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.
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.
I came across this article on The Generosity of the Early Church, which gives a good overview of the principles and practical application of generosity in the churches of the New Testament.
It makes sense to start with what the New Testament really says about true generosity. What comes out looks rather different from the almost unquestioned acceptance by evangelical Christians today of tithing (giving 10 percent of your income) as a guide for financial giving. What follows are my own ponderings and interpretations, but they tally very well with those of the article linked to above.
God loves a cheerful giver is still the guiding principle [2 Corinthians 9:7]. Human beings are creatures of habit. Drift easily sets in and we lose the freshness of sacrificial giving and the joy of generosity. Many Christians then find convenient ways of justifying personal wealth by giving a bit here and there.
In the gospels, there are examples of ‘giving to charity‘ in today’s sense, e.g. John 13:29. Yet chiefly we are urged to show justice to the poor by identifying with them and sharing with them in the new, classless society that is the Church. That’s why the first Church in Jerusalem shared meals in homes with glad and generous hearts, and met each other’s financial needs by sacrificial giving [Acts 2:45-46].
Everyone should be a giver, out of gratitude for God’s generosity to us in salvation. How much to give? As Stuart Murray Williams cogently shows in Beyond Tithing, the tithe is an Old Testament practice which is not laid on Christians. It can be a start, but Jesus, the pioneer of a new covenant, shows a new way: give everything you can – which is usually more than you think you can.
The Apostle Paul gives some helpful guidelines:
* Give as much as you can [2 Corinthians 8:3];
* Give freely, without pressure [ibid, v.3,8];
* Give cheerfully, not grudgingly [chap.9:5-8];
* Give as an expression of care and unity in the kingdom of God [chap.8:4];
* Give, trusting God to bless and reward the lavish heart [chap.8:4].
* Give as an act of worship and thanksgiving, and be blessed in blessing others [chap.9:14-15].
Several articles have caught my attention on the subject of generosity.
Larry Jones writes about “Is Giving Really Giving?”. He questions the supposed absolute of not expecting to receive anything in return (Luke 6:35). Through the act of giving we do experience an equivalent or reward. I believe that God has created a “universal law”, whereby when we give back to Him and others, He opens up at least the possibility for equivalent rewards.
David Matthias offers an inspiring testimony of generous giving which did not involve any money changing hands! Read about how several people’s pressing needs were met by sharing possessions.
Zach Nielsen offers some challenging insights on “financial peace” – the contentment that comes through being generous and unselfish with what has been entrusted to us. His post is particularly useful in that he links to various articles for and against the notion that money is by nature a danger to faith.
Here Nielsen puts his finger on the moral and intellectual dilemma we all face vis-à-vis our wealth:
‘I’m afraid the framing of this discussion leads us to ask the wrong questions. Like the junior high boy who wonders “how far is too far” with his girlfriend, we are quickly caught up in questions about how rich is too rich, how poor is too poor, and the like. Where is the line? Do I feel guilty for having too much? Do the kids have enough? What does “enough” even mean? Should I feel guilty about not giving as much as so and so? If I give more, does that mean I am more spiritual?
‘The hamster wheel of comparison, propelled by our spring-loaded legalism, keeps spinning to exhaustion. We are all tempted to be proud about what we give or feel guilty about what we don’t.’
So, what do we do about this? How do we start to effect change in our giving? Operation Church offer the graphic above. It makes thought-provoking reading, but any Christian who is conscientiously exercised to build generosity into their life ought to look hard at the paradigm shift it advocates.
One early Christian text can help us here. The ‘Didache‘ (Greek for “teaching”) is of uncertain date, but internal evidence leads most commentators to place it at the latest AD 100. It is a short handbook of moral and practical governance for churches, perhaps in Syria, and it is anonymous.
Here are some quotations on generosity (and meanness) which carry the freshness of Early Church clarity.
Let your money sweat in your hands until you know to whom you should give it.
Be not one who stretches out his hands to receive, but shuts them when it comes to giving.
Do not hesitate to give, nor grumble when you give; remember who is the good Paymaster of the reward [i.e. God].
