Eventually every earnest young Christian asks, “So if a gangster steals and gives the money to the church, is that okay?” The desert fathers reply ‘yes.’ Why? First, let it be said there were no more morally perfect Christians than the desert fathers – ever. Those original 4th century Egyptian desert hermits had the entire Bible memorized, never looked at women, ate little, worked hard and gave everything they had away to the poor, following Jesus’ command, “If you wish to be perfect then sell all you have and give it to the poor and come follow me” Mt 19:21). That they did literally. Unlike the Pharisees in Jesus’ time, there was no hypocrisy or compromise in their moral lives.
So why were the desert fathers tolerant of sinners? Because they knew the fruit of charity would eventually lead to salvation, faith, and serious commitment to following Jesus. The fathers were not legalists even though they were extremely hard on immorality. The fathers were excellent at discerning souls. Here’s a story that demonstrates their talent of discernment and wisdom.
Abba Timothy knew of a woman who prostituted and gave what she earned in alms. Abba Timothy asked his elder, Abba Poemen about it and the old father said, “She will not go on committing fornication, for the fruit of faith is appearing in her.” Timothy’s mother told him that the woman has increased her lovers and also the number of her alms. Timothy asks Abba Poemen about her and he says, “She will not go on committing fornication.” Finally the prostitute told Timothy’s mother that she wanted to see Timothy and have him pray over her.
When the woman saw him and heard the word of God she was filled with conviction, and she said, “From this day forward I shall cling to God.”
She stopped fornicating. The word (scripture) is nearly the same as prayer for the desert fathers. The two are spoken of in the same context. The fathers breathed scripture as prayer, and prayer as scripture. Abba Poemen knew the woman would commit to Christ because the fruit (virtues) where already present in her – she was close. Charity led her to salvation. This is different than Christians of today, who think if we just study enough scripture then we will become charitable. We think salvation (or the accumulation of information about God) leads to charity. And it does – perhaps eventually. This story says charity leads salvation. The story may make us think that the woman was saved by hearing the word – we think a) scripture is like magic – say the words and magic happens; b) our minds are pure receptacles for information – the Bible can be downloaded. But that is not the facts. This is not to say that nice loving people who are not Christians will all become Christians eventually. Do not ignore the fact that her charity was true charity, it involved money, her livelihood. Being nice and being radically generous are qualitatively different. This is not throwing extra change in the red bucket at Christmas time. Charity that is love means giving money of the whole self, a radical change in lifestyle. And let us not forget that she was selling sex, selling her identity, her soul. She needed out. She was in a life and death situation. We don’t know but perhaps she gave away what she earned because she thought she was saving herself, and not just being comfortably generous. Do your hypothetical gangsters give out of guilt or because they are generous? Abba Poemen would suggest it doesn’t matter – they are on a journey toward Christ.
I would recommend we listen to the wisdom of Abba Poemen. Let us not be too eager to clip off the sins of others. Look for what others are doing that places them on a journey toward Christ. Also, let us not just heap up scriptures on others too soon and too much. The soil may not be tilled yet. Parents, you know this: You have learned that you cannot unload your incredible wisdom on your children too soon. Your seeds of wisdom will only fall upon hard-packed ground and never take root. So let us be wise about implanting the word of God. Look for tilled soil. And hope. Hope the best for others. Find where they are charitable and be patient.