Robbing the Poor: Chrysostom on Wealth and Poverty

St. John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) was an archbishop, preacher, theChrysostomologian, and reformer who lived in the early days of the Byzantine empire.  His eloquence and rhetorical gifts posthumously earned him the sobriquet “Goldenmouth” (Gk. Χρυσόστομος).

One of Chrysostom’s most enduring legacies lies in the homilies that fortunately have come down to us—in the hundreds. A constant theme in these sermons is Christ’s concern for the poor. John was often more bold than tactful, especially when it came to the excesses of wealth. He is often called an ascetic. Yet it must be pointed out that he was not opposed to wealth per se, but against the misuse of it, especially conspicuous consumption and the cruel chasm between rich and poor that characterized the great cities of the empire. While his candor on the subject delighted the masses, it caused him no end of trouble with the ruling classes and clergy. He once railed against the foolish fad among wealthy women of using silver chamber pots.

…When Christ is famishing, do you revel in such luxury, act so foolishly? …Another, made after the image of God, is perishing of cold; and you’re furnishing yourself with such things as these? O the senseless pride! …Do you pay such honor to your excrements as to receive them in silver? I know you’re shocked at hearing this; but it’s the women who make such things who ought to be shocked and the husbands that minister to such distempers. For this is wantonness, and savageness, and inhumanity, and brutishness, and lasciviousness. (Homily 7 on Colossians)

He also referred to an emperor’s wife, known for her extravagance, as “Herodias.” That one earned him banishment for life.

Chrysostom lived at a time not unlike our own, when greed and corruption were rampant; the rich grew richer and the poor poorer; the wealthy feasted and spent money recklessly while the lower classes starved or groaned under crushing debt; and no one called the powerful to account. He treated with primary importance the Lord’s warning that our salvation depends on how we treat the poor, who are the embodiment of Christ.

Let’s listen in on a few of these sermons to hear what he has to teach us:

…[H]e is not rich who is surrounded by many possessions, but he who does not need many possessions; and he is not poor who possesses nothing, but he who requires many things. We ought to consider this to be the distinction between poverty and wealth. When, therefore, you see any one longing for many things, esteem him of all men the poorest, even though he possess all manner of wealth; again, when you see one who does not wish for many things, judge him to be of all men most affluent, even if he possess nothing. For by the condition of our mind, not by the quantity of our material wealth, should it be our custom to distinguish between poverty and affluence…

…[I]t is as if we were sitting in a theatre, and looking at the players on the stage. Do not, when you see many abounding in wealth, think that they are in reality wealthy, but dressed up in the semblance of wealth. And as one man, representing on the stage a king or a general, often may prove to be a household servant, or one of those who sell figs or grapes in the market; thus the rich, man may often chance to be the poorest of all. For if you remove his mask and examine his conscience, and enter into his inner mind, you will find there great poverty as to virtue, and ascertain that he is the meanest of men. As also, in the theatre, as evening closes in, and the spectators depart, those who come forth divested of their theatrical ornaments, who seemed to all to be kings and generals, now are seen to be whatever they are in reality; even so with respect to this life, when death comes, and the theatre is deserted, when all, having put off their masks of wealth or of poverty, depart hence, being judged only by their works, they appear, some really rich, some poor; some in honor, some in dishonor. Thus it often happens, that one of those who are here the most wealthy, is there most poor…

…This also is robbery—not to impart our good things to others…It is said to be deprivation when we retain things taken from others. And in this way, therefore, we are taught that if we do not bestow alms, we shall be treated in the same way as those who have been extortioners. Our Lord’s things they are, from whencesoever we may obtain them. And if we distribute to the needy we shall obtain for ourselves great abundance. And for this it is that God has permitted you to possess much—not that you should spend it in fornication, in drunkenness, in gluttony, in rich clothing, or any other mode of luxury, but that you should distribute it to the needy. And just as if a receiver of taxes, having in charge the king’s property, should not distribute it to those for whom it is ordered, but should spend it for his own enjoyment, he would pay the penalty and come to ruin; thus also the rich man is, as it were, a receiver of goods which are destined to be dispensed to the poor—-to those of his fellow-servants who are in want. If he then should spend upon himself more than he really needs, he will pay hereafter a heavy penalty. For the things he has are not his own, but are the things of his fellow-servants.

…[N]ot to share our own riches with the poor is a robbery of the poor, and a depriving them of their livelihood; and that which we possess is not only our own, but also theirs. (Discourse 2 on the Rich Man and Lazarus)

Tell me, then, what is the source of your wealth? From whom did you receive it, and from whom the one who transmitted it to you? “From his father and his grandfather.” But can you go back through the many generations and show the acquisition just? It cannot be. The root and origin of it must have been injustice. Why? Because God in the beginning did not make one man rich and another poor. Nor did he later show one treasures of gold and deny the other the right to search for it. He left the earth free to all alike. Why then, if it is common, do you have so many acres of land, while your neighbor has no portion of it? ….(Homily 12 on 1Tim)

I am often reproached for continually attacking the rich. Yes, because the rich are continually attacking the poor. But those I attack are not the rich as such, only those who misuse their wealth. I point out constantly that those I accuse are not the rich but the rapacious. Wealth is one thing, covetousness another. Learn to distinguish.  (Homily on the Fall of Eutropius)

Do you wish to honor the Body of the Savior? Do not despise him when he is naked. Do not honor him in church with silk vestments while outside he is naked and numb with cold. He who said, “This is my body,” and made it so by his word, is the same that said, “You saw me hungry and you gave me no food. As you did it not to the least of these, you did it not to me.” Honor him then by sharing your property with the poor. For what God needs is not golden chalices but golden souls.

…It is such a slight thing I beg…nothing very expensive…bread, a roof, words of comfort. [If the rewards I promised hold no appeal for you] then show at least a natural compassion when you see me naked, and remember the nakedness I endured for you on the cross…I fasted for you then, and I suffer for you now; I was thirsty when I hung on the cross, and I thirst still in the poor, in both ways to draw you to myself to make you humane for your own salvation. (Homily 50 on Matthew)

Do you wish to see his altar? …This altar is composed of the very members of Christ…This altar you can see lying everywhere, in the alleys and in the agoras and you can sacrifice upon it anytime…invoke the spirit not with words but with deeds. (Homily 20 on 2Corinthians)

 You eat in excess; Christ eats not even what he needs. You eat a variety of cakes; he eats not even a piece of dried bread. You drink fine Thracian wine; but on him you have not bestowed so much as a cup of cold water. You lie on a soft and embroidered bed; but he is perishing in the cold…You live in luxury on things that properly belong to him…At the moment, you have taken possession of the resources that belong to Christ and you consume them aimlessly. Don’t you realize that you are going to be held accountable? (Homily 48 on Matthew)

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