The Praise of Poverty
By St. John Chrysostom
Patriarch of Constantinople, Doctor of the Church
Excerpted from Homily XVIII on the Letter to the Hebrews, nn.3-6.
He sat down on the right band of God, from henceforth expecting.” Why the delay? “that His enemies be put under His feet. For by one offering He hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.” But perhaps some one might say; Wherefore did He not put them under at once? For the sake of the faithful who should afterwards be brought forth and born. Whence then [does it appear] that they shall be put under? By the saying “He sat down.” He called to mind again that testimony which saith, “until I put the enemies under His feet.” (See above, i. 13.) But His enemies are the Jews. Then since he had said, “Till His enemies be put under His feet,” and they [these enemies were vehemently urgent, therefore he introduces all his discourse concerning faith after this.
But who are the enemies? All unbelievers: the daemons. And intimating the greatness of their subjection, he said not “are subjected,” but “are put under His feet.”
Let us not therefore be of [the number of] His enemies. For not they alone are enemies, the unbelievers and Jews, but those also who are full of unclean living. “For the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, for neither can it be.” (Rom. viii. 7.) What then (you say)? this is not a ground of blame. Nay rather, it is very much a ground of blame. For the wicked man as long as he is wicked, cannot be subject [to God’s law]; he can however change and become good.
Let us then cast out carnal minds. But what are carnal? Whatever makes the body flourish and do well, but injures the soul: as for instance, wealth, luxury, glory (all these things are of the flesh), carnal love. Let us not then love gain, but ever follow after poverty: for this is a great good.
But (you say) it makes one humble and of little account. [True:] for we have need of this, for it benefits us much. “Poverty” (it is said) “humbles a man.” (Prov. x. 4, LXX.) And again Christ [says], “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” (Matt. v. 3.) Dost thou then grieve because thou art upon a path leading to virtue? Dost thou not know that this gives us great confidence?
But, one says, “the wisdom of the poor man is despised.” (Eccles. ix. 16.) And again another says, “Give me neither riches nor poverty” (Prov. xxx. 8), and, “Deliver me from the furnace of poverty.” (See Isa. xlviii. 10.) And again, if riches and poverty are from the Lord, how can either poverty or riches be an evil? Why then were these things said? They were said under the Old [Covenant], where there was much account made of wealth, where there was great contempt of poverty, where the one was a curse and the other a blessing. But now it is no longer so.
But wilt thou hear the praises of poverty? Christ sought after it, and saith, “But the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head.” (Matt. viii. 20.) And again He said to His disciples, “Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor two coats.” (Matt. x. 9, 10.) And Paul in writing said, “As having nothing and yet possessing all things.” (2 Cor. vi. 10.) And Peter said to him who was lame from his birth, “Silver and gold have I none.” (Acts iii. 6.) Yea and under the Old [Covenant] itself, where wealth was held in admiration, who were the admired?
Was not Elijah, who had nothing save the sheepskin? Was not Elisha? Was not John?
Let no man then be humiliated on account of his poverty: It is not poverty which humiliates, but wealth, which compels us to have need of many, and forces us to be under obligations to many?
And what could be poorer than Jacob (tell me), who said, “If the Lord give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on”? (Gen. xxviii. 20.) Were Elijah and John then wanting in boldness? Did not the one reprove Ahab, and the other Herod? The latter said, “It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother Philip’s wife.” (Mark vi. 18.) And Elias said to Ahab with boldness “It is not I that trouble Israel, but thou and thy father’s house.” (1 Kings xviii. 18.) Thou seest that this especially produces boldness; poverty [I mean]? For while the rich man is a slave, being subject to loss, and in the power of every one wishing to do him hurt, he who has nothing, fears not confiscation, nor fine. So, if poverty had made men wanting in boldness Christ would not have sent His disciples with poverty to a work requiring great boldness. For the poor man is very strong, and has nothing wherefrom he may be wronged or evil entreated. But the rich man is assailable on every side: just in the same way as one would easily catch a man who was dragging many long ropes after him, whereas one could not readily lay hold on a naked man. So here also it fails out in the case of the rich man: slaves, gold, lands, affairs innumerable, innumerable cares, difficult circumstances, necessities, make him an easy prey to all.
