Posts tagged with: readings in social ethics

Readings in Social Ethics: John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty, part 3 of 3. There are six sermons in this text, based on the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. This post deals with the third and final pair. The first four sermons dealt directly with Chrysostom’s exegesis of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. These latter two sermons were given on different occasions. References are to page numbers.

Sermon 6:

  • The sermon comes after an earthquake has hit the community: “Have you seen the mortality of the human race? When the earthquake came, I reflected with myself and said, where is theft? Where is greed? Where is tyranny? Where is arrogance? Where is domination? Where is oppression? Where is the plundering of the poor? Where is the arrogance of the rich? Where is the domination of the powerful? Where is intimidation? Where is fear?” (97)

  • Chrysostom searches out the source and cause of the disaster: “So I was not afraid because of the earthquake, but because of the cause of the earthquake; for the cause of the earthquake was the anger of God, and the cause of His anger was our sins. Never fear punishment, but fear sin, the mother of punishment” (101).
  • Chrysostom reiterates a theme from the previous sermons. We are not to judge someone as fortunate based only on their external condition: “In the same way, imagine two sinners, one being punished, the other not being punished. Do no say, this one is lucky because he is rich, he strips orphans of their property, and he oppresses widows. Apparently he is not ill, he has a good reputation in spite of his thefts, he enjoys honor and authority, he does not endure any of the troubles which afflict mankind—no fever, no paralysis, nor any other disease—a chorus of children surrounds him, his old age is comfortable; but you should grieve most for him, because he is indeed ill and receives no treatment” (102).
  • The varieties of sinners characterized as beasts rather than men: “You see, you should not examine his nature but his character, not his appearance but his disposition; and not his disposition only, but investigate his whole way of life. If he loves the poor, he is a human being; but if he is wholly involved in commerce, he is an oak tree. If he has a savage temper, he is a lion; if he is rapacious, he is a wolf; if he is deceitful, he is a cobra. You should say, ‘I am looking for a human being; why have you shown me a beast instead of a man?’ Learn what really is the virtue of a human being, and do not be confused” (107-8).
  • Chrysostom concludes by examining Abraham’s words that Lazarus received the evil that he was due in this life, and the rich man received the rewards he was due. Chrysostom understands this to mean that the evil man has done at least some good, and therefore is rewarded in this life, while the good man has done at least some evil, and therefore is punished in this life.

Sermon 7:

  • A condemnation of worldliness: “For those who are eager to go to the races and the other satanic spectacles, who have no care for self-control and give no thought for virtue, who wish to behave recklessly, who yield themselves to luxury and gluttony, who spend themselves every day in madness and frenzy for money, who strain after the things of the present life—these people walk by the wide gate and the easy road. But when they go farther along, and gather a great burden of sins for themselves, when they are all spent and come to the end of the road, they are no longer able to go any farther, because they are pressed tightly by the narrowness of the road and burdened by the weight of their sins so that they cannot go through” (129).

  • Riches are a blessing and a temptation: “Do not call these things good without qualification, O man, bearing in mind that they are given by the Master in order that by enjoying them in due proportion we may have sustenance for our life and may overcome the weakness of our bodies; but the truly good things are something else. None of these things is good, not luxury, not wealth, not expensive clothing; they have only the name of goodness. Why do I say that they have only the name? They often indeed cause our destruction, when we use them improperly. Wealth will be good for its possessor if he does not spend it only on luxury, or on strong drink and harmful pleasures; if he enjoys luxury in moderation and distributes the rest to the stomachs of the poor, then wealth is a good thing. But if he is going to give himself up to luxury and other profligacy, not only does it not help him at all, but it even leads him down to the deep pit” (136-37).

Next week: Bonaventure, A Defence of the Mendicants (selections), in From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought 100-1625, ed. Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, pp. 312-19.

Readings in Social Ethics: John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty, part 2 of 3. There are six sermons in this text, based on the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. This post deals with the second pair. References are to page numbers.

Sermon 3:

  • A summary and introduction to the series of sermons: “The parable of Lazarus was of extraordinary benefit to us, both rich and poor, teaching the latter to bear their poverty with equanimity, and not allowing the former to be proud of their wealth. It taught us by example that the most pitiable person of all is the one who lives in luxury and shares his goods with nobody” (57).

