Orthodox America


THROUGH THE NEEDLE'S EYE


Statistics show that, on average, Christians in North America are giving proportionately less of their income to their churches than they did in the past three decades. An analysis by the Protestant research group, Empty Tomb, suggests that this decline in giving may reflect a similar decline in faith. While Protestants are wary of associating faith with works, emphasizing justification by faith alone (sola fide), the authors of the study found ample support in the Reformation fathers, Luther and Calvin, to state that "the way a believer spends money is perhaps the clearest indication ... of the heart's spiritual condition."

The Orthodox tradition has always maintained a close connection between faith and works, and one would therefore expect Orthodox Christians to be more generous with their wealth. Although it is not clear if Orthodox churches figured in the above-mentioned study, it should prompt us to examine our personal spending habits, as a check on our spiritual health. Are we laying up treasures for ourselves in heaven, or are we weighed down by earthly possessions? What would be our response were the Lord to bid us, as He did the rich ruler, Go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor? This is a very serious and sobering question, for after the rich man turned away in sorrow, evidently unwilling to part with his possessions, Christ said to His disciples, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God (Matt. 19:16-17).

The subject of wealth is treated at length in both the Old and New Testaments, and in the writings of the Holy Fathers. We may be tempted to give scant attention to admonitions directed at the rich as being inapplicable to us, but this would be wrong - and spiritually perilous. Relative to "the Joneses," our lifestyle may be quite modest, but this country boasts a high standard of living, so that even households with below average incomes are wealthy in comparison to their counterparts in poorer countries. Moreover, it is not wealth per se that is the issue, but our attitude towards it. It is not money, but the love of money that is the root of all evil (I Tim. 6:10). It is not he that hath riches, but he that trusteth in his riches shall fall (Prov. 11:28). Judas was not wealthy, but he was avaricious, and this caused him to betray Christ. Job was exceedingly rich in possessions such that he was the greatest of all the men of the east, but his attitude towards his wealth was one of thankfulness to God, so that when he was stripped of it he did not murmur of blaspheme but said simply, The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away ... blessed be the name of the Lord (Job 1:20). Saint Macarius comments here, "Although he [Job] was reputed to have great possessions, the testing which he received from the Lord showed plainly that he had none but God" (Homily V:7).

Saint Clement of Alexandria, in his treatise, Who is the rich man that shall be saved? emphasizes that it is not the renunciation of worldly goods but the disposition of soul that is essential here. Wealth can, in fact, work to our spiritual advantage, if we use it to benefit our neighbor. This, in the interpretation of Saint Clement, is how we fulfill the Lord's injunction, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness (Luke 16:9). Further he writes:

Riches are useful and provided by God for the use of men; and they lie to our hand, and are put under our power, as material and instruments which are for good use to those who know the instrument. If you use it skillfully, it is skillful; if you are deficient in skill, it is affected by your want of skill, being itself destitute of blame. Such an instrument is wealth... Its nature is to be subservient, not to rule... He who holds possessions, and gold and silver, and houses, as the gifts of God; and ministers from them to the God Who gives them for the salvation of men; and knows that he possesses them more for the sake of the brethren than his own; and is superior to the possession of them, not the slave of the things he possesses... This is he who is blessed by the Lord, and called poor in spirit, a meet heir of the kingdom of heaven, not one who could not live rich (XIV, XVI).

Now some understand the eye of the needle to refer to an extremely narrow passageway which required camels to be unloaded before they could squeeze through. Likewise, it is only when a rich man divests himself of his possessions, i.e., is free of any attachment to them, that he can enter into the kingdom of heaven. And even then, only with difficulty, for, writes Blessed Theophylact in his commentary on this passage, owing to human weakness, "it is impossible for us not to misuse what we have. As long as we have riches, the devil strives in every way to deceive us into using that wealth in ways that violate the canons and laws of stewardship, and only with great difficulty do we escape the devil's traps" (Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke). The rich man had kept the commandments; he was blameless as touching the law, and the Lord loved him; but because he was attached to his possessions, he could not enter into a state of grace, which is the kingdom of God. When tested, his attachment to earthly goods proved stronger than his desire for eternal life. And it prevented him from accepting the Master's invitation to come and follow Him.

It is not practical, especially in the case of families, to be wholly unacquisitive, and it is natural to have attachments to certain things-if only for sentimental reasons. However, we must always be mindful that the earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof (Ps. 23:1), and that it is God Who giveth us richly all things to enjoy (I Tim. 6:17). If we can think of ourselves as stewards rather than owners, we will more readily use our wealth in ways that are pleasing to God, and check ourselves before spending it for purely selfish purposes, for luxuries and other vanities. We are entrusted with wealth that we might use it to express love for the poor-through almsgiving and through generously sharing what we have with others, whereby we manifest love for God, for our Lord said, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me (Matt. 25:40). Almsgiving is an antidote for stinginess, which, according to Saint Ambrose of Optina, "stems from unbelief and self-love." Through almsgiving we lay up for ourselves treasure in heaven, for, as the same Saint wrote, "Earthly wealth is transitory; no one will take it with them into the next life except for those who wisely use it for almsgiving and works of charity."

It is difficult not to fall prey to the enticements of our materialist culture. Only by setting our affections on things above, not on things on the earth (Col. 3:2) have we any hope of passing through the eye of the needle, as it were, being free of the temptations of wealth, and inheriting eternal life. 

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