An Ancient Church Father Made More Relevant by 21st Century Problems
I was on the edge of my seat reading the homilies on wealth, poverty, and social justice by St Basil the Great. In an age of pandemic, social unrest, and dwindling resources, Basil, who lived in the fourth century, is as relevant today as ever. And with his wit, insightful observation, original interpretation of Scripture, and—if we’re honest—a fair amount of sarcasm, I found myself eagerly anticipating what he would swing at me next.
Translator C. Paul Schroeder has done us a great service in On Social Justice by St Basil the Great, published by St Vladimir’s Seminary (SVS) Press (part of the Popular Patristics Series). In his introduction, Schroeder says he translated these homilies out of a desire “to provide a collection of English translations in contemporary language for texts that either remained untranslated or were scattered throughout various works, some out of print and hard to obtain.”
The result is simply stunning. Basil will wake you up out of your stupor concerning how much wealth you think you need, how many possessions you should have, and what it truly means to “love thy neighbor.” Above all, he returns often to his underlying theme to simplify your life so that you have something to share with others.
He does all this with some surprising and original tools at his disposal. Basil was born into wealth and may have been from the nobility. That he understands the rich--their dress, homes, mannerisms and leisure--is obvious in the homily, To the Rich, “which contains an impressive description…of the landed aristocracy,” writes Schroeder. (Basil would give away all his inheritance to the poor shortly after he was baptized and establish the Basiliad, a community to assist the poor and sick).
The four homilies that comprise this work appear to be delivered around the time that Caesarea suffered from a severe drought followed by a famine and shortly after Basil’s ordination to the priesthood. “It was at this time that Basil truly ‘found his voice,’ writes Schroeder, “with regard to social issues, earning his reputation as one of the most powerful orators in the Christian East on matters of social justice.”
In the homily, I Will Tear Down My Barns, Basil writes insightfully of what a person thinks they need to live. “Tearing down one’s barns [taken from the Gospel parable in Luke 12.18] becomes a metaphor for describing an expanding baseline of need,” writes Schroeder. “Basil in effect says that if people never have anything to share, this is primarily due to the fact that whenever they find themselves in possession of a surplus, they immediately adjust their definition of need to fit the new situation.”
Basil interprets key Biblical passages, such as The Rich Young Ruler (found in Matthew 19.16–30 and in the other Synoptic Gospels), in a new way. While the passage had traditionally been interpreted as the problem of over-attachment to possessions or as a mandate for monastic renunciation of wealth, “Basil understands the spiritual malady of the rich young ruler…as a violation of the commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” In the homily, To the Rich, Basil writes:
It is thus evident that you are far from fulfilling the com-
mandment, and that you bear false witness within your own
soul that you have loved your neighbor as yourself. Look, the
Lord’s offer shows just how distant you are from true love!
For if what you say is true, that you have kept from your
youth the commandment of love and have given to everyone
the same as yourself, then how did you come by this abun-
dance of wealth? Care for the needy requires the expenditure
of wealth: when all share alike, disbursing their possessions
among themselves, they each receive a small portion for
their individual needs. Thus, those who love their neighbor
as themselves possess nothing more than their neighbor;
yet surely, you seem to have great possessions! How else can
this be, but that you have preferred your own enjoyment to
the consolation of the many? For the more you abound in
wealth, the more you lack in love.
Furthermore, Basil believes that God has provided enough resources to meet the needs of all. “These resources, however, are limited commodities, and must therefore be shared out equitably,” writes Schroeder. “In Basil’s view, a healthy economic system requires that resources remain in constant circulation, rather than being stored up or accumulated in large amounts for the benefit of a few individuals. “ In the homily, I Will Tear Down My Barns, he writes:
When riches are closed up like this so that they become
stagnant, what do they do for you? . . . Wells become more
productive if they are drained completely, while they silt up
if they are left idle. Thus wealth left standing is of no use to
anyone, but put to use and exchanged it becomes fruitful and
beneficial for the public.
What makes these homilies, and this translation, of Basil so effective is that while other patristic texts may be about highly theoretical ideas that need extensive instructions, Basil’s teachings on social justice are easily understood and applicable by the modern reader.
Other works by St Basil the Great from SVS Press: