Once upon a time there was a man who was alive.

Location: Hattiesburg, Mississippi, United States
St. Cuthbert and Disciples in a Boat


Wealth & Poverty

St. John the AlmsgiverOne of the things that is always somewhat unsettling when I read the Gospels is Jesus' frequent admonition to 'sell all you have and give to the poor'; the most memorable example I suppose would be the story of the rich young man. But all through the Gospels Jesus confronts those with wealth, and tells them troubling things like 'sell all you have,' 'how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven!' and the like. And if He does not bid something as drastic as selling all one has, then He says things just as condemnatory towards attachment to wealth, and gives the distinct impression that if it is possible to possess wealth and still be good, it is a difficult thing. For the pleasures of wealth and the dangerous attachment that wealth breeds in our hearts is deeply ensnaring. We are told to give to those who have no cloak and who have nothing to eat, if it is in our power to do so. Thus there is a two-fold force to Jesus' teaching on money: wealth is dangerous because it can lead to attachment exclusive of God and His Kingdom; and we are to use what wealth we have to help the poor, the hungry, the sick.

But what does this mean to us, dwelling in the West in this prosperous progressive era, with our iPods and laptops and cars and cappachinos? Shouldn't I probably feel just a little guilty and more than a little hypocritical, sitting here at a private college with my computer on my highspeed Internet connection? How do I justify the comfortable and affluent (by almost any standard of almost any era or place) middle-class life I lead? I can't plead ignorance. I grew up hearing the story of the rich young man, the story of Zacchaeus running with joy to greet Jesus at his house and giving away half his wealth outright- these stories form part of my consciousness. And I can't pretend to not know what poverty looks like. I've seen it with my eyes- on the other side of the globe, two blocks down from my school, down the road from my home. I cannot close my eyes and make it go away. What am I to do? I am not asking 'What should the State do?' I am not even asking 'What should the Church do?', though both of those are relevant questions. But Jesus confronts each of us and bids us give up everything and follow Him. We cannot relegate that upon the State, or even upon the Church.

Of course, I jump to my own defense: I try to buy my clothes at the good-will store, I always get water at resturants and eat cheap (usually), I rarely go to movies, etc. I give to charity, more than most people, surely! I even do some volunteer work every week, for at least a couple of hours. And here's the clincher: I turned down one private college in favour of a not-as-expensive private college. Whatever. In reality I am just as much a consumerist who loves his luxuries as the next guy. I just have a guilty conscience sometimes and have to salve it occasionally.

So how am I to live out Jesus' call to seeming poverty, or at least an attitude and way of life radically divergent from the lifestyle I now lead? Do we water down the teachings that burn like fire when we take them seriously? I do not think that Jesus is seeking to lay down some hard and fast rule for everyone, ie, everybody must sell everything and become a wandering monk preaching the Gospel. But He is surely calling us to a radical re-evalution of how we live our lives and spend our money; what we are seeking and living for. I am not living this. How to live it- I want to know, and I want to live it. Though, I am always adding, not now...

So as not to leave this post too open-ended, I leave off with a story from the life of St. John the Almsgiver. I think it speaks for itself, and urges us to take the difficult teachings of Jesus seriously:

Another good habit this Saint also adopted, namely sleeping on the cheapest of beds and using only very poor coverings in his own cell. One of the city's landowners once went into the Patriarch's room and saw that he was only covered with a torn and worn quilt, so he sent him a quilt costing thirty-six nomismata and besought him earnestly to cover himself with that in memory, he said, of the giver.

John took and used it for one night because of the giver's insistences but throughout the night he kept saying to himself (for so his chamber-attendants related), 'Who shall say that humble John'-for he ever called himself that-'was lying under a coverlet costing thirty-six nomismata whilst Christ's brethren are pinched with cold? How many are there at this minute grinding their teeth because of the cold? and how many have only a rough blanket half below and half above them so that they cannot stretch out their legs but lie shivering, rolled up like a ball of thread? How many are sleeping on the mountain without food or light, suffering twofold pangs from cold and hunger?

How many would like to be filled with the outer leaves of the vegetables which are thrown away from my kitchen? How many would like to dip their bit of bread into the soup-water which my cooks throw away? How many would like even to have a sniff at the wine which is poured out in my wine-cellar? How many strangers are there at this hour in the city who have no lodging-place but lie about in the market-place, perhaps with the rain falling on them? How many are there who have not tasted oil for one month or even two? How many have no second garment either in summer or winter and so live in misery?

And yet you, who hope to obtain everlasting bliss, both drink wine and eat large fishes and spend your time in bed, and now in addition to all those evils you are being kept warm by a coverlet worth thirty-six nomismata. Verily, if you live like that and pass your life in such ease, do not expect to enjoy the good things prepared for us on high; but you will certainly be told, as was that other rich man: "Thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, but the poor evil things; and now they are comforted, but thou art in anguish?" [Luke 16:25] Blessed be God ! You shall not cover humble John a second night. For it is right and acceptable to God that one-hundred and forty-four of your brothers and masters should be covered rather than you, one miserable creature.'

For four rough blankets could be bought for one nomisma. Early on the following morning, therefore, he sent it to be sold, but the man who had given it saw it and bought it for thirty-six nomismata and again brought it to the Patriarch. But when he saw it put up for sale again the next day he bought it once more and carried it to the Patriarch and implored him to use it. When he had done this for the third time the Saint said to him jokingly, 'Let us see whether you or I will give up first!'


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