Let no man then henceforth esteem poverty a cause of disgrace. For if virtue be there, all the wealth of the world is neither clay, nor even a mote in comparison of it. This then let us follow after, if we would enter into the kingdom of heaven. For, He saith, “Sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in Heaven.” (Matt. xix. 21.) And again, “It is hard for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matt. xix. 23.) Dost thou see that even if we have it not, we ought to draw it to us? So great a good is Poverty; For it guides us by the hand, as it were, on the path which leads to Heaven, it is an anointing for the combat, an exercise great and admirable, a tranquil haven.
But (you say) I have need of many [things], and am unwilling to receive a favor from any. Nevertheless, even in this respect the rich man is inferior to thee; for thou perhaps askest the favor for thy support, but he shamelessly [asks] for ten thousand things for covetousness’ sake. So that it is the rich that are in need of many [persons], yea oftentimes those who are unworthy of them. For instance, they often stand in need of those who are in the rank of soldiers, or of slaves: but the poor man has no need even of the Emperor himself, and if he should need him, he is admired because he has brought himself down to this, when he might have been rich.
Let no man then accuse poverty as being the cause of innumerable evils, nor let him contradict Christ, who declared it to be the perfection of virtue, saying, “If thou wilt be perfect.” (Matt. xix. 21.) For this He both uttered in His words, and showed by His acts, and taught by His disciples. Let us therefore follow after poverty, it is the greatest good to the sober-minded.
Perhaps some of those who hear me, avoid it as a thing of ill omen. I do not doubt it. For this disease is great among most men, and such is the tyranny of wealth, that they cannot even as far as words endure the renunciation of it, lint avoid it as of ill omen. Far be this from the Christian’s soul: for nothing is richer than he who chooses poverty of his own accord, and with a ready mind.
How? I will tell you, and if you please, I will prove that he who chooses poverty of his own accord is richer even than the king himself. For he indeed needs many [things], and is in anxiety, and fears lest the supplies for the army should fail him; but the other has enough of everything, and fears about nothing, and if he fears, it is not about so great matters. Who then, tell me, is the rich man? he who is daily asking, and earnestly laboring to gather much together, and fears lest at any time he should fall short, or he who gathers nothing together, and is in great abundance and hath need of no one? For it is virtue and the fear of God, and not possessions which give confidence. For these even enslave. For it is said, “Gifts and presents blind the eyes of the wise, and like a muzzle on the mouth turn away reproofs.”
(Ecclus. xx. 29.)
Consider how the poor man Peter chastised the rich Ananias. Was not the one rich and the other poor? But behold the one speaking with authority and saying, “Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much” (Acts v. 8), and the other saying with submission, “Yea, for so much.” And who (you say) will grant to me to be as Peter? It is open to thee to be as Peter if thou wilt; cast away what thou hast. “Disperse, give to the poor” (Ps. cxii. 9), follow Christ, and thou shalt be such as he. How? he (you say) wrought miracles. Is it this then, tell me, which made Peter an object of admiration, or the boldness which arose from his manner of life? Dost thou not hear Christ saying, “Rejoice not because the devils are subject unto you; If thou wilt be perfect [&c].” (Luke x. 20.) Hear what Peter says: “Silver and gold have I none, but what I have I give thee.” (Acts iii. 6.) If any man have silver and gold, he hath not those other gifts.
Why is it then, you say, that many have neither the one nor the other? Because they are not voluntarily poor: since they who are voluntarily poor have all good things. For although they do not raise up the dead nor the lame, yet, what is greater than all; they have confidence towards God. They will hear in that day that blessed voice,” Come, ye blessed of My Father,” (what can be better than this?) “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was an hungered and ye gave Me meat: I was thirsty and ye gave Me drink: I was a stranger and ye took Me in: I was naked and ye clothed Me: I was sick and in prison and ye visited Me. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Matt. xxv. 34-36.) Let us then flee from covetousness, that we may attain to the kingdom [of Heaven]. Let us feed the poor, that we may feed Christ: that we may become fellow-heirs with Him in Christ Jesus our Lord, with whom to the Father together with the Holy Ghost, be glory, power, honor, now and for ever and world without end. Amen.