Basil the Great: Eat the Rich

So I thought I was all finished up with that St Vlad series of patristics books. I’d bought a couple, and really enjoyed them, but I didn’t want any more on my shelf. And then I go into the local library, and lo and behold they’ve got the whole set. So we’re reading one more – it’s a collection of homilies from St Basil the Great, about social justice. They’re kinda like sermons on parts of Scripture. We’ll walk through a couple of his comments from one homily, titled ‘To The Rich’.

  • The text: ‘To The Rich’
  • The author: St Basil the Great
  • Read it yourself: I’m using a volume from SVS Press titled On Social Justice. According to its preface, that volume is the only place where this homily has been translated into English.

The verses that Basil is discussing in this homily are Matthew 19:16-22, the ‘sell all you have and follow me’ bit. He uses the verses as a jumping off point to tell you why rich people are bad, and it’s great. We’ll start with something introductory – something relatively light and friendly. One of the questions St Basil asks is how wealth benefits us in the long run. He rolls out the ‘store up your treasure in heaven’ routine:

“You have acres and acres of arable land: fields and orchards, mountains and dells, rivers and springs. But what comes after this? Is not all that awaits you a six-foot plot of earth?”

You’re going to die, he says, and your wealth won’t help you once you’re dead, so you should focus on the things that are really important.

However, even with that reading, it’s not clear how literal Christ’s instruction is meant to be. It’s obviously not intended as a model for how society should function, right – the idea isn’t that everyone in the world needs to sell all their stuff and give the money to the poor. For one, if literally everyone is selling their stuff, there won’t be any buyers, and for two, if everyone’s got rid of their stuff, then everyone is poor and all the stuff just comes straight back to them. And then – I mean, is it recursive? Do they have to give it all away again? It just doesn’t seem like a practical model for how society should be run. Basil addresses this concern in his homily, and claims that it’s more about creating a culture of stewardship rather than necessarily literally expecting everyone to go out and give up all their stuff.

“‘How shall we live,’ someone will say, ‘when we have renounced everything? What quality of life will there be if everyone sells all and forsakes all?’ … It befits those who possess sound judgement to recognise that they have received wealth as a stewardship, and not for their own enjoyment; thus, when they are parted from it, they rejoice as those who relinquish what is not really theirs, instead of becoming downcast like those who are stripped of their own.”

So it’s not that we all need to go out and give up all our stuff: it’s that we should hold our possessions lightly, so that when or if God asks us to give things up, we can do it happily. God should be first, and we should love nothing more than God, so that if God asks anything of us we are glad to do it. From that perspective, the verse reads like the young man basically put his foot in his mouth. Christians are all supposed to be able to give up all their stuff, but not everyone actually has to step up to the plate. It’d be similar to if Jesus had said ‘oh hey yeah actually could you martyr yourself for me please?’ Theoretically any Christian should be willing to do anything for God, including laying down their life, but very few of us are ever called to anything that extreme.

I’m not sure I like that reading, though. It kinda creates the impression that Jesus was just being a dick. Like this guy comes in looking to be better, and Jesus decides to impose Christian Hard Mode – which he is technically allowed to do – rather than just telling the guy to chill out and that God loves him. It also seems to take away from the concreteness of the instruction. Jesus didn’t tell the young man to prepare his heart with an attitude of stewardship just in case he was called to give something up. Jesus told him that if he wanted to be perfect, he should sell everything. I don’t think it would be appropriate for Christians to read that story and be like ‘well I’m prepared to give up everything if God asks, but uhhh I don’t hear Him asking me to do that nope can’t hear anything guess I’ll just keep being rich.’

One of Basil’s other lines of approach – and I think this is the most compelling, personally – is where he just explicitly says that rich people are bad and that the whole economic system needs to be torn down and rebuilt. Fourth century Christians knew what was up:

“Wherever you [rich people] turn your gaze, you will clearly behold the apparitions of your evil acts: here the tears of the orphan, there the groaning of the widow, elsewhere the poor whom you have trampled down, the servants whom you have brutalized, the neighbours whom you have treated outrageously. All your deeds will rise up before you; the wicked chorus of your wrongdoings will beset you on all sides.”

This is something that resonates with us today. Capitalism has victims. We know this. We know how Amazon treats its staff. We know that the increased rates of climate change brought on by industrial capitalism will cause the number of climate refugees to skyrocket in our lifetime. In 2019, nearly 25 million people were displaced by disasters. That number will increase. Capitalism is not just unsustainable, it’s immoral. It’s hurting us and destroying the planet. For me, the exciting thing about Basil’s homily is its explicit economic focus. He talks about the evils of the wealthy as exploitative hoarders who fail to lessen suffering:

“How many could you have delivered from want with but a single ring from your finger? How many households fallen into destitution might you have raised? In just one of your closets there are enough clothes to cover an entire town shivering with cold. You showed no mercy; it will not be shown to you. You opened not your house; you will be expelled from the Kingdom. You gave not your bread; you will not receive eternal life.”

But it’s not just that money makes you unvirtuous. Basil isn’t arguing that money makes you greedy or selfish – he more specifically sees the pursuit and accumulation of wealth as socially irresponsible, as something that actively hurts the life of the community. The rich are not only selfish; they directly cause suffering. Not only do they fail to protect and uplift the impoverished; their hoarding of wealth is itself the reason for poverty. In one of his other homilies, ‘I Will Tear Down My Barns’, Basil argues that the origin of this social divide comes from the rich monopolizing resources. “That is what the rich do. They seize common goods before others have the opportunity, then claim them as their own by right of preemption.” Crucially, Basil argues, this hoarding behaviour is itself the reason that poverty exists. “For if we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, and no one would be in need.” You don’t fix poverty by asking billionaires to be more generous. It’s not a moral failing – it’s economic. The existence of billionaires, of hoarders who monopolize resources and wealth, is the root of the problem.

According to this reading, the Biblical instruction to sell everything and give your wealth to the poor is Christ recognising that the wealthy are exploiting and oppressing the poor, and that, if you can’t tear down the system, the least you can do is stop being part of the problem. If you want to be perfect, stop hoarding all the wealth. Sell everything and distribute your resources. Give financial stability to the people you took it from. And that’s not just an instruction for this one guy. It’s an action for all people. Christ goes on to say that it’s harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. If it’s that hard for rich people to enter heaven, then we as a society need to help them by taking away their money – for the sake of their own salvation, and to bring forth the Kingdom of God.

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