Two days ago we heard in the beatitudes of Luke’s Gospel the strange words: “Blessed are you who are poor…. Woe to you who are rich.”
Today’s saint, John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople and Father of the Church, took these words seriously and his sermons and writings provide challenging commentaries on poverty and riches.
I doubt that few preachers would get away with what he said. In fact, he was twice sent into exile, dying during the second exile.
As I see it, for Chrysostom the two major sins of the wealthy were the unjust appropriation of wealth (which he called fraud) and the refusal to share.
For him, riches were given to humans to steward, for the good of all.
Thus, “…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.”
Not sharing one’s possessions with the poor is not just a failure of charity; it is, according to Chrysostom theft: “When we do not show mercy, we will be punished, just like those who steal.”
Wealth is meant to be spread around and failure to do so is sinful:
those who have something more than necessity demands and spend it on themselves instead of distributing it to their needy fellow servants, they will be meted out terrible punishments. For what they possess is not personal property; it belongs to their fellow servants.
But Chrysostom was not content to call on the rich to share with the poor. They also had to be just.
I do not ask you mercifully to render from what you have plundered, but to abstain from fraud…. For unless you desist from robbery, you are not actually giving alms. Even though you should give ever so much money to the needy, if you do not desist from your fraud and robbery you shall be numbered by God among the murderers.
This was not class warfare. As Chrysostom said, “I do not say these things simply to accuse the rich or praise the poor. For it is not wealth that is evil, but the evil use of wealth. Nor is poverty good, but the use of poverty.”
Chrysostom reminds us, as did many of the Fathers of the early church, that we are called to be one community of love, sharing with each other, so that, as it was said of the early community, “there are no poor among us.”
For this we need changes, personally and socially, we need charity and justice. And above all we need to go beyond a sense of entitlement to a sense of community, belonging to each other.
As Chrysostom said:
For “mine” and “thin” – those chilly words which introduce interminable wars into the world – should be eliminated from that holy Church… the poor would not envy the rich because they are rich. Neither would the poor be despised by the rich, for there would be no poor. All things would be in common.
Chrysostom’s words may seem unrealistic – but they should give us pause to contemplate how far are we – personally, as members of the Church, and as citizens of our nations – from the will of God.
The quotes from Chrysostom are taken from St. John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984) and Charles Avila, Ownership: Early Christian Teaching (Orbis Books, 1983)