St. John Chrysostom and the Problem of Wealth

by John D. Jones

Wealth … is like a snake; it will twist around the hand and bite unless one knows how to use it properly.

- Clement of Alexandria, “The Instructor,” 3.6.34

In our social, political, and religious discourse, we tend to focus on poverty as a problem to be solved, but for St. John Chrysostom, poverty as such is not the problem, but rather how we acquire and use wealth, the ideologies and practices that shape economic exchanges, and the ways in which “the love of money” pervades and poisons human personal and social relations and, most of all, our relation with God.

In one of his frequent appeals to the wealthy to give to Christ in the person of the poor, Chrysostom remarks that he makes his exhortations,

not so much because of anxiety for the poor but because I care for your souls. For they [the poor] will have some comfort, if not from you, yet from some other quarter; or even if they be not comforted, but perish by hunger, the harm to them will be no great matter. In what way did poverty and wasting by hunger injure Lazarus? But none can rescue you from hell, if you obtain not the help of the poor. 1

At first glance, it appears that Chrysostom is not really interested in alleviating poverty, but rather in using the poor as a means to secure the salvation of the wealthy. Indeed, the last sentence might be taken to justify allowing the continued existence of extreme poverty as a necessary means for the salvation of the wealthy.

Consider Chrysostom’s claim that Lazarus was not injured by his poverty. This is an instance of his more general claim that no one is injured in respect of virtue by suffering injustice or wrongdoing. Given that our final end is to obtain “everlasting and pure blessings in Christ Jesus our Lord,” our proper human virtue consists in “carefulness in holding right doctrine and a righteous life” or “in being vigilant and sober in the Lord.” In the ancient philosophical tradition, the specific virtues or excellences (aretai) of something are those characteristics that it requires in order to live or function well. Drawing upon a variety of examples found in Holy Scripture (e.g., Job or the three children thrown into the furnace), Chrysostom argues that none of them was injured, in respect of virtue and attaining their final end, by any of the things that they suffered – indeed, the adverse things they suffered only strengthened their virtue and deepened their bonds to God.

Although Chrysostom frequently praises poverty and criticizes wealth, in his view neither is good nor evil in itself. In his Homilies on the Statues, he praises Abraham for his proper use of wealth. Chrysostom, moreover, does not view poverty as uniformly good since it can produce despondency in the poor. Although he often portrays the poor in ways that emphasize the dire conditions to which they were subjected, he does not romanticize them. So in contrast to Lazarus, he writes that the poor “generally speaking, are filled with envy and ill-will when they see wealthy people even if they have adequate food and other people are providing for them.” Nevertheless, Chrysostom has little sympathy with those who wanted to lay the blame for poverty entirely on the poor and, thus, excuse themselves from showing mercy, from providing assistance to the poor, or from moderating their acquisitiveness.

Chrysostom, however, wrote that many people, regardless of social and economic status, engaged in exploiting others who are weaker than they. That is, while Chrysostom’s remarks on covetousness or the love of money most frequently targeted the wealthy, he believed that this sort of love was rampant throughout society. So, in discussing the vice of covetousness, he remarks:

Let us therefore, both poor and rich, cease from taking the property of others. For my present discourse is not only to the rich, but to the poor also. For they too rob those who are poorer than themselves. And artisans who are better off, and more powerful, outsell the poorer and more distressed, tradesmen outsell tradesmen, and so all who are engaged in the market-place. So that I wish from every side to take away injustice. 2

Chrysostom recognized that, insofar as people love money, “all things become money,” “everything is reckoned in terms of it,” and economic gain becomes the criterion for action. “Should it be military service, should it be marriage, should it be a trade, should it be what you will that any man takes in hand, [the lover of money] does not undertake anything until he see these riches are coming in rapidly upon him” (Homilies on Matthew, 90.3).

Put in more modern terms: the love of money leads to the commodification of all goods, services, and people such that economic gain drives all transactions and interactions with others.

Because the love of money poisons human relations and the ways in which we acquire and use wealth, Chrysostom questioned the legitimacy of acquiring wealth, whether for security, status, family, almsgiving, etc. Moreover, he frequently raised questions as to the manner in which wealth was acquired. He argued, for example, that inherited wealth often rested on unjust acquisition or theft.

