I have been dipping in to Peter Brown’s latest masterpiece, Through the Eye of a Needle, and have been struck by the stark contrast between ancient Christian attitudes to poverty and wealth and those attitudes that exist in contemporary Christian communities.
Throughout the continent one finds a disturbing number of churches which preach and believe the so-called “prosperity gospel.” People are taught that God wants them to be healthy, rich, successful in business – like an indulgent grandparent, God wants to give them whatever it is they think will make them happy. In the terrible poverty that exists in much of the world, this usually means money. The great tragedy is that in idolatrously seeking out a lesser good they are in danger of missing out on the one who is the ultimate good.
But Christians have not always thought in this way. Unlike many today, in the churches of Late Antiquity (roughly speaking, the fourth to seventh centuries), wealth was not considered an unqualified good. Jesus’ words about the difficulty with which the rich enter the kingdom of God (from which Brown’s title is taken) were taken seriously by many. This didn’t mean that everyone sold everything they had in favour of following an ascetic life (although some did). Then, like now, Christians took seriously their responsibilities to family, friends, and their church. In many cases extravagant wealth was not exchanged for grinding poverty, but for a modest existence. The problem was understood to reside not in wealth itself, but in the Christian’s relationship to wealth.
What mattered more than wealth was what one did with it. Those Christians who had much understood they had a responsibility to support the poor. In this they followed the cultural norms of the Roman Empire. But whereas a rich pagan felt his primary responsibility was towards his fellow citizens, rich Christians recognized their responsibility towards their Christian brothers and sisters, regardless of their place within the empire. The flow of money from Christians in wealthy regions of the world to those in developing countries indicates that many Christians continue to prioritize relationships established by their heavenly citizenship.
Of course, ancient Christians were just as prone to sin and self-deception as we are. Brown’s book also tells the stories of those who thought they could rid themselves of their sins through giving. Others, under the guise of generosity, sought to further their socio-political standing or establish their reputation. All Christians are called to be generous, but Brown’s history reminds us that our generosity must be undergirded by godly motives.
Proverbs 30.8 contains a short prayer that encapsulates the biblical approach to these matters: “give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.” Trusting in the providence of God, we look to him for all that we need, and nothing more.
Reviewer: Jonathan More (Vice-Principal of George Whitefield College)