This talk was given October 1st 2017, at St. Luke’s Parish in Darien, Connecticut, as part of an ongoing speaker series about finding Christ.
Our savior was poor. “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ,” St. Paul wrote, “that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”It is hard, now, to hear just how radical that is. The din of time has mellowed the force of the fact. A different challenge presented itself to Christianity’s early preachers and practitioners: Convincing others, and themselves, that such a thing were really possible, and that it mattered.
To focus on the Latin west, it is worth noting that the ancient Roman social imagination was not organized around poles of poverty and wealth, but rather citizenship versus barbarianism. This is not to say that there were no poor people in ancient Rome; there were, of course. But their poverty itself was not a major source of social concern. “Poverty, in itself, gave no entitlement,” according to historian Peter Brown, “those who received benefits from the wealthy received them not because they were poor but because they were citizens.”
Which is not to say the ancients held the poor in high esteem — a failure to focus on poverty per se did not imply an absence of stigma. On the contrary, an ancient Roman legal text off-handedly identified poor persons among those unworthy of presenting complaints in courts of law or giving testimony; but by the middle ages, Christian authors would modify this rule on the grounds that poverty itself wasn’t a moral failure, and wasn’t “a kind of crime.”
But to get to that point, the preachers of late antiquity were tasked with reshaping the imaginations of their hearers. For them, the poor had to be, in some sense, invented, and their poverty presented as a moral issue. People that these fledgling ancient Christians had seen for years in one way, they were now asked to see in a new and peculiar light. The sermons of late antiquity, a period roughly between the third and eighth centuries, right around the time that Christianity was gaining serious ground in terms of adherence, authority and civic attention, tell the story of this reinvention.
“The poor man seeks money and has it not; a man asks for bread, and your horse champs a gold bit under his teeth,” St. Ambrose of Milan wrote, “And precious ornaments delight you, although others do not have grain.” To the pre-Christian imagination this scenario might’ve landed as gauche or petty; it’s in poor taste, after all, to notice the humiliation of a fellow citizen and carry on without mercy. But Ambrose insisted that it was worse than impolite; it was morally wrong: “Mercy is indeed a part of justice, so that if you wish to give to the poor, this mercy is justice…since the Lord our God has willed this earth to be the common possession of all and its fruit to support all.” The poor, in other words, have a claim and a right to the fruits of the earth, because God gave the comfort of nature to all to hold in common. Ambrose’s notary and biographer Paulinus commended the bishop for his own indifference to riches, so, “like a lightly clad and unencumbered soldier, he might follow Christ the Lord, who, being rich, became poor for our sake.”
The preachers of late antiquity set themselves to work upending the reactive, negative notions that developed about the poor among a newly accountable upper class. “You are often idling at the theaters all day,” said St. John Chrysostom, “or in the council-chambers, or in useless conversation. You blame many — but you fail to consider yourself as ever doing anything evil or idle. And do you condemn this poor and miserable person who lives the whole day in entreaties, teas, and a thousand difficulties?” Chrysostom elsewhere argues that the great inheritances common to the aristocracy suggest there’s no more virtue in the acquisition of wealth than the collapse into poverty: At least a poor man living in poverty doesn’t deny others use of the land.
Christ, having been Himself poor, was believed to hold the earthly poor especially close to Himself — a strange thought to a culture more accustomed to thinking of Gods favoring heroes, great beauties and bold conquerors. Almsgiving, Ambrose wrote, can “make God your debtor by a kind of pious usury,” an admittedly unsettling notion to modern ears. But God was understood to consider alms given to the poor as a gift made to Himself, so dearly did He love them. Read More