Recently I came across some quotes from St. John Chrysostom concerning wealth which I find disturbing. First, he writes, “our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it.” Second, God allows us wealth “not for you to waste on prostitutes, drink, fancy food, expensive clothes, and all the other kinds of indolence, but for you to distribute to those in need.” He also writes that wealth is theft, not because it was stolen as a means of gaining wealth, but because keeping it is to deprive others of their needs: “To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others.” Chrysostom’s words seem to go against the spirit of the Gospel that beckons and knocks, as opposed to bullying people into submission. Also, Orthodoxy teaches not only asceticism but feasting, so I don’t understand why he is so condemning of all excess. Chrysostom’s words keep me feeling condemned about spending any money on vacation, eating out, etc. I understand not spending money on prostitution, but the rest seems a bit harsh, almost to the point on anti-materialism. Does he really mean we shouldn’t ever spend money on anything other than the very basic needs and then “the poor.”
YOU WRITE: Recently I came across some quotes from St. John Chrysostom concerning wealth which I find disturbing. First, he writes, “our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it.”
RESPONSE: This is the very basis of Christian stewardship. Everything we possess—our time, our talents, and our treasures [“money,” material possessions]—are gifts from God and, as such, they ultimately belong to Him. They are given to us by Him; we, in turn, are called to be good stewards of His gifts, as Saint Paul writes. [A “stewards” is a “manager.”
Hence, a “Christian steward” wisely manages God’s gifts.]
YOU WRITE: Second, God allows us wealth “not for you to waste on prostitutes, drink, fancy food, expensive clothes, and all the other kinds of indolence, but for you to distribute to those in need.”
RESPONSE: If our wealth is a gift from God—a gift we are called to steward or manage wisely—then it would follow that using our wealth to fund our obsessions or passions or carnal pleasures is sinful, wouldn’t it?
Does not Scripture call upon us to distribute a portion of our wealth to those in need? And are we not called to overcome our passions and obsessions, our preoccupation with ourselves to the exclusion of others, especially “the least of the brethren?”
YOU WRITE: He also writes that wealth is theft, not because it was stolen as a means of gaining wealth, but because keeping it is to deprive others of their needs: “To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others.”
RESPONSE: In light of the above, if one accumulates wealth for the exclusive purpose of accumulating wealth, is this not theft, inasmuch as one’s wealth is not being managed wisely for the good of others, the needy, the poor? Is this not completely consistent with the gospel in which Christ points out the foolishness of the man who builds bigger barns in which to store his harvest, only to die that very night and leave it all behind? And is not what Chrysostom writes here fully consistent with “how does it profit a man to gain the whole world and to lose his soul?”
One aspect of wise stewardship, of the wise management of God’s gifts, is to share it with those in need. [Is this not what we are commanded to do by Christ, Who says that we will be judged on how readily we fed the hungry, clothed the naked, gave drink to the thirsty, etc., in response not only to their needs, but also in response to our willingness to acknowledge His very presence in them?] If we have more than we can possibly need or use, and we know of others who have nothing, is not withholding God’s gifts to us from them theft?
This does not mean that we must give away everything, leaving ourself in abject poverty. Neither Saint John Chrysostom, nor Christ Himself, teaches us to do this. What it means is that a portion of what we have is to be shared—and not just a “token amount” simply to fulfill an expectation or “the minimum.” In the OT, this was the 10% tithe; in the NT, we discover that we are asked to give the “first portion”—that is, to set aside the first portion of our treasures [or, in contemporary terms, our pay check] for the work of God and for the poor, using the remainder for ourselves [but not on prostitutes, booze, and frivolous things that would constitute an unwise use of God’s gifts]. All of this applies to every gift with which we have been blessed, and not just to money. For example, our ability to speak is a gift from God, yet is it not possible that we can use this gift unwisely, by gossiping, by slandering others, by taking the Lord’s name in vain? Sight is a gift from God, yet is it not possible that we can use this gift unwisely, by viewing pornography or reading less-than-edifying literature or snooping on others? These gifts can also be abused, or improperly managed too.
YOU WRITE: Chrysostom’s words seem to go against the spirit of the Gospel that beckons and knocks, as opposed to bullying people into submission.
RESPONSE: Saint John is not “bullying people into submission;” he is frankly and openly pointing out the excesses that surrounded him, and that continue to surround us in our own time. He is “speaking the truth,” and the truth can sting when those who do not wish to hear it, hear it. This is not bullying, any more than Christ calling the pharisees hypocrites and a brood of vipers was bullying; it is a statement of fact and reality. [Saint John Chrysostom was well known for “telling it like it is,” mincing no words to speak the truth; so was Our Lord!] The only submission to which Our Lord and Saint John call us is submission to God, which hardly goes against the spirit of the Gospel.
YOU WRITE: Also, Orthodoxy teaches not only asceticism but feasting, so I don’t understand why he is so condemning of all excess.
RESPONSE: Can you name any excesses that are spiritually uplifting or edifying, or any passions that lead us to virtue and godliness? Does feasting necessarily involve prostitutes, drunkeness, gluttony, and the things Chysostom clearly condemns? Of course we are called to feast.
Harvey Cox, in his book “Feast of Fools,” laments that in our culture people have lost the true understanding of what it means to feast, often being so obsessed with making sure that people are having a good time that no one has a good time. Yet “feasting” is not synonymous with debauchery; Saint Paul not only condemns debauchery in general, but provides a rather lengthy list of those things which we need to avoid and which, while some may argue constitute “feasting,” are not elements of true, wholesome feasting. “Feasting” in the Christian sense is quite different from “feasting” as understood in pagan Roman times, or “feasting” as the residents of Animal House would define it!
