Why this criterion?
There is something in God’s Scriptures that greatly moves me, and leads me often to counsel you. I ask you to think about what our Lord Jesus Christ says he is going to do when he comes for judgment at the end of the world. He is going to gather all the nations before him, he is going to divide people into two groups, and he is going to put some at his right hand and others at his left. To those on his right he is going to say, “Come, blessed of my Father, receive the kingdom that has been prepared for you since the origin of the world,” but to those on his left he is going to say: “Go into the eternal fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels.” Ask about the reasons for so great a reward–“Receive the kingdom”–or so great a punishment–“Go into the eternal fire.” Why are the first to receive the kingdom? “For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat”. Why are the second to go into the eternal fire? “For I was hungry and you did not give me to eat.”
Why is this, I ask?
I can see this with regard to those who are to receive the kingdom: they gave as good and believing Christians, not despising the Lord’s words and confidently hoping in his promises; they did this because if they had not done it, their good lives would have been barren. Perhaps they had been chaste, not fraudulent, not drunks, abstaining from evil works. But if they had not added this, they would have remained barren. They would have obeyed the command, “Turn away from evil,” but not the other one, “and do good” (Ps 33:15). He does not say to them, “Receive the kingdom, for you have lived chastely, you haven’t defrauded anyone, you haven’t oppressed any of the poor, you haven’t invaded anyone’s property, you haven’t committed perjury against anyone.” He doesn’t say these things, but, “Receive the kingdom, because I was hungry, and you gave me to eat.” How much greater this must be if the Lord is silent about the other things and mentions only this!
The same is true with regard to those to whom he says: “Go into the eternal fire that was prepared for the devil and his angels.” How many things could he say against the wicked if they were to complain, “Why are we going into the eternal fire?” Why, you ask, you adulterer, you murderer, you defrauder, you profaner of the sacred, you unbeliever?” He doesn’t say any of these things, but instead, “For I was hungry, and you did not give me to eat.”
I can see you are as moved as I am. And it is indeed an extraordinary thing. I will tell you the reason I’ve gathered for this remarkable thing. It is written, “As water extinguishes fire, so almsgiving extinguishes sin” (Sir 3:33). And also: “Shut up alms in the heart of the poor, and it shall avert evil from you” (Sir 29:15). And again: “Hear my counsel, O King, and redeem your sins by alms” (Dan 4:24). And there are many other scriptural texts that show that alms help greatly to extinguish and wipe away sins. That is why to those whom he is going to condemn, but even more to those whom he is going to crown, he mentions only almsgiving. It’s as if he is saying, “It would be difficult, if I were to examine you and weigh you, if I were to scrutinize your deeds very closely, not to find reasons for damning you, but nonetheless go into the kingdom, ‘For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat.’” You are not going into the kingdom because you did not sin, but because by your alms you redeemed your sins.
And again to the others: “Go into the eternal fire that was prepared for the devil and his angels.” And those culpable people, once guilty, trembling late, and considering their sins, how will they dare to say that they are damned unjustly, that this sentence has been passed on them unjustly by a judge so wise? Considering their consciences, considering all the wounds of their souls, how will they dare to say, “We are damned unjustly?” It was of them that it was said in the Book of Wisdom, “Their iniquities shall stand against them to convict them” (Wis 4:20). They will no doubt see that they are being justly damned for their crimes and wicked deeds, but it’s as if he will say to them, “No, not for the reasons you think, but because I was hungry, and you did not give me to eat. For if you had turned away from all those deeds of yours and turned toward me, you would have by your alms redeemed all those crimes and sins, and those alms would free you now, and absolve you of the guilt of such great crimes. For ‘Blessed are the merciful, for mercy shall be shown them’ (Mt 5:7). But, as it is, Go into the eternal fire, ‘for judgement without mercy to him who has not done mercy’ (Jas 2:13).”
I would counsel you, brothers and sisters: give earthly bread, and then knock at the door for heavenly bread. The Lord is bread: “I am,” he said, “the bread of life” (Jn 6:35). How will he give bread to you if you don’t give it to the needy? Someone needs you, and you need someone else, and when you need someone and someone else needs you, then this last person needs one who is himself in need. But the one whom you need needs no one…. He does not need anything, and that’s why he is the true Lord: “I said to the Lord, ‘You are my God for you have no need of my goods’” (Ps 15:2). Since he is the Lord and the true Lord, then, and has no need of our goods, still so that we can do something also toward him, he has deigned to be hungry in his poor people. “I was hungry,” he said, “and you gave me to eat. Lord, when did we see you hungry? When you did it for one of my least, you did it for me.” In short, people should reflect what a deserving thing it is to have fed a hungry Christ, and what a sin it is to have scorned a hungry Christ. (Augustine, Sermon 60, 9-11; PL 38, 406-408)