“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.”
-St. John Chrysostom
St. John reflects the attitude of the ancient saints who believed, given the words of Jesus such as
But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. (Lk 6:24).
“Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mt 19:23–24).
“Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” (Lk 12:15–21).
… that the rich person has the burden of proof to show that he is not the rapacious one St. John condemns. The rich get no presumption of innocence in the kingdom. The presumption of the gospel–always in the preaching of Jesus–is that the rich man is a thief who has stolen from the poor man the possessions that are his by right.
That does not mean the rich man cannot be saved. But it does mean that salvation looks like this for him:
And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Lk 19:8–10).
What it never ever ever ever looks like is the concentration of immense wealth in the hands of a tiny elite while a billion people starve. What it never ever ever ever looks like is “If someone takes your cloak, that’s theft. Stand your ground and blow his head off.” The entire American struggle to hold on to our stuff and the immense industry of armed fear that goes into guarding it–especially by the super-wealthy–is diametrically opposed to the gospel. Jesus says, without any qualification whatsoever:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you. (Mt 5:38–42).
Christian antiquity saw the wealth of its members in exactly the way Paul saw every other spiritual gift given to the members of the body of Christ: as something God gave us to use for the building up of the Body and for supplying the needs of those who were poor. Those chosen for the gift of wealth were chosen for the sake of the unchosen just as Abraham was chosen for so that all the nations of the earth would be blessed.
That’s why St. John Chrysostom says that the rich exist for the sake of the poor and the poor exist for the salvation of the rich. He is just stating in a pithier way what Jesus himself says:
Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations. (Lk 16:9).
He turns the idea of patronage–of sucking up to the rich of this world–on its head and tells us that on That Day it will be how we treated the least of these (and their prayers for or curses against us) that will matter, not how much treasure we put away on earth.
As we move deeper into Lent, think about how much of our almsgiving is really just simple justice, repaying the poor what they are owed in justice and not “charity”:
“Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.” – St. John Chrysostom
PS: For Lent, Imma dial it back on the blog for Lent and only post on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturday. Just so’s you know.