  • Those who are involved in worldly affairs are not exempt from studying the Scriptures: “What are you saying, man? That attending to the Scriptures is not for you, since you are surrounded by a multitude of cares? Rather it is for you more than for them [monks]. They do not need the help of the divine Scriptures as much as those who are involved in many occupations” (58).
  • The redemptiveness of punishment: “For punishment is not evil, but sin is evil. The latter separates us from God, but the former leads us towards God, and dissolves his anger” (65).
  • Suffering in one form or another is unavoidable in this life: “So if human beings do not persecute us, yet the devil makes war on us. We need great wisdom and perseverance, to keep sober and watchful in prayer, not to desire others’ property, but to distribute our goods to the needy, to reject and repudiate all luxury, whether of clothing or table, to avoid avarice, drunkenness, and slander, to control our tongue and keep from disorderly clamor…to abstain from shameful or witty talk” (68).
  • The question of the theodicy of suffering is raised: “‘But why,’ someone asks, ‘are some punished here, but others only hereafter and not at all here?’ Why? Because if all were punished here, we would all have perished, for we are all subject to penalties. On the other hand, if no one were punished here, most people would become too careless, and many would say there is no providence” (71).
  • The right view of suffering: “In summary, every punishment if it happens to sinners, reduces the burden of sin, but if it happens to the righteous, makes their souls more splendid. A great benefit comes to each of them from tribulation, provided that they bear it with thanksgiving; for this is what is required” (73).

Sermon 4:

  • Why the theodicy of suffering is important: “Nothing tends so much to disturb and scandalize the majority of people as the fact that rich people living in wickedness enjoy good fortune while righteous people living with virtue are driven to extreme poverty and endure a multitude of other troubles even worse than poverty. But this parable is sufficient to provide the remedies, self-control for the rich and consolation for the poor” (82).

  • On corruption and the conscience: “But the court of conscience cannot yield to any of these influences. Whether you give bribes, or flatter, or threaten, or do anything else, this court will bring forth a just judgment against your sinful intentions. He who commits sin himself condemns himself even if no one else accuses him” (88).

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.

Sermon 1:

  • 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).

Sermon 2:

  • 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?

Readings in Social Ethics: Gregory of Nyssa, Love of the Poor. The source is the translation of selections from the piece in an out-of-print anthology: Social Thought, ed. Peter C. Phan, Message of the Fathers of the Church, vol. 20 (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier). The parenthetical references below are to page numbers.

  • The poor have a responsibility to give as they are able. Working together to assist the poor is advisable: “Nevertheless, give what you can; God asks for nothing above your powers. You can give a loaf yourself, another will give a cup of wine, another clothing; thus one man’s hardship will be relieved by your combined aid” (131).

  • But even one family can make a huge difference: “The flow from one river-source brings richness to many a spreading plain; so the wealth of one household is enough to preserve multitudes of the poor, if only a grudging uncharitable heart does not fall like a stone to block the passage and thwart the stream” (132).
  • An argument for equal shares: “All things belong to God, the Father of us and them. We are all of the same stock, all brothers. And when men are brothers, the best and most equitable thing is that they should inherit equal portions. The second best is that even if one or two take the greater part, the others should have at least their own share” (133).

Next week: John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty.

Readings in Social Ethics: Gregory of Nazianzus, On the Love for the Poor. The source is the translation of selections from the piece in an out-of-print anthology: Social Thought, ed. Peter C. Phan, Message of the Fathers of the Church, vol. 20 (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier).

  • The basis for our responsibility to help others is our shared human nature, the identity as created in the image of God: “We must, then, open the doors to all the poor and all those who are victims of disasters, whatever the causes may be, since we have been told to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep (Rom 12:12). And since we are human beings, we must pay our debt of goodness to our fellow human beings, whatever the cause of their plight: orphanhood, exile, cruelty of the master, rashness of those who govern, inhumanity of tax-collectors, brutality of blood-thirsty bandits, greediness of thieves, confiscation or shipwreck” (6).

  • A prayer of supplication: “May God preserve me from being rich while they are indigent, from enjoying robust health if I do not try to cure their diseases, from eating good food, clothing myself well and resting in my home if I do not share with them a piece of my bread and give them, in the measure of my abilities, part of my clothes and if I do not welcome them into my home” (19).
  • The true natural and primal state of human beings is freedom and plenty: “Freedom and wealth were the only law; true poverty and slavery are its transgressions” (25).
  • Our task is to look at this primal state as normative, rather than the state of human society as marred by sin: “You, however, look at the primitive equality, not at the later distinction, not at the law of the powerful, but at the law of the Creator. Help, as much as you can, nature; honor the primitive freedom; respect yourself; cover the dishonor of your family; assist those who are sick and aid those who are needy” (26).

