A HOMILY FOR THE FEAST OF SAINT
JOHN THE MERCIFUL, PATRIARCH
OF ALEXANDRIA
(Nov. 12/ 25)

About How We Reap What We Sow

          Brothers and sisters!

 

          In his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, the Holy Apostle Paul writes:  He which soweth sparingly, shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully, shall reap also bountifully.1  What exactly does this mean?  It means, dear Christians, that he who does less good to his neighbor, receives a lesser reward from God, while he who does more, receives a greater reward.  To put it more simply and directly:  we reap what we sow.

          Today we commemorate our father among the saints John the Merciful or the Almsgiver, Patriarch of Alexandria.  Saint John was born in Cyprus during the sixth century and was the son of the Governor of the island.  He married and had children, and even as a layman was well-known for his piety and generosity to the poor.  When his adopted brother Nicetas became Augustal Prefect of Egypt, John was chosen as Patriarch of Alexandria, despite his lay status, since both his wife and children had died.  In those days the canons forbidding the transferral of hierarchs from one see to another were observed rather strictly, since it was felt deeply that a bishop was wedded to his diocese.  For this reason, when a see even the very highest ranking became vacant, it was usual to fill it, not with a lower-ranking bishop, but with a priest, a deacon, or sometimes even a devout and talented layman.

          Saint John proved a most exceptional patriarch, and well it was, because when he arrived in Egypt, he found that the Monophysites held the entire valley of the Nile and that only seven churches even in the Greek metropolis of Alexandria remained in Orthodox hands.  Since argument had failed to win over the heretics, Saint John chose a better way:  he would recommend Orthodoxy to Egypt by a sympathy and charity which knew no limits.  Despite being surrounded by a bureaucracy of ecclesiastical officials, he managed to establish direct contact with the common folk.  He spent the vast resources of the patriarchate not on the erection of sumptuous churches, but on relieving the needs of the poor and homeless, on which the often oppressive reality of the late Roman world weighed so heavily.  The law which governed the Patriarch’s whole administration was the Master’s command:  Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee, turn not thou away.2 

          Many indeed are the incidents in Saint John’s life that illustrate the truth of Saint Paul’s words:  He which soweth sparingly, shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully, shall reap also bountifully; 3  however, time permits me to relate only one.  As for the others, you can read them for yourself in the November volume of Saint Demetrius of Rostov’s Great Collection of the Lives of the Saints.  If you do so, it will be time well spent, for there are few accounts in the Lives of the Saints as delightful, beautiful, instructive, and moving as the Life of Saint John the Merciful.

          One day, while on his way to church, the saint was approached by a nobleman, all of whose money had been stolen by robbers.  The Patriarch felt compassion for him, because he was a respectable person, held in high repute, and had fallen suddenly from great wealth to utter poverty.  John whispered to one of his servants to tell the stewards of the Church to give the man fifteen pounds of gold, but the stewards saw that there was little in the treasury.  They disobeyed the Patriarch’s command and gave the man only five pounds.  As the holy Patriarch was returning to his house, a wealthy woman approached him and gave him a note stating that she had vowed to donate five hundred pounds of gold to the Church.  When the Patriarch read this, he perceived by the Holy Spirit that the woman originally had intended to give even more than this sum.  God had moved her to diminish the amount, because the stewards had not given the impoverished nobleman fifteen pounds of gold, as the saint had ordered.

          After returning home, the Patriarch summoned the stewards and asked how much they had given the man whose money had been stolen.  They lied, saying, “Fifteen pounds of gold, just as you commanded, Master.”

          The saint upbraided them for their deceit, greed, and disobedience, saying, “May God deprive you of a thousand pounds of gold!  A pious woman intended to give us 1,500 pounds of gold, but you disobeyed me and withheld ten pounds from the man who was in need.  On account of this, God prompted her to withhold a thousand pounds.  Ah, you do not believe me, but soon you will learn the truth!”

          With this, the Patriarch dispatched servants to summon the woman.  When she arrived, he asked her in the stewards’ presence:  “Tell us, my lady:  how many pounds of gold did God put it into your heart to give His Church?”

          The woman understood that she could not conceal her thoughts from the saint, and admitted, “Truly, Master, a few days ago I wrote on a sheet of papyrus that I intended to entrust 1,500 pounds of gold to your sacred hands.  Several days later, when I unfolded the sheet, I found that the words ‘one thousand’ had been scraped away and only the ‘five hundred’ remained.  From this I concluded that it was not God’s will that I give Your Holiness more than five hundred pounds, and so I held back the rest.”

          Overcome by fear and shame, the stewards fell at the saint’s feet and begged forgiveness.

          By this, brothers and sisters, know with certainty the truth of Saint Paul’s words:  He which soweth sparingly, shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully, shall reap also bountifully. And what does this mean for you and me?  It means that we are to be, as the Apostle says in another place, rich in good works, ready to distribute.4  Our fellow-man and the poor in particular are like a field on which we should cast seed, knowing that if we do so bountifully, we shall reap a rich harvest.  As the blessed Augustine says:  “The field of the poor is the most fruitful of all, and quickly brings forth a harvest for those who sow it.”  Therefore, let us sow bountifully with almsgiving and works of mercy, that we may enjoy a bountiful harvest, in this life and in that to come.  Amen.

 

1.  II Cor. 9:6

2.  Matt. 5:42

3.  II Cor. 9:6

4.  I Tim. 6:18