Stewardship and the Wealthiest Nation on Earth

The earth is the LORD’s and the fulness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein; for he has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the rivers.  (Psalm 24:1-2, quoted at the burial commital)

For “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”   (1 Corinthians 10:26)

The Fathers‘ fundamental understanding of property was as gift or more often as a loan, something that God has given to the rich for use of all.  Every owner is therefore a steward, someone charged with the social administration of goods for the benefit of one’s poorer brethren.  When they refuse to share, the wealthy become evil and, paradoxically, thieves with respect to their own property, for they divert it from its proper destination and thus have deprived it of its being a loan for social use.

St John Chrysostom was the most radical, truly an apostle of social ethics. ‘The rich are stealing from the poor even if what they have is honestly acquired or legally inherited.’  ‘In refusing to give and to share we thus earn the punishment of thieves.  We are as guilty as the tax collectors who use the money of all for their own needs.’  ‘The rich are a kind of robber.’  ‘Do not say, I enjoy what is mine.  You are enjoying the property of others.  All the things of this earth belong to all of us together, just as the sun, the air, the ground and everything else.’  Even later, in the eleventh century, St Simeon the New Theologian would echo what St John Chrysostom said in his homilies. ‘Money and all other goods are the common property of all,  just as the light and the air we breath.’

… The sole owner of the earth is the Lord and this is why the earth is holy and belongs to all.”  (Paul Evdokimov, IN THE WORLD, OF THE CHURCH, pp 82-83)


… your Father who is in heaven… makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”  (Matthew 5:45)

God and Mammon

 “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.  (Matthew 6:24)

St Silouan the Athonite writes:

“The truly repentant man readily bears every affliction – hunger and nakedness, cold and heat, sickness and poverty, humiliation and exile, injustice and slander; for his soul is turned with longing towards God, and he has no care for earthly things but prays to God with a pure mind.  But the man who is attached to worldly goods and riches can never have a mind pure in God, since in the depths of his soul he is constantly preoccupied with his possessions; and if he does not repent whole-heartedly, and mourn at having grieved God, he will die bearing the burden of this passions, without having come to know the Lord.”   (ST SILOUAN THE ATHONITE,  p 349)

A Temptation of Wealth

45346953932_8f4c5f4b3b_w

And Jesus told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”  (Luke 12:16-21)

The error of the rich fool in Christ’s parable is easy to see.  He assumed life would go on as it is forever.  He forgot he lived in a world defined by change.  And that change includes the fact that we are mortal beings – each life is bound by a beginning and an end.  His great plan came to nothing as his life ended.  There is a lesson to learn: how not to have one’s life end in nothing.  Life will end, we will die, but that doesn’t have to equate with life meaning nothing in the end.  We can live in a way that others will regret when we die, but even that is minor. To live so that in the end nothing is the only thing left might be good in Buddhism, but in Christianity there is a full life in the world to come.  We don’t want to end in nothing but rather in abundant life found in God.   [see also my post Sins and Debts.]

We of course seeing the rich fool’s error might decide that we can avoid his mistake, we can plan to win the lottery and give a sizable portion to charity, not just store up the winnings for our ease.  There is folly in this as well as St John Climacus pointed out.  Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou writes:

Yet St. John of the Ladder warns us that even the idea of charity—the desire to have plenty in order to give to others—can be little more than an excuse for avarice:

Do not say you are interested in money for the sake of the poor, for two mites were sufficient to purchase the kingdom (cf. Luke 21:2). . . .

The pretext of almsgiving is the beginning of avarice, and the finish is detestation of the poor. The collector is stirred by charity, but, when the money is in, the grip tightens. The demon of avarice fights hard against those who have nothing. When it fails to overcome them, it begins to tell them about the wretched conditions of the poor, thereby inducing those in the religious life to become concerned once more with material things.    (Thirty Steps to Heaven: The Ladder of Divine Ascent for All Walks of Life, Kindle 1343-49)

One might be the rare person who would give all their lottery winnings to charity.  But then we might turn out to be like the rich young man who according to Mark 10:21-22 Jesus loved yet despite this who walked away from Jesus when the Lord told to give his wealth away in charity.  “And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.”   We might start off believing we wanted the wealth to help others, but how long before we decid to keep back just some for ourselves?  We might read again the Acts 5 account of Ananias and Sapphira.   Money as they saw is a good servant but a bad master.

