Theology 101

Thinking Deeply About Wealth with Basil the Great

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One of the recurring topics of Jesus’ ministry was the nature of money and wealth management. Therefore, it is no surprise the same topic received further treatment in the early church. Church fathers such as Clement and Athanasius of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, and Augustine, to name a few, spoke often and with force on such topics. Whether one fully agrees with their interpretive choices is less important than giving them the opportunity to speak. To honor their legacy, we must read and think deeply on their ideas, even if we disagree with them. 

Basil the Great (330 – 378)

Basil of Caesarea, later known as Basil the Great, was bishop of Caesarea, a fighter of heresy, and a defender of Trinitarian theology in the 4th century. Basil grew up in a wealthy family, was well-educated, and inherited a fortune. Then, after baptism, he sold his possessions and devoted himself to monastic life. After six years living as a monk, Basil entered the public sphere to minister as a bishop, where he would preach regularly on the topics of wealth, poverty, and social issues.  

As a philosophical homily, “To the Rich” provides us with a glimpse into Basil’s understanding of wealth. Based on Matthew 19:16-22, Basil believes the accumulation of wealth signifies neglect of the poor and failure to love one’s neighbor. For him, Jesus’ command “sell your possessions and give to the poor” is applicable to all Christians. Regardless of if we agree with Basil – many interpreters apply the command only to the rich man, with the general principle that money should never get in the way of faithfulness to God – much wisdom can be gleaned from his message. 

Scattered Wealth Returns

Basil reminds his hearers of the ancient biblical truth that “when wealth is scattered in the manner which our Lord directed, it naturally returns, but when it is gathered, it naturally disperses.” Once we have what is necessary (such as food, water, clothing, and shelter), what more is needed? Scatter your wealth for the benefit of others and do not fall into the devilish trap of “innumerable spending opportunities.” 

Don’t Invalidate Your Efforts

Faithful Christians desire to honor Christ in all they say and do. Yet like a “traveler who hastens to arrive at a famous city, but then stops short and lodges in one of the inns just outside the city walls,” we can invalidate our pious efforts by holding on too tightly to our wealth. Prayer and fasting can be negated by neglect of the poor. Piety can be costly. 

Be Satisfied

Striving after wealth causes many to lose something of greater value: the ability to be satisfied. This is because our appetites are inflamed, not quelled, by constant accumulation. Those who have what they need “have every reason to be happy and rejoice in their prosperity, but instead, they weep and wail because they fall one or two degrees short of some other super-wealthy individual.” Basil compares the desire for constant accumulation to a river fed by small streams, which starts off weak but eventually sweeps away anything in its path, for “nothing withstands the influence of wealth.”

Honor the True Master

Many who strive for wealth do so as a safeguard against the future or as a blessing for children. Basil understands this desire but believes something crucial is lost in the process: an appropriate understanding of who the true Master is. A large inheritance can cause the parent to forget that children “have their own Master who cares for their needs” and the child to have an “aid in immorality.” A proper understanding of wealth holds that God is the true Master who graciously provides for his children. 

Wear Proper Burial Garments

The only type of wealth which extends past the grave is works of piety. Therefore, do not wait until old age or death to spread your wealth but “prepare yourself for your own burial. Works of piety are an excellent burial garment. Make your departure into a truly inseparable adornment; keep everything with you when you go!” In the end, only spent wealth has any value. 

The above points highlight the importance of having a proper relationship with money. Regardless of your financial position or ideology, money plays a significant role in your life. However, wealth should never become an obstacle to loving your neighbor as yourself. Again, whether or not you agree with Basil’s approach in “To the Rich”, it is difficult to deny the wisdom expressed in many of his points. 

To read “To the Rich” and other sermons by Basil the Great, I recommend C. Paul Schroeder’s translations in On Social Justice, published in the Popular Patristics Series by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 

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