Is it Sin for a Christian to be Wealthy?

"Goodness is neither in poverty nor in riches, but in our intention."

—St. John Chrysostom

 

Today, when the voice of the Orthodox Church has regained its power in our Russian society, its judgments on a variety of issues force many to listen to it. And one of the questions that modern Russian entrepreneurs, among whom there are many Orthodox Christians for whom the opinion of the Church is extremely important and who form an important part of society, ask is this; can a Christian be a wealthy person?

 

At first glance it seems simple. Life itself shows that the Church, including its highest hierarchs, supports many Russian businessmen, and a considerable number of entrepreneurs help the Church to the best of their ability. All this shows that the Church not only does not avoid contacts with the sphere of business as alien to itself, but is also willing to accept its help with gratitude.

 

However, it is well known that representatives of various "leftist", i.e. socialist and communist, ideologies and movements, in their struggle for property equality, in the war for the notorious principle of "sharing everything," have long loved to refer to the biblical text and the works of ancient Christian writers as proof of their rightness. In doing so, they boldly call Christ Himself the originator of their own political and economic theories, and they call early Christian communities the first "communes”.

 

Admittedly, when they turn to the Gospel text they do manage to find some outward resemblance to their own property ideals. For example, the famous episode with the rich young man. He comes to Christ asking what he should do to inherit Eternal Life and Salvation. The Lord speaks to him and makes sure that the young man has kept all the basic moral commandments of the Old Testament law and that he is a decent and godly man in his way of life. Then Christ makes an unexpected demand of him: "One more thing is lacking in you: sell all that you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me" (Luke 18:22). The young man does not find the strength to refuse the riches and sadly leaves. It is indeed very easy to conclude from this account that wealth prevents man's salvation. Especially since Christ's demand of the rich young man in the Gospel text is followed by the famous words about the "eye of a needle" and the camel: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Luke 18:24).

 

If we turn to the writings of the Christian Fathers we will see that they also have many unflattering words about wealth. Here is one of the sharpest statements on this subject made by Saint John Chrysostom: "Riches make the soul vile, and what is more shameful than that?"

 

So, is it not in vain that the ideal of poverty and Christianity are identified? Is it not in vain that the ancient Christians are considered to be the first ideologists of the communist utopia?

 

But in the works of St. John one can find thoughts of a different kind: "Not that I say it is a sin to have wealth; the sin is not to share it with the poor and to use it poorly."

 

So, wealth in itself is not a reason for reproach; it does not deprive a person of the hope of salvation. It is only necessary to use it in the right way so that it should not harm, but bring spiritual benefit to its owner.

 

But then, what about the Gospel episode with the rich young man? After all, this man, as the New Testament account suggests, was morally pure and pious. And yet, Christ demanded that he give up his wealth as the only thing that really prevented him from receiving Eternal Life. So, by saying that possession of wealth is not a sin, does Chrysostom contradict the Gospel?

 

To answer this question, we need to turn to another passage in Luke's Gospel, one of Christ's most complex and mysterious parables, the parable of the unfaithful steward.

 

Parables are made-up stories, plots composed for the sake of teaching their hearers certain doctrinal or moral truths through circumlocution. It is a very ancient literary genre, once very popular in the East. It is well known that Christ often spoke parables before His disciples and the people, thereby quietly preparing His hearers for the future reception of the fullness of the New Testament doctrine, when it would be revealed not allegorically, but preached openly.

 

One of these parables is the story of a property manager in a rich man's house. The master of the house entrusted him with his wealth, and the steward, being a dishonest man, wasted it. The master of the house found out that his servant was a thief, and informed him of his imminent retirement. Then the steward decided to take some urgent measures and prepare himself a way out. He invited the debtors of his master to his house, and, taking advantage of the fact that he still had access to the "financial records," gave them the opportunity to forge their former receipts of debt. Suppose one of them owed his lord a hundred measures of oil, and the false steward substituted a new receipt for the old one, which already had a completely different figure; fifty measures. All this was done by him with one purpose: that when he was finally dismissed, one of the debtors, who had been enriched in such a dishonest way, would take him into his house.

 

It would seem that this story could have been told by Christ for one purpose only: to teach his hearers never to act as this dishonest man did. But when the Lord spoke this parable, He said to His disciples, "And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you are poor they may receive you into everlasting dwellings" (Luke 16:9). In doing so, He unexpectedly urged His disciples to take this man as an example. He felt that there was not only a negative example in this story for all of us, but also a certain positive one. Of course, Christ does not teach His hearers to steal. So what is He teaching?

 

When the interpreter has the task of explaining the meaning of a parable, the first thing he does is to find out who the characters are. You cannot tell the plot of any story until you know who the protagonists are. So, who are the "master" and "steward" in this parable? If it were just an ordinary "criminal" story about financial abuse, it simply would not make it into the Gospel text; that is not what this book is about. As we know, the Lord spoke most often in His parables about man's relationship with God. And here, according to common interpretations, the master is the Lord Himself, and any one of us can be in the place of the steward.

