Charity And Wealth

Charity And Wealth January 3, 2024

Lawrence OP: Gospel Treasure — Detail From 5th Century Baptistry In Ravenna / flickr

True wealth is wealth which lasts, wealth that is eternal, and so not ephemeral. Jesus said that such wealth is not to be found in “treasures on earth” but in “treasures in heaven”:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal,  but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:19-21 RSV).

The way many Christians treat earthly riches can be quite embarrassing as they consider the possession of such wealth as an important indication of God’s blessings upon them, and that those who have it should be respected and treated better than those who have little or none. Indeed, many look down upon the poor and needy saying that their poverty comes from laziness or some other sin, leading them to say the poor should not be coddled or helped. They have not paid attention to Scripture because it consistently undermines such a perspective. We are expected to care for and help the poor and needy, while we are to warn the rich that they should use their wealth for the good of all or they will face the consequences of their greed. This, of course, is all about earthly riches, for true wealth, by its nature, is charitable, and those who possess it will not need such a warning.

Sadly, so many Christians have lost sense of the charity they are meant to have, which is why they are quick to look down upon those who need it most. They feel that everyone is responsible for themselves, leading them to think that those who do not “make something of their lives” only have themselves to blame. They do not realize  that their attitude makes them spiritually impoverished, and what they say about those who are not materially wealth applies spiritually to themselves. For it is only embracing and engaging a spirit of charity do we find ourselves coming to possess that which makes us truly rich, that is, God:

If you possess charity, you have God; if you have God, what do you not possess? If a rich man does not have charity, what does he have? If a poor man has charity, what does he lack? Perhaps you think that he is a rich man whose coffers are full of gold, and he is not rich whose conscience is full of God. That is not true, brethren. A man really seems to be rich, if God deigns to dwell in him. [1]

It is in charity, that is, love, we find the wealth of the kingdom of God. We can possess it, to be sure, if we have earthly wealth, but only if we use such wealth in the way it should be used, that is, not for our own pleasure at the expense of others, but rather, for the promotion of the common good. That is why someone who is materially wealthy should not be prejudged as being far from the kingdom of God, for it is possible that they are being good stewards of the resources they have been given. Nonetheless, the possession of material wealth leads to all kinds of temptations as it suggests to those who possess it that they should use it for their own private pleasure, and to make sure they can continue to do so, they should do all they can to make more wealth for themselves, even if it means finding a way to take it from others. If they do as their temptations suggest, they then lose all sense of charity and excuse their behavior on the fact that the poor only have themselves to blame for their poverty. Such an attitude will lead them to become poor in regards the spiritual wealth, and if they have lacked mercy for others, they risk not getting mercy for themselves. They have ignored the expectations of charity and instead embraced the way of greed, and unless they repent and make restitution, they will experience the end which greed brings to it.

Charity can be embraced in a variety of ways – those who have more material wealth should use what they have to help those in need, but those who have little to no such wealth still have the gift of themselves, which means, how they treat and deal with others will be the means by which they engage the demands of charity:

Therefore, since we have no reason to excuse ourselves, the man to whom God has given more than he needs should redeem his sins out of his superfluity. If a man is unable to redeem captives or feed and clothe the poor, he should not harbor in his heart hatred for anyone. Not only should he not fail to return evil for evil, but he should love his enemies and not cease to pray for them. [2]

Charity is about far more than giving material support to those in need. It is about love. Those who have money will use it to help those they love. Those who do not have it will find other ways to show their affection. This is also why charity does not end when the expectations of justice have been met; if everyone were materially satisfied, the expectations of charity would not end, but only begin.  Similarly, this is also why, just because someone gives money or some other aid to the poor, they have not necessarily embraced true charity; they might give the money to make a show of it, trying to make themselves look good in front of others, hoping to receive praise for what they have done. With such an attitude, their action is not one of charity, but, at best, a false imitation of it; those who act in such way, claiming they want to promote charity but do so to lift themselves up, are hypocrites, especially as many of them can be seen to treat those they help with contempt:

We must flee from hypocrisy, brothers, we must flee from it; since it is a slave to praise, it does not relieve the shame of the poor, but it makes it worse; out of the groaning of the needy it seeks a pompous and boastful display of itself; it inflates its own glory from the agony of the poor; from the misery of the beggar it spreads the fame of its own ostentatiousness. [3]

The Christian spirit should be one of charity, one that is, of love, where everyone is looked upon as someone worthy of love. An imitation of charity, that is, an act done to help someone else without such love being in the equation, always carries with it some sort of defilement which ultimately will undermine the good which is accomplished. And yet, even if there is no charity involved, the poor need material support, they need help; if it is given, not out of love, but out of a duty, that show, however defiled, there remains an objective good involved with the act. We can and should hope that such good might influence the giver so that they go from beyond the mere objective good and embrace the greater good with charity. But if that does not happen, the poor in need at least gains some amount of the justice which is their due, which is why, also, we should not be opposed to the just distribution of goods even if it is not done out of charity.


[1] St. Caesarius of Arles, Sermons Volume I (1-80). Trans. Mary Magdeleine Mueller, OSF (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1956), 115 [Sermon 22].

[2] St. Caesarius of Arles, Sermons Volume I , 162 [Sermon 32].

[3] St. Peter Chrysologus, Selected Sermons. Volume 2. Trans. Willam B Palardy (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2004),49 [Sermon 9].

 

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