“Let us examine not the outer garments, but the conscience of each person.”—Saint John Chrysostom
It is true that Jesus told His disciples that “you always have the poor with you.” But He went on to say that “whenever you will, you can do good to them” [Mark 14:7. Though Jesus allowed and defended the “costly” pre-burial anointing He received from an anonymous woman as a recognition of the love which prompted her to perform this act—one of highly symbolic significance—He clearly and repeatedly taught of our need to recognize the poor and needy in our midst. In this teaching, He was clearly upholding the teaching of the prophets that went before Him and prepared the way for Him.
The Parable of the Last Judgement [Matthew 25:31-46] and the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man bear this out with great power and authority. Being “realists,” we understand that the world will always be the home of countless impoverished human beings, and that injustice, indifference and greed will remain as some of the reasons behind this sorry state of affairs, in addition to the other complex social and environmental factors that are appealed to. Though the early Church Fathers did not challenge the social structures of their own times (the world of late antiquity) in a systematic manner; they eloquently and passionately appealed to the moral conscience of their flocks and fellow Christians to alleviate the distress of the poor whenever possible.
This is certainly true of Saint John Chrysostom, who consistently intrepreted the Gospel so as to inspire the moral and ethical sensibilities of his flock toward a Christ-like response to those in need. In a stirring series of six homilies on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Saint John goes beneath the surface in order to disclose the true meaning of “theft” from the perspective of the Gospel:
“I shall bring you testimony from the divine Scriptures, saying that not only the theft of others’ goods but also the failure to share one’s own good with others is theft and swindle and defraudation. What is this testimony? Accusing the Jews by the prophet, God says, ‘The earth has brought forth her increase, and you have not brought forth our tithes; but the theft of the poor is in your houses. [cf. Malachi 3:8-10]. Since you have not given the accustomed offering, He says, you have stolen the goods of the poor. He says this to show the rich that they hold the goods of the poor even if they have inherited them from their fathers or no matter how they have gathered their wealth. And elsewhere the Scripture says, ‘Deprive not the poor of his living’ [Sirach. 4:1]. To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others. By this we are taught that when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal. For our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it. If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty. This is why God has allowed you to have more: not for you to waste on prostitutes, drink, fancy food, expensive clothes, and all the other kinds of indulgence, but for you to distribute to those in need ... If you are affluent, but spend more than you need, you will give an account of the funds which were entrusted to you…. For you have obtained more than others have, and you have received it, not to spend it for yourself, but to become a good steward for others as well” [Homily II].
Listening to the voice of Saint John Chrysostom, I may now have to confess to being a “thief” together with my many other sins! As often happens when listening to Saint John as a thundering voice reaching forward from the recesses of the distant past into the present, and speaking on behalf of the Gospel, our “comfort zones” are assaulted as he drives home our responsibilites without allowing much room for self-righteous contentment. Yet, all this takes is a simple appeal to the Scriptures. Undermining conventional wisdom about the twin realities of “wealth” and “poverty,” Saint John reverses these categories also in the light of the Gospel ideal of freedom from acquisitiveness:
“Let us learn from this man not to call the rich lucky nor the poor unfortunate. Rather, if we are to tell the truth, the rich man is not the one who has collected many possessions but the one who needs few possessions, and the poor man is not the one who has no possessions but the one who has many desires. We ought to consider this the definition of poverty and wealth. So if you see someone greedy for many things, you should consider him the poorest of all, even if he has acquired everyone’s money. If, on the other hand, you see someone with few needs, you should count him the richest of all, even if he has acquired nothing” [Homily II].
Of course, this definition of the rich man as one “who needs few possessions” is much more meaningful if such an approach to “wealth” is freely assumed as a consciously chosen lifestyle, and not one imposed by circumstances of birth and environment; yet Saint John’s rhetorical reversal of roles still stands as a challenge to us living in a materially saturated and consumer-driven society. His homilies are directed toward Christian believers, and not the unbelieving world outside of the Church. In fact, in today’s world, it is difficult to distinguish between a “secular consumerism” and a “Christian consumerism.” Everyone is more-or-less caught up in the frenzy to “get ahead,” or to attain the “American dream,” a good part of which is the accumulation of wealth and status. Yet, the labels of “wealth” and “poverty” do not reveal the real person underneath these roles. It may not be until death—that “great equalizer”—arrives that our true nature is revealed. Saint John offers a vidid description of this process based upon his knowledge of the theater in his times:
“Just as in the theater, when evening falls and the audience departs, and the kings and generals go outside to remove the costumes of their roles, they are revealed to everyone thereafter appearing to be exactly what they are; so also now when death arrives and the theater is dissolved, everyone puts off the masks of wealth or poverty and departs to the other world. When all are judged by their deeds alone, some are revealed truly wealthy, others poor, some of high class, others of no account” [Homily II].
As noted above, Saint John Chrysostom does not offer a political or social program, as this would have been unrealistic in the world of late antiquity. What he does is to appeal to the conscience of his fellow Christians. He exhorts to deeds of philanthropy—a real love of fellow human beings based on the desire to alleviate the suffering of poverty on a personal level when one encounters the neighbor who is in need. The rich man is not condemened because he is wealthy, but because he is indifferent to others—even those at his very gate and in clear view. He would not share. That is his primary sin. If we are blessed by God with material prosperity, then we need to thank God for this. If Jesus taught us that we can do good to the poor according to our will, this would mean that we thank God through the deeds of sharing our own wealth with those in need. That is expected of those who accept the Gospel.