St. John the Almsgiver would tell the following story to encourage people in their generosity.
When we give alms to the poor, we can’t “see” the full effect of our good deed. Not only does our action benefit the person receiving the gift (hopefully), but it also has an impact on our own soul, greater than we can possibly imagine.
St. John the Almsgiver, a holy bishop of Alexandria during the 7th century, sought to encourage his people to be generous with the poor by relating the following story.
There was a certain Peter, a tax-collector, very rich and powerful but utterly pitiless toward the poor. When they came to his door, he drove them away angrily, and not one of them could be found who had ever had an alms from him.
Then one of these men said: “What will you give me if I get something from him today?” They made a wager, and he went to Peter’s house and begged for an alms.
Peter came home at that moment and saw the poor man standing at his door. Just then his slave was carrying some wheaten loaves into the house, and Peter, finding no stone to throw, snatched up a loaf and hurled it angrily at the beggar. The man caught it and hurried back to his companions, showing them the alms that he had received from the tax-collector’s hand.
Two days later the rich man lay mortally ill and saw himself in a vision standing before the Judge. Some black-[clothed] men were heaping up his evil deeds on one side of the scale, while opposite stood some white-clothed persons who looked sad because they could find nothing to put on their side. Then one of them said: “True, we have nothing but one wheaten loaf, which he gave, reluctantly, to Christ two days ago.” He put the loaf on the scale, and it seemed to balance all the bad deeds on the other side. The white-robed angels said to him: “Add something to this loaf, or the demons will have you!”
This dream had a profound effect on Peter the tax-collector, who woke-up from his dream and was determined to be more generous to the poor. He began by giving his cloak to a man who had nothing. It was later revealed to him that the man was Jesus himself. Peter would go on to lead a virtuous life and made himself one with the poor people of his community.
St. John understood that our generosity to the poor can have a profound spiritual effect in our lives. It is an action that helps purify our soul and brings us closer to God. Our generosity during life will have a direct impact on our eternal destination.
As Jesus said to his disciples, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Matthew 25:34-36).