Skip to comments.On the Paradoxical Freedom of Poverty as Taught By St. John Chrysostom
Posted on 06/26/2014 2:32:36 AM PDT by markomalley
There is a saying that you cannot steal from a man who has nothing, and you cannot threaten a man who has nothing to lose. Of Jesus, the Son of Man who had no where to lay his head (Matt 8:20), this was surely true. The world had no claim on him, nothing to hook him or claim his loyalty. Even his life could not be taken from him for he had already laid it down freely (cf Jn 10:18).
St. John Chrysostom, spoke boldly of it in a sermon of his that paints well the paradoxical freedom of poverty and enslavement of riches and possessions. More of that in a moment.
But consider, that heart of the slavery most of us experience comes from our attachments to this world. So easily we sell our souls to its allurements, so easily does the world ensnare us with its empty promises and trinkets that so quickly turn to duties, distractions and requirements. In our heart, we know how the things of the world weigh us down. But even knowing this, our addiction to things draws us further into the endless cycle of deepening desires, and the increasing inability to live without many burdensome things.
And it isnt just things. The world hooks us with the mesmerizing promise of popularity, promotion, even fame. And in our desperate addiction to being popular we too easily come to that place where we will do almost anything and make almost any compromise for popularity and advancement.
Jesus says, No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. (Matt 6:24)
Scripture elsewhere says,
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (1 John 2:15)
Adulterers! Do you not know that the love of this world is hatred toward God? Therefore whoever chooses to be a friend of this world is an enemy of God. (James 4:4)
But in the end, most of our slavery and anxiety is rooted in our love for this world and our fear of losing its pleasure, power and popularity. It is without doubt the greatest of human struggles to get free from this worlds hooks and shackles and to become utterly free, free to follow the Lord unreservedly and with no fear of what the world might do in retaliation.
St. John Chrysostom well describes, in a sermon of his, the human being who is utterly free. It is a magnificent portrait, and one he was largely able to exhibit not merely by his words but by his very life.
Born in 344 at Antioch he became a young man very much admired for his brilliance and oratorical skills. It was thus that in 374 he fled to the mountains to live quietly and to break the hold that the world had on him. He then worked quietly as a priest, after those six years of holy silence. But he was summoned to be bishop at Constantinople in 398. He was beloved for his powerful capacity to preach and received the name Chrysostom (Golden mouth). Yet not all appreciated the freedom with which he preached, a freedom which led him to freely denounce vice, no matter who was doing it. He was exiled twice by powerful enemies (in 403 and 407). And though his enemies tried to break his spirit and rob his joy, they could not prevail. While he died on his way to his final exile (during a miserable journey in terrible weather), he died with joy, saying Glory be to God for all things. Amen.
The world could not prevail over him, he did not fear it, for he owned nothing of it, and owed nothing to it. It had no hold on him.
And thus, speaking not only from Scripture, but from experience as he was being led into exile, St. John Chrysostom said:
The waters have risen and severe storms are upon us, but we do not fear drowning, for we stand firmly upon a rock. Let the sea rage, it cannot break the rock. Let the waves rise, they cannot sink the boat of Jesus. What are we to fear? Death? Life to me means Christ, and death is gain. Exile? The earth and its fullness belong to the Lord. The confiscation of goods? We brought nothing into this world, and we shall surely take nothing from it. I have only contempt for the worlds threats, I find its blessings laughable. I have no fear of poverty, no desire for wealth. I am not afraid of death nor do I long to live, except for your good. I concentrate therefore on the present situation, and I urge you, my friends, to have confidence .
Let the world be in upheaval. I hold to his promise and read his message; that is my protecting wall and garrison. What message? Know that I am with you always, until the end of the world!
If Christ is with me, whom shall I fear? Though the waves and the sea and the anger of princes are roused against me, they are less to me than a spiders web .For I always say: Lord, your will be done; not what this fellow or that would have me do, but what you want me to do. That is my strong tower, my immovable rock, my staff that never gives way. If God wants something, let it be done! If he wants me to stay here, I am grateful. But wherever he wants me to be, I am no less grateful
For though my body die, my soul will live and be mindful of my people. (Ante exsilium, nn. 1-3).
Here is freedom. You cannot steal from a man who owns nothing, and you cannot threaten a man who has nothing to lose, you cannot deprive a man who has Jesus Christ.
Pray for this freedom.
He, along with other Church Fathers…and, if you think about it, Christ Himself…were very emphatic about the dangers posed by excessive wealth. (Consider, for but one example out of many, Matthew 19:21-30).
However, and please consider this before commenting, the very concept of government social programs was not a player in 4th Century Rome. Consider this little ditty, also from St John Chrysostom:
Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person's gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone? Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm. Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again. Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold form the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people's hearts first - and then they will joyfully share their wealth.
Msgr Pope ping.
It's no surprise that the Fathers knew this from the beginning.
As to Msgr. Pope's comments, in this case they fall rather flat for me. The fact that he doesn't have a spouse and children shows, imo. You can leave "things" behind, but not the people for whom you're responsible.
Or, as Kris Kristofferson said, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
I don’t think he’s saying we have to live on a mountain top and eat three lentils a day. But the things of this world we do have are not the primary focus. So I love Mr. Mercat and my children and grandchild but I love Jesus first.
Yes, I understand that, but there’s a basic tension between the “freedom of poverty” and the responsibilities of family life. In other posts he’s mentioned the obligation to plan for the future: retirement savings, college savings, private education, etc., etc.
It’s true, Jesus gave an example of the freedom of living practically without possessions. It’s also true that nobody reasonably expected Jesus to have a plan for his nursing home care so as not to bankrupt his descendants or become a burden on the taxpayer.
You can’t have it both ways, and I don’t think Msgr. Pope is trying to say you can. He’s just reflecting on one thing one day, and something else another day.
I loved the homily that the priest gave on the feast of St. John the Baptist. It’s June 24th. It’s no doubt given that date not because anyone actually knew his date of birth but it worked with the time line of March 25th annunciation and Dec. 25th Christmas and the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. It is also however, the date when it becomes noticeable that the days are getting shorter. John says, “I must decrease and He must increase.” The homily was that the more Jesus is in our lives, the less the pull of other things. Yes, we plan for retirement and to put our kids through college but we also “plan” for our eternal salvation. So I follow Dave Ramsey’s recommendations - first give to God.
Not surprised by this writing. As we go into the season of quiet, of summer vacations, pilgrimages, retreats, day treats, etc., and of much more free time to reflect, Msgr. Pope goes into the reflections of the saints.
I can see that this could really be a commentary on the end of life however. After your kids are raised and your spouse is gone.
That’s assuming both that your spouse is gone and that your children haven’t turned out lemons and left you bringing up your grandchildren.
I see his point, really. I just don’t find it applicable, except in the most vaguely-spiritual way, to my life. But there’s nothing wrong with that. His readership includes all kinds of people.
True, oh to be that free! I am sure it would be awesome to be able to focus on nothing but Jesus! But that’s why there are retreats. My friends (I’ve moved twice since then) used to go to a week long silent retreat in Indiana. They said it was awesome. For a group of women not to talk! Well I guess in the evening after evening prayers they could talk if they wanted to. Imagine no one following you around making demands?
I do. My husband was telling me the other evening about some friends of ours, three sisters in their 50s, who are going on a cruise next year. "I'd like to take you on a cruise," he said. "That's nice of you, but I'd like to send you and the children on a cruise, and I would stay here with the pets and do nothing."
YEP! I hear you!
freedoms just another word for nothing left to lose.
Joplin sang it. Kristofferson wrote it.
Ah. Thank you for clarifying that.
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