On the Paradoxical Freedom of Poverty as Taught by St. John Chrysostom

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 no where to lay his head (Matt 8:20), this was surely true. The world had no claim on him, nothing 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 the enslavement of riches and possessions.  More on that in a moment…

But first, consider that the heart of the slavery most of us experience comes from our attachments to this world. So easily do we sell our souls 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 how the things of the world weigh us down. But even knowing this, 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.

And it isn’t just things. The world hooks us with the mesmerizing promise of popularity, promotion, even fame. And in our desperate addiction to being popular, we come too easily to the point that we will do almost anything and make almost any compromise for popularity and advancement.

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).

Scripture elsewhere says,

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).

But 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 doubt the greatest of human struggles to get free from this world’s hooks and shackles and to 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, and one he was largely able to exhibit not merely by his words but by his very life.

Born in 344 at Antioch, he became 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. After six years of “holy silence,” he worked quietly as a priest. But in 398, 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 his enemies 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.

And thus speaking not only from Scripture but from experience as he was being led into exile, 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).

Here 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.

4 Replies to “On the Paradoxical Freedom of Poverty as Taught by St. John Chrysostom”

  1. Beautiful! Inspiring! We need to hear this every single day. With God’s grace, I am working on this very thing called “detachment”. It will be a long journey but I do pray to make it!

  2. All the saints have taught this, that true freedom can be found only in dispassion and (inner) detachment, not in the indulgence of our weaknesses and whims; yet a difficulty in overcoming them is, that weaknesses can masquerade as strengths (and our strengths can be made to seem weaknesses): cowardice can seem ‘prudence’ (and prudence can be thought of as ‘cowardice’ or ‘timidity’), obstinacy can masquerade as ‘independent spirit’ or ‘strong character’, pride as ‘honor’ or ‘self-esteem’ (it’s actually an overestimation of oneself), vain ambition as ‘purpose’, submissiveness to the wrong person(s) as ‘loyalty’ or ‘humility’, wiliness as ‘intelligence’, cynicism as ‘honesty’, frivolity as ‘carefree liveliness’ and ‘free-spiritedness’, lack of valid principles as ‘flexibility’ and ‘open-mindedness’, and so forth. The understanding of any virtue and of any vice can be distorted; and so we allow ourselves to be deceived.

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