While Americans commonly dream of being rich or winning the lottery or having an abundance of wealth, many Christian writers in the early Patristic period accepted scriptural warnings that wealth, or the desire for it, often caused spiritual shipwrecks and disasters for people because the wealth itself caused them to become more self centered, more concerned about self preservation, and actually turned them away from loving others. In the Pauline corpus of writings we find these strong words:
But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. … As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed. (1 Timonty 6:9-11,17-19)
Despite such warnings, the lure of wealth, a life of ease and leisure, of buying power have continued to be Greek Sirens to our hearts. [Many would deny they want to be rich but would insist they only want enough to live comfortably. But of course by comparison to the ancient world, our ideas of a decent standard of living are way above what most people in the ancient world could ever have dreamed of having.] We are sure that we can serve mammon and God (Matthew 6:24) even if Jesus said that is not possible.
The Patristic writers were convinced of something that easily gets twisted and distorted in the minds of those who imagine religion as solidifying the oppression of the poor by the ruling class or, conversely, who imagine the prosperous are always enemies of the poor. What the Patristic writers thought is that wealth and all natural resources are gifts from God given so that humanity can learn to care for one another, to share with one another, to maintain civilization, to nurture one another, and to help each other prosper. In their thinking, the poor of the world should be seen by those with goods as opportunities to practice being human – to share with, to love, to give generously to, to be charitable towards and with whom one can demonstrate mercy and compassion. In the Patristic Christian mindset, the poor and needy are not threats to those with goods, but opportunities for each of us to practice being god-like with [“be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45)] . We are to be merciful as God our Father is merciful (Luke 6:36). Those blessed with some wealth are those who are given extra responsibility in society to help others prosper. Civic duty calls for all to respect each other and to serve each other. As some Fathers pointed out, if we relied on the rich to actually do the physical labor of building roads, bridges, buildings, nothing would get done. We are dependent on all kinds of people to have cities, services and civilization.
So St. John Chrysostom writes:
“Do you see the Lord’s loving kindness, how he arranges everything with our salvation in mind? So when you consider that it is for you and your welfare that that person is beset with want and perishing from starvation, don’t pass him by heartlessly, but prove a faithful steward of what had been entrusted to you by the Lord so that by alleviating the poor person’s needs you may win such favor from on high. And praise the Lord for allowing that person to live in need for the sake of you and your salvation in order that you may be able to find the way to be in a position both to wash away your sins and by managing properly what has been entrusted to you by the Lord to be accorded that commendation which exceeds all thought and description. You will hear, in fact, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant, you have been faithful in a few things, I will set you over many; enter into the joy of your Lord.’ Understanding this, let us look on the poor as our benefactors, able to afford us the basis of our salvation, and let us give with generosity and a joyful spirit, never being tardy in our offering, but conversing with them with great restraint and showing great meekness. ‘Incline your ear to a beggar,’ remember, ‘and respond peaceably to him in meekness’ so that even before your gift, you may lift his spirit from the dejection of great need with the gentleness of your words. Scripture says, remember, ‘a kind word is better than an offering’; so speech is able both to lift the spirit and bring it much comfort.” (Homilies on Genesis 18-45, pp 293-294)
Chrysostom acknowledges the truth that the Lord Jesus affirmed: as long as human society exists, the poor will always be with us (Mark 14:7). Since this is the case, we need to see what opportunity to practice mercy, generosity, charity, is always before us. We humans are created to love one another, which includes protecting those who cannot defend themselves, caring for those in need, sharing with those who lack sufficient goods, alleviating suffering when we can, assisting those who need help. Chrysostom does not envision some utopian state where there are no needs or no poverty. Rather, he envisions that we as Christians will strive to help the poor who will always be with us. Chrysostom did think poverty and inequality were the result of sin, and as long as the world of the fall exists, poverty and inequality will be in the world. Therefore we always have opportunity to practice mercy, charity, ministry, service, grace, healing, lifting of burdens, generosity and love. The opportunities will not end because we practice these virtues, for love is for Christians always a choice we make in dealing with others.
We can remember the narrative in Acts 3:1-8 –
“And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at that gate of the temple which is called Beautiful to ask alms of those who entered the temple. Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked for alms. And Peter directed his gaze at him, with John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention upon them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and walked and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.”
Even the lack of material possessions or wealth does not prevent us from being charitable, merciful or compassionate. The Apostles Peter and John had no money, yet they were still willing to give to the beggar what they could. All of us can look into lives, into our hearts and souls to see what it is we may have to offer to those in need.
As Bill Withers sang in “Lean on Me“:
You just call on me, brother, when you need a hand
We all need somebody to lean on
I just might have a problem that you’ll understand
We all need somebody to lean on
Lean on me when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on