Back in the days, people really could write. In the patristics course I’m taking, I’m writing about early Christian attitudes toward wealth and community of goods. In my research I found this awesome sermon by Basil the Great (330-379) – a commentary to Matthew 19:16-22 simply called “To the rich”. Basil is one of the most influential church fathers, known for his defense of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and boy he had some serious stuff to say about rich folks. I think the text is really prophetic in that it speaks directly to the unequal, consumerist, individualist society of today. Enjoy!
You call him teacher, and you won’t do his lessons? You acknowledge him to be good, and what he gives you you throw away? But, surely, he who is good supplies good things; this is obvious. Although what you ask about is eternal life, you give proof of being utterly addicted to the enjoyment of this present life. What, after all, is this hard, heavy, burdensome word which the Teacher has put forward? “Sell what you have, and give to the poor.”
If he had laid upon you agricultural toils, or hazardous mercantile ventures, or so many other troubles which are incidental to the life of the wealthy, then you’d have had cause for sorrow, taking the order badly; but when he calls you by so easy a road, without toil or sweat, to show yourself an inheritor of eternal life, you are not glad for the ease of salvation, but you go away pained at heart and mourning, making useless for yourself all that you had labored at beforehand. […]
Now, you are obviously very far from having observed one commandment at least, and you falsely swore that you had kept it, namely, that you’ve loved your neighbor as yourself. For see: the Lord’s commandment proves you to be utterly lacking in real love. For if what you’ve claimed were true, that you have kept from your youth the commandment of love, and have given to each person as much as to yourself, how has it come to you, this abundance of money?
For it takes wealth to care for the needy: a little paid out for the necessity of each person you take on, and all at once everything gets parceled out, and is spent upon them. Thus, the man who loves his neighbor as himself will have acquired no more than what his neighbor has; whereas you, visibly, have acquired a lot. Where has this come from? Or is it not clear, that it comes from making your private enjoyment more important than helping other people?
Therefore, however much you exceed in wealth, so much so do you fall short in love: else long since you’d have taken care to be divorced from your money, if you had loved your neighbor. But now your money sticks to you closer than the limbs of your body, and he who would separate you from it grieves you more than someone who would cut off your vital parts.
For if you had clothed the naked, if you had given your bread to the hungry, if you had opened your doors to every stranger, if you’d become a father to orphans, if you had suffered together with all the powerless, what possessions would now be causing you despondency? Why should you now be upset to put aside what’s left, when you’d long since have taken care to distribute these things to the needy? […]
But how do you make use of money? By dressing in expensive clothing? Won’t two yards of tunic suffice you, and the covering of one coat satisfy all your need of clothes? But is it for food’s sake that you have such a demand for wealth? One bread-loaf is enough to fill a belly. Why are you sad, then? What have you been deprived of? The status that comes from wealth? But if you would stop seeking earthly status, you should then find the true, resplendent kind that would conduct you into the kingdom of heaven.
But what you love is simply to possess wealth, even if you derive no help from it. Now everyone knows that an obsession for useless things is mindless. Just so, what I am going to say should seem to you no greater paradox; and it is utterly, absolutely true. When wealth is dispersed, in the way the Lord advises, it naturally stays put; but when held back it is transferred to another. If you hoard it, you won’t keep it; if you scatter, you won’t lose. For (says the scripture), “He has dispersed, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever” (Ps 112:9).
But it isn’t for the sake of clothing or food that riches are a matter of such concern to so many people; but, by a certain wily artifice of the devil, countless pretexts of expenditure are proposed to the rich, so that they strive for superfluous, useless things as though they were necessary, and so that nothing measures up to their conception of what they should spend. For they divide up their wealth with a view to present and future uses; and they assign the one portion to themselves, and the other to their children.
[Here, Basil presents a looooong list of luxuries and superfluities that the rich consume and own]
“It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Lk 18:25). But, while this statement is so plain, and its speaker so unerring, scarcely anyone is persuaded by it. “So how are we supposed to live without possessions?” they say. “What kind of life will that be, selling everything, being dispossessed of everything?” Don’t ask me for the rationale of the Master’s commandments. He who lays down the law knows how to bring even what is incapable into accordance with the law.
But as for you, your heart is tested as on a balance, to see if it shall incline towards the true life or towards immediate gratification. For it is right for those who are prudent in their reasonings to regard the use of money as a matter of stewardship, not of selfish enjoyment; and those who lay it aside ought to rejoice as though separated from things alien, not be embittered as though deprived of what is nearest and dearest. So why become depressed? Why are you so sick at heart, when you hear the words, “Sell your possessions”?
For if, on the one hand, these possessions could follow you into the afterlife, they should not therefore be highly valued, when next to the prizes that await there they should be thrown into the shade; on the other hand, if they must stay here, why don’t we sell them and get back from them what can be gained? When you give up gold, and acquire a horse, you are not in poor spirits; but when it comes to giving up things corruptible, and receiving in return the kingdom of heaven, you weep, and deny the asker, and shake your head at the gift, having your mind set upon a thousand and one ways of spending money.
What answer shall you make to the judge, you who dress walls, but will not clothe a man; who spruce up horses, and overlook an unfashionable brother; who leave grain to rot, but will not feed the starving; who bury your money and despise the oppressed? And truly, if you dwell with a covetous wife, the sickness is redoubled: she turns up the flame on luxuries, she multiplies hedonisms, and provokes overactive longings, while she sets her fancy upon various stones: pearls, and emeralds, and sapphires; as also gold, some forged, some woven: aggravating the disease with every form of bad taste. For it’s not a part-time occupation, these concerns, but night and day are caught up in their cares. […]
When you hear it said, “Sell your possessions, and give to the poor,” so that you might have provisions for heavenly enjoyment, you go away grieving; but if you should hear, “Give money for pampering your wife, give to stonemasons, carpenters, mosaic pebble-layers, portrait-painters,” you rejoice as though you had acquired some high-rated annuities. […]
When I enter the house of a man who is tasteless and nouveau-riche, and see it shimmering with every kind of flowery crass trinket, I apprehend that this man has acquired nothing more valuable in his life than visible things, but, while he gives what is soulless a facelift, he possesses an unbeautified soul. Tell me, what better service do silver beds and silver tables, ivory sofas and ivory chairs provide, when because of these things wealth fails to pass over to the poor, and thousands huddle about the door, all of them letting loose a miserable howl?
You, however, refuse to give, declaring that it’s impossible to satisfy those who ask. With your tongue you excuse yourself, but by your own hand you’re convicted; for even in silence your hand proclaims your falsehood, sparkling round from the ring on your finger. How many people could one of your fingers release from debt? How many broken-down homes could be rebuilt? One box of your clothing would be able to dress the whole shivering populace; but you, unfeeling, dismiss the needy, not fearing the just repayment of the Judge. You have not shown mercy, you shall not receive mercy; you’ve not opened your home, you shall be evicted from the kingdom. You haven’t given of your bread; neither shall you receive eternal life.