I am again indebted to a quote on the Preachers Institute website posted by Fr. John A. Peck. You should read the full quote on the website.
The harshest form of covetousness is not even to give things perishable to those who need them.
“But whom do I treat unjustly,” you say, “by keeping what is my own?”
Tell me, what is your own? What did you bring into this life? From where did you receive it? It is as if someone were to take the first seat in the theater, then bar everyone else from attending, so that one person alone enjoys what is offered for the benefit of all-this is what the rich do. They first take possession of the common property, and then they keep it as their own because they were the first to take it. But if every man took only what sufficed for his own need, and left the rest to the needy, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, no one would be in need. …
Is God unjust, dividing unequally the goods of this life? Why are you rich, while the other is poor? Isn’t it, if for no other reason, so that you can gain a reward for your kindness and faithful stewardship, and for him to be honored with the great virtue of patience? But you, having gathered everything inside the empty bosom of avarice, do you think that you wrong no one, while you rob so many people? …
He who strips a man of his clothes is to be called a thief. Is not he who, when he is able, fails to clothe the naked, worthy of no other title? The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes that you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the money that you keep locked away is the money of the poor; the acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit.
If you read the full quote, it is even stronger. Notice that it is Saint Basil who says that “if every man took only what sufficed for his own need and left the rest to the needy …” In today’s America no politician would dare utter such a line. He would promptly be accused of being a socialist. And, yet, the very example that Saint Basil uses is the argument that is used in the Book of James, “is it not the rich that oppress you?”
At the same time, there is no doubt that the Early Church Fathers did not forbid people to be rich. In fact, rich people who gave richly were lauded richly. The same New Testament that speaks about the rich who oppress also lauds Joseph of Arimathea for his charitable giving.
Nevertheless, the thrust of the Early Church Fathers is much more often on giving by the rich than on their “right” to be rich. From there the Church Fathers continue to say that each and every one of us should be willing to give freely and openly, not only of our goods but also of our very selves. In one sense a martyr was the ultimate giver because he or she withheld nothing from God’s service, even their very life.
In our economic discussions in America today, all too many Christians are saying the opposite of what Saint Basil said, and saying it in the name of God. Thus, the money is MINE, the land is MINE, the business is MINE, and it is preached as a God-given natural right. But look at what Saint Basil says. It is NOT yours, it is lent to you by God, and when you misuse it, by not sharing it in the way God wills, when—as Saint James said—you withhold the wages of the workers in the field, then, Saint Basil warns, God may require an accounting of you. In fact, Saint Basil makes the point that you cannot take it with you.
We need to be very cautious in our economic discussions that the arguments we make do not give our fellow Christians the excuse to become greedy or miserly in their giving. If you are arguing that the State should not tax the money (for various economic reasons), make sure that you also preach that we are responsible to freely give away the money, and that this is not merely a matter of when you “feel” like it, but is part of your Christian social responsibility. If you argue that the State should not have the right to “punish” by way of taxes, make sure that you also make it clear that there is a God above who most certainly has the right to call us to account for our lack of charity. If you oppose a 2% tax hike by the State, propose to your parishioners that they freely give an extra 2% to the poor through private Christian organizations. Give Satan no excuse to convince someone that the money is theirs alone.
For every time you preach about a Joseph of Arimathea, make sure that you preach about the rich man, Dives, who suffered because of his lack of care for Lazarus. For every time that you denounce the State for its economic policy, make sure you denounce those Christians who fail to give as God would have them give. Whenever you preach on economic issues, think about Saint Basil and ask yourself whether he would approve of your sermon. There are Dives out there that can be rescued if you only preach like Saint Basil.