Wealth and Discipleship

Wealth and poverty are nebulous categories and we commonly use the terms not with any exact metric in mind but as it suits our needs.  We can at times see the poor as in need of help or as lazy, stupid and dependent on entitlements.  Likewise we can see the rich as successful or as greedy and always controlling the system to their own advantage.  We alleviate our consciences by seeing ourselves as poor when we want to but then distance ourselves from the poor as we don’t want them around.  Americans in general aspire towards wealth, but politicians (even very wealthy ones) often find it beneficial at election time to show how they grew up in poor and humble circumstances.   At election time, they run to identify themselves with the poor (but not the lazy and dependent on the public dole kind but with the dirt poor who through hard work and never by circumstances arise to become filthy rich).   After they are elected, to appease their wealthy supporters, they run away from the poor and their needs and want to show they value success (aka, wealth) not poverty.

St John Chrysostom would have held to an idea that a person is rich if they have more than they need to live on.  Rich is not having more than you want, but more than you need.  One is rich if they can afford all that they have beyond their needs.   He did wish that everyone would have all they need in this world, just not all they want.  His view of the world saw most people as struggling to survive – meaning they had a hard time having enough to meet their needs (forget their wants which were beyond what most people could ever hope for).  So those who have more than they need are blessed.  In the following quote from St. John, don’t imagine he is talking to the filthy rich, the 1% of the population – anybody but you.  He is addressing himself to all those who have more than they need and thus are capable of being rich towards God.  He certainly would have thought that the middle class of America have all they need and more.

The skill which the rich need to use their wealth well is the highest of all arts.  Its workshop is built not on earth but in heaven, because those who are rich must communicate directly with God to acquire and practice this art. Its tools are not made of iron or brass, but of good will, because the rich will only use their wealth well if they want to do so.  Indeed good will is itself the skill. When a rich person sincerely wants to help the poor, God will quickly show the best way. Thus while a person training to be a carpenter must learn how to control a hammer and saw and chisel, the rich person training to serve the poor must learn how to control the mind and heart and soul.  He must learn always to think good thoughts, expunging all selfish thoughts. He must learn how to feel compassion, expunging all malice and contempt. He must learn how to desire only to obey the will of God. That is why I say the skill of being a rich disciple of Christ is the highest of all arts; and the one who possesses it is truly a saint.”

(St. John Chrysostom, On Living Simply, p. 19)