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Chrysostom on the Poor

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From On Living Simply, Sermon XLIII. (HT: American Orthodox Institute Observer, et al.):

Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone? Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm.

Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again. Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold form the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first — and then they will joyfully share their wealth.

Lest anyone think I post this to cast St. John Chrysostom as some sort of proto-free marketer, that is not the point. He was equally severe with those who had accumulated wealth. Their responsibilities to the poor and to the neighbor were non-negotiable. But those responsibilities were to be exercised freely, in accord with our nature, and without compulsion.

If you cannot remember everything, instead of everything, I beg you, remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs. If we have this attitude, we will certainly offer our money; and by nourishing Christ in poverty here and laying up great profit hereafter, we will be able to attain the good things which are to come, by the grace and kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, with Whom (be glory, honor, and might,) to the Father, together with the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen (On Wealth and Poverty).

More on St. John Chrysostom.

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.


  • I have “On Wealth and Poverty” coming up in my reading list. Thanks for me teaser. ;-)

  • Roger McKinney

    We need to remember how the wealthy in Chrysostom’s day became wealthy. For the most part, they obtained it by warfare, bribery of state officials, and pure theft by state officials. These were considered the only legit ways to gain wealth. Commerce was considered extremely immoral and merchants the lowest class of citizens. Capitalism reversed everything.

    Also, Chrysostom never considered whether it is better to help the poor with charity or by creating jobs through investment. He didn’t consider it because of the prevalence of slavery. Today, we have that option.

  • Roger, contextualism is of key importance, but I don’t think it lets us off the hook as far as the Cappadocians are concerned regarding the charitable imperative. That strong language they use, going so far as to assert property right on the part of the poor, seems to me to have little to do with the origin of the wealth, whether it came out of virtuous or vicious action. It has everything to do with the Gospel imperative that is laid upon those who have material abundance.

    As to whether it is better to give charity directly or to give someone a job, that I think is a prudential judgment that has to be made in a particular instance and for which no general law can be set down. Certainly providing someone with employment is a great gift, one of the greatest things you can do for another person. But depending on the need, you might first have to engage in emergency measures before attempting to set up more stable employment structures.

    Certainly there are opportunity costs to consider, but it seems unlikely that its really an either/or conundrum.

  • Roger McKinney

    Well, I pointed to the origins of wealth because that is one reason church fathers considered the rich to be so evil. Also, the rich in his day did not accumulate wealth by providing jobs. There were no job creating mechanisms because of the prevalence of slavery. Today, a person can become wealthy without committing any crimes or moral evil (nearly impossible in Chrysostom’s day) and providing jobs at the same time.

    Clearly, giving to the poor is lending to God. I don’t want to diminish the value of charity. But charity is always a short-term solution to poverty. The only long-term solution is job creation. The Bible has nothing to say about that, but it’s no less important than charity.

  • Brett

    “The only long-term solution is job creation.”

    Job creation is right, but also don’t forget what kind of jobs do we want to create?

    I think we need jobs that improve the economy, are locally and regionally strong, that reduce costs and that simultaneously improve society, public health and not only do less environmental damage but instead restore the environment. These jobs need to be available to all as well, given to the most qualified applicants.

    I think its one thing for the wealthy to give to charity it’s another for them to consider if how they are generating wealth is harming the overall economy, society and or environment and then once convinced that may be causing harm, they innovate for change. I think this comes about mostly from a change of heart, of one towards Jesus and building his kingdom on earth, plus maybe a little bit of government incentive to wake up the sleeper.

  • Roger McKinney

    Brett, I agree, but to do what you suggest requires sound economic theory. If you attempt to do it with socialist theory, or even mainstream econ theory, you’ll get nothing but disaster. You need Austrian econ theory.

    And who will direct the creation of jobs according to your criteria? Someone has to direct the economy. Either consumers do it by voting with their dollars (free market), or politicians and bureaucrats do it by responding to the wishes of campaign contributors. Those are the only choices I see.

