Chrysostom quote: “How is it that you come to be rich?”

Today I saw an interesting quotation attributed to John Chrysostom, which reads as follows:

John Chrysostom, a fourth-century preacher and bishop of Constantinople, wrote, “Tell me then, how is it that you are rich? From whom did you receive it, and from whom did he transmit it to you? From his father and his grandfather. But can you, ascending through many generations, show the acquisition just? It cannot be. The root and origin of it must have been injustice. Why? Because God in the beginning did not make one person rich and another poor, He left the earth free to all alike. Why then if it is common, have you so many acres of land, while your neighbor has not a portion of it?”

Searching on the first words, “Tell me then, how is it you are rich?”, the source appears to be Shane Claiborne &c, Common Prayer: A liturgy for ordinary radicals, for May 14 – annoyingly the pages are unnumbered.[1]  But the authors give no source for this supposed quotation.  The quote has now started to appear in Twitter, and will doubtless circulate.

A Google Books search reveals earlier use of those words; e.g. in 1978 by Mary Evelyn Jegen & ‎Bruno V. Manno, The Earth is the Lord’s: Essays in Stewardship, p.40.  Unfortunately all the results listed are in snippet form only.

It sometimes helps to use later words in a quote, so I did a search on “The root and origin of it must have been injustice”, and … bingo!  It appears in the 1843 translation of the homilies of Chrysostom on Timothy, Titus and Philemon, published in the Oxford Movement Library of the Fathers series, on p.100: in homily 12, on 1 Timothy.  This reads, in the NPNF series of homily 12:

Tell me, then, whence art thou rich? From whom didst thou receive it, and from whom he who transmitted it to thee? From his father and his grandfather. But canst thou, ascending through many generations, show the acquisition just? It cannot be. The root and origin of it must have been injustice. Why? Because God in the beginning made not one man rich, and another poor. Nor did He afterwards take and show to one treasures of gold, and deny to the other the right of searching for it: but He left the earth free to all alike. Why then, if it is common, have you so many acres of land, while your neighbor has not a portion of it?

At some point somebody modernised these words – not too arduous a task, since the original translator seems to have abandoned his thee’s and thou’s after the first couple of sentences, and reverted to the English of his own day in which he no doubt actually first wrote his translation – and that modernised version has been quoted and requoted.

So there we have it.  It is from Homily 12 of Chrysostom’s Homilies on 1 Timothy.

  1. [1]Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Enuma Okoro, Common Prayer: A liturgy for ordinary radicals, Zondervan, 2010.

4 thoughts on “Chrysostom quote: “How is it that you come to be rich?”

  1. Tell me, then; how is it you are rich? From what circumstance did you receive wealth, and who transmitted it to you? From father and grandfather? If it ascended through many generations, can you validate the wealth was justly acquired? It can’t be. The origination of it must have been injust. Why? Because in the beginning, God did not make one man rich and another man poor. Nor did he later show one treasures of gold, and deny the other the right to seek gold for himself. He left the earth free to everyone. Why, then, if it is common to all, have you so many acres of land, and your neighbor has none?

  2. Well, Chrysostom was obviously not doing a homily on Proverbs 31, which finds that the root of being rich is working your butt off, getting up in the middle of the night to do more work, and then investing the profit in buying fields and vineyards.

    Shrug.

  3. St John the Chrysostom expresses a strain that is common to this day in Eastern Orthodoxy: hostility to wealth. In Grecoroman society Christianity emerged from the bottom rather than the top (as it e.g. did in Russia) and since there was a strong state in the East, the Church had mostly religious power and was often the only way for advancement for those of the lower classes. As a result in the East far more people of lower birth emerged in positions of power who kept their hostility towards the rich and powerful (see for example the hymns sung during the Nymphios services in Holy Week). Of course the church was one of the largest landowners while preaching the benefits of poverty and humility and the evil of wealth… In general this is perhaps the main reason Capitalism did not emerge in the East, getting wealthy was always seen as immoral. Also Marxists preached in a rather ready audience.

  4. Well, he may also have known some things about the rich people in his congregation that we don’t know. To be fair, there’s absolutely nothing in these transcripts to say, “And then he stared really hard at Corruptikos and his buddy Criminalis.”

    Though a lot of his big supporters were also rich people, so they must not have minded too much… still you can see how sometimes he didn’t make friends and influence people.

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