Disclaimer: I wrote this to reflect on my own poverty, to convict me of my own fallen-ness and shortcomings. I clarify this, so if you ever feel I am being too harsh, pray for me; because that is the extent of the hardness of my own heart and the level of correction it needs for it’s eyes to be opened to the truth.
The early church fathers always looked at wealth as a blessing and a liability for the wealthy. Yes, Christ has blessed you with a job, wealth, clothes, home, and even extra money to put toward retirement, investments, gifts and the like. You may class yourself as middle class or poor because of a credit card balance, pending car payments or other owed debts, but let’s be honest, those are easily taken care of if you did the most basic budgeting and controlled your spending for a bit (and perhaps we will save the discussion on stewarding your money well for another time). So yes, you are rich compared to those who cannot afford a meal or are begging on the streets. However, before we get too carried away with the celebrations, let us not forget that Christ repeatedly said in scripture how hard it is for the wealthy man to get to heaven. I know, just when you thought things were looking up, it doesn’t anymore – it sucks.
I always wondered why the scriptures warn about wealth this way. I don’t believe money itself is a curse, I think it is a blessing given by the Lord. But the warnings to the wealthy are a plenty in scriptures and even among the words of Christ. I think it may be because money/wealth, like all gifts, has been given to us not for our selfish use (as we may mistakenly think), but for the sake of others. They are given so we can love them better with those gifts, by doing which we ourselves also grow to be better people and truly free and happy as well. Understanding why a gift has been given to us, is vital to know how to use it well and how we can avoid using it poorly.
So why might the scripture issue so many warnings on wealth? Perhaps because of how easily our hearts are led away by idols in general, but here particularly, the idol of wealth and money, and how frequently we use it to replace God. Wealth provides a heady temptation to become self reliant bar none. There’s nothing that makes you feel more in control than knowing you have a steady paycheck that covers all your daily needs. It feels liberating to know that as long as you have a job/income source, you’re covered from anxiety and worry, that you don’t have to be reliant on others, and you’re free to live as you please. We’re all probably familiar with the 16yr old who wants a job so they can buy the things they want, rather than suffer the rules/control of their parents.
It can be easy, over time, to let your focus and attention shift from relying on God or others, to feeling pretty self-sufficient and able to take care of your own business. It becomes easier and easier to think the world is indeed in the palm of your hands- as long as you have your job/ money, you can not only hold things steady, but you can make new things, maybe anything happen. To add on, often money can lead us into the cycle of using our newfound gift to get the things we had always wanted, maybe even if it’s slightly more than we can afford. Overtime, this can build into us a cycle of not just a gathering of ‘things’ that we want, but maybe even a slowly building debt because of all the wants, making us more dependent on our next paycheck and plunging us into the cycle of wanting more money to fund this growing habit. All of this of course, is the scripture-foreshadowed fate of the wealthy- that their prosperity can easily lead them away from God and into thinking they are the gods of their own universe. As money grows to hold more power over our lives, we can become blinded to the fact our soul is hanging in the balance; between recognizing the true God or calling ourselves a God- our salvation and our eternity is at risk.
The blinding of our souls is made easier by the fact that the world, in its obstinate frenzy for the quick hit, feeds it well in the temporary. It tells us to become a boss bitch to be happy, it ranks people in esteem from highest paycheck to the lowest, it proclaims money fixes everything from that itch of boredom to the economy, it tells us to hustle so we can retire early. We feel validated and rewarded for our efforts by money, and we are so quick to use money not just enslave ourselves, but others as well. How many times have we tempted our brothers and sisters with money- into doing things they didn’t want to, or things they shouldn’t? How many times have we used money instead of genuine respect to ease our conscience on how we treat others? It doesn’t take too long of seeing the world in dollar signs, for it to seem like nothing or no one is out of our control. We never stop to think how it takes just one paycheck lost, one accident of life that impacts you or a family member, to realize how much trust we have put in money and how little it actually controls. Maybe this is why the founding father of the US made it a point to write on the dollar bill “In God we trust”- to remind ourselves precisely what we should and shouldn’t trust.
And how we need that reminder! How quick we are to forget that while money is a blessing, it is meant to be at the service of us and not the other way around. How quickly we forget that for all the things money provides, it doesn’t replace the human need for connection, love, happiness, sound sleep and good company. Those are the things we yearn at our deepest, and those are things money can lay groundwork for, but it takes more than money to acquire them fully. What good is spending all your time at 6 jobs to retire early, if you abandon time with your children in the process and they grow up to resent you? What good is all the money in the world, if you retire to a shattered home? This is precisely why while wealth entices us into one way of thinking about the world, we need to be reminded to not stray too far from the true things that make life meaningful, beautiful and worth living for.
