Wealth and Poverty


A Recorded Homily by Fr. Theodoros Zisis  –
5th Sunday of Luke

“There was a certain rich man…and a poor man named Lazarus” (Luke 16:19-20)

Wealth and poverty are situations in life, situations of living which encompass many spiritual dimensions as well as many spiritual misconceptions.  

Inside the thoughts and subconscious of all of us certainly there's a desire to be rich, and we abhor the thought of poverty. Especially during this period of economicas we call itcrisis, we feel we have all become poorer and because of this impoverishment of ours, to a certain extent, for many of us this situation leads to melancholy, to disappointments, to agonies: “What will happen in the future?”, “How will we get by?”, “Why do these injustices happen?”, “Why does God allow some to become rich and, indeed, unfairly, not lawfully?” and “Why does God allow some to be poor and to suffer from poverty and difficulties in their life?”

Today's Gospel passagewhich presents us with the parable of the rich man and Lazarusas well as many other texts from the New Testament, the teachings of the Lord and the Apostles, and subsequently from many interpretative and theological examinations of the Holy Fathers of our Church, all give us satisfactory answers to this problem, the so-called social problem, of the existence of rich and poor.     

Does Christianity justify wealth? What do the Holy Fathers of the Church say about wealth? Must we strive in our life to become rich, to be rich? Where does wealth come from? Are all sources of wealth lawful? And if it so happens that we are rich, how should we use this wealth that God has granted and gave us? But even if it so happens that we are poor, how should we face on the one hand our poverty and on the other hand the rich? Should we be jealous of them, envy them, hate them, and start social revolutions, overturn governments and regimes so that we can also enjoy what the rich enjoy, whoever the rich are? We all know how much humanity has been afflicted from these kinds of riots of poor against rich. Indeed the last century, the 20th century, has almost entirely divided humanity into two halves: where communism and socialism prevailed, where essentially the poor, the proletarians, the workers revolted against the rich and desired the goods of the rich to be shared, the material goods to be shared.

So, is it justifiable on the one hand for the rich to enjoy their goods by themselves and on the other for the poor to be jealous of, envy and hate the rich and to try and overturn them? And is this bitterness and agony we all feel today before this economic crisis warranted, before this partial poverty into which we have been led because of this economic crisis?

To start with, let me say that on one hand we all, for many decades, especially the last [few] decades, were rich and looked like the rich man in the passage: “There was a rich man who dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day” (Luke 16.19). We too, were dressed and bought clothes and dresses and were joyful and drunk and ate*, in feasts in our homes and at entertainment centers, being exceedingly joyful every day. So, we too have been rich, like the rich man in the parable. So, is it a bad thing for someone to be rich?      

I am going to express some thoughts based on what our Holy Fathers have passed down to us, for us to take a very brief look [at this]―this would require many hours of lectures, thousands of works have been written confronting this so-called social problem, in fact, in relation to the revolts of the poor against the rich.   

So what is the teaching of our Church, our Holy Fathers in relation to the problem of wealth and poverty? What should our stance be before these two situations in life?

I must tell you, of course, that the problem of poverty and wealth not only occupied Christian thinking, nor was it a relevant teaching only mentioned in the Gospel. If people had followed the teaching of the Gospel, there would be no problems in the world, the social problem would have been solved and the problem of wealth and poverty would have also been solved. But since people follow their own thoughts, their own teachings, their own desires, their own concern, this social disruption therefore exists.   

Let me mention briefly that even in ancient Greece, wealth was appreciated positively and considered one of the great goods in life, as in the Old Testament. “If you have a willing attitude and obey, then you will again eat the good crops of the land” (Isaiah 1.19). And it was an important thing for someone to be rich in ancient Greece, as in the Old Testament. Anyhow, the Greek stance towards wealth was not harsh and uncompromising. Many times legislators would intervene and impose taxes on the rich, so as to strengthen the poorer classes. Or sometimes they even proceeded to land redistributions. Wealth in ancient Greece was morally evaluated, based on the ways in which one attained their wealth, through legal or ethical means, or if they attained it through unethical means. Also, great importance was given to the social function of wealth: is wealth beneficial for society, is wealth made available to help the weaker? Even in ancient Greece. There was also a restriction of this unrestricted perception that when one is rich they can do whatever they want with their wealth: it's my money, my land, I do what I want! Even in ancient Greece this perception was broken. There is a thesis in Euripides which states: People do not have their own money. We are supervisors, administrators of that which God has given us. It is exactly like the Christian thesis which accepts that God has given us everything, everything belongs to God, we are not the owners, we are the administrators of things.

Xenophon as well in his Education of Cyrus says that we should not believe the rich to be happy. Happy are the ones that have attained wealth righteously and use it for the good of people―only them. I leave this relevant passage.  

Unfortunately, however, apart from this flexible and lenient perception of wealth, there is another one, a Roman, legal perception regarding ownership and wealth, which considers wealth to be a natural right, an extension of man's nature. If I was born rich, if I am rich, I do what I want with my wealth! It is in my nature to own land, ownership is in my nature! No one can take the right away from me to be rich. And this perception that wealth is a natural extension, man's natural right, has unfortunately been passed on to the West and―in most recent years―has been passed on to economic liberalism and capitalism, which regards profit as its only motive: it does not care about social well-being or if people are poor. And so, communism and Marxism have been lurking there: “if you rich think you can do what you want with the earth's goods, you're mistaken. We'll revolt and we'll take it from you by force.”