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never fail you nor forsake you.”   (Hebrews 13:5)

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)

God’s Provision

Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me, men who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches? Truly no man can ransom himself, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of his life is costly, and can never suffice, that he should continue to live on for ever, and never see the Pit. Yea, he shall see that even the wise die, the fool and the stupid alike must perish and leave their wealth to others.  (Psalm 49:5-10)

“Give yourself up entirely to God’s providence, to the Lord’s Will, and do not grieve at losing anything material, nor in general at the loss of visible things; do not rejoice at gain, but let your only and constant joy be to win the Lord Himself. Trust entirely in Him: He knows how to lead you safely through this present life, and to bring you to Himself — into His eternal Kingdom. From want of trust in God’s providence many and great afflictions proceed: despondency, murmurings, envy, avarice, love of money or the passion for amassing money and property in general, so that it may last for many years, in order to eat, drink, sleep and enjoy;

from want of trust in God’s providence proceed in particular afflictions such as arise, for instance: from some loss of income through our own oversight, from the loss of objects, specially valuable and necessary, as well as immoderate joy at recovering some objects, or at receiving some large income or gain, or some profitable place or employment. We, as Christians, as ‘fellow citizens with the Saints and of the household of God,’ (Ephesians 2: 19) ought to commit all our life, together with all its sorrows, sicknesses, griefs, joys, scarcities and abundance unto Christ our God.”

(St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, pp. 251-252)

Charity: Building Your Home in Heaven

Furthermore, if now we expend boundless wealth in order to possess well-lighted and airy houses, building them with painful toil, reflect how we ought to spend our very bodies in building shining mansions for ourselves in heaven where that ineffable light is. Here, indeed, there are strifes and contentions about boundaries and walls, while there, there will be nothing of this: no envy, no malice, and no one will contend with us about the setting of boundaries. Moreover, we must leave behind completely this home here, while that other will remain with us forever.

Then, too, this one must deteriorate in course of time, and must be the prey of countless destructive agencies, while that one must remain forever incorrupt. Besides, the poor man cannot build this one here, while it is possible to build that one for two oboli, as that well-known widow did.

Therefore, I seethe with indignation because, when so many blessings lie in wait for us, we are lazy, we make little account of them, and make every effort to have splendid homes in this world. On the other hand, we are not concerned, we take no thought as to how we may possess even a little abode in heaven.

(St. John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom Homilies on St. John Vol 2, pp. 94-95)

Learning the Skill of Charity

One person has the skill to hammer brass into the most exquisite shapes and to engrave elaborate patterns on to it.

Another has the skill to make furniture, joining together different pieces of wood so firmly that no one can break them apart. A third person can spin the finest yarn, while a fourth weaves it into cloth.

A fifth craftsperson can lay stones one on top of the other to build walls, while a sixth puts a roof on top of the walls to make a house. Indeed there are so many different skills, each one requiring many years to attain, that it would be impossible to list them all.

So what is the skill that rich people should acquire? They do not need to fashion brass or wood, or to build houses. Rather, they must learn how to use their wealth well, to the good of all the people around them. The ordinary craftsperson may think that that is an easy skill to learn. On the contrary, it is the hardest skill of all. It requires both great wisdom and great moral strength. Look at how many rich people fail to acquire it, and how few practice it to perfection.

(St. John Chrysostom, On Living Simply, p. 14)

Choosing the Good Portion

Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”

And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich. And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?” But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”  (Luke 18:18-27)

To succeed in the world, we need many “good” things.  Good grades, good job, good income, good work habits, good credit scores, good schools, good neighborhoods, good opportunities, good family, and maybe some good luck too.

But for all those goods, our Lord Jesus might say, “why do you ask me about what is good?”

