The Best Inheritance

The Best Inheritance April 16, 2019
Photo by Nick Youngson / Picpedia.org

“When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous, but dismay to evildoers” (Prov. 21:15 RSV). Those who love what is good and true love justice. Sadly, many pretend to be righteous as they promote some sham form of justice which they say must be followed. They say they are for law and order while they use whatever power they have to oppress others. True justice will never be used to harm the innocent. True righteousness will love true justice and so will seek to alleviate the distresses of the poor and afflicted and restores to them what has been unjustly taken from them. Those who are righteous, those who seek righteousness, will always seek what is just. “And if any one loves righteousness, her labors are virtues; for she teaches self-control and prudence, justice and courage; nothing in life is more profitable for men than these” (Wis. 8:7 RSV). Someone who ignores the dictates of justice shows they are far from righteous. When injustice rules, when laws are unjust, not only will the righteous disobey such terrible laws, they will seek to overturn the so-called rule of law and establish justice in its wake.

Likewise, those who love righteousness, those who seek to possess it in themselves, will seek it not only for themselves but for all: they will not horde their righteousness to themselves; instead they will desire to share it, that is, to give it away as their inheritance to the world at large. Thus, in the letters of St. Ammonas, the co-worker and successor of St. Antony at Pispir, we read what can be seen as his last will and testament, where he states that he wanted to give to his audience a share in the righteousness which he had achieved as their inheritance from him:

Here is this paper which I, your father, have written to you; this is the inheritance of righteous fathers, which they make for their children and leave to them to inherit in righteousness. Fathers according to the flesh leave to their children an inheritance of gold and silver. But the righteous leave this inheritance to their children: righteousness. The patriarchs were very rich in gold and silver, yet when they were near to dying they gave no other commandment to their children save about righteousness; for this remains to the ages of ages.

God and silver are corruptible, and belong to this short-lived tabernacle; but righteousness is of that dwelling-place which abides to the ages of ages for man. Therefore the inheritance which your fathers give you is righteousness. [1]

Silver and gold perish. They cannot be held indefinitely. Even if we could acquire great wealth, and possess it throughout our life, we will lose it when we die.  The value of material wealth is limited. Righteousness, on the other hand, remains with us, even after we die. What we have achieved will be with us and follow us into eternity. That is why those who have heeded the wisdom of the holy fathers and mothers of old have taken the best inheritance of all. Those who are righteous, even if they have no material wealth to give, offer true riches to their heirs, if only their heirs will listen.

In this way, the author of the book of Hebrews can be seen looking and enjoying his inheritance as he examined the virtues of the holy ones of Israel:

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets —  who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight (Hebr. 11:32-34 RSV).

What do we learn here? By establishing justice in the world, the holy ones who came before us created a social structure which could be and was handed down as an inheritance shared by all.  Obviously, not all of the holy men and women of old were as skilled at establishing justice in the world, but those who pursued holiness sought not to impede justice but rather, to follow the dictates of God and the justice which God demanded. “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8 RSV). This was the inheritance the prophets wanted to give to Israel when they explained how Israel could and would receive the blessings of God. Thus, Jeremiah told the Sons of Josiah that their house can stand only if they held up to the dictates of justice:

Thus says the LORD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.  For if you will indeed obey this word, then there shall enter the gates of this house kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they, and their servants, and their people. But if you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the LORD, that this house shall become a desolation (Jer. 22:3-5 RSV).

The holy ones of God knew that there was no righteousness to be found in those who rejected the demands of justice. They did what they could to bring justice to the world. Sometimes, it might have been on a very small scale, helping people in need one by one, but those who had authority, those who had the means to change the structures of society did what they could to do transform society as a whole and make sure they left behind a better government.

Truly, it is a wonderful inheritance to the world to leave society in a better shape, to work for and promote the poor, the widow, the orphan, the sojourner and immigrant, the persecuted of the world; it is even better to change society so that they are welcomed by society as a whole, with rules and regulations put in place to protect their dignity. On the other hand, those who ignore justice, those who belittle the poor and needy, are far from righteous, and they risk the consequences of their injustice, even as those societies who treat them poorly risk grave condemnation: “Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression,  to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey!”  (Isa. 10:1-2 RSV).

Do we truly love our children? Do we love our nation? Do we, likewise, love others? Do we want what is best for them? Then we will offer them the gift of righteousness, for that is a gift which is better than all the gold and silver in the world. It will be something which they can hold to and keep even as they pass it on to others.  If we want to look to the future, if we want to leave behind a good and proper inheritance, we will follow the example of St. Ammonas and look for the way we can share righteousness to our successors. This can be done in as many ways as there are persons. Some are more skilled with words and wisdom, and will leave behind then words which will explain what should be done, offering as a proper inheritance the prudence which is needed to make the world a better place. But all of that will be nothing if justice itself is ignored. Those who seek self-righteousness while ignoring injustice in the world will find what they leave behind is as perishable as moth-ridden clothing; they must, therefore, promote justice when and where they can. Then, with social structures changing for the better, they will leave behind to the world a good inheritance; but woe to those who care not for the next generation, who seek wealth and fame for themselves at the expense of others. Those who pervert justice, those who defile and pollute the earth, show they are far from righteous, which is why what they hand over will be in such a terrible state, that the next generation can be said to inherit the consequences of their sins, an evil inheritance indeed. Who truly can be said to love their children, their families, or their nation, if they leave behind such a terrible legacy to others?


[1] Ammonas, The Letters of Ammonas. Trans. Derwas J. Chitty (Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press, 1995), 23 [Letter XIV].

 

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