Indeed, despite his claim that wealth in itself is neither good nor evil, at times he seems to view the notion of honest wealth as a virtual oxymoron. More importantly, since all things belong primarily to God, theft consists not simply in taking what belongs to the poor but in failing to render assistance to them and depriving them of the material goods that they need in order to live. He also took note of how people pursued wealth to escape poverty while remaining indifferent to the ways in such pursuit might drive others into poverty.

And what is the specious plea of the many [for loving wealth]? I have children, one says, and I am afraid lest I myself be reduced to the extremity of hunger and want, lest I should stand in need of others. I am ashamed to beg. For that reason therefore do you cause others to beg? I cannot, you say, endure hunger. For that reason do you expose others to hunger? Do you know what a dreadful thing it is to beg, how dreadful to be perishing by hunger? Spare also your brethren! Are you ashamed, tell me, to be hungry, and are you not ashamed to rob? Are you afraid to perish by hunger, and not afraid to destroy others? And yet to be hungry is neither a disgrace nor a crime; but to cast others into such a state brings not only disgrace, but extreme punishment.3

Throughout his writings, in exhorting people patiently to care for the poor, Chrysostom raised significant questions about the ways in which people acquired wealth, the dubious ends for which wealth was used, and the distribution of wealth and other economic means within his society. He explicitly rejected the idea that we can give alms without regard to how our wealth has been acquired. In his Homilies on John, he writes: “By almsgiving, I do not include what is maintained by injustice, for this is not almsgiving, but savageness and inhumanity. What profits it to strip one man and clothe another?” In other words, we cannot seriously appropriate Chrysostom’s teachings about wealth and poverty for ourselves without raising critical questions about how we acquire and use wealth in the face of widespread poverty and suffering.

Yet, these sorts of questions and concerns may seem moot given Chrysostom’s own view that voluntary poverty – poverty undertaken out of love for Christ – is desirable and his constant admonition to the poor patiently to bear their poverty. After all, if the poor are patiently to bear their poverty and poverty itself is not to be feared but even embraced, then why should we be concerned with the alleviation of poverty even when it arises through injustice? Yet consider this passage:

The multitude…imagine that there are many different things which ruin our virtue: some say it is poverty, others bodily disease, others loss of property… Some bewail and lament the inmates of the prison…others those who have been deprived of their freedom, others those who have been seized and made captives by enemies…but no one mourns those who are living in wickedness: on the contrary, which is worse than all, they often congratulate them, a practice which is the cause of all manner of evils. 4

For Chrysostom, it is precisely those who “live in wickedness” that we should mourn, since those who commit injustice are harmed by themselves rather than those who are subjected to injustice and suffering.

Hence, despite the fact that each of us should patiently endure the unjust suffering to which we might be subjected, we cannot be indifferent to acts of injustice. Indeed, with due regard for our own sinfulness, we must seek to correct injustice and evil primarily for the sake of those who inflict it since, in Chrysostom’s view, it is the perpetrators rather than the victims who are harmed.

Thus, given Chrysostom’s views about the evils caused by love of wealth and the apparently great difficulty of obtaining and using it justly and virtuously, it is not surprising that, in continually admonishing people to obtain and use wealth properly, he can say that he is less concerned with the poor as such than the wealthy or, for that matter, anyone who acquires and uses wealth improperly.

Note, however, that Chrysostom was not indifferent to the terrible sufferings and humiliations that the poor endure. While he exhorted people patiently to bear their own poverty and suffering, while he commended the life of voluntary poverty, he also encouraged the citizens in Antioch (as we see in his Homilies on Acts) to share their belonging in order to eliminate poverty. Indeed, in his Homily on Almsgiving, he tells his listeners to “correct poverty and do away with hunger.”

But from the standpoint of our proper virtue – the one thing that really matters – the love of money poses a far more serious problem to humans than being subjected to poverty.

The following text illustrates the profound extent of this problem:

How long shall we love riches? For I shall not cease exclaiming against them: for they are the cause of all evils. How long do we not get our fill of this insatiable desire? What is the good of gold? I am astonished at the thing! There is some enchantment in the business, that gold and silver should be so highly valued among us. For our own souls indeed we have no regard, but those lifeless images engross much attention. Whence is it that this disease has invaded the world? Who shall be able to effect its destruction? What reason can cut off this evil beast, and destroy it with utter destruction? The desire is deep sown in the minds of men, even of those who seem to be religious. 5

Chrysostom’s critique here is obviously not directed simply at those who love gold and silver but to those for whom, in loving money, “money becomes everything.” Suppose, however, we substitute commodities for money. Given powerful messages in consumer societies that happiness, security and self-worth lie in consumption; that we should buy whatever we desire; and that, because our desire for things is unlimited, we can in principle never attain “self-sufficiency” (autarkeia), it is not hard to see how deep seated the problem of the love of money is in our society.