For Christ speaks to us about and calls us to a goodness which belongs to God alone.  It is not that those goods don’t matter as they do affect our lives.  And God knows we need such good things (Matthew 6:32).   But they all matter on a relative scale, for Christ tells us there is something greater to strive for, something which benefits us not only for the short time we live on earth, but which is eternally permanent.  We don’t have to have all those worldly goods to be good.   And even without all those worldly goods, we humans are still offered an even greater good, namely eternal life – a good portion which cannot be taken away from us.   As the Lord told Martha in Luke 10:41-42 :

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”

We don’t come to Christ in order to have our beliefs reaffirmed or are thoughts validated or to learn what we can learn anywhere else in the world.  We come to Christ to discover what we don’t know – about life and eternal life.  We come to Him to seek what is missing from our lives, what we hope for but don’t have [“For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:24)] The person in today’s Gospel knew the Law and how to keep the Law and how to accumulate wealth.  But he didn’t know the way to eternal life.  This is why he came to Jesus in the first place.  It is why we come to Christ, and come to the Liturgy, not just to be told what we already believe and know, but to learn what is missing from our lives.  How do we find our way to eternal life?   What do I lack?  What do I need?  What do I have to change to find eternal life?

Jesus says we are to follow Him.  Not to just do the things that everyone in the world does, but to learn what is missing in our life.   How do I get Christ to come and live in me?  How do I become like God in what I do?   In the Liturgy, we come to behold Christ so that we can see what we need to change in our thinking, in our habits, in our attitudes, in our behavior, in our faith, in what we do daily so that we can find what this person in the Gospel was seeking.

Are we ready for that next level?   We might honestly say to Christ, I do keep the Ten Commandments – I haven’t murdered anyone, nor stolen anything, nor committed adultery or told any lies.  What else do I need to do?

And then we have to be prepared to hear Christ’s answer and to live it.  We have to be far more ready to deal with the shock wave which is the Gospel commandments than this person who came to talk to Christ in the Gospel lesson.   The way to the kingdom is not in the things we love so much and value so much and strive to get so much.  We have to seek first the kingdom of God, and that is as big a challenge to us as it was to this rich person who came to talk to Christ.  The little things we are asked to do as Orthodox Christians – to fast, deny the self, to practice self control, to resist our temptations – are the baby steps we take to move beyond this world into that eternal life.

This person in today’s Gospel, was very obedient to God’s commandments, yet still lacked something.  The man had a heart condition but not one that could be corrected by diet or exercise.  This person saw religious perfection only in terms of rigorously following the commandments of God.  Jesus tried to get this person to see that religion is more a matter of the heart.  It is not pure obedience that God willed for His creatures.  God wants us to be like God.  To care about something beyond our self and beyond our immediate gratification.  This person in the Gospel was quite willing to obey God as long as he was richly rewarded for doing so.   But to give up his riches, this was beyond what he was prepared to do because it was only to get more riches that he obeyed God at all.  He had turned God into his servant.

The Prophet Habakkuk said:

Though the fig tree do not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.   (Habakkuk 3:17-18)

Unlike the rich person in today’s Gospel, Habakkuk says even if he is not wealthy, even if he is in miserable poverty and hungry, yet he will rejoice in the Lord.  It is a stark contrast to the rich man who was only willing to rejoice in his wealth and prosperity.

Do we each have such faith that no matter how good or bad things are going, we still rejoice in the Lord?  Do we have such love for God that even when things are going badly, we still rejoice in the Lord?

What Jesus asks is “what do you really treasure in your heart?”  We have to think whether we want God to be our servant giving us all we want, or whether we want to be His servant, no matter what condition we find ourselves in.  How can we seek God rather than just seek the things God might give us?

Sell All You Own and Follow Christ

Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”

And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.”

So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich.

And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?” But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”   (Luke 18:18-27)

It is often debated as to  how literally we are to obey some of the Gospel commandments of Christ.  If everyone tried to sell all their belongings and give them away, what would happen?  Well for one thing there would be no one to buy anything since everyone else was also trying to sell everything.  And if everyone gave up everything, all of civil society would soon come to an end as no one would ‘have’ anything.  It wouldn’t take long before poverty set in and then famine and disease as no one was able to do anything because they couldn’t claim ownership of anything.  So it is not too hard to see that Christ’s teachings were not always universal laws that all must obey.  Rather, He was a wisdom teacher and gives to individuals the medicine they need for their own healing and to become fully human.  The teaching to give everything away was aimed at a particular man who seemed to trust that his riches were the sign that God favored him.  In effect Christ tells the man, since God seems to favor you and has given you all these blessings, give them all away – let’s see if you love and trust God the giver of every good and perfect gift or if you really only love your blessings.  Obviously the man loved the blessings more than He loved God and he certainly wasn’t willing to trust God to provide for him if he gave his blessings away.

