September 2, 2011

St. John Chrysostom On Poverty and Wealth

By Fr. George Florovsky

Chrysostom frequently spoke about poverty and wealth, themes which were set for him by life in the large, noisy city. For him, these and all other social themes had primarily a moral significance, and he dealt with them in relation to the rules of Christian behavior. He judged the life around him on the basis of its morality. Everywhere he saw injustice, cruelty, suffering, and misery, and he understood that this was caused by the spirit of greed and by social inequality. He warned against idle luxury and also against wealth as a source of temptation, since money threatens to corrupt the man who possesses it. Wealth by itself has no value but is only a theatrical mask which covers the true image of man. However, the wealthy man comes to value his riches. He begins to deceive himself and he becomes attached to something which is good in appearance only. In Chrysostom's opinion there is danger not only in wealth which has been acquired by dishonest means but in all forms of personal property. These are not harmful in themselves but they may stimulate the will to desire things which are perishable and transient. "The love for wealth is an unnatural passion," Chrysostom writes. "The desire for wealth is neither natural nor necessary. It is superfluous." This movement of the will is dangerous and riches are a dangerous burden. "Wealth is harmful for you not because it arms thieves against you, nor because it completely darkens your mind but because it makes you the captives of soulless possessions and distracts you from the service of God."

The possession of wealth involves an unavoidable contradiction. By the spirit of greed men are attached to material things, but God teaches us to despise things and to renounce them. "There is harm not only in trying to gain wealth but also in excessive concern with even the most necessary things," Chrysostom writes. "Christ has demonstrated what kind of harm can come from the passion for money but His commandment goes even beyond this. Not only does He order us to scorn wealth, but he forbids us to be concerned that the food we eat is the best we can possibly get: 'Do not worry your soul about what you eat'." This does not exhaust the subject. "It is not enough to despise wealth," Chrysostom writes, "but you must also feed the poor and, more importantly, you must follow Christ." Thus another contradiction is revealed: the worldly drive of greed and the desire for the accumulation and preservation of material goods is opposed to the command of the Gospels to "give all you have to the poor." Against this background we see with greater clarity the injustice of the social inequality in the world. In the face of poverty and misery, all wealth is an unjust and dead thing. It testifies to hard-heartedness and the absence of love.

It is from this point of view that Chrysostom disapproves of the magnificent decoration of churches. "A church is not a place in which to melt gold or forge silver," he writes. "It is a triumphant assembly of the angels. Therefore it is souls which we demand as an offering because it is for the sake of souls that God accepts our other offerings. It was not at a silver table and it was not from a golden vessel that Christ offered His blood to His disciples to drink but nevertheless everything there was precious and called forth reverence, for it was filled with the Spirit. Do you want to honor the body of Christ? Do not scorn to see Christ naked. What good does it do you if here you honor His silken coverlings while outside the Church you continue to tolerate the coldness and nakedness of others? What good does it do you if the altar of Christ is covered with golden vessels, while Christ Himself suffers hunger? You make a golden goblet but you offer no cooling water to go with ft. Christ as a homeless pilgrim wanders and asks for shelter, but you, instead of accepting Him, adorn your floors, your walls, and the tops of your pillars, and you put silver harnesses on your horses. But Christ remains bound in the dungeon and you do not even want to look at Him."

It seemed to Chrysostom that each thing that one man puts aside is taken away from someone else who needs it, for there cannot be a man who is rich without another man being poor because of it. "The source and root of wealth must definitely be hidden in some act of injustice," he writes. Chrysostom did not consider that poverty as such was a virtue. Poverty attracted his attention as a form of need and suffering, and he considered that Christ is present among the poor, since He comes to us in the image of a beggar and not in the guise of a wealthy man. Furthermore, when poverty is voluntarily chosen for the sake of God and accepted with joy, it can be a path to virtue. This is primarily because a man without possessions is freer than a wealthy man and has fewer attachments and worries. It is easier for him to live and to strive to perfect himself.

Chrysostom knew also that poverty could be a heavy burden not only in terms of external and material things, but internally, as a source of envy, spite, and despair. For this reason he tried to fight against poverty, but his attention was always occupied with its moral implications. In this respect he functioned as a spiritual pastor, not as a social reformer. Although it is true that he did have an ideal vision of society, this ideal was primarily moral. It was the ideal of equality because inequality makes true love impossible.

