On a Sermon of Saint Basil

Thoughts on poverty abound: Why it exists? What can be done? Other thoughts about it we see less often: “The willingness to give should accord with one’s means, nor to go beyond them,” Paul writes to the Corinthians; “the relief of others ought not to impoverish you; there should be a certain equality.” (2 Cor. 8:13)

St. Basil the Great (d. 379), in his third sermon on Charity, writes: “Man should be like the earth and bear fruit; he should not let inanimate matter surpass him.” Inanimate matter does not produce much unless man adds his intelligence and labor. The earth is designed to have man with his purpose within it, to perfect it.

Basil, following Genesis, tells us: “The earth bears crops for your benefit, not for its own.” He adds: “When we give to the poor, we are bearing fruit.” We are to be concerned with our eternal well-being: “You are going to leave your money behind you here whether you wish or not.”  But what we do take with us is “what we have won through good works.” Basil even appeals to our vanity: “In the presence of the universal judge, all people will surround you, acclaim you as a public benefactor.” Thus, the Platonic and Christian notion of a last judgment arises out of how we use our goods.

What do people do with their riches? Basil lived no cloistered life: “Do you not see how people throw away their wealth on theatrical performances, boxing contests, mimes, and fights between men and wild beasts, which are sickening to see, and all for the sake of fleeting honor and popular applause?” I will resist the temptation to ask here: “But, granted the abuse, are not the theater and the sports arena also places of human worth indicated by ever-fleeting honor and applause?”

“Your reward for the right use of things of this world will be everlasting glory.” It is quite possible that our reward for the “right use of things” will not be in this world, even though we like to think that our making useful things will support us in this world. Basil forges on: “Come, distribute your wealth freely; give generously to those who are in need.”

Others have benefited us by their wealth-giving. We tell the poor: “I have nothing to give; I am only a poor man.” Basil rejects this excuse: “A poor man you certainly are, and destitute of all real riches; you are poor in love, generosity, faith in God, and hope of eternal happiness.”

We noticed above that Paul insisted on a certain cautious prudence. We are not supposed to give everything away. We are not to “impoverish” ourselves. That would just make us poor, objects of someone else’s charity.

Basil told us not to spend our money on frivolous things like circuses and gladiator shows. Neither Paul nor Basil speaks much of how wealth comes about in the first place. In fact, we rarely see discussion of this aspect of human life in ecclesiastical documents. As with Basil, we speak of “distribution,” but little of how we acquire something to distribute.

Sometimes, we have the impression that anyone who has adequate or a surplus of worldly goods must have acquired them by some unjust means. We can thus justly take away what is unjustly gained. In modern times, civil powers are the “we” entitled to “take away.”

In Basil’s sense, we can talk of giving to the poor only if some who are not poor exist. Moreover, the acquiring of wealth, its production, is not necessarily a taking-away from somebody. It is possible that we can add wealth to the general weal without taking it away from someone else.

We live in a society in which immigration is a major issue. Why is this? Mostly it is because others live in societies in which policies of government or religion makes wealth producing locally impossible. The poor make every effort to go where other conditions exist in which they may be not poor.

But does everyone have a “right” to be “not poor” by not working to acquire the means to produce wealth? Is everyone to be an object of a social justice that assumes that what is necessary is the responsibility of someone else to give him? The logic of simply distributing wealth to give to the poor is to make everybody poor so that no one will have anything to give.

This is why, I suspect, Paul said that “the willingness to give should be in accordance with one’s means.” The complaint of Basil’s poor man that he has nothing to give will soon be a fact in a society that does not learn how to produce and, through intelligence and work, to distribute its wealth to everyone.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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