In the desert fathers, we find a story of one monk who decided to take the teachings of Christ literally:

One of the monks, called Serapion, sold his book of the Gospels and gave the money to those who were hungry, saying: I have sold the book which told me to sell all that I had and give to the poor. (From Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert, p. 37)

Anyone person is capable to literally following this teaching of Christ – even to give away the Scriptures to fully keep the commandment.  The monk had already abandoned civil society and moved to the desert to live the harsh life there.  He had given up the comforts of society, but decides to take the teaching to the next level and even give away the scriptures which had taught him how to live.   We do not know what became of this monk, but we do learn that it is possible to follow Christ’s teachings to the limit.  It is not necessary to have an abundance of possessions in order to be a Christian.  The blessings of God are not something to be accumulated, but to be shared with others.

Managing our Wealth and our Investments

The Gospel Lesson from Luke 12:16-21, occurs within a larger context in Luke’s Gospel and the context helps us understand the lesson.   The immediate context is Luke 12:13-34.

One of the multitude said to him, “Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?” And he said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

6489815325_1b97239e06_n

The first thing to note is that the parable of the rich fool follows immediately upon Jesus warning against covetousness or greed.  Jesus does not believe that life is a game where whoever accumulates the most stuff wins.   Life is far more precious than how much you own or what you own.

What is wealth?   Not just property, money, material possession.   What about your relationship to the living God?   Is that not the most valuable commodity we can own?

There are countless other intangibles which are incredibly valuable to us, such as: salvation, health, wisdom, special talents, peace of mind, a loving family, good parish, long life, great job, good habits.  These are all priceless possessions for us, and can be had by people with no money.

16976449167_85d6b9b538_n

According to the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ, our true investments are our every action toward family, friend, neighbor, stranger, the poor and enemy.  The profits from those investments await us in the Kingdom of God.

God will not ask you on the judgment day how your stocks fared on Wall Street.  He will not ask you whether you supported tax cuts or deregulation or what you rate of return was on your 401K.

And with all this in mind we hear Christ’s parable:

And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

God owns everything.   You might hear a priest say at the graveside before a burial these words:  The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who dwell therein. (Ps 24:1)  They remind us that we cannot take our wealth with us beyond the grave.  Our blessings are given to us to use for the benefit of others in this world.  God is the true owner of everything.  But he does seem to give us in the next life all the blessing we gave to those in need.

3754785121_5587ea2f09_nSt Basil the Great speaking to those who did not give much to charity in their life time but promised to leave a donation in their wills to the poor  upon their death, has them say:  “’when my life is over I will make the poor to inherit the things I formerly possessed, and in a written testament will declare them to be the owners of my property.’  When you no longer exist among human beings, then you become a lover of humanity.  When I see you dead, then I shall be able to say that you love your brother.  . . . when you are lying in the tomb, and decomposing into earth, then you … become big-hearted.”  (Sermon to the Rich)   Basil goes on to say, as you can’t do business after the market closes,  as you can’t win an Olympic medal when the games are over and as you cant show your valor once the war has ended, so too you can’t postpone godliness until the afterlife.

His comments have a humorous edge to them, and yet are deadly serious.

The message of the Gospel is not so much that you should never make provision for life, for your family, for the future, but that you should not be self-centered, self-absorbed, practicing self-preservation.  Christ speaks bluntly however against greed and covetousness and selfish excess.  Remember Christ’s own teaching that God’s commandments can be summed up in two precepts:  love God and love your neighbor. This is what the rich fool ignored.  He mentions no one but himself.

After the parable, Jesus went on to say:

And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass which is alive in the field today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O men of little faith!

6489802467_10dd6232a1_n

And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind. For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well. “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

What is the effect of prosperity on us Christians?    Does prosperity make us  more generous, loving , compassionate, merciful, kind, patient, peaceful, virtuous?  Does it help you to be a disciple of Christ?  to be a Christian?

Is prosperity the highest virtue in life which we should be pursuing with all our soul, heart, mind and strength?  What about with our investments, what should we be doing with them?

10334358484_40c0f3756a

Don’t strive for riches, strive to hear the Word of God and live by Him.  That is what Christ taught.  You live in the world and you are not forbidden to be successful, but use your prosperity and blessings for the good of others.  Practice the commandment to love one another.

Prosperity is not a virtue, but a blessing.  Wealth is not a virtue but a blessing to be shared. The parable reminds us of the truth that  Money is a good servant, but a bad master.