Readings in Social Ethics: Clement of Alexandria, Who Is the Rich Man that Shall be Saved?

  • The soteriological status of the rich: “So also let not the man that has been invested with worldly wealth proclaim himself excluded at the outset from the Saviour’s lists, provided he is a believer and one who contemplates the greatness of God’s philanthropy; nor let him, on the other hand, expect to grasp the crowns of immortality without struggle and effort, continuing untrained, and without contest” (III).

  • The absence of the necessities of life drive people to consider only material needs: “For although such is the case, one, after ridding himself of the burden of wealth, may none the less have still the lust and desire for money innate and living; and may have abandoned the use of it, but being at once destitute of and desiring what he spent, may doubly grieve both on account of the absence of attendance, and the presence of regret. For it is impossible and inconceivable that those in want of the necessaries of life should not be harassed in mind, and hindered from better things in the endeavour to provide them somehow, and from some source” (XII).
  • Wealth is a precondition for charitable giving: “And how much more beneficial the opposite case, for a man, through possessing a competency, both not himself to be in straits about money, and also to give assistance to those to whom it is requisite so to do! For if no one had anything, what room would be left among men for giving?” (XIII)
  • The good of affluence: “Riches, then, which benefit also our neighbours, are not to be thrown away. For they are possessions, inasmuch as they are possessed, and goods, inasmuch as they are useful and provided by God for the use of men; and they lie to our hand, and are put under our power, as material and instruments which are for good use to those who know the instrument” (XIV).
  • The internal condition is of primary concern: “So also a poor and destitute man may be found intoxicated with lusts; and a man rich in worldly goods temperate, poor in indulgences, trustworthy, intelligent, pure, chastened” (XVIII).
  • Lofty claims about the results of giving: “One purchases immortality for money; and, by giving the perishing things of the world, receives in exchange for these an eternal mansion in the heavens!” (XXXII) Could such language be construed in a negative way? In what way is it right to say that one “purchases” eternal life? In what way is it not right?
  • Promiscuous giving: “How then does man give these things? For I will give not only to friends, but to the friends of friends. And who is it that is the friend of God? Do not you judge who is worthy or who is unworthy. For it is possible you may be mistaken in your opinion. As in the uncertainty of ignorance it is better to do good to the undeserving for the sake of the deserving, than by guarding against those that are less good to fail to meet in with the good. For though sparing, and aiming at testing, who will receive meritoriously or not, it is possible for you to neglect some that are loved by God; the penalty for which is the punishment of eternal fire” (XXXIII).
  • How does charity relate to baptism? “Forgiveness of past sins, then, God gives; but of future, each one gives to himself. And this is to repent, to condemn the past deeds, and beg oblivion of them from the Father, who only of all is able to undo what is done, by mercy proceeding from Him, and to blot out former sins by the dew of the Spirit” (XL). Recall Cyprian of Carthage.

Readings in Social Ethics: Cyprian of Carthage, On Works and Alms.

  • Perseverance a work of divine providence: “But, moreover, what is that providence, and how great the clemency, that by a plan of salvation it is provided for us, that more abundant care should be taken for preserving man after he is already redeemed! (1).”

  • The order or law of life for the believer: “For when the Lord at His advent had cured those wounds which Adam had borne, and had healed the old poisons of the serpent, He gave a law to the sound man and bade him sin no more, lest a worse thing should befall the sinner (1).”
  • Do works of themselves purge the stains of sin? How do works committed by the regenerate relate to baptism? “And because in baptism remission of sins is granted once for all, constant and ceaseless labour, following the likeness of baptism, once again bestows the mercy of God (2).”
  • What does Cyprian promise will happen to the wealth of the giver? (9-12)
  • Do the poor have a lesser responsibility to give than the rich?
  • A summary of the blessedness of charity: “An illustrious and divine thing, dearest brethren, is the saving labour of charity; a great comfort of believers, a wholesome guard of our security, a protection of hope, a safeguard of faith, a remedy for sin, a thing placed in the power of the doer, a thing both great and easy, a crown of peace without the risk of persecution; the true and greatest gift of God, needful for the weak, glorious for the strong, assisted by which the Christian accomplishes spiritual grace, deserves well of Christ the Judge, accounts God his debtor (26).”
  • Is there occasion given here in Cyprian’s work for a doctrinal deviation in the form of works righteousness or a prosperity gospel? Might these not be deviations but rather what Cyprian intended? Why or why not?