I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me.
One of the things that drives me bonkers about modern charity drives is how we unfavorably compare people in need to ourselves: “Here’s a child, her family lives on only $1 a day.” They don’t tell us anything about the local economy there: they want us to say, “Goodness! It takes me at least $5 a day to buy Starbucks and then another $30 or $40 a day to feed myself. Then my kids. Then there’s the animals we house with us not for food, but because the kids like them… $1 a day!” Thus we give out of guilt and become affirmed in the goodness of our wealth at the same time. I would be interested to hear it presented this way: “Here’s a child, her family lives on only $1 a day and while they need, really $3 a day, they do pray for you who live, easily on $100 a day and still complain that you want more.”
Paul has learned the real secret of “facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want” from Jesus: “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations.” By “mammom” we mean “riches” and by “riches” we mean a superfluity, an excess: more than is needed. The Fathers everywhere affirm the rightness of private property and – most often in the same breath – counsel against a superfluity. St Gregory of Nyssa and others go so far as to insist that “superfluity” means having two shirts or two pair of shoes. Goodness knows you really can only wear one. Right? That extra pair of shoes you are not wearing today should be on the feet of someone who has no shoes. The extra clothes hanging in your closet now belong to someone else. There is no allowance for “but I need that in case I have to go to a business meeting”.
In commenting on this passage the Fathers all seem to recognise that will will have a superfluity of stuff: it’s what happens when you work and juggle our lives in frugality as we are also counselled. The end will be our needs are met plus an excess. Hear, then, blessed Theophylact on this:
Those then are called the riches of unrighteousness which the Lord has given for the necessities of our brethren and fellow-servants, but we spend upon ourselves. It became us then, from the beginning, to give all things to the poor, but because we have become the stewards of unrighteousness, wickedly retaining what was appointed for the aid of others, we must not surely remain in this cruelty, but distribute to the poor, that we may be received by them into everlasting habitations. For it follows, That, when you fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.
St Gregory the Great says, “But if through their friendship we obtain everlasting habitations, we ought to calculate that when we give we rather offer presents to patrons, than bestow benefits upon the needy.” In other words, the rich won’t care so much if we give them presents from our superfluity: but the poor will. He says also, “In order then that after death they may find something in their own hand, let men before death place their riches in the hands of the poor. ” When I first visited a local parish, I was told “we end the year with about $1000 left in the bank, after all the donations have been tallied and given away.” And I thought, that’s a good thing. We’re not saving “for a rainy day”. We’re using the poor as our bankers.
One thing we take comfort in, in America, is our “Social Safety Net” even if it is very weak. When asked for Christian Charity we reply, to modify the words of Scrooge, “Is there no medicaid? Have the section 8 houses closed?” But St Augustine seems to stand against that: “Now some misunderstanding this, seize upon the things of others, and so give something to the poor, and think that they are doing what is commanded. That interpretation must be corrected into, Give alms of your righteous labors.” Your taxes are your taxes: but you still must give alms.
Entrust your riches into the hands of the poor for safe keeping… and most of us, if you are reading this on the internet, are rich. Protip: ask for the prayers of the poor when you give them your money. The Bible says the pray of a poor man will go to heaven as speedily as an arrow!
We think of our superfluity as our own, maybe for surety against a day of want. Yet Paul says that day of want is part of God’s plan for us, no less than the superfluity: we are to turn to God in all things, riches or want. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” We imagine our superfluity proves our success – this is part of the so-called “Protestant Work Ethic”. If one is rich, one must have God’s blessing to be so, we argue. This the very rich are very blessed and “must be doing something right”. Quite the contrary: if they have hoarded all their superfluity they are, in fact, doing everything wrong, unnatural, not even human. St Ambrose says “Riches are foreign to us, because they are something beyond nature, they are not born with us, and they do not pass away with us.” When we think like them – demand wealth of “my own” – we “are those who justify yourselves before men…[and]…what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”
Paul knows, “I can do all things through Christ”. We tend, however, to measure our success by the World’s standards. When we want something we demand “justice” or “our rights”. We just want our fair share, we just want what’s coming to us. Is that so wrong? Yes.