“There was even something more in addition to these evils, namely that his [Lazarus] reputation was slandered by foolish people. For most people, when they see someone in hunger, chronic illness, and the extremes of misfortune, do not even allow him a good reputation but judge his life by his troubles, and think that he is surely in such misery because of wickedness.” [St. John Chrysostom (+ 407 A.D), On Wealth and Poverty, pp. 31-2
Being poor is never very easy, especially in America where it seems like the vast majority of people have some type of wealth. If you have been a poor adult (especially with a family), I’m sure you can relate! Our culture has become completely inconsiderate to the poor, waving their riches in the faces of the poor and flaunting their “blessings” as if the poor were not even in existence.
It is generally assumed that the poor deserve to be where they are at, because, after all, this is a “democracy,” a “republic” , and we have a “free enterprise,” which means the poor are there because they either did not work hard enough or study hard enough. I believe this notion historically comes from what is known as the “Protestant Work Ethic.”
Wikipedia defines it as such: “The Protestant work ethic (or the Puritan work ethic) is a concept in sociology, economics and history, attributable to the work of Max Weber. It is based upon the notion that the Calvinist emphasis on the necessity for hard work as a component of a person’s calling and worldly success is a visible sign or result (not a cause) of personal salvation.”
This doctrine assumes a type of Old Testament theocracy, where all things are on an equal playing field. America was never like that. From the beginning it has been a country separated from the spiritual authority of the Church and the commonwealth that more theocratic societies produce. The Presbyterian Puritans attempted a theocratic rule in the late 1600s, before the official foundation of America, and failed miserably. But many of their philosophies lived to see the distant future of America.
How many wealthy people do you know that prosper due to their so-called Protestant Work Ethic, be them Protestant or not? I am afraid that most industries in America would simply not hold up to the qualifications of the Medieval Protestant Work Ethic. Most of our industry now works toward the prosperity of the carnal minded person and not of the godly! This “free enterprise” has few ethical boundaries and does not consider much of any theological foundation at all. To put it simply, our economical system has never really been centered on the Kingdom of Christ.
The Puritans attempted to build a Chris-based economy, but due to their doctrines of predestination their community was crushed. Their fingers were pointing everywhere, and salvation itself became dependent on works; an ironic disposition, since they were doing everything they could to avoid such a Roman doctrine of works-based salvation. It really was the Roman doctrine inverted! The Romans declared salvation was, for the most part, earned, and now the Puritans simply turned this teaching inside out and began teaching that works were a type of identifier of salvation. So, of course, everyone strove to become successful in all things to prove to their fellow man and to their conscience that they were “saved” and the “elect” of Christ.
Since there is no spiritual authority to guide the government and the financial economy in our country, there will remain endless ways to capitalize on people and companies so as to produce profit. If you want to prey on the sinfulness of humanity and begin a business that relies on this sinfulness of man, you can do it…and get rich. Forget about who you are hurting, the important thing is that it is “legal” and that you are producing a profit. No matter if your product or service is harmful to the environment, family well-being, etc., it can be done in America. And if you get rich with such a sleesy operation, you can boast that you have earned such a dollar.
How to be Poor
So now that because of this notion in America that the millions of poor people deserve to be poor, and the fact that it does not seem to be changing much, how does one embrace poverty? By being rich in Christ and adhering to His great commission is the answer! This richness involves the ascetic life of meditation on humility and wisdom as well as viewing the world through a completely different lens.
All throughout the Gospel we see Christ refer to the subject of material/financial wealth. In fact, He speaks about it more often than the subjects of heaven and hell. He goes as far as saying that we should not even “store treasure on earth” but “store treasure in heaven.” He speaks of the poor and lame as our brother and says that we should even be willing to give up inheritances from family and perhaps give up family itself! All of this is said third person, from Christ to those that His Trinitarian nature brought Him to, but the Church believes that He is speaking to all of His people as He taught these particular people. Christ was not describing a certain calling of ministry or a certain task for people that feel the need to be as such; rather what we see Him teach is for all mankind. And what we see Him teach is salvation through all that He describes!
St. Gregory of Nyssa describes what Orthodox Christians call the ascetic life: “Those, then, whose reasoning powers have never been exercised and who have never had a glimpse of the better way soon use up on gluttony in this fleshly life the dividend of good which their constitution can claim, and they reserve none of it for the after life; but those who by a discreet and sober-minded calculation economize the powers of living are afflicted by things painful to sense here, but they reserve their good for the succeeding life, and so their happier lot is lengthened out to last as long as that eternal life. This, in my opinion, is the gulf; which is not made by the parting of the earth, but by those decisions in this life which result in a separation into opposite characters. The man who has once chosen pleasure in this life, and has not cured his inconsiderateness by repentance, places the land of the good beyond his own reach; for he has dug against himself the yawning impassable abyss of a necessity that nothing can break through.” (St. Gregory of Nyssa A.D. 335-395, On the Soul and Resurrection)
The very best way to live this sort of ascetic life, the life of material sacrifice, and not conform to the so-called Protestant Work Ethic, is to serve in a purposeful manner. This will involve giving a portion of your life over to the kingdom. It’s much more edifying and fulfilling to be poor for a particular mission, a particular goal, than it is to be poor because you have to be.
A friend of mine recently said to me, “It is not about what you acquire but it is about what you keep.” As Christ said, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” When we choose to be poor, we gain a sense of freedom that is worth far more than any fuzzy feeling while enjoying our latest luxury. It takes time to adjust to these new feelings, no doubt, but once realized, new doors of heaven open up for us to see the splendor of God first hand. When we choose to be poor, we liberate ourselves from material bondage, thus opening ourselves to spiritual enlightenment.
Saint Chrysostom says this regarding the very nature of being poor and its value to spirituality: “Therefore, do not keep saying: “Since I am poor and work with my hands, how shall I be able to lead a life of a philosophy?” It is for this reason above all that you will be able to lead the life of philosophy.”
In the matter of piety, poverty serves us better than wealth, and work better than idleness, especially since wealth becomes an obstacle even for those who do not devote themselves to it.
As we embrace the ascetic call of giving, even to the point of giving our very liberty, we move toward a posture of both humility and strength. We gain a purposeful life that consumes every bit of being that we have, leaving us with little to worry about and everything to think about. We free our minds! We become equipped for battle and can enter the most dangerous battles without being harmed.
The irony about the Protestant Work Ethic is that it is through the very opposite that we may be able to see godliness in a person! As we have discussed, giving is what Christ desires, and gaining a high social status in a community that sees material gain as success is nowhere near this calling of Christ.
There are far too many orphans to care for, far too many hungry to feed, and far too many ignorant to instruct than there is time and resource to involve ourselves in constant luxury. Our soul depends on this calling and even longs for it. It is a very part of heaven itself!