To encourage people to give alms, Saint John the Merciful used to tell them that once some poor men were warming themselves in the sun, and they began to talk about those who gave alms, praising the good and reviling the bad. Among them was the tale of the Scrooge-like conversion of Peter the Tax Collector.
There was a certain Peter, a tax-collector, very rich and powerful but utterly pitiless towards the poor. He was from Constantinople and had been appointed by Emperor Justinian (527-565) to administer the Roman province of Africa. Harsh and without an ounce of compassion, he became known to all as “the Miser”.
When the poor came to his door, he drove them away angrily, and not one of them could be found who had ever had an alm from him. Then one of these men said: “What will you give me if I get something from him today?” They made a wager, and he went to Peter’s house and begged for an alm. Peter came home at that moment and saw the poor man standing at his door. Just then his slave was carrying some wheaten loaves into the house, and Peter, finding no stone to throw, snatched up a loaf and hurled it angrily at the beggar. The man caught it and hurried back to his companions, showing them the alm that he had received from the tax-collector’s hand.
Two days later the rich man lay mortally ill and saw himself in a vision standing before the Judge and a pair of scales was brought before him. Some black demons were heaping up his evil deeds on one side of the scale, while opposite stood some white-clothed angels who looked sad because they could find nothing to put on their side. Then one of them said: “True, we have nothing but one wheaten loaf, which he gave, reluctantly, to Christ two days ago.” He put the loaf on the scale, and it seemed to balance the bad deeds on the other side. The white-robed angels said to him: “Add something to this loaf, or the demons will have you!”
The tax-collector woke up and found that he was cured of his illness, and said: “If the one loaf that I threw at that man in anger could do me so much good, how much more would it do for me if I gave all I have to the needy!” Then, one day when he was walking along dressed in his finest garments, a man who had lost all he had in a shipwreck asked him for something to wear. At once he took off his expensive cloak and gave it to the man, who took it and sold it as soon as he could. When the tax-collector went home and saw his cloak hanging in its place in the house, he was so sad that he could not eat, and said: “I was not worthy to have a needy man keep something to remember me by.” But then while he was asleep he saw a personage more brilliant than the sun, with a cross on his head and wearing the cloak that he, Peter, had given to the man in need. “Why are you weeping, Peter?” the apparition asked. When Peter explained the cause of his sadness, the other asked: “Do you recognize this cloak?” “Yes, Lord,” he answered. “I have been wearing it,” the Lord told him, “since you gave it to me, and I thank you for your kindness, because I was freezing from the cold and you covered me.”
Peter came to himself, began to bless the poor, and said: “As God lives, I will not die until I have become one of them!” He therefore gave all he had to those in need, then called in his notary and said to him: “I’m going to tell you a secret, and if you breathe a word of it or if you don’t heed what I say, I’ll sell you to the barbarians!” Then he gave him ten pounds of gold and said: “Go to the holy city [Jerusalem] and buy goods for yourself, and sell me to some Christian stranger and give the proceeds to the poor!” The notary refused, and Peter told him: “If you don’t listen to me, I’ll sell you to the heathens!” So the notary took him as one of his slaves, clothed in rags, to a silversmith, sold him for thirty pieces of silver, took the money, and distributed it to the poor.
Peter, now a slave, did the most menial work, and was treated with contempt and pushed and struck by the other slaves, who even called him a fool. The Lord, however, appeared to him frequently and consoled him, showing him the clothing and other gifts given to the poor. Meanwhile the emperor and everyone else bemoaned the loss of so valuable a man. Then some of his former neighbors came from Constantinople to visit the holy places and at one point were invited by Peter’s master to be his guests. While they were at dinner, they whispered to each other: “That servant looks like our friend Peter, doesn’t he?” As they stared at him curiously, one said: “It certainly is Peter, and I’ll get up and hold him!” But Peter sensed what was going on and got away. The doorman was a deaf-mute who opened the door only at a signal, but Peter ordered him to open, not by signs but by speaking. The man heard at once and received the power of speech, answered Peter, and let him out. Then, going into the house, he said, to the surprise of all who heard him speak: “That slave who worked in the kitchen has gone out and run away, but wait! He must be a servant of God, because when he said to me, ‘I tell you, open!’ a flame came out of his mouth and touched my tongue and ears, and right away I could hear and speak!” They all jumped up and ran after Peter, but could not find him. Then everyone who belonged to that house did penance for the vile way they had treated so good a man.
Everyone went looking for Peter, but their searches were fruitless. The saint had gone into hiding, and nothing further was heard of him until his death, though it is said that he returned to his former home in Constantinople and reposed there.
Feast Day: January 20