We may disagree with the particular analyses and solutions that Chrysostom offers, but as Fr. Georges Florovsky rightly observes:

[Chrysostom] had to face the life in great and overcrowded cites … He simply could not evade social problems without detaching Christianity from life … In his sermons we find, first of all, a penetrating analysis of the social situation. He finds too much injustice, coldness, indifference and suffering in the society of his day. And he sees well to what extent it is connected with the acquisitive character of [his society].

Even if we correctly grant, with Fr. Florovsky, that Chrysostom was not primarily a social reformer, nevertheless, we cannot follow Chrysostom’s teachings about wealth and poverty and remain unwilling to critique and change the social relations, institutional structures, and ideologies that undergird our acquisition and use of wealth; and to challenge the widespread belief that people are poor simply because of their alleged behaviors and attitudes.

For Chrysostom, our primary task is not simply to establish new modes of economic exchange and social relations. Our primary task is neither reducible to, nor understandable within, purely secularized approaches to social reform. For this task is grounded in metanoia (repentance) – “the complete change and renewal of heart and mind: from the heart and mind of sin to ‘the mind of Christ’.” This requires a spiritual transformation of our relationships with one another in an imitation of Christ that is made possible by our cooperation with divine grace.

Chrysostom notes that “the rule of the most perfect Christian life is seeking those things that are for the common advantage…. For nothing can so make a man an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbor.” In particular, almsgiving is not simply a means by which wealthy people give money to the poor. He exhorts everyone to give alms. No one, he often says, is so poor that they cannot imitate the poor widow who gave two mites. Even if they have not a single penny, they can always provide a cup of water to a stranger, comfort others, or in some way show mercy and kindness to others.

First in Antioch and then in Constantinople, Chrysostom sought to establish a community in which people mutually cared for one another. Such a community is grounded in a gift economy – that is, in intentions and actions that have a fundamentally Eucharistic nature to them. In giving alms to Christ in the person of the poor (more broadly, in rendering assistance to all of those in need), we effectively offer a sacrifice on the altar, the body of Christ, that is the poor person.

Having said “The first and great commandment is ‘You shall love the Lord your God,’” he added “and the second … is like it. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” And see how with nearly the same excellence he also requires this. For as concerning God, he said “With all your heart”: so concerning your neighbor, ‘as yourself’ is the same as ‘with all your heart.” If this commandment were duly observed there would be neither slave nor free, neither ruler nor ruled…. There would be no poverty, no unbounded wealth if there were love, but only the good parts that come from each. From the one we should reap its abundance, and from the other its freedom from care and should neither have to undergo the anxieties of riches nor the dread of poverty. 6

In this way, our actions are a way of giving thanks to Christ for the love he showed to us in his passion and resurrection. In this self-sacrificial love or, better, co-suffering love, we take up the Cross and follow Christ. In so doing, we obtain Christ’s loving kindness towards us. That is, through our actions we communicate to others the loving kindness that Christ has shown to us. In this way, we imitate Christ and become in some way like Christ.

For Chrysostom the real solution to the problems posed by wealth lies precisely in this sort of love writ large in community. Noting that for Christ “the sign of perfect love for him is the love of one’s neighbors,” Chrysostom offers this remarkable observation:

Dr. John D. Jones is Professor of Philosophy at Marquette University. One of his research areas is poverty and social marginalization. He is currently working on a book on philosophical and theological issues pertaining to poverty. He is a member of SS. Cyril and Methodius Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is also participating in the local Late Vocations Program of the Orthodox Church in America with the intention of seeking ordination to the deaconate. The complete text of this article, with notes and a reading list, will also appear in a forthcoming issue of the Marquette journal, Philosophy and Theology.

1. “Homilies on John” 37.3; Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers [NPNF] XIV:147

2. “Homilies on I Thess.” 10 (NPNF XIII:504).

3. “Homilies on 1 Thess.” 10 (NPNF XIII:502)

4. “No One Harms Himself” 2 (NPNF: IX:294)

5. “Homilies on 1 Thess.” 10 (NPNF XIII:502)

6. “Homilies on 1 Cor.” 32.11 (NPNF XII: 263)