 

Man lives in this world as a steward of property that does not really belong to him. All that we have, money, "real estate," and life itself, are only "on loan" and will one day, at the last hour, be taken from us by their true Master. In this sense, everything we spend here, we spend "illegally," disposing of someone else's - God's - property as if it were our own. And all the good deeds we do to those around us are good deeds "at someone else's expense”, at God's expense. We give out alms that were actually given to us as "alms" by our Creator; we forgive other people those debts that, in the main, they owe not to us, but to God. In this sense, each of us is an unfaithful steward, gaining friends by unrighteous wealth and hoping that after our resignation - death - those who we have benefited from possessions not our own will welcome us into their homes, praying to God for our salvation.

 

It is thanks to the explanation of this parable that we can understand the uneasy attitude of the Church tradition to wealth: sometimes benevolent, then sometimes hostile statements of the Holy Fathers about it. The matter here is not in the wealth itself, but in the way its owner puts himself in relation to it. Neither wealth is an obstacle to Salvation, nor poverty is an absolute means to achieve the Kingdom of Heaven. These, according to St. John Chrysostom, are "indifferent things”. It should be remembered that the word "indifferent" is used here not in the sense that wealth can neither help nor hinder in any way the salvation. It can very easily hurt it, but it can also help it.

 

Of course, there are some higher ideals of the Christian life that require, among other things, the renunciation of possessions; in the first place, this is the ideal of the monastic life. But it is not the way for every person. It is a path for those who have decided to devote themselves entirely to the service of God. This is why the renunciation of possessions in monasticism is not the renunciation of wealth as something evil and shameful, but genuine and perfect self-denial, the renunciation of all worldly dependence. Moreover, it is well known that a Christian can attain Salvation outside of monasticism, though he is not usually able to acquire the gracious gifts that are possible in monastic life.

 

Be that as it may, the Church is very explicit about the permissibility of possessions: "You may possess wealth", says the third-century Church teacher Clement of Alexandria, expressing the thought that many of the Holy Fathers will repeat after him. At the same time, the Church justifies the possession of personal property with a number of arguments. First, it is simply not feasible for a person living in society to renounce possessions. Secondly, if one does not possess wealth, one cannot give alms or do good deeds. According to the thought of St. Maximus the Confessor, only the person who "takes care that his hand will not run short in giving alms to everyone who is in need" will "accumulate wealth properly". Third, the poverty to which man is called by Christ, the "poverty of the spirit" from the Gospel Beatitudes, does not depend in any way directly on the Christian's material possessions. Poverty of spirit is the complete surrender of oneself to God, to His will, and the realization of one's own powerlessness to achieve anything in life without the gracious help of one's Creator. It is the poverty of humility, not the poverty of possessions.

 

Only by understanding all this well can a man make sure that his wealth not only does not harm him, but, on the contrary, contributes to his Salvation. At the same time, he should perceive his own possessions as the parable of the unfaithful steward teaches: this wealth does not really belong to us, but it can help us to acquire prayers and intercessors before God. As Clement of Alexandria writes, "Here is the most beautiful trade! Here is the divine merchandise! With money one acquires eternity, and giving away to the world that which is transitory, temporary, and changeable, we receive in exchange for it an eternal dwelling in heaven! Oh, run to that marketplace, rich man."

 

But what about the gospel episode with the rich young man? What is the meaning of Chrysostom's angry words that wealth makes a man's soul vile? And what is the meaning of many other denunciations of the rich, which can easily be found in the works of ancient Christian writers?

 

Indeed, the possession of wealth poses many dangers. The first of these is the slavish dependence of man on his possessions and his desire to increase them. "Nothing so arouses passion for wealth as the possession of it", states Chrysostom. But all the more so is the merit of those who are able to attain salvation while being rich: "A great reward awaits those who in the presence of riches know how to live prudently", teaches the same St. John.

 

In this sense it is difficult for the rich to be saved and to enter the Kingdom of God. There are so many dangers inherent in the possession of property. And yet "what is impossible to man is possible to God" (Gospel of Luke 18:27). This is Christ's answer, after His words about the camel and the "eye of needle", to the perplexed question of the disciples: Who then can be saved at all?

 

Strictly speaking, it is impossible for man to reach the kingdom of heaven without God's help, whether he is poor or rich. But what is impossible for each of us individually becomes possible together with Christ and in His Church, in the unity of communion and prayer, in the fullness of the Church's sacraments. No matter how rich or poor a person may be, before God he is a member of the Church, where all people are one Body of Christ. And in doing so (regardless of our social status) each of us must be ready for one thing; total surrender to God and His will, exactly what the rich young man from the Gospel could not do, for whom his own wealth was more important than his ability to follow Christ.


Source: Derzava (Russian)