Chrysostom on wealth

The thought of St. John Chrysostom, the fourth century archbishop of Constantinople and one of the great Greek fathers of the Church, has been a major influence on my beliefs concerning the nature and proper use of wealth, as his thought a compelling commentary on the biblical treatment of wealth and poverty. Chrysostom, as the leading Church figure in Constantinople, an expansive urban center and the seat of power in the Byzantine Empire, was surrounded by extremes. Around him were the highest degrees of wealth among the aristocracy whom he preached to daily in the cathedral as well as the poorest segments of society which he encountered among the many beggars and poor artisans and merchants of the city. As a result of his daily experience of extremes of wealth and poverty, Chrysostom often turned to these topics in his homilies, exhorting the poor to prayer and away from envy and encouraging the rich to charity rather than ostentation. One of his most succinct treatments of wealth is found in his 27th homily on the Gospel of St. John.

There, Chrysostom defines wealth in a manner that draws upon the biblical notion, found in, for example, the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), that wealth, as the sum total of one’s material possessions, is a loan that God, as the source of all the entire material world, gives to men in the hope that they will use it wisely. Everything on earth, says Chrysostom, is really God’s and God, in his munificence, shares it with the rich. Chrysostom combines this definition of wealth with the identification of Christ with those in need in the discourse on the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), which immediately follows the Parable of the Talents in the Gospel of Matthew.

Bringing these two together, Chrysostom imagines the poor as the source of the loaned wealth of the rich. “Gladly doth He hunger that thou mayest be fed; naked doth He go that He may provide for thee the materials for a garment of incorruption,” Chrysostom tells his congregation of wealthy aristocrats. Cautioning them against hoarding their wealth, Chrysostom continues, “some of your garments are moth-eaten, others are a load to your coffers, and a needless trouble to their possessors, while He who gave you these and all else that you possesses goeth naked.” Warning his listeners against ostentatious displays of their wealth, Chrysostom exhorts them to charity, saying, “they will not admire thee who wearest such apparel, but the man who supplies garments to the needy.” Because of Christ’s identification of himself with the needy, Chrysostom explains, to share one’s wealth with the poor is not to “bestow as a favor,” but rather the repayment of a debt.

Because the sharing of wealth is simultaneously the repayment of a debt and the assistance of one in need, says Chrysostom, “he who repays both bestows his gifts on a benefactor, and himself reaps their fruit besides.” Chrysostom does not exhort his congregation to charity only “because I care for the poor,” he says, but “because I care for your souls.” Chrysostom even goes so far as to tell his wealthy congregants that “none can rescue you from hell, if you obtain not the help of the poor.”Chrysostom imagines a relationship of reciprocity between the poor and the rich, in which the two act symbolically as Christ to one another, the rich repaying their debt to God through the poor and the poor, in turn, acting to intercede for the rich in prayer and through an ascetical endurance of their state.

This definition of wealth as a loan from God as a means of salvation for its possessor presents a way of understanding wealth that is worthy of consideration as an alternative to current modes of thought on wealth. Chrysostom’s way of thinking is one in which the poor are not reduced to objects of pity and condescension and in which the understanding of wealth as a social good is not reduced to forced communalization of wealth or bureaucratization of charity. Instead, both wealth and poverty are viewed in the light of the redemptive work of Christ, as mutually compatible and even simultaneously necessary means to salvation for all mankind.

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