Golden Altars and a Naked Christ? John Chrysostom on Distribution of Wealth
We have seen that, for Basil of Caesarea, distribution of one’s surplus to those in need is an imperative, not an option. His contemporary, John Chrysostom (c.347-407), bishop of Antioch, echoed these sentiments and expressed them even more forcefully.
“Wealth is like a snake; it will twist around the hand and bite unless one knows how to use it properly.” The huge injustices that wealth creates are intolerable to him. But Chrysostom is no proto-Marxist (a question explored in this article). “Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone?”
“Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm. The rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold form the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first — and then they will joyfully share their wealth.” (Sermon On Living Simply; see also a parallel quotation from his Homily on 1 Corinthians here).
Chrysostom inveighed against the growing trend of sumptuous church buildings. Do you want to honor Christ’s body? Then do not scorn him in his nakedness, nor honor him here in the church with silken garments while neglecting him outside where he is cold and naked. Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? (Matthew 25:34ff) You can find more of this quotation from his ‘Homily on St Matthew’ here.
Instead, each believer should determine to honour the poor by sharing material goods with them, as a sign of true discipleship. Lift up and stretch out your hands, not to heaven, but to the poor; for if you stretch forth your hands to the poor, you have reached the summit of heaven, but if you lift up your hands in prayer without sharing with the poor, it is worth nothing. Every family should have a room where Christ is welcome in the person of the hungry and thirsty stranger.
This Q&A post from the Orthodox Church of America looks further at how Chrysostom’s radical statements might be outworked and applied today.