freely what it possess to the beloved. If we think we have given so much to others, but we can stop because we have given only the bare minimum expected by justice, we have yet to embrace charity. Or, if we have been charitable in the past, if we stop being charitable thinking we have done enough, we have abandoned the expectations of charity, which is why St. Symeon the New Theologian could say:

Even though we may have been charitable to a hundred people, if there were others from whom we turned away when they asked for food and drink and we could have given it to them, we will be judged by Christ as having refused Him nourishment. For Christ, whom we nourish in the humblest of people, is in all those to whom we refused our charity. [2]

Every day is another day for us to engage love, to celebrate it, and in doing so, experience the peace and joy which it can give. The more we love, the more we will experience the fruit of that love, and our hearts will be so full of joy our day will reflect that joy, while those who deny such love, will hinder that joy and will feel as if the only thing to expect in life is misery “All the days of the afflicted are evil, but a cheerful heart has a continual feast” (Prov. 15:15 RSV). When we abandon love, when we think we have loved enough, we begin to close ourselves off to others, and to God. Indeed, we especially cut ourselves off from God because God is love and to reject love is to reject God.

Of course, we should understand that we are limited in our potential, making us limited in what we have to offer; no one is saying we should do the impossible. What is important is that we embrace love and what it tells us to do, which will be dependent upon the situation we find ourselves in and what we have to offer. We should likewise act with love to those who come to us and embrace us with love, showing us hospitality, for love also recognizes and accepts the gifts of love given by others. It will not have us deny others the opportunity to show us their love. To make this point, St. Symeon says, even if we are fasting, and we normally should not eat meat, if we find ourselves in a situation where we are being offered it, we should not be rude and inconsiderate to our hosts, letting legalistic rules override our charity:

You should eat what is put in front of you, no matter what it is; and take wine with uncomplaining self-restraint. If because of sickness you are having your meals by yourself, eat raw vegetables with olives. But if one of the brethren should send you something to eat, receive it with humility and thanks, as if you were a guest, and eat some of it, whatever it may be, sending what is left over to another brother, poor and pious. Should someone invite you to a meal, partake of all that is put in front of you, but eat only a little, maintaining your self-control in accordance with the commandment. Then, having stood up and bowed before him as though you were destitute and a stranger, thank him. Saying, ‘May God give you your reward, holy father.’ Be careful to say nothing else, even though it might possibly be of help. [3]

He does point out that if we do not get a dispensation beforehand, and we are expected not to eat meat, such as in the middle of a day of fasting, we should consider the act of love the greater obligation. We should accept what is being offered in the spirit of love, but then, if our conscience complains, we should take what happened to our spiritual director (or priest in confession), explain the situation, and let it be:

 If you are having a meal with your brethren, eat unhesitatingly of what is presented to you, whatever it may be. If, however, you have been told not to eat fish or some other food, and it is offered to you, should the person who gave you the order be close at hand, go to him and request him to let you partake; but should he not be present, or if you know that he would not give his permission, and at the same time you do not wish to offend your hosts, tell him what you have done after you have eaten, and ask his forgiveness. If you are unwilling to do either of these things, it is better for you not to visit your brethren. For in this way you will be the gainer in two respects: you will escape the demon of self-esteem, and at the same time spare them offence and distress. If the foods offered to you are on the rich side, keep to your rule; yet even in this case it is better to take a little of everything. In short, when you are invited somewhere, apply the principle laid down by St Paul: ‘Eat all that is set before you without raising questions of conscience’ (cf. i Cor. 10:25). [4]

Charity is more important than simple rules and regulations, but it is also not meant to be use to reject the basic expectations of justice. We should not pit charity against justice, but rather, we should see that justice is the starting point, while charity is what comes next, and has no end, even as God, who is love, has no end. Justice should not be treated as charity, because then, charity and its expectations will be denied. Charity has its own expectations which transcend the simple expectations of justice. Charity will seek to fulfill its greater obligations, and in doing so, the intentions of justice itself.

[1] St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Procatechesis and Catechesis 1-12. Trans. Leo P. McCauley, SJ and Anthony A Stephenson (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1969), 119 [Catechesis IV].

[2] St. Symeon the New Theologian, “Practical and Theological Texts” The Philokalia: Volume IV. Trans. and ed. G.E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware, et. al. (London: Faber and Faber, 1995),49 [112].

[3] St. Symeon the New Theologian, “Practical and Theological Texts,”  59 [145].

[4] St. Symeon the New Theologian, “Practical and Theological Texts,”  60 [148].


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