Share everything with your brother, and do not say it is your own; for if you are sharers in the imperishable, how much more in perishable things?
Another early Christian writing gives us valuable insights. It is the Apology (reasoned defence of the faith) by Marcianus Aristides, a converted philosopher from Athens. Some authorities suggest he had sat at the feet of the Apostle John. In all likelihood, he prepared this Apology in AD 125, because the emperor Hadrian visited Athens that year.
Here are some sentences on generosity from Aristides. His style of writing is heavy and rhetorical, and so is the Victorian English of the translation! Here I have at times modernised the phrasing without (I trust) altering the sense of what was written.
“Christians live in hope and expectation of the world which is to come. So they do not embezzle what is held in pledge, nor covet what is not theirs. If one or other of them has servants or slaves, through love towards them they persuade them to become Christians, and when they have done so, they call them brethren without distinction.
“They love one another, esteem widows, and rescue orphans from any who ill-treat them. Whoever has [wealth] gives to him who has not, without boasting. When they see a stranger, they take him into their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother.
“Whenever one of their number who was poor passes from the world, each one of them according to his ability contributes to his burial. And if they hear that one of their number is imprisoned or afflicted on account of the name of their Messiah, all of them anxiously minister to his necessity, and if it is possible to redeem him they set him free. If there is among them any that is poor and needy, and they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to have food which they can supply to the needy one.”
The Shepherd of Hermas is an anonymous early Church writing, probably composed in Rome around AD 140. It consists of a series of pictures or revelations made to a character named Hermas, which are then interpreted to him by an angel (called the Shepherd) or by an ageless woman, representing the Church.
One of these pictures is an allegory of generosity and how it benefits both the giver and the receiver in equal measure – which is what God intended in the first place. I have abridged it slightly, as the original is rather wordy, and modernised some of the phrasing to make it more readable.
As I was walking in the field, I observed an elm and a vine. As I considered them and their fruits, the Shepherd appeared to me and said: “These are intended as an example for the servants of God.
“The vine produces fruit; the elm is an unfruitful tree. But unless the vine is supported by the elm, it cannot bear much fruit, and the fruit which it does bear is rotten because it trails along the ground. Therefore, when the vine is cast upon the elm, it yields fruit, both from itself and from the elm.
“This is a similitude for the poor man and for the rich.” “How so, sir?” said I; “explain the matter to me.” “Listen,” he said: “The rich man has much wealth, but is poor in matters relating to the Lord, because he is distracted about his riches; he offers very few intercessions to the Lord, and those which he does offer are small and weak, and have no power above. The poor man, with fewer distractions and greater needs, is often in prayer, and his intercession has great power with God.
“So, when the rich man refreshes the poor, and assists him without hesitation in his necessities, the poor man (being helped by the rich) intercedes for him, giving thanks to God for the one who bestowed gifts upon him. This moves the rich man to continue to interest himself zealously for the poor man, that his wants may be constantly supplied. For he knows that the intercession of the poor man is acceptable and influential with God, and by it he (the rich man) is blessed.
“Thus, both accomplish their work, and it is a great work, acceptable before God. Poor men, interceding with the Lord on behalf of the rich, increase their riches; and the rich, again, aiding the poor in their necessities, satisfy their souls. Both, therefore, are partners in the righteous work.”
One definition of a social entrepreneur is ‘someone who finds a solution to an intractable social problem of his or her culture, pioneers its implementation and sees it to fruition.’ Given the far-ranging social, economic, political and spiritual impact of his life, Hans Nielsen Hauge (1771-1824), pronounced Ho-ger, deserves much wider recognition outside his native Norway.
It all began in 1796, when the 25-year-old farmer’s son was ploughing a field. He suddenly felt an overwhelming experience of the presence of God. ‘My mind became so exalted that I can scarcely express what took place in my soul’, he wrote later. ‘I asked Him to reveal to me what I should do. The answer echoed in my heart: “You shall confess My name before the people; exhort them to repent and seek Me while I may be found and call upon Me while I am near; and touch their hearts that they may turn from darkness to light”.’ He burned with love for Jesus and for mankind.