  • Becky

    “The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first — and then they will joyfully share their wealth”
    Not only will it change the hard hearts it will also change the ungrateful hearts, but I would not make a blanket statement that simply giving people help will make them ungrateful, nor that letting the rich keep their money make them more charitable, even though it is true to an extent, but that depends on the heart that already exists with them. Let me share some experiences with you. A recently divorced Mom with three kids needed food.. When we showed up, on a Saturday, from St. Vincent de Paul (a charity) and she found out that all our time and money was donated she started crying because somebody cared. Another woman on being provided a home stated “Wow, I hit the jackpot.” That’s a sample, but she really was not a very grateful person. I worked with a Mexican woman once who had been a field worker, who didn’t want her children to grow up to be field workers, so she went through the training the welfare system offered and got a good job. As a matter of fact, I cannot think of anyone that I have ever known that has been on welfare that has stayed on welfare. It was there when they needed it and when they didn’t it need any longer they got off of it. This is not to say that there aren’t those that may live their whole lives on welfare. Someone who was semi well-off, through his hard work and frugality, drove by St. Mary’s dining hall (a charity) one day and he and his wife decided that if that charity didn’t feed those people, then they would go find a job. I told him that I didn’t think that was the reason they didn’t find jobs. That either circumstances beyond their control, or just stupid mistakes they had made in life had ended them up there, but would you have them starve? And he hesitated, then replied, “Yes.” I remember telling a well-off, because of his hard work, fellow parishioner that the Gospel said that we shouldn’t be storing up riches, but helping the poor. That man got so mad at me. When it comes to Americans I think most people are in the middle: a hard-working charitable people, and those that are not working at this time would probably like to be. So I think that any arguments made for or against certain policies should take this into consideration and not deal mainly with the extremes.
    What I found in charitable work, in the main, was that though people were generous, out of their excess, with their money they were not so generous of their time. And helping people takes both time, sometimes very long amounts of time, and money. So whether you have the government, in our case governed by us and for us, collecting taxes, or charitable people paying someone (which is the only way I see that working out), rather than all volunteers, to work in an institution to provide services to other people it will still be an institution and, and more than likely, viewed in that manner.
    Now, don’t get me wrong I am not for a socialist government in the least. And I am not for ‘taking’ on any level whatsoever. I don’t think any good has come of it, since Eve ‘took’ that first bite. However, what type of policies and institutions do you think a government would have when everyone in the country had a perfect heart? Would they still consider it taking or rather contributing? Would the receiver still be ungrateful?

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  • Have you contacted the author or publisher about this? If so, what did they say?

    • I’m actually in the process of doing so. There is no Sermon called “Simply Living”. This is simply a book with quotes. This quote does not appear to be in the physical copy of that book either. 
      However, I have conducted an extensive search of all Chrysostom’s writings – both those available in translation, and more importantly, in the original Greek. There is nothing even resembling this passage anywhere. Moreover, it seems incongruous with the great body of writing by Chrysostom where he does talk about attitudes towards money. It looks like a commentary has been conflated with a quote. I very much doubt that this is just the result of a poor translation – because there is nothing even close to this passage in the works of Chrysostom. 

  • Oh, please.  Any casual reading of world events shows that bribery, warfare, lying, manipulation, the exploitation of poorer workers, exploitation of the world’s natural resources, hiding of information, misuse of political power, abuse of monopoly power, corporate espionage, and occasional dumb luck have a huge amount to do with who becomes rich and who does not.  The myth of the hard-working little poor boy who pulls himself up by his bootstraps with good honest labor was a myth created by those who wanted to justify themselves.  Human nature, especially in regards towards money, has not gotten any better since the era of the Bible and church fathers – if anything, it’s clearly gotten worse.

    • Roger McKinney

       There is a tiny bit of truth in what you say, but it is mostly false, especially in Western countries. There is plenty of research that about 85% of all millionaires in the US earned their wealth by growing a business for 25 years. Another 12% earned it through their profession, such as professional sports. 3% inherited it. The number who got it through one of the means you mention is so small as to be insignificant. 

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