Be On Your Guard
By Dan Clendenin
From Our Archives
Dan Clendenin, Christ is in All (2010)
Debie Thomas, Rich Toward God (2019)
In the summer of 2016 my wife and I backpacked the “Way of St. Francis” from Florence to Assisi to Rome. The walk was many good things wrapped into one — being together, physical exercise, escaping our ruts and routines, visiting Italy for the first time, museums, and meeting people from around the world. Best of all, the pilgrimage included a spiritual dimension — contemplating the life of St. Francis of Assisi (1182–1226).
Francis’s family was wealthy but not aristocratic. In 1205, he renounced family and wealth in favor of a vagabond life as a lay penitent that was centered around serving lepers, manual labor repairing dilapidated churches, and fervent devotion to the Eucharist.
In 1208, two followers joined Francis, and the three of them sought priestly advice on their “form of life.” On April 16, 1208 the priest opened the missal to three random passages that would later define the Franciscan Order: go and sell all that you have, take nothing for the journey, deny yourself, and follow Jesus. By 1216, Francis was a celebrity, and by 1219 he was even known in far away England. Today you can find Franciscans in 110 countries.
Francis lived the gospel for this week like few others. “Watch out!” said Jesus. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” But since I’m no Francis, what does that mean for me today?
To punctuate his point, Jesus told the parable of “the rich fool” who built bigger barns for his increasing wealth. His smugness has passed into our everyday lexicon: “Eat, drink, and be merry.” But he died suddenly, left his wealth to others (which irony the reading this week from Ecclesiastes laments), and never learned to be “rich towards God.”
Greed is the desire to possess more than we need. We normally associate greed with money, as did Jesus. But we can be greedy for many things — for food, fame, sex, or power. Christians have always identified greed or avarice as one of the seven deadly sins.
There’s a bitter paradox in greed — it’s never satisfied by what it desires. It can’t deliver what it promises. Rather, the opposite is true. “When money increases,” observed John Cassian (b. 360), “the frenzy of covetousness intensifies.” Greed is insatiable. It always wants more. When asked how much money was enough, John D. Rockefeller observed (or admitted?), “just a little bit more.”
“Don’t be afraid,” said Jesus: “God knows what you need.” He then doubles down on his message. He invites us to oppose greed with renunciation: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” And that’s what St. Francis of Assisi, his followers, and many others have done.
If you believe Jesus that “it is difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God,” and agree with Paul that “the love of money is a root of many evils,” then renunciation isn’t as bizarre as it sounds. Renunciation is the way to liberation.
Nor is renunciation a utopian ideal or unattainable standard. Francis is hardly an exception. Many Christians have practiced renunciation, most notably the monastic communities. On the other hand, we’ve never prescribed total renunciation of everything for everyone, nor should we, and for good reasons. Renunciation, it turns out, isn’t so simple. Even in his own life time, the followers of Francis argued about the practical realities of renouncing wealth.
Luke writes how the first believers “had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. There were no needy persons among them. From time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.”
This early financial generosity was combined with social generosity. Personal piety and social justice were joined together. The early believers subverted normal social hierarchies of wealth, ethnicity, religion, and gender in favor of a radical egalitarianism before God and with each other. In the words of this week’s epistle, “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”
As the decades rolled by and the Christian movement expanded among every socio-economic class, both rich and poor, grappling with greed became more nuanced. People debated the meaning of renunciation.
As early as the late second century, in his sermon Who Is the Rich Man Who Can Be Saved?, Clement of Alexandria argued against simplistic views of renunciation. He argued that money could be used for good or evil. Jesus is not talking about a merely outward action, said Clement. Rather, God wants us to use wealth wisely, not to repudiate it. Clement reminds me of the observation that abstinence is easier than self control.
In his masterful study Through the Eye of a Needle; Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD (2012), Peter Brown of Princeton documents the evolving attitudes and practices of Christians regarding wealth. He rejects two common myths. First, that of “the primal poverty of the early Christians.” Some early believers were poor, both voluntarily and involuntarily, but not all of them.
And second, although the church gained new economic privileges under Constantine, like tax breaks, the emperor didn’t usher in a time of new wealth for the church. Until the year 370 or so, the “in-betweeners” were the church’s biggest supporters — the “middling people” between the super rich and the oppressed poor, artisans, small farmers, town clerics, tradesmen, and minor officials. Brown describes these people as “the solid keel of the Christian congregations through the fifth century.” That is, the church flourished thanks to ordinary people who were extraordinarily generous with their modest resources.
There have never been easy answers to the hard sayings of Jesus. Brown documents the various ways believers grappled with greed, from radical renunciation by the super rich, like the famous desert mother Melania (350–410), the “anti-wealth” of the ascetics, care for the hungry and homeless, the founding of hospitals, the everyday generosity of ordinary believers, and, finally, the clerical stewardship of massive wealth as God’s providential gift.
As with food and fasting, although all believers have a single goal, like the avoidance of gluttony and the cultivation of self-control, it’s impossible to commend a single way to reach that goal due to our different personal circumstances — age, stage in life, health, family responsibilities, etc. So, we don’t prescribe total renunciation of wealth, marriage or food for every Christian. That’s a voluntary and personal choice based upon God’s unique call on your life. After all, many wealthy women supported Jesus and the early monasteries. Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy man who buried Jesus.
Greed is psychologically complex. Cassian observed how monks who had renounced great wealth got angry over a small sum or a lost book. Monks who practiced renunciation agreed that the possession of money wasn’t the ultimate problem. What mattered most was one’s disposition, desires, or attitude. The renunciation of money is an outward sign of the more important inward struggle.
Saint Hesychios of the eighth century put it this way: “He who has renounced such things as marriage, possessions and other worldly pursuits is outwardly a monk, but may not yet be a monk inwardly. Only he who has renounced the impassioned thoughts of his inner self, which is the intellect, is a true monk. It is easy to be a monk in one’s outer self if one wants to be; but no small struggle is required to be a monk in one’s inner self.”
Similarly, Maximos of the seventh century: “the war which the demons wage against us by means of thought is more severe than the war they wage by means of material things.”
Battling greed isn’t easier for a monk or more difficult for an investment banker. Jesus’s call to renounce greed is for all of us, not just a spiritual elite. How you do that is a personal and complex spiritual discipline based on God’s unique call on your life.
St. Francis wasn’t an inimitable figure who transcended history. He was a normal human being who responded to the invitation of Jesus to “give all, take nothing, and embrace the cross.” And that’s the struggle of a life time, not just a summer walk.
NOTE: see Augustine Thompson, Francis of Assisi; A New Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012), 299pp.
Thomas à Kempis (1380–1471)
Grant me, O Lord, to know what I ought to know,
To love what I ought to love,
To praise what delights thee most,
To value what is precious in thy sight,
To hate what is offensive to thee.
Do not suffer me to judge according to the sight of my eyes,
Nor to pass sentence according to the hearing of the ears of ignorant men;
But to discern with a true judgment between things visible and spiritual,
And above all, always to inquire what is the good pleasure of thy will.
Thomas Hammerken was born in Kempen, Germany and distinguished himself as a priest, monk, and writer. His chief contribution is his manual of Christian discipleship entitled The Imitation of Christ.
Dan Clendenin: firstname.lastname@example.org
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