The Poor Have Faces: Compassion and Action in St Basil of Caesarea

Image: stpeterslist.com

Image: stpeterslist.com

Basil of Caesarea (see my recent posts) was adamant that the hoarding of personal wealth is unnatural, as well as a crime against compassion and justice. For Basil, the issue was both logical and clear: “If we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who don’t have enough, no-one would be rich and no-one would be poor.”  (Homily on ‘I Will Tear Down My Barns’)

John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa were equally outspoken. What makes Basil stand out, however, is his humanity. To others, rich and poor were more of a moral dilemma, an issue (admittedly of vital importance) without faces. You can resonate with their arguments, value their prophetic courage in offending the powerful, but remain strangely unmoved inside.

With great rhetorical skill, meanwhile, Basil gives the poor an identity as people. In various sermons and homilies he paints verbal pictures: the street urchins huddled in doorways, the old man gone blind through neglect and starvation, the agonised mother forced to sell a child into slavery to pay off a debt.

It was this gut-level compassion that also stirred Basil to do something practical: the building of the Basiliad outside Caesarea, a complex which included a poor-house, hospice, and hospital, and was regarded at the time as one of the wonders of the world. This page offers some thoughts and practical considerations of how the vision of the Basiliad could affect our Christian discipleship today.

Image: theguardian.com

Image: theguardian.com

One subscriber to this blog, Jeffrey O’Rourke, late of the University of Tennessee, makes some observations as a result of my last posts. Here are two for your consideration:

” Many people have a tendency, when free stuff is available and given to them, to stop working. They develop an entitlement attitude. Should we continue to help people who will not work and who expect you to take care of them?

“This is startling but true: If we took all the money in the world, and distributed it equally among all the people in the world, it wouldn’t be very long before the previously poor and destitute would be poor and destitute again. As Jesus said, The poor you always have with you (Matthew 26:11). This is in no way to suggest that we should not help people, but it is thought-provoking.”

I would value your thoughts and observations on this. Please use the COMMENT option on this page.

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About Trevor Saxby

I'm a mentor, friend to many, with a PhD in church history. I love learning from the 'movers and shakers' of the past, as I want to be one today!

One response to “The Poor Have Faces: Compassion and Action in St Basil of Caesarea”

  1. John MacArthur says :

    I suppose the thing that always bothered me about the “shared life” is the individual’s ability to distinguish ‘need’ from ‘want’. Maslow has the physiological as his baseline and the self only finds actualisation – at the apex – through giving to some higher goal, such as altruism or spirituality. There are, it seems, certain kinds of people for whom this is a more urgent imperative than others, perhaps those for whom ‘community’ is a natural extension of their spirituality.

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