He first shared the good news at home, then set off as an itinerant evangelist. He developed a pattern of walking great distances every day, holding three or four meetings in villages and reaching large numbers of ordinary people. In the 8 years he was free to do this, it is estimated he covered 15,000 km. He often knitted as he walked; the gloves and socks were then given away to the poor who needed them. Many people came to saving faith in Jesus as a result and then they themselves went out to preach the gospel. A grass-roots revival began to spread among the rural communities.
Hauge was a humble and practical man, full of initiative. He saw the need to educate and equip the common people as well as save their souls. He had an amazing capacity for work, which, combined with his pioneering spirit, made him an entrepreneur to rank with the best.
For Hauge, running a business and preaching went hand in hand. He started a company in Bergen in 1801 to secure a sound economic base for his gospel activities. Thereafter, there was no stopping him! Over the next eight years, he founded fishing industries, brickyards, spinning mills, shipping yards, salt and mineral mines, paper mills and printing works. These created jobs for people who needed work and taught them how to make a living for themselves. He delegated the daily management to those he thought were the most capable, but he was the strategist who planned and motivated the whole enterprise. The profits were always used to invest in new activities.
Hauge became an inspiration to all who wanted to take Norway out of the ‘middle ages’ and into a new day. New agricultural and industrial methods were developed, and literacy rates rose. A new confidence led to greater economic freedom as Christians were challenged to rebuild society. Norway began to change.
Hans-Nielsen Hauge’s time as a travelling evangelist were busy and fulfilling. A magnetism of God’s love seemed to draw people to him. He collected some of their testimonies and published them as tracts, to reach out to others. He made friends in many places and groups of followers formed. One particular characteristic among them was love.
It is something that God’s children have among them by the Spirit, Hauge wrote. They know each other from the first moment of meeting. It shows in their spiritual talk, their gentle and humble character and moral, simple and faithful words. One of Christ’s shepherds easily recognises his own, and they recognise him.
Some young ‘Haugians’ were entrusted with local leadership, preaching tours and the sale of books. These men had very different backgrounds and education, but all of them were stamped with Hauge’s burning decisiveness for Christ.
Alongside this, Hauge encouraged representatives of the rural population into politics, launching what has been described as the first Norwegian democratic movement. This was enough to gain him enemies. Norway had strict laws regarding sectarian preaching and ‘vagrancy’; both of these were now used against him.
In 1799, notices were read in churches warning against unauthorised preachers. Some Haugians were chased out of churches, beaten and imprisoned. Altogether, Hauge himself was arrested ten times. He once spent nine years in prison before his case was even heard! The sheriff of Hallingdal thought it would be fun to send a prostitute to Hauge’s cell; he looked her in the eyes with compassion and she began to sob and confess her sins!
His final imprisonment lasted 10 years, 3 of them in total isolation, first in an underground cell reserved for drunks, and finally in a small cell that has now been reconstructed at Norway’s Open Air Museum outside Oslo. He wrote to his friends:
If I had 100 lives, they would all be willing for chains. Prison does not last for ever. I wish you well on the road of salvation. It is my prayer, my longing, my burden of care and my joy to find you in life eternal.
However, Hauge was by now a national figure on account of his entrepreneurial business enterprises on behalf of the poor. His long imprisonment was becoming a scandal. What’s more, the authorities still needed his business and industrial expertise. Once, they freed him for a time because they needed his advice on a marine desalination project!
Finally, his sentence was commuted to a fine, which his friends paid. Hauge was free, broken in health but filled with God’s vision. He was ready for the final stage of the adventure.
Hauge spent his last years on a farm near Christiania (modern Oslo), bought for him by his friends. Years of imprisonment had weakened his body but not his spirit. His home became a centre for Christian life, visited by many. Spiritual and secular leaders alike came to him for advice.
He wrote a number of books and articles, mainly spiritual but some economic. Two years before his early death, he gave this testimony to God’s faithfulness and dealings.
I am 52 years old and have tasted Christianity’s joy and strength, which had enabled me to leave my father’s house and to offer up my body’s peace and my worldly goods. I have put my life in danger of death many times, wandered alone through and over many wild woods and fells. I have seen many loathsome forms of sin. But in all this, nothing has been able to disturb the peace and the divine joy I have through the teaching of Christ.
