In the Breviary this week, we read a reflection from St. Basil the Great that amounts to an “investment strategy,” not just for the near future but for eternity. Challenging though his thoughts are, they are also sensible and consoling.
St. Basil’s words are shown below in bold, black italics, while my comments appear in red. I have changed the order of his remarks somewhat from the original; the complete text of St. Basil’s commentary, in its original order, can be found here: On Generosity.
St. Basil begins with a challenge, rooted in a blessing:
Man should be like the earth and bear fruit; he should not let inanimate matter appear to surpass him. The earth bears crops for your benefit, not for its own, but when you give to the poor, you are bearing fruit which you will gather in for yourself, since the reward for good deeds goes to those who perform them (Hom. De caritate, 3, 6: pp. 31, 266-267, 275).
Here is St. Basil’s “humbling” challenge: Do not let dirt/soil (humus) be more virtuous and beneficial than you are! In a way it is a play on the Lord’s image that if we, who are called to be salt of the earth, become flat, we are good for nothing except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot (see Matt 5:13).
In a magnificent description of grace and mercy, St. Basil reminds us that God in His mercy allows His grace to become our merit. That is to say, God, who will never be outdone in generosity, will not let our deeds of mercy go unrewarded, even though they are the result of His grace rather than our unaided flesh. God will not forget the mercy we have shown, and if we stay in the grace of friendship with Him as a member of Christ’s Body, we will not lose our reward. Scripture says,
- Give and it shall be given unto you (Luke 6:38).
- Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy (Matt 5:7).
- Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward them for what they have done (Prov 19:17).
- A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed. (Prov 11:25).
Those who remain faithful will be rewarded for their generosity to the poor. Do not be afraid to be generous, for God will not be outdone in generosity. He will reward; He will repay!
Give to a hungry man, and what you give becomes yours, and indeed it returns to you with interest. As the sower profits from wheat that falls onto the ground, so will you profit greatly in the world to come from the bread that you place before a hungry man. … In the presence of the universal judge, all the people will surround you, acclaim you as a public benefactor, and tell of your generosity and kindness.
St. Basil invokes the “investment strategy” given by the Lord Himself and echoed by St. Paul:
- Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal (Mat 6:19).
- I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings (Luke 16:9).
- Command [the wealthy] to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life (1 Timothy 6:18-19).
The investment strategy works like this: We do not store up treasure in Heaven by putting it in some sort of balloon or rocket and sending it up, but by placing it in the hands of the needy and poor. What we give generously does not just go away; it goes up and is “stored” in Heaven for us, where it earns heavenly interest. Scripture says, Cast your bread upon the waters: after many days it will come back to you (Ecclesiastes 11:1).
Not only is it “stored up” in Heaven, but it also acts as an assurance on the day of judgment. Jesus says that we ought to make friends through the generous use of our wealth.
Who are these friends? The poor and the needy! They are our “investment brokers” for the day of judgment and the world to come. The Lord says that when our wealth ultimately fails us (and it will fail us at death), they (the poor) will welcome us to eternal dwellings.
Imagine that as you go before the judgment seat, multitudes of poor cry out, “Have mercy on this one, Lord, for he was merciful to us.” Yes, the Lord says that they (the poor) will welcome you to eternal dwellings, and St. Paul affirms that the wealthy who bless the poor will lay up a firm foundation for the coming age.
To be sure, generosity to the poor will not be the only thing upon which we are judged, but it certainly will help on that day when we stand before the Lord. Frankly, most of us are going to need all the help we can get!
You are going to leave your money behind you here whether you wish to or not. On the other hand, you will take with you to the Lord the honor that you have won through good works.
Here, St. Basil echoes Scripture, which says, Henceforth, blessed are those who die in the Lord. Let them rest from their labors, for their good deeds go with them. Even so, saith the Spirit (Rev 14:13).
Do you not see how people throw away their wealth on theatrical performances, boxing contests, mimes, and fights between men and wild beasts, which are sickening to see, and all for the sake of fleeting honor and popular applause? If you are miserly with your money, how can you expect any similar honor?
Pay attention here. We do well to consider whether we throw a lot of money away on passing, foolish, or empty things. What are our versions of theatrical performances, boxing contests, and mimes?
The Lord is not saying that we should never go see a movie or watch a sports event, but if we are willing to spend a lot of money on such things, why not on things that are more important and from which we will profit eternally? We all have questions we should ask ourselves: Is everything I spend my money on necessary? Does my extravagance harm the poor and needy? Do I use my money wisely from an eternal perspective?
Your reward for the right use of the things in this world will be everlasting glory, a crown of righteousness, and the kingdom of heaven; God will welcome you, the angels will praise you, all men who have existed since the world began will call you blessed. Do you care nothing for these things, and spurn the hopes that lie in the future for the sake of your present enjoyment?
What is more important to us: comfort here in this world or glory in Heaven?
Come, distribute your wealth freely, give generously to those who are in need. Earn for yourself the psalmist’s praise: He gave freely to the poor; his righteousness will endure forever.
How grateful you should be to your own benefactor; how you should beam with joy at the honor of having other people come to your door, instead of being obliged to go to theirs! But you are now ill-humored and unapproachable; you avoid meeting people in case you might be forced to loosen your purse-strings even a little. You can say only one thing: “I have nothing to give you. I am only a poor man.” A poor man you certainly are, and destitute of all real riches; you are poor in love, generosity, faith in God, and hope for eternal happiness.
Don’t be poor in things eternal, in what matters to God.
This song sums it up: “You may have all this world …. Give me Jesus.”