Social Justice and Caring for the Poor in the Early Church

A while back a popular conservative commentator got all up in arms over the term “social justice”, warning his listeners to flee their church if the pastor mentioned it because it was code for communism.  He may be surprised to learn that the idea of social justice has roots as old as the Christian faith itself.  I thought of his words when I began reading Basil the Great’s On Social Justice.  I realize that this is a title given by editors and that Basil wrote in Greek and that the book is a collection of sermons on poverty.  That said, I still chuckled when I saw the title.

Then I started reading and my chuckling stopped.  Soon I just moved back and forth form feeling incredibly challenged by these ancient words and feeling completely despondent in the face of my personal, and the church’s collective, failure to live up to this challenge.  One thing other readers note about Basil’s work is that it needs little introduction and that readers with limited knowledge of his time period don’t really need any.  These sorts of sermons could have been preached last week (though, any preacher who preachers them will probably be looking for a job this week).

Basil’s basic message here is that there is enough material goods in the world for everyone.  If you have too much, you are robbing the poor.  Those with a lot need to give it to those in need so we all have enough.  Wow, maybe that conservative radio host was right!  There is even a section where Basil points out that those who declare they worked hard and earned a comfortable life ignore the fact that they received so many blessings from God (or, to put it in contemporary terms, you didn’t build it on your own).

Lest we think Basil was some sort of socialist and turn away from his work, we should probably remember that he is one of the primary theologians who hammered out the Nicene Creed.  To be somewhat blunt, if you believe the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, that the Spirit truly is God, that is partly due to Basil’s work (yes, I know the Bible and the Spirit had something to do with it too!).  Seriously though, read his work On the Holy Spirit.

Also, while this work translates well to the modern reader, there may be differences we ought to keep in mind.  Such differences ought not be mentioned with the goal to blunt Basil’s tough words.  If we look for cultural differences too quickly to free us from the bite of his words, our motives are wrong (of course, we Christians do that with Jesus’ words all the time, don’t we?).  For example, we live in a world where many national governments have been influenced for centuries by Christian teaching.  So our governments take on some duty in caring for the poor through various programs.  This means that one question Christians discuss when talking on this is to what degree churches work in their own programs and to what degree do they advocate governmental work that lines up with justice.  Basil does not talk about this at all.  He does not write on the government’s duty to care for the poor or how that all works.  Does this mean Christians today just help the poor and not worry about the government?  Maybe, though I’d say if our Christian convictions are worth anything we advocate for the government to do good, such as helping the neediest citizens.  I assume Basil would agree, though he did not talk on it.

Another difference is that when Christians today think of helping the poor this is often thoughts of donating money, probably online, to some organization that helps people overseas.  This is a good thing, but not what Basil meant.  He meant the poor people right down the street.  Basil would challenge us to rethink what it looks like to help others.

Overall, I think all Christians need to give this book a good read.  I plan to reread it in the not too distant future.

Along with Basil’s work, I tackled John Chrysostom’s On Wealth and Poverty, seven sermons on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.  While not as directly challenging as Basil’s work, it is still an enriching read.  It is clear why Chrysostom was known as a great preacher.  Where Basil is blunt and to the point, Chrysostom is full of beautiful prose.  He even had to tell people to stop cheering for his sermon and actually apply it to their lives.

My favorite thing about Chrysostom was the centrality of scripture, he had whole sections reminding people to search scripture on their own.  Always cool to find that sort of thing in the early church to remember the Protestant Reformation did not invent that.  Also cool to see ancient preachers go on tangents, as someone who enjoys a good tangent or two myself when I stand up in front of people.

When Chrysostom gets to the point, there is a lot to think about.  One thing he emphasizes over and over is that even good people commit sins and even bad people do some good (I wonder how Augustine felt about his thoughts on sin here?).  Thus, he argued, the rich man received his reward for the good he did in this life, little good as it was.  And Lazarus suffered, perhaps as punishment for his sin.  But in the next life they each got what they deserved.  From this, we are reminded to not praise those in comfort, for they are getting their reward now.  And those suffering are looking to future rewards.

All in all, read both these works and read them again.  Let them read you and change you.  I know I will, at least I hope I will.

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