When stuck in this dazed hamster wheel run for money, we need the blaring reminder of reality- of a man just like us, who due to a few different decisions, different life circumstances has ended up poor. He is the mirror of the realities of the world we refuse to see and may be on the way to becoming – of brokenness, of the malice of others, of need. In holding his space at that traffic light, he forces you to reflect on whether things really are as controlled as you think they are. To see this in the poor, you must see them as human – a person like you, but for a few differences in upbringing (or maybe even not) or a few different decisions made. Who among us cannot imagine being at that traffic light were it not for a supportive family, loved ones or other things we have just been generously and undeservedly blessed with, by the Lord? Can we not say in looking at the poor ‘There but for the grace of God, go I’?
This is why the early church fathers saw the poor as the solution to this dangerous problem for the wealthy souls teetering on the verge of damning themselves to hell. They recognized that God, in his generosity, allowed the poor to always be with us, so they could save the rich. Yes, this is the opposite of how the world normally thinks of the rich- as being saviors to the poor. But it wouldn’t be the first time the Church throws on its head, the misunderstandings of the world. Rather, the church fathers would point out- it is the poor man Lazarus who will be savior of the rich man and his brothers who don’t even realize how close to hell they actually are. Every poor man walking the street, reminds us of the poverty of our own souls as we sit in our comfortable cars and try to distract ourselves from coming face to face with the reality of how close our hearts are, to being estranged from our neighbor on the street – and thus estranged from our God who loves that poor man and calls him his child. The tendency we have to avert our eyes, does it not come from the discomfort we feel of reality breathing down our neck- of life saying ‘That man too thought he had life figured out, and he didn’t.’. A harrowing thought indeed- makes sense why would not want to look into that abyss.
But let us not forget precisely what wealth makes us forget, we are Christians! We believe in a God, and that we are not gods who must keep all the plates spinning- and what a relief that is! We are totally free to look to the only one who holds all things in His hands, to not just God, but our Father. We are free to look into that abyss, because we are an Easter people. Our God descended into the depths of depravity and suffering to redeem the world and he asked us to take up our cross as well. So I urge you, look into the abyss, holding the hand of our Lord, and let is stare back at you. You will see therein the worst that you could be, and I hope to God that scares you so thoroughly, that you will never again be so careless with your life and with your God given gifts.
I will leave you with a homily by St Basil, on the poor. He gets to the point much more directly and succinctly than I do. Reading his homily always convicts me of my duty to my brothers and sisters who are poor, and how much more my soul needs to be convicted by them, out of it’s own spiritual poverty: (link)
“Were you not naked when you came out of the womb? Will you not be naked when you return to the earth? Where did the things you now possess come from? If you say they just appeared spontaneously, then you are an atheist because you do not acknowledge the Creator and show no gratitude towards the one who gave them to you. But if you say they are from God, tell us the reason why you received them. Or is it that God is unjust because he unequally divides among us the things of this life? Why are you rich while that other man is poor? Is it not perhaps so that you might receive wages for kindheartedness and faithful stewardship and so that he may be honored with great prizes because of his endurance?….
But, as for you, when you hoard all these things in the insatiable bosom of greed, do you suppose that you do nothing wrong in cheating so many people? Who is a greedy man? Someone who is not content with what is sufficient. Who is a cheater? Someone who takes what belongs to others. And are you not a greedy man, are you not a cheater, when you take the things you received for the sake of stewardship and make them your own? Anyone who takes a man who is clothed and renders him naked would be termed a robber; but does someone who fails to clothe the naked when he is able to do so deserve any other appellation? The bread you are holding back belongs to the hungry; the coat you keep in your closet belongs to the naked; the shoes moldering in your closet belong to the shoeless; the silver you hide in a safe place belongs to the needy. Thus, the more there are whom you could help, the more there are whom you are wronging.”
As someone who does have multiple coats, dresses, many shoes and clothes stored away in my closet, I can sit with you as we get scolded by our spiritual grandfather. May his intercession help us walk closer to the heart of Christ that was so close to the hungry, the naked and the heartbroken. May we be brave enough to pray with our forefathers:
“Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.”