There is a saying that you cannot steal from a man who has nothing and you cannot threaten a man who has nothing to lose. Of Jesus, the Son of Man who had nowhere to lay his head (Matt 8:20), this was surely true. The world had no claim on Him, nothing with which to hook Him or claim His loyalty. Even His life could not be taken from Him, for He had already laid it down freely (cf Jn 10:18).
St. John Chrysostom spoke of it boldly in a sermon that paints well the paradoxical freedom of poverty and enslavement of riches and possessions. I’ll return to that in a moment.
First, consider that for most of us, the heart of the slavery comes from our attachments to this world. So easily do we sell our soul to its allurements; so easily does the world ensnare us with its empty promises and trinkets that so quickly become duties, distractions, and requirements. In our heart, we know that the things of the world weigh us down, but still our addiction to things draws us further into the endless cycle of ever-deepening desires and the increasing inability to live without many burdensome things.
It isn’t just things that entrap us. The world also hooks us with the mesmerizing promise of popularity, promotion, and even fame. In our desperate pursuit of popularity, we soon will do almost anything and make almost any compromise.
Jesus says, No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money (Matt 6:24).
Other relevant passages from Scripture include these:
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him (1 John 2:15)
Adulterers! Do you not know that the love of this world is hatred toward God? Therefore, whoever chooses to be a friend of this world is an enemy of God (James 4:4).
In the end, most of our slavery and anxiety is rooted in our love for this world and our fear of losing its pleasures and its promises of power and popularity. It is without a doubt the greatest human struggle to escape from this world’s hooks and shackles and become utterly free—free to follow the Lord unreservedly and with no fear of what the world might do in retaliation.
In one of his sermons, St. John Chrysostom describes well the human being who is utterly free. It is a magnificent portrait, one he was able to exhibit not merely by his words but by his life.
Born in 344 at Antioch, he grew into a young man very much admired for his brilliance and oratorical skills. In 374 he fled to the mountains to live quietly and to break the hold that the world had on him. Following six years of “holy silence,” he worked quietly as a priest. In 398, however, he was summoned to be bishop of Constantinople. He was beloved for his powerful capacity to preach and received the name “Chrysostom” (Golden mouth). Yet not all appreciated the freedom with which he preached, a freedom that led him to denounce vice openly, no matter who was doing it. He was exiled twice (in 403 and 407) by powerful enemies, and though they tried to break his spirit and rob him of his joy, they could not prevail. Although he died on his way to his final exile (during a miserable journey in terrible weather), he died with joy, saying, “Glory be to God for all things. Amen.”
The world could not prevail over him. He did not fear it, for he owned nothing of it and owed nothing to it. It had no hold on him.
Thus speaking not only from Scripture but from experience, St. John Chrysostom said,
“The waters have risen and severe storms are upon us, but we do not fear drowning, for we stand firmly upon a rock. Let the sea rage, it cannot break the rock. Let the waves rise, they cannot sink the boat of Jesus. What are we to fear? Death? Life to me means Christ, and death is gain. Exile? The earth and its fullness belong to the Lord. The confiscation of goods? We brought nothing into this world, and we shall surely take nothing from it. I have only contempt for the world’s threats, I find its blessings laughable. I have no fear of poverty, no desire for wealth. I am not afraid of death nor do I long to live, except for your good. I concentrate therefore on the present situation, and I urge you, my friends, to have confidence …
“Let the world be in upheaval. I hold to his promise and read his message; that is my protecting wall and garrison. What message? Know that I am with you always, until the end of the world!
“If Christ is with me, whom shall I fear? Though the waves and the sea and the anger of princes are roused against me, they are less to me than a spider’s web … For I always say: Lord, your will be done; not what this fellow or that would have me do, but what you want me to do. That is my strong tower, my immovable rock, my staff that never gives way. If God wants something, let it be done! If he wants me to stay here, I am grateful. But wherever he wants me to be, I am no less grateful …
“For though my body die, my soul will live and be mindful of my people” (Ante exsilium, nn. 1-3).
This is freedom. You cannot steal from a man who owns nothing and you cannot threaten a man who has nothing to lose. You cannot deprive a man who has Jesus Christ.
Pray for this freedom.