How Needy is ‘Needy’? Some Early Church Thoughts

Basil of Caesarea  (330-379) was a highly influential leader in the Early Church, who laboured and wrote extensively for the rights of the poor. His stance on wealth and poverty is blunt and uncompromising. It is also very relevant to today, where consumerism has achieved almost god-like status.

This piece shows that Basil was also a keen and unflinching observer of human nature – and human excuses. The writer identifies ‘the human tendency to adjust the definition of “need” to fit one’s current level of income.’

Basil was on to this 1600 years ago. His homily (practical sermon) on the man in Jesus’ parable, I Will Tear Down My Barns [and Build Bigger Ones], treats the barns not so much as symbols of wealth but rather as representing our definition of needs based on our circumstances.

‘In effect’, continues the article, ‘Basil says that if we never have any extra to share, this is due to the fact that whenever we find ourselves in possession of a surplus, we immediately adjust our definition of need to fit the new situation.’

(You say) “I will pull down my barns and build larger ones.” But if you fill these larger ones, what do you intend to do next? Will you tear them down yet again only to build them up once more? What could be more ridiculous than this incessant toil, laboring to build and then laboring to tear down again?

In his sermon “To the Rich”, Basil sees this as a form of madness. “Those who have acquired wealth and have great possessions, desire more of the same, nursing the sickness by perpetual accumulation. Having so much here and now fails to bring them happiness, since they grieve over what they don’t have, and convince themselves they’re lacking. ‘We’re poor!’, they say. And it’s true, because a poor person lacks much, and much are you lacking because of your insatiable desires! What was it that killed Naboth? [1 Kings 21] Was it not King Ahab’s greed for his vineyard?”

And so, Basil concludes, you commit injustice to so many when you could have helped them – which applies to any level on the scale of wealth.

Salisbury foodbank volunteer Jill Plant

Increasing numbers of UK people are reliant on Food Banks  Image:

The issue of varying levels of need came particularly to a head in the monasteries. After all, if you live together, perceived inequality can be a death-knell. So Benedict of Nursia (480-c.545) had to address the matter in his Rule (which still governs Benedictine houses today, 1500 years later). He does so with great wisdom, rooted in scriptural principles, in Chapter 34:

Whether All Should Receive in Equal Measure What Is Necessary:  It is written, “Distribution was made to everyone according as he had need” (Acts 4:35). We do not say by this that respect should be had for persons (God forbid), but regard for infirmities. Let him who hath need of less thank God and not give way to sadness, but let him who hath need of more, humble himself for his infirmity, and not be elated for the indulgence shown him; and thus all the members will be at peace. 

Above all, let not the evil of murmuring appear in the least word or sign for any reason whatever. If anyone be found guilty herein, let him be placed under severe discipline.

I get the feeling that if this sentiment was more universally accepted and applied, a good measure of stress could be removed from our lives today.



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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!

5 responses to “How Needy is ‘Needy’? Some Early Church Thoughts”

  1. Jeffrey O'Rourke says :

    I have read several of these and find them very thought provoking and challenging. But are you trying to say, is Basil saying, that possession of *anything* is evil? That by owning my own home and cars etc I am committing injustice to those who have no home or car? A couple of months ago I decided I wanted and then purchased an mp3 player. Was this sin?

  2. Trevor Saxby says :

    Thank you for such a direct question, Jeffrey. I can tell it comes from deeper inside you than just the intellect.

    Bear in mind (as one of the posts said) that the context of Basil's fulminations was a time of severe hardship, food shortages, etc. Today it would have been classed as a humanitarian crisis and charities would be mobilising. In such a context, selfish grasping of what is MINE (and even worse, still planning to get more for ME) is morally and spiritually criminal. Few could disagree.

    Basil's underlying principles (also cited in my posts) are sustainability, justice, love in practice, obedience to Jesus' commands. Basil wrote at length on the 'rich young ruler' in Jesus' parable, and he does indeed say that the man would not have gained “great possessions” if he had been doing as he should and sharing with those in need.

    Other early writers were admittedly more moderate, taking the line that giving to the poor was a New Testament command but that it was all right to have possessions as long as they didn't possess you. I gave various examples in my book, “Pilgrims of a Common Life” (Herald Press, 1987), chapters 4 and 5.

    I guess every Christian has to wrestle with this one before God, Jeffrey. Which stance is truer to the heart of Jesus? Many are the examples from Christian history, from Basil himself through to Wilberforce and the Clapham Group, who for a time had lived wealthy but who died poor. Basil gave it away; Wilberforce et al used it strategically, funding charitable enterprises that would alleviate and help to overcome poverty.

  3. John MacArthur says :

    I think there’s a tendency to see things like this outside of their cultural context. A few centuries ago, it was rare for people except those who had means to have for example, several suits of clothing. Now, everybody has a closet full – I have just given away an alarmingly large bundle of quite high-end, wearable but no longer new clothes which will presumably be recycled to those in need. Were I in a monastic or similarly ascetic environment, however, where people had taken blood-curdling vows of poverty, all I would allow myself to wear would be a standard issue habit and the situation would never have arisen. I do sometimes ask myself about the difference between needs and wants – do I need a new car, or (yet another) new guitar? Clearly, I do not. But, the fact remains, I might well buy one anyway, without feeling particularly guilty or encumbered to the extent that I’ll have trouble with the eye of a needle. Perhaps you think that I should.

    • sch0larly says :

      Perceptive and provocative as ever, John, and thanks for that! In these posts, I guess I am trying to put into the general mix a bit of historical balance (or is it provocation). As Jackie Pullinger says about spiritual gifts and “words” for people, you simply offer it to the person as a present; whether or not they do anything with it is entirely up to them, and we can’t hold their response against them on that basis. I don’t necessarily agree with all that the Church Fathers say, yet I am usually glad they said it. As for your guitar, I would simply suggest basic accountability: asking someone who wnon’t just be nice to you whether they think you really *should* buy (yet) another. The casting vote is still yours, but the challenge alone can be a healthy stimulus for prayerful reflection.

      • John MacArthur says :

        There was just a shadow of devil’s advocacy here, except for the nagging burr at the back of one’s mind that ‘trading up’ is somehow justifiably worthwhile. Most of the time it isn’t, of course, but the thrill of possibility lingers. Also, re: ‘words’, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, spiritually or otherwise.

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