My consciousness is at one with it, and I only want to live according to its command. In the darkest of prisons, where I have sat for my testimony’s sake, I have had spiritual joys that exceed all the world’s glory and joy. In a miraculous way, power is granted to all those who receive it in their inner being, such that their souls become sanctified by His reconciling grace. From this flows that purity and that friendship that far exceeds all other morals and friendships in the worlds. Let it happen!
At the end, Hauge was bedridden – but still preached. His last exhortation was: “Follow Jesus!” He died, his face radiant with joy, exclaiming, “Oh, You eternal, loving God!”
That was by no means the end of the story! Some of his followers held important positions. Three of them took part in the first Norwegian Parliament in 1814, when Norway became independent from Denmark after 400 years of Danish rule. The whole nation felt the effects of Hauge’s influence – spiritually, politically and financially. It can truly be said that he fathered the new nation.
Hauge’s pioneering work in economic justice and ethical business continue to inspire today. Journalist Sigbjorn Ravnasen has written a book (very hard to find, even on Google) on Hans Nielsen Hauge’s Ethical Framework for Business and Management. He writes:
“When Norway became an independent nation in 1814, these kingdom values were integrated into the rhythm of daily life and were institutionalized into laws, school curricula and business practices in Norway. Economic conditions improved and led to the eradication of poverty in the land. Today, Norway continues to be the best country in the world in human development for the seventh year in a row. Norwegians have imbibed this spirit of volunteerism and have stretched their sense of responsibility from involvement in their local community beyond to the global community of nations. So Norway has the highest ratio of missionaries per capita, and (most unusually) in holistic and transformational servant-leadership roles.”
In 2005 the Hauge Institute was founded. Its aim is to raise awareness about the person Hans Nielsen Hauge, his ethical thinking and topicality; to bring inspiration to the business community, to leaders, research, education and society. Based on the thinking and practice of Hans Nielsen Hauge, the Hauge Institute focuses on the ethical dimension in three main areas: Leadership, Entrepreneurship, and Trade and the Environment. Meanwhile, the Norwegian Lutheran Mission has adopted his name and his principles and still operates today as the Hauge Missions.
My reading gives me the impression that sustainability is being taken more seriously by Christians, particularly the ‘millennial’ generation. Sustainable living is a Christian calling, declares Calvin College. Tearfund and the Jubilee Centre have produced five Bible studies on Christianity, Climate Change and Sustainable Living. There is even a network of Christian leaders advocating sustainability: check out their webpage.
Basically put, sustainability is the belief that there are enough resources on earth to provide for its population, if only these resources could be used wisely and equally. This clip from the Breathe Network will give you a flavour – read the comments too.
So, is this a new fad? Could it be that sustainability is in the New Testament mandate? It is certainly the thought behind 2 Corinthians 9:8. God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work.
But there is a much stronger tie-up with the monastic community vision. Basil, bishop of Caesarea (c.330-379), wrote at some length on this issue. In his sermon “To the Rich”, he writes:
“But how do you make use of money? By dressing in expensive clothing? Won’t two yards of tunic suffice you, and the covering of one coat satisfy all your need of clothes? Is it for food’s sake that you have such a demand for wealth? One loaf is enough to fill a belly.”
If you have been blessed with more money and goods than others, it is so you can meet the needs of those others, he argues.
‘It takes wealth to care for the needy; a little paid out for the needs of each person, and all at once there is sharing. Whoever loves his neighbour as himself [as Christ taught], will not hold on to more than his neighbour has.’
Basil inveighs against those “who leave grain to rot but will not feed the starving”, who choose ivory sofas and silver tables when ordinary wood is just as suitable. This is more than cheap swipes at material wealth. For Basil, a man steeped in the Christian community vision of the Desert Fathers, the inherent sin of such behaviour is its refusal to accept simplicity for the sake of sustainability. It is as much a sin against the earth as it is against the poor.
This is the context in which Basil in his day, and concerned Christians today, saw the devious lie of consumerism and turned against it.