Orthodox America

  Rich Man, Poor Man

Fr. Gregory Naumenko

(Adapted from a sermon by the late Protopresbyter Sergei Sbukin)

 Whatever we may hear about the federal deficit or gloomy economic predictions, such talk is dispelled by the general picture of affluence which our society presents. By any measure the United States enjoys a high standard of living, and even if none of us is anywhere near the financial upper crust, we are all affected to some degree by the glittering image of 'the American way of life,' in which the pursuit of happiness and success is invariably associated with the accumulation of wealth and possessions--today's definition of "good fortune." Even for the "have nots" it is very difficult not to succumb to this mentality.

    As Christians we should be especially concerned to develop a correct attitude towards wealth, for, as we know from the Gospel, it can greatly affect our salvation. Our Lord said, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven." But, you may say, I am not rich. Is there anyone among us who can say that he possesses nothing in excess? We all face the question which so perplexed the disciples: Who then can be saved?

    The question of material wealth and its effects on salvation is dealt with very directly in the familiar parable about the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-3t). The rich man enjoyed a life of ease; he ate fine foods every day and walked about attired in expensive clothes. By contrast, just outside his gates lay the sick beggar Lazarus who kept himself alive by eating crumbs from the rich man's waste. Neither the rich man nor anyone in his household paid any attention to Lazarus whose only relief came from the dogs which licked his sores. Then death came, and their fortunes were reversed: the parable tells us that in the afterlife the rich man went to hades to suffer unending torments, while Lazarus was received into the bosom of Abraham to enjoy an eternal state of blessedness.

    This parable illustrates for us the proper understanding of wealth and poverty—of who is rich and who is poor. Lazarus--old, decrepit, covered with sores, hungry, lonely--endured his condition with patience, without grumbling, and at the end of his life he reaped the spiritual benefit of his earthly struggle. The rich man, fat with temporal goods, showed no concern whatever for Lazarus, and did not even think to send one of his servants to allay the poor one's misery: he was starved of virtue, a spiritual pauper. St. Paul writes that those who live in pleasure are dead while they live(I Tim. 5:6). The parable opens our eyes to see that it is the rich man who, in the final analysis, is poor and covered with sores .

    The story, may have been very different if only the rich man had extended a helping hand to the unfortunate Lazarus. Such an action would have improved the lot of both men, Both would have lived comfortably in this temporal life, both would have received their reward after death--the first for his charity (for "charity shall cover a multitude of sins"--II Peter l;8), the second for his ungrumbling patience and acceptance of God's will. Neither would have suffered torment--not in this life, nor in the life to come.

    The parable does not teach that we must renounce all possessions in order to achieve salvation. Both those who have been granted earthly rich e s and those who have not can lead a life pleasing to God--provided that the matter of wealth is put in its proper perspective. It is not money that is the root of all evil , but the love of money. St. John Chrysostom writes: "I do not blame the owners of houses, of fields, of money, of slaves, but I want them to possess these things in a proper way. What does 'in a proper way' mean? It means mastering them in good order and not becoming their slaves; it means to use them but not to take profit from them." Those who "have" are in no way hindered from attaining the Kingdom if they do not put their riches above their love for God and for their fellowman. Likewise, those who "have not" can be close to God if they do not grumble at their lot or become possessed by the desire "to have."

     A proper perspective on earthly possessions is fundamental to a correct Orthodox understanding of life. If we recall the Ten Commandments, we find two basic rules concerning this: "Thou shalt not steal," and "Thou shalt not covet anything which is thy neighbor's" (Ex. 20:15, 17). This tells us that we are not to obtain possessions at the expense of our fellow men.  At this point one may ask: "But, is it not permitted to obtain wealth by honest means?" Yes, this is permitted, but we cannot allow our quest for wealth to interfere in any way with our serving God, for the first commandment requires that "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me"(Ex. 20:30). Unfortunately, it is nearly always the case that in search of wealth and profit one becomes obsessed by the whole process and all but forgets God; material wealth becomes a antagonist in the process of salvation. Why? "No one," explains the Gospel. "can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon" (i.e. riches).

     We are all subject to physical death. Every one of us will pass on to the life beyond this world, leaving behind all of our temporal possessions, all that those 'of the world' so earnestly covet--glory, wealth, power, beauty. None of this will help us when we stand before the Just Judge and have to give an account of ourselves; "for we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can carry nothing out" (1 Tim. 6:7). And we shall be found truly naked if we do not begin now to adorn ourselves with virtues and good works, and to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven.

     Rich or poor, may we learn to use our circumstances for our spiritual benefit: material abundance gives us the opportunity to share with others, to practice temperance and self-discipline; times -of hardship give us the opportunity to grow in patience and trust in God. Through God's Providence and love for men, each of us is given the means to become rich in spiritual goods. Let us not spend time accumulating empty wealth, but rather pursue after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness, that we may lay hold of eternal life with Jesus Christ, to Whom is due all honor and glory, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit now and ever. Amen. 

Holy Virgin Protection Church, Rochester; NY