Cyprian of Carthage: Arguments and Excuses

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“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a 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 by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire 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, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Matthew 25:31-46

“How do we reply to the arguments and excuses of the rich who refuse to give alms? How can we defend the wealthy whose minds are barren and confused? Who can we excuse them…What greater things could Christ say to us [than this biblical text]? What better way could He encourage us to works of justice and mercy than to say that such acts are done to Himself and that He is offended when we fail to reach out to the poor and needy? Those in the church who are not moved to help a brother or sister may be encouraged when they see how Christ is involved, and those who do not help the suffering may remember that our Lord is in that person who needs our help.”

Cyprian of Carthage (c. 200-258) in “On Works and Almsgiving” in Wealth and Poverty in Early Christianity by Helen Rhee (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017) 46-47.

Cyprian struggled with the lack of sharing on the part of the rich, so he reminded them with today’s Scripture that inactivity is offensive to Christ and that “our Lord is in that person who needs our help.”

This month, I am doing a project for Asbury Seminary linked to generosity. I like to compare my findings with larger research efforts, and the national data is startling. Year after year, the more wealthy a state is, the less generous the people are, collectively speaking.

Times have not changed much from the days of Cyprian. So how do we awaken people to shake off their arguments and excuses? How do we motivate them to share what they have stored up for themselves?

I am convinced the answer is to model generous sharing while proclaiming what is true. Let us be known for works of justice and mercy while unashamedly, like Cyprian, communicating truth. Hopefully it will convict some wealthy people to repent and change directions before it’s too late.