What does Christianity teach about all this? Christianity teaches, the Fathers of the Church teach that there are two types of goods. There are free goods which God gives abundantly to all in the same way: air, light and water. We all have air, we all have light and we all have water, despite the fact that now we buy water and people say a time will come when there will be wars even over water. But still, God gives water equally to all.   

Other than those free goods which God gives equally to all, there are also the so-called economic goods, which are attained through human contribution. Someone is hardworking, diligent and attains goods through his own effort. These are economic goods. There is a human contribution; they are not God's. And so, those human goods, many believe that they can do whatever they want with them.    

The Holy Fathers of the Church and the Holy Scriptures teach that even the economic goods, those that man obtains through his work, through righteous means, even those are not his. One cannot for example, says Saint Chrysostom, claim the complete ownership of his home. We all believe we are complete owners of our home. Because he says, apart from the materials he uses to construct it, soil, water, are not his but God's. What's more, the one who constructs the house and has a claim on it, himself belongs to God, who gave him a soul and a body. And Saint Basil the Great asks: Tell me, what is yours? What is yours? What property is yours? Where did you take it from, bringing it into your life? Where did you find it? We come into the world naked, where did you take it from, bringing it into your life? And Saint Basil the Great says other things [concerning this matter] as well.        

And so because of this teaching, that goods do not belong to the rich, the Holy Fathers have formed the teaching that the rich are only administrators and stewards of goods. They must not use their goods for their own gain, for their own enjoyment; wealth is simply a tool. We're God's stewards. And they must use it for the social functioning of wealth.     

In Christianity―and I finish with this so that I don't tire you too much―there are three principles in Christianity which distinguish the teaching about wealth and poverty from capitalism, neo-liberalism, as well as from socialism and communism. What are these principles?

To begin with, the first principle is love. There is no love in economic liberalism, profit is the principle: I don't care, even if the other person is dying, why should I show love to him? Profit is the criterion, my own enjoyment. There is no love in communism either: the poor are jealous and hate the rich and they too wish to demolish the rich so they too can enjoy the material goods. Consequently, materialism exists on both sides. Both on the side of the rich that want to enjoy their goods alone and on the side of the poor who want to be rich.       

There is no love, and there is no asceticism. Do you think that communism or socialism tended towards that? Where did socialism and communism tend towards? It tended towards creating the society of the future, so they said, they would have to pass through hardships, that is what they taught the people. We will pass through hardships, and a time will come when we will create a society where everyone will be rich, when everyone will enjoy material goods.
Consequently, there is materialism here too, equality in the enjoyment of material goods. Christianity says that this claim of material goods on the behalf of the rich and the poor is the reason for the disruption of the world. Saint Basil the Great says: “Wealth up to what point? The reason for war, for which swords are sharpened, for which relatives know not their own, and brothers wish to murder one another?” Even brothers start divisions among themselves over matters of possession and feel hate for one another. This is our tendency concerning the enjoyment of material goods.         

Christianity teaches that material goods have no value at all. They are temporary; they perish. What happened to the poor man Lazarus, and what happened to the rich man? This life passed by. Poor Lazarus was taken into Abraham's bosom happy, and the rich man was tormented in fire. These things pass. Saint Chrysostom says that envy derives from the fact that we are attached to material goods.  Because you, poor person, if you considered material goods to be nothing, you would not envy and curse the rich.     

And I stop here, beloved, because one could say much [about the topic]. In Christianity and especially in the Orthodox Church, in the Church of the Fathers, the ideal social type is not homo economicus, not the merchant, not the professional, not the rich, the well-dressed, the one who has a good time, the materialistic person, the homo economicus of extreme systems, whether they be individualistic, capitalistic or socialistic. But the ideal type in Christianity is the ascetic, the saint who passes his life in simplicity.      

If we had adopted this philosophy, all of us, even our bishops, who sometimes live a life which provokes scandal… And this has been judged by the bishops, a bishop the last few days wrote that we give a bad example to the people because we bishops and priests live in prosperity, and we waste. If they were ascetics, and we were all ascetics in our life, there would not be a social problem, and we would all live together in love, the rich with the poor. The rich would help the poor and the poor would not envy the rich. So, from the opportunity which was given to us today to refer to the theme of wealth and poverty, which torments humanity, this problem, [being so] from its beginning, let's keep in mind the situation of the rich man and of the poor man in the Gospel passage. The rich man rejoiced every day. He would eat and drink and dress himself. And Lazarus was of old age. But the future is not the present, but the future.   

And so, we should not pursue this wealth. There is another wealth, spiritual wealth. Do not store up treasures on earth. There is the wealth of God's Kingdom. It says somewhere in the Gospel that if someone finds a pearl, he sells all his belongings in order to purchase this pearl. So there is the pearl of the Kingdom of God; God's Kingdom is the pearl. We must sell everything so that we can attain our future, to make a spiritual investment in our future. And many times I say, and I repeat it also now, that Christians and ascetics and monks are not fools. That is what other people think of them. Monks and ascetics who disregard all wealth and all the rest and go to practice asceticism are the only smart ones. They are the great men of commerce. They are the ones that believe everything here is rubbish which passes away, and they choose spiritual wealth, the wealth of God's grace, of God's Kingdom, which I hope He grants to all of us, as God has granted to the saints and poor Lazarus. Amen.

*Trans. Note: Obviously, Fr. Theodoros is referring to the importance we give to what we wear, buy, eat and drink, as some think that these things make us happy and content. He is not denying the need for a person to meet their basic needs and do entirely without.

31/10/2010 (the parable about the rich man and poor Lazarus)

Translation by: Holy Monastery of Pantokrator



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