All excesses and obsessions are sinful. Eating a well-prepared meal in an expensive restaurant is not, in and of itself, an excess; gluttony is. Periodically enjoying a glass of fine wine is not an excess; drunkeness is. Making love to one’s spouse is not an excess; having sex with a prostitute is. Buying a new coat is not an excess; buying a dozen new coats, while hoarding two dozen old ones which one neither needs nor will wear again when there are those who could use them, is an excess. Owning dress shoes and sandals and boots and gym shoes is not an excess; owning 200 pairs of shoes is—and this not only violates the principles of good stewardship and the command to minister to the least of the brethren, but it likewise violates the spirit of the popular saying, “I once felt bad because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”
Also, while one must keep in mind the principle, “all things in moderation,” as Christians we are also called upon to discern that there are indeed some things to which this principle cannot be applied, as Saint John Chrysostom aptly points out. For example, one does not engages prostitutes “in moderation.” By definition, one does not “get drunk” in moderation. And how would one be “moderately gluttoness?”
YOU WRITE: Chrysostom’s words keep me feeling condemned about spending any money on vacation, eating out, etc.
RESPONSE: Why? Is taking the family on a well-deserved one-or-two-week-per-year vacation an excess? Surely this is hardly akin to engaging the services of prostitutes. Is going out to dinner on a Tuesday evening an excess? Surely this is hardly akin to engaging in ongoing gluttony or drunken beer bashes.
If, however, one reasons, “I will not give anything to the Lord’s work or to the poor, because if I do, I will not be able to go on vacation, or I will not be able to dine out; hence, I will use my hard-earned money exclusively for myself and for my own pleasure,” then indeed a vacation or a night out could condemn us—NOT because a vacation or a night out is sinful or obsessive in itself, but because our sole concern for using our treasures for our selves, with no regard for others, is indeed “theft.” In such instances, we imply that God has given me gifts, not not others; we imply that we have no need to be concerned with others, but only with the self.
Elsewhere, St. John Chrysostom laments, “You fret over which carpeting to put on your floor, yet you ignore your brother who is starving.” This is theft; it is sinful, because it is not a wise use of the treasures with which we have been blessed—treasures that belong to God in the first place, that He gives to us freely, and that He expects us to manage wisely.
At the same time, Saint John is not saying that carpeting is evil, nor that we should not carpet our homes. We can live without carpeting; we cannot live without food. What Saint John is saying here is that, if all one is concerned about is carpeting, ignoring the needs of others in the process, one is indeed not a wise steward, a wise manager, and one is indeed stealing that which, in reality, belongs to God in the first place.
YOU WRITE: I understand not spending money on prostitution, but the rest seems a bit harsh, almost to the point on anti-materialism.
RESPONSE: You are reading a lot more into Saint John’s words than you should, and casting his words into your own frame of understanding, failing to adjust your understanding to what he is saying. Please take no offense, because none is intended here, but this is not a wise use of God’s gift of reasoning. For example, Saint John Chrysostom lumps the eating of “fancy food” with “prostitution.” Clearly, he is not referring to the casual night out for a good steak with the wife and kids. He is talking about those who, as the old saying goes, “live to eat,” who engage in gluttony and wastefulness, who show no concern for the hungry but only for their own pleasure and gratification, who participated in the excesses that were quite common in his time and the culture in which he lived—the late Roman Empire, which was hardly a paradigm of moderation. It is—or should be—quite obvious that he is not lumping a night out with the family at the neighborhood restaurant in the same category as prostitution, isn’t it?
YOU WRITE: Does he really mean we shouldn’t ever spend money on anything other than the very basic needs and then “the poor.”
RESPONSE: He says neither, at least in the passages you are questioning. He is addressing obsession with riches—that obsession by which those so obsessed use their wealth exclusively for themselves, for their own pleasures and passions [prostitution and drunkeness and gluttony—passions—are not in the same category as a Tuesday evening meal at Steak and Shake or the family vacation to Disney World or a few glasses of champaigne to mark the new year or to toast a newly married couple] with no concern for others. He is addressing pure, unadulterated selfishness—those who are, as we would say today, “out of control,” who allow their wealth to manage them, even as they fail to or refuse to manage God’s gifts wisely; those who fail to see that their wealth [as well as everything else they have been given by God] is, in reality, not their “personal possession” but, rather, gifts from God that ultimately belong to Him; those who fail to understand, as the old saying goes, that “you can’t take it with you.”
In the burial service of the Orthodox Church, there is a hymn which reminds us of this very point. “Come let us gaze into the tombs…. Who is the rich man, and who is the poor? Who is the master and who is the slave?...”
Ultimately, God makes no distinction; in death, there is no distinction, and all stand equal before the throne of God to make account for whether they fed the hungry, clothed the naked, gave drink to the thirsty, ministered to the infim and imprisoned—and discerned the image of God in the “least of the brethren.” The person who thinks that by accumulating untold wealth in this life, or who hoards his or her earthly treasures like the man who pulled down his barn to build a bigger one, only to die that very evening, is truly deluded, precisely by his or her failure to realize that one should not store up treasures on earth while failing to store up treasures in heaven.
Read Luke 16:19-31, concerning the rich man and Lazarus. It’s an eye-popper!!