But the biblical use of envy isn’t directed against poor people. It doesn’t understand the Bill O’Reilly form of “class warfare.” The bible, in fact, doesn’t have a lot of nice things to say about the wealthy or about hoarding wealth.
Though few contemporary preachers would berate the rich, the earlier Church Fathers (before the Church got awfully cozy with the wealthy benefactors) were in tune with the Beatitudes, the Old Testament Law, with St. James’ warnings against the rich and those who would cuddle up to them to the detriment of the poor.
Envy is the idea that the resources and people of the world belong to persons and can be owned and acquired for strictly personal use for the profit of those persons, when those resources belong to everybody. Envy happens when a corporation steals, bottles, and sells fresh water. Envy happens when stock owners demand higher profits for their dollars and so deprive workers of their livelihood only to hire other workers that can barely afford to live.
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.
Did you not fall naked from the womb? Will you not go back naked to the earth? Where is your present property from? If you think that it came to you by itself, you don’t believe in God, you don’t acknowledge the creator and you are not thankful to Him who gave it to you. But if you agree and confess that you have it from God, tell us the reason why He gave it to you.
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?
Who is the greedy person? It’s him, who doesn’t content himself with what he has. And who the thief? He who steals what belongs to others. And you think that you are not greedy, and that you do not rob others? What had been granted to you so that you might care for others, you claim for yourself.
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.
According to New Theological Movement, this is what the Church Fathers had to say:
- St. Ambrose: “You are not making a gift of your possessions to poor persons. You are handing over to them what is theirs. For what has been given in common for the use of all, you have arrogated to yourself. The world is given to all, and not only to the rich.”
- St. John Chrysostom: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.”
- St. Gregory the Great: “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.”
- St. Ambrose: “It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.”
- Thomas Aquinas: ‘One should not consider one’s material possessions as one’s own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need.’
You shall give to him [your poor brother] freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.” Deut. 15:10-11
What the Deuteronomy passage here suggests is a communal effort, a state wide effort by the people of extraordinary kindness. This kind of kindness was carried out by the early church after the spiritual reawakening of the Pentecost experience (Acts 2 & 3) and carried through to anybody in need through the next couple centuries.
Now, millenia later, our churches enjoy unprecedented prestige, privilege and socioeconomic and political power and are exempt from taxes! I have to ask out of my deep and abiding love for the Church: Is the American/Western Church being kind or envious?
I ask because if we are to have a voice of morality, and if the biblical witness is absolutely clear on this aspect, then should not the contemporary Church be at the front of this line? Why have we abandoned the terms of morality to the wolves?
Kindness is required. The kind of kindness that requires that every. Person. Is. Fed.