Friday, September 14, 2007
St. John Chrysostom and the Problem of Wealth
As my sidebar has noted, I've been reading sermons of St. John Chrysostom dealing with wealth and poverty. These sermons focus primarily on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, but this is really only the starting point. This is St. John at his best; passionate, eloquent and rigorous. It is bracing stuff, especially when read in the modern West where even the working class are richer than anything than St. John would have dreamt of. In the ancient world, there was virtually no social safety net (short of what Christians, Jews and some voluntary associations could give) and little or no sense about what to do about the poor. Indeed, there was, then as now, a tendency to blame the poor. I wonder what is the difference between viewing the poor as accursed and setting up snitch lines for welfare fraud?
St. John is uncompromising about his attitude to wealth. That is, of course, part of what got him into trouble in Constantinople, when he castigated the rich of the imperial capital for their excesses even to the point of attacking the empress. That didn't win him friends, but I doubt if he was interested in doing that. His attitude to wealth is not the reflexive assumption that anyone who is rich is corrupt which is the implication of many poverty activists out there. Rather St. John insists that any wealth we have we hold in trust for God and for doing God's service. That is, if we are spending more than we need on ourselves and not helping those who are in poverty, we are being truly bad stewards.
His example, par excellence, is the rich man in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Matthew), who neglects a desperately poor man begging at his door, but pleads that the same poor man be sent to relieve his torments in Hell or prevent those future torments of the rich man's relations. As St. John points out, this rich man has been an atrociously bad steward and he is suffering the consequences of it. His implication is that this is what will happen to those who prosper and gain riches without recognizing that they are only holding it in trust for God.
One of the striking elements of these sermons is St. John's image of sin as illness and that Scripture is one of the healing instruments which God uses. As John points out, Abraham's contention that the rich man's relatives wouldn't listen to a resurrected Lazarus if they didn't listen to Moses and the prophets underlines the importance of Scripture and our predecessors in faith. There are sufficient guides to how to behave, but we have to submit to the treatment that God administers through them. That treatment can be painful, but its benefits cannot be underestimated.
As I've been reading these sermons, I keep thinking about our finances. Like many new parents in our city, we are struggling to work out how to buy a house and run a household on, effectively, one income. It is easy to bemoan the fact that I can't go out as much as we'd like, buy books as much as I'd like (that is very much one of my vices) and what not. We can feel very poor. Yet, if I look around, I have to admit that we are fairly rich: we have an apartment, enough food and a goodly amount of possessions (including books!). And that gets me thinking how good a steward I am. I wonder what St. John would say, if we had him over.