St. John Chrysostom (d. 407), sometime Archbishop of Constantinople, once made this powerful statement: “[N]ot to share one’s possessions [is] theft.” Citing the (non-canonical) Jewish scripture Ben Sira 4:1—“Deprive not the poor of his living”—Chrysostom argued that if a rich man “spends more on himself than his need requires,” he is guilty of depriving what rightfully belongs to the poor. For Chrysostom, the rich ought to “show mercy” to the needy, not owing to the “misfortune” of the latter, but because “[n]eed alone is this poor man’s worthiness.” (See On Wealth and Poverty, trans. Catharine Roth (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984 [ca. A.D. 388]), pp. 49-55.) Chrysostom gripping statement remains a powerful indictment against the Church in view of global poverty.
More recently, coming from the US Catholic bishops conference, we see a fine articulation about our concern as a Church for the global poor. The US Catholic bishops have maintained that, given the “unity of the human family [and] the interdependence of peoples,” this principle must be kept firmly in mind: “The people of far-off lands are not abstract problems, but sisters and brothers. We are called to protect their lives, to preserve their dignity and to defend their rights” (U.S. Catholic Conference International Policy Committee, “American Responsibilities in a Changing World,” Origins 22 (1992): 337-41, pp. 339 and 341). Such a statement is particularly poignant given the situation of inhuman trafficking which exists today. What these two theologically informed and socially powerful statements suggest is that the inherent dignity of human persons is a major impetus for us as Christians to serve the imago Dei in others.
James 3.9 reminds us: “With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness [homoiōsin; cf. Gen. 1.26 LXX] of God.” We are to treat every human person with a sense of divine dignity since they are made imago Dei. Moreover, the Apostle John tell us: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 Jo. 4.20-21). And we now know that loving one’s brother is loving the image of God in them.
In college I met “Richard” a person without shelter. During my years at Berkeley, I developed a no-money policy; instead I committed to buying food or sharing in a meal whenever I could. Another lesson I learned just upon graduating from college is that there is something powerfully biblical about being a citizen of the city, and “seek[ng] the welfare of the city” (Jer. 29.7).
So, serving the imago Dei in others happens in our own backyard when we: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome in the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the imprisoned. For as we serve the imago Dei in others, we can make sense of our King’s answer: “‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” (see Matt. 25.31-46).
In my next and final post in this series on the imago Dei, I will suggest a few other implications of the this crucial Christian doctrine and offer some concluding thoughts.