Readings in Social Ethics: John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty, part 1 of 3. There are six sermons in this text, based on the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. This post deals with the first pair. References are to page numbers.
- There is danger in luxury: “In this way luxury often leads to forgetfulness. As for you, my beloved, if you sit at table, remember that from the table you must go to prayer. Fill your belly so moderately that you may not become too heavy to bend your knees and call upon your God (27).”
- Our use of earthly and natural goods must be oriented toward higher and spiritual goods. Another way of saying this is that our desires and consumption must be rightly ordered: “…let us accustom ourselves to eat only enough to live, not enough to be distracted and weighed down. For we were not born, we do not live, in order to eat and drink; but we eat in order to leave. At the beginning life was not made for eating, but eating for life. But we, as if we had come into the world for this purpose, spend everything for eating” (27-28).
- It is a natural and perhaps unavoidable feature of human nature to compare our situation with others: “the sight of another person in good fortune laid on him [Lazarus] an extra burden of anguish, not because he was envious or wicked, but because we all naturally perceive our own misfortunes more acutely by comparison with others’ prosperity” (30).
- “You should think the same way about those who are rich and greedy. They are a kind of robbers lying in wait on the roads, stealing from passers-by, and burying others’ goods in their own houses as if caves and holes. Let us not therefore call them fortunate because of what they have, but miserable because of what will come, because of that dreadful courtroom, because of the inexorable judgment, because of the outer darkness which awaits them” (36-37).
- A non-material definition of wealth and poverty: “We ought to consider this definition of poverty and wealth. So if you see someone greedy for many things, you should consider him the poorest of all, even if he has acquired everyone’s money. If, on the other hand, you see someone with few needs, you should count him the richest of all, even if he has acquired nothing. For we are accustomed to judge poverty and affluence by the disposition of the mind, not by the measure of one’s substance” (40).
- Using one of his favorite metaphors, Chrysostom compares life to the drama acted on the stage. Wealth, luxury, and the trappings of affluence are temporary and transient: “…when death arrives and the theater is dissolved, everyone puts off the masks of wealth or poverty and departs to the other world. When all are judged by their deeds alone, some are revealed truly wealthy, others poor, some of high class, others of no account” (47).
- There are sins of omission and sins of commission. We have negative duties as well as positive duties. We can act justly in one sense while acting unlovingly, and therefore sinning, in another sense: “Indeed Lazarus suffered no injustice from the rich man; for the rich man did not take Lazarus’ money, but failed to share his own. If he is accused by the man he failed to pity because he did not share his wealth, what pardon will the man receive who has stolen others’ goods, when he is surrounded by those he has wronged?” (49) This latter point is an argument from the lesser to the greater, showing that in some sense sins of commission are judged to be more weighty than those of omission.
- Whence comes the responsibility to share our wealth? From a sense of stewardship and the absolute sovereignty of God: “By this we are taught that when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal. For our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it” (49).
- How do we manifest responsible stewardship? “Therefore, let us use our goods sparingly, as belonging to others, so that they may become our own. How shall we use them sparingly, as belonging to others? When we do not spend them beyond our needs, and do not spend for our needs only, but give equal shares into the hands of the poor. If you are affluent, but spend less than what you need, you will give an account of the funds which were entrusted to you” (50).
- What duties are incumbent upon us in our giving? Should we be liberal and promiscuous in our charity? Chrysostom argues the affirmative: “For if you wish to show kindness, you must not require an accounting of a person’s life, but merely correct his poverty and fill his need” (52).
- But don’t we have a responsibility to give only to those who deserve it? On the one hand, no, for gracious giving is by its very nature unmerited: “Charity is so called because we give it even to the unworthy” (52).
- But if we must talk of desert, Chrysostom urges us to see that “need alone is the poor man’s worthiness; if anyone at all ever comes to us with this recommendation, let us not meddle any further” (53). In this we image the grace of God, to give liberally as his gifts have been given to us, who do not deserve them.
- Don’t the needs of the poor, even as construed by Chrysostom, go beyond the realm of the material?