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The Monastics on Money

Week of Monday, June 25, 2001

As one of six children from a small town in North Carolina, I do not come from money, nor do I have much money. But I would confess that as a Christian I do think about money quite a bit. I lived in the communist Soviet Union for four years, but now live in one of the wealthiest zip codes in the world. I raise my own financial support for ministry. Like most parents of teenagers, I fret over orthodontic bills and college tuition. There was one brief period in our twenty-year marriage when we had regular discretionary income, and for that short time we chose to spend what we needed and to give away the rest.

Along the way, I have been helped by a few books. Ron Sider's classic work Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (1977) helped me to realize that in a world where half the population lives on $2 a day or less, by any reasonable standard I am wealthy. Sider also helped me to understand that engaging issues surrounding wealth and poverty is a central aspect of following Jesus. Jacques Ellul explores sociological themes in Money and Power (1954), and Justo Gonzalez reviews early Christian ideas about the origin, use and significance of money in Faith and Wealth (1990). My seminary classmate and New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg has just written what I think is the best single book on money and the Scriptures, Neither Poverty nor Riches; A Biblical Theology of Material Possessions (1999).

I also thank God for several extremely wealthy Christians whom I have known, who each in their own way have demonstrated generosity, joy, global vision, and genuine care for the poor and disenfranchised. I succumb all too easily to the sins of envy and cynicism. But these people make me ponder whether I would be even remotely as faithful to Jesus with my wealth if I had what they did, and to be cautious about pontificating about matters that I have never personally experienced.

More recently I have been reading in the early monastic fathers of the church. Some Christians are quick to caricature the life of the monk as otherworldly in the worst sense of the word—escapist, naive, and legalistic Christians who are badly misguided. In fact, I have found their insights about money to be rich with psychological subtleties, side-splitting humor, and practical wisdom.

All Christians should have the same goals: to avoid greed, give generously, care for the poor, cultivate contentedness (Hebrews 13:5), and the like. For the monks, the means to reach these goals are clear: the “complete shedding of possessions”, detachment, and renunciation of wealth. If you really believe Jesus that “it is difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24), or the Apostle Paul that the love of money is a root of many evils (1 Timothy 6:10), then financial renunciation might not be so bizarre as it sounds.

But as with food and fasting, although we have a single goal, like the avoidance of gluttony and the cultivation of self-control, the monks knew that it is difficult to outline a single rule or means to reach that goal because of any number of personal circumstances (age, stage in life, health, family matters, etc.). So they do not prescribe total renunciation of wealth, sex or food for every Christian; it is voluntary and personal (2 Cor. 9:7). Besides, there were a number of wealthy women who supported Jesus (Luke 8:2–3) and housed the early church (Acts 16:14–15). And as we shall see, the monks understood that as with food or sex, total abstinence is often easier than self-control.

Beyond these generalizations, the monks offer practical advice on a number of fronts. Those who deal with money should “be like someone who holds in his hands a flaming fire,” says Symeon. Greed is so powerful, suggests Evagrios, that in matters of buying and selling, “be sure you lose a little in the transaction.” How easy it is to rationalize in money matters, says Theodoros, who advises us not to “desire to have wealth for distribution to the poor.” Flattering the rich is always a temptation for monks, writes Neilos, in one of my favorite texts: “we come fawning to the rich, like puppies wagging their tails in the hope of being tossed a bare bone or some crumbs. To get what we want, we call them benefactors and protectors of Christians, attributing every virtue to them, even though they may be utterly wicked.”

But what I most appreciate about the monastics and money is their deep insight about the psychological subtleties and complexities that surround Mammon and play out in our minds. Listen to Evagrios:

The demon of avarice, it seems to me, is extraordinarily complex and is baffling in his deceits. Often, when frustrated by the strictness of our renunciation, he immediately pretends to be a steward and a lover of the poor; he urges us to prepare a welcome for strangers who have not yet arrived or to send provisions for absent brethren. He makes us mentally visit prisons in the city and ransom those on sale as slaves. He suggests that we should attach ourselves to wealthy women, and advises us to be obsequious to others who have a full purse. And so, after deceiving the soul, little by little he engulfs it in avaricious thoughts and then hands it over to the demon of self-esteem.The latter calls up in our imagination crowds of admirers who praise the Lord for the works of mercy we have performed.
Clearly, the real spiritual battle with money occurs in our hearts, souls, and minds, so much so that the monks repeatedly quote 1 Timothy 4:8, that outward ascetic struggle is of a little help, and should be followed, but true godliness takes place in the heart.

The ascetic renunciation of material things like money is, at its best, only an outward sign of the more important inward struggle. Saint Hesychios puts it this way:

He who has renounced such things as marriage, possessions and other worldly pursuits is outwardly a monk, but may not yet be a monk inwardly. Only he who has renounced the impassioned thoughts of his inner self, which is the intellect, is a true monk. It is easy to be a monk in one's outer self if one wants to be; but no small struggle is required to be a monk in one's inner self.
Or as Maximos puts it, “the war which the demons wage against us by means of thought is more severe than the war they wage by means of material things.”

The ironic implication is clear, that when it comes to living faithfully with money, it is no easier for a monk or more difficult for someone trading financial futures in the pits of the Chicago Board of Trade. That is, the monastic counsels are for all Christians, not just a spiritual elite who live behind monastic walls. “In this respect,” writes Kallistos Ware, ”the distinction between the monastic life and life in the world is but relative: every human being, by virtue of the fact that he or she is created in the image of God, is summoned to be perfect, is summoned to love God with all his or her heart, soul, and mind. In this sense all have the same vocation and all must follow the same spiritual path....The path with its goal is one and the same whether followed within or outside a monastic environment.”1

That path includes our money.

  1. Kallistos Ware, The Philokalia (London: Faber and Faber, 1979). All monastic quotations are taken from this four volume text.

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.

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