Men who offer laudatory speeches as presents to the rich may be rightly classed, in my opinion, not only as flatterers and servile, since in the hope of a large return they make a show of granting favors that are really no favors, but also as impious and insidious.
They are impious because, while neglecting to praise and glorify the only perfect and good God, from whom are all things and through whom are all things and to whom are all things, they invest with God’s prerogative men who are wallowing in a riotous and filthy life and, in short, are lying under the judgment of God.
They are insidious because, although mere abundance is by itself quite enough to puff up the souls of its possessors, and to corrupt them, and to turn them aside from the way by which salvation can be reached, these men bring fresh delusion to the minds of the rich by exciting them with the pleasures that come from their immoderate praises, and by rendering them contemptuous of absolutely everything in the world except the wealth which is the cause of their being admired. In the words of the proverb, they carry fire to fire, when they shower pride upon pride, and heap on wealth, heavy by its own nature, the heavier burden of arrogance.
Rather they ought to have diminished and curtailed wealth, as a perilous and deadly disease; for the man who exalts and magnifies himself is in danger of a complete reversal of fortune, namely, the change and fall into low estate, as the divine word teaches.
It seems to me an act far kinder than servile attention to the rich and praise that does them harm if we share the burden of their life and work out salvation for them by every possible means; first by begging them from God, who unfailingly and gladly accords such gifts to God’s own children, and then by healing their souls with reason, through the Savior’s grace, enlightening them and leading them on to the possession of the truth. For only those who have reached the truth and are distinguished in good works shall carry off the prize of eternal life.
That’s from “Who Is the Rich Man That Is Being Saved?” or “The Rich Man’s Salvation,” by Clement of Alexandria, who lived roughly 150-220 CE. (And, yeah, my paraphrase in the previous post was very loose.)
Clement’s book is often characterized as a watershed change in early Christian thinking about wealth and riches in that he made the radical suggestion that it might be possible for a rich man to be saved.
Clement further argued that possessions were not evil in and of themselves, but should be thought of as tools:
They lie at hand and are put at our disposal as a sort of material and as instruments to be well used by those who know. An instrument, if you use it with artistic skill, is a thing of art; but if you are lacking in skill, it reaps the benefit of your unmusical nature, though not itself responsible. Wealth too is an instrument of the same kind. You can use it rightly; it ministers to righteousness. But if one use it wrongly, it is found to be a minister of wrong. For its nature is to minister, not to rule. We must not therefore put the responsibility on that which, having in itself neither good nor evil, is not responsible, but on that which has the power of using things either well or badly, as a result of choice.
Clement also offered a series of other logical arguments — convincing ones, I think — for why wealth and possessions should not be thought of as intrinsically evil. We are commanded to share with one another, he said, yet how can we share if we don’t have anything to be shared? Jesus also told us to befriend the poor and to give them money and possessions. Jesus loved the poor, so why would he tell us to give to his beloved that which was intrinsically evil?
Because of his argument that wealth is a neutral “instrument,” Clement is often characterized as a sell-out. His treatise on “the rich man” has become notorious as the alleged spiritual grandfather of the far less nuanced idea — arising after Constantine, perfected in the Middle Ages, and very popular today — that all that matters is our “attitude” toward wealth and possessions. In its most un-Clementlike form, that has become the idea that superfluity and indulgence are gifts from God, requiring only our gratitude and luxurious enjoyment.
But Clement, like all the Ante-Nicene fathers, taught that “superfluity is theft.” (That phrase came later, from Augustine, but it captures the unanimous teaching of his predecessors.) In another book, a rather legalistic tract against legalism called “The Tutor,” Clement wrote that “it is monstrous for one to live in luxury while many are in want.” That book repeats his argument that wealth is not intrinsically evil, but he warns that it is dangerous, like a snake:
… which will twist round the hand and bite; unless one knows how to lay hold of it without danger by the point of the tail. And riches, wriggling either in an experienced or inexperienced grasp, are dexterous at adhering and biting; unless one, despising them, use them skillfully. …
Because of this grave and venomous danger, Clement ended “Who is the rich man …” by commanding the wealthy would-be Christians to subject themselves to the authority of a mentor who did not share their plenty and privilege. What he describes sounds almost like what Alcoholics Anonymous would call a “sponsor”:
It is therefore an absolute necessity that you who are haughty and powerful and rich should appoint for yourself some man of God as trainer and pilot. Let there be at all events one whom you respect, one whom you fear, one whom you accustom yourself to listen to when he is outspoken and severe, though all the while at your service. … Fear this man when he is angry, and be grieved when he groans; respect him when he stays in his anger, and be before him in begging release from punishment. …
It won’t be easy, Clement said, but “with God all things are possible,” and salvation might therefore be possible even for the wealthy. His message to “the rich man” himself was to devote his life to seeking out the poor and begging them to receive from him his riches:
Give the perishing things of the world and receive in exchange for them an eternal abode in heaven. Set sail, rich man, for this market, if you are wise. Compass the whole earth if need be. Spare not dangers or toils, that here you may buy a heavenly kingdom. Why so delighted with glittering stones and emeralds, with a house that is fuel for fire or a plaything for time or sport for an earthquake or the object of a tyrant’s obsolescence? Desire to live and reign in heaven with God.
This kingdom a man, imitating God, shall give you. Having taken little from you here, he will make you through all the ages a fellow-inhabitant there. Beg him to take it. Hasten, strive earnestly, fear lest he reject you. For he has not been commanded to take, but you to provide. Furthermore, the Lord did not say “give,” or “provide,” or “benefit,” or “help,” but “make a friend,” and a friend is made not from one gift, but from complete relief and long companionship. …
It is interesting that if any Christian these days were to take Clement or any of the other early Christians seriously on the subject of wealth and possessions, that person would be condemned by “conservative” Christians for being suspiciously “liberal.” That suggests to me that these words — “conservative” and “liberal” — are being used in a way that isn’t recognizably consistent with their usual definitions.