St John Chrysostom: Why St Paul did not tell rich people to become poor

CHARGE them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy;

That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate;

Laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.

1 Timothy 6:17-19

**

Why did St Paul not tell all rich people to become poor, as Jesus suggested one earnest young man might choose to do (Mk 10:17-22)?

St John’s Chrysostom’s first answer is that conspicuous consumption and massed wealth are a function of pride, and pride is not cured by poverty but by humility.

BUT here, it is worthy of enquiry, for what reason he does not say, “Charge those who are rich in the present world, not to be rich; charge them to become poor; charge them to get rid of what they have;” but, “charge them, not to be high-minded.”

For he knew that the root and foundation of riches is pride; and that if any man understood how to be unassuming, he would not make much ado about the matter.

Tell me, indeed, for what reason thou leadest about so many servants, parasites, and flatterers, and all the other forms of pomp? Not for necessity, but only for pride; to the end that by these thou mayest seem more dignified than other men!

Next, he observes that possessing wealth is not of itself wrong. It is grasping at wealth, not wealth itself, that is the sin – and for that, generosity, not poverty, is the cure.

BESIDES, he knew that wealth is not forbidden if it be used for that which is necessary.

For as I observed, wine is not a bad thing, but drunkenness is so. A covetous man is one thing, and a rich man is another thing. The covetous man is not rich; he is in want of many things, and while he needs many things, he can never be rich.

The covetous man is a keeper, not a master, of wealth; a slave, not a lord. For he would sooner give any one a portion of his flesh, than his buried gold. And as though he were ordered and compelled of some one to touch nothing of these hidden treasures, so with all earnestness he watches and keeps them, abstaining from his own, as if it were another’s.

And certainly, they are not his own. For what he can neither determine to bestow upon others, nor to distribute to the necessitous, although he may sustain infinite punishments, how can he possibly account his own? How does he hold possession of those things, of which he has neither the free use, nor enjoyment?

Finally, he shows us that Jesus’s advice to “Go, sell that thou hast” (Mt 19:16) is complementary to St Paul’s advice, not contradictory of it. Any redistribution of wealth must be purely voluntary, and suited to the case.

BUT besides this,—Paul is not accustomed to enjoin everything on every man, but accommodates himself to the weakness of his hearers, even, indeed, as Christ also did.

For when that rich man came to him, and asked him concerning Life, he did not say at once, “Go, sell that thou hast” (Mt 19:16), but omitting this, he spoke to him of other commandments.

Nor afterwards, when he challenged Him and said, “What lack I yet?” did He simply say, “Sell what thou hast;” but, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast.” (Mt 19:21). “I lay it down for your determination. I give you full power to choose. I do not lay upon you any necessity.”

For this reason also, Paul spoke nothing to the rich concerning poverty, but concerning humility; as well because of the weakness of his hearers, as because he perfectly knew, that could he bring them to exercise moderation, and to be free from pride, he should also quickly free them from eagerness about being rich.

St John Chrysostom, Homily II “On the Statues” (CCEL).

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