The basic premise of Chrysostom's thought is that strictly speaking there can be no such thing as "personal property" because everything belongs to God and to Him only. All things are given by Him as a gift in the form of a loan. Everything is God's, and all that man can claim as truly his own are his good works. Everything God gives is intended for common ownership. "If the good things we enjoy belong to the Master of all of us, then they all belong equally to our fellow slaves. That which belongs to the Master belongs to everyone in common. Do we not see a similar arrangement in great houses?"

"The possessions of the Emperor, the city, the squares, and the streets, belong to all men, and we all use them in an equal degree. Look at the economy that God has arranged. He has created some things that are for everyone, including the air, sun, water, earth, heaven, sea, light, and stars, and He has divided them equally among all men, as if they were brothers. This, if nothing else, should shame the human race. The Emperor has made other things common to all, including the baths, cities, squares, and streets. There is not the slightest disagreement over this common property but everything is accomplished peacefully. If someone tries to take something and claim it as his own personal possession, then quarrels arise. It is as if the very forces of natures were complaining, and as if at that time when God was gathering them from everywhere they were trying with all their might to separate among themselves, to isolate them selves from each other, and to distinguish their own individual property by coldly saying that 'this is yours but that is mine'. If this were true, quarrels and bitterness would arise, but where there is nothing of this sort neither quarrels nor disagreements occur. In this way we see that for us as well a common and not an individual ownership of things has been ordained, and that this is according to nature itself. Is not the reason that no one ever goes to court about the ownership of a public square the fact that this square belongs to all?"

It seems to Chrysostom that in this respect even the animals are better than men. "They hold everything in common, the earth, and springs, and pastures, and mountains, and forests, and not one of them has more than the others. But you, O man, the most gentle of animals, have become more fierce than the beasts. In a single one of your houses you store up enough to feed thousands and even many thousands of the poor. How can this be, when we have one common nature, and much else in common besides this? We share a common heaven, sun, moon, choir of stars, air, sea, fire, water, earth, life, death, youth, old age, sickness, health, and the need for food and clothing. Our spiritual goods are also common to all: our holy altar, the body of our Lord, His sacred blood, the promised Kingdom, the bath of renewal, the purification of sins, truth, sanctity, redemption, and ineffable bliss. Is it therefore not madness for those who share so much in common, their nature, grace, covenant, and laws, to have such a passion for wealth that it causes them to forget their equality and to exceed the savageness of beasts? This is all the worse since they must of necessity soon leave these things behind them."

Chrysostom sees the source of inequality in man's free will and desire for personal property. Free will determines how an individual will manage the gifts he had been given, and Chrysostom considers that this is the heart of the problem. He does not recommend poverty for all men and, although he denounces superfluous luxury, it is primarily inequality to which he is opposed. Chrysostom demands equality and justice. Material goods are given by God and for this reason there can be no cause to abominate them. However, they must not be used to the personal advantage of one man in such a way that another man suffers for lack of them. Chrysostom believes that the problem can be solved by love because "love seeks nothing for itself." It seems to him that this solution was realized by the earliest members of the Church in the manner described in the Acts of the Apostles. "They renounced property and rejoiced greatly because in this way they gained blessings that were even greater. The cold words 'mine and yours' did not exist, and there was joy at the altar . . . The expression 'mine and yours', which is so harsh and has caused so many wars in the world, was driven out of that holy Church, and men on earth lived like angels in heaven. The poor did not envy the rich, for there were no rich, and the rich did not despise the poor, for there were no poor. At that time things were not the way they are now. Now those who have property give to the poor, but at that time it was not so . . . All of them were equal and all wealth was shared among them." This example has been frequently cited by the supporters of communal monasticism who absolutely reject the right to personal property.

Chrysostom wanted to realize the example provided by monastic communities in the world, having in mind a comparatively small society in Antioch or Constantinople. In his homilies he tried to demonstrate how the voluntary renunciation of property and its equal distribution could provide for the needs of all. This is the way in which the property of the Church was organized at that time. It was held in common and was distributed by the bishop. Part of it was devoted to upkeep of churches and to the support of the clergy, but most of it was the "property of the poor." Chrysostom emphasized that such a socialization of property could be truly effective only if it was voluntary and if it was the expression of true self-renunciation and love.

All of this would presuppose a high degree of moral development and perfection. It would be the ultimate and ideal expression of Christian charity. However, Chrysostom was content to limit his demands to generous almsgiving and works of charity. His conception of charity was very broad, extending from material contributions to consolation and comfort. "Is it not also an act of great charity when a soul, which is overwhelmed by grief, threatened by extreme danger, and held in thrall by the flames (of passion), is freed by someone from this affliction?"

Source: The Eastern Fathers of the Fourth Century