The weight of want: Why Augustine’s view of wealth is still important
Everyone loves their possessions until they have to move. Just last summer, when my wife and I moved from Louisville to St. Louis, we grumbled at the literal weight of our furniture and (my) library. It inspired us to sell or get rid of most of our furniture and outdoor tools, although my wife insists I still have too many books. Often in our digital age, however, our attachment to possessions can’t be measured by the literal weight or abundance of stuff. We can be greedy with our smartphones and tablets, our streaming habits, and our food consumption — habits that can be subtle and even kept secret from those around us. But the absence of the physical weight of greed doesn’t remove the spiritual weight of our desires.
In the fifth century, the church father Augustine warned against greed in a similar way — by describing how our desires for material goods can weigh down our heart from reaching God.
According to Augustine scholar Peter T. Sanlon, nearly 40 percent of all of Augustine’s words relating to wealth appear in his sermons. And since Augustine’s sermons comprise only a small fraction of his overall writings, it’s possible that Augustine believed the pulpit was the best place to address the contentious issue of wealth and generosity.
But Augustine died almost 1,600 years ago and lived in a society much different than ours. His economy was far more personal. So what could we possibly learn from Augustine’s attitude toward money?
The world’s economy has changed, but the human heart has not.
One fascinating trait of the early church is the insistence to take Jesus’ teachings on wealth seriously. Too often in our day scholars and pastors diminish the weight of Jesus’ commands on the rich and instead emphasize their hyperbolic nature, as if that removes the imperatives altogether (and I’m not even referring to the prosperity gospel). But when Jesus says, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God,” the church fathers stressed the difficulty of owning many earthly possessions without loving them too much (Matt 19:24).
Augustine found a way to contextualize gospel demands on wealth with the prevailing philosophies of his time. He anchored much of his economic imperatives in Jesus’ words, “For where your treasure is there your heart is also.”
Augustine is often characterized as placing more emphasis on the spiritual than the material, but what’s important here is how he stresses the value of spiritual wealth over material wealth. For Augustine, the human heart operated with a spiritual gravity, meaning that its eternal destiny was tied to whatever it loved most. If the desire was misplaced on earthly possessions, then the heart was fixed to perish with perishable things. If one desired God, the heart would rise above material attachments and receive eternal reward in heaven.
Carrying too many possessions on the earthly pilgrimage is the result of being “weighed down by avarice,” which Augustine defined as “uncleanness of heart” (Sermon 177). Further, Augustine concluded, “You can take nothing that you’ve loved from this world; what you do take is the vice of having loved it.” In a potent section later in this sermon, Augustine magnified the inner desire for God as opposed to temporal riches: “If we must be avaricious, let us love him. If we desire wealth, let us desire him. He alone will be able to satisfy us, about whom it says, Who satisfies your desire with good things (Ps 103:5). . . . So lift your heart up, don’t leave it down on the ground, nor in those beggarly treasures, nor in a place to rot. In Adam too the root of all evils was avarice. You see, he wanted more than he had received, because God had not been enough for him.”
Poverty is not someone else’s problem.
Evangelicals sometimes adopt cultural attitudes toward wealth and poverty, especially when it comes to the latter. Our society often blames the poor for their own condition and the preferred solution is “God helps those who help themselves” and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” But such attitudes fail to realize the generational, systemic, or circumstantial conditions that may prevent those trapped in poverty from helping themselves.
Augustine recognized the immense gap between the rich and the poor in his society, but he wanted those gathered in his church to believe they were walking on the same path. Outside of the church, the rich and poor lived in entirely different orbits. The early church dramatically altered the social structure by placing them together, and even giving priority to the poor.
In our society, much of the same is true. Do you find the poor in your workplace, church, or circle of friends? Or are they on the periphery of your everyday vision? When is the last time you shared a meal or a lengthy conversation with someone in need? What Augustine wanted to demonstrate is that both the rich and the poor — and everyone in between — not only walk the same path toward an eternal destiny but need each other to get there.
While the wealthy find their possessions are weighing them down, the poor are too hungry for the journey. The poor, Augustine said, are “porters to heaven” for the wealthy, lifting the spiritual burden of their possessions (Sermon 61). For when the rich give generously to those in need, the poor will be nourished and transfer that wealth to heaven, where those possessions will be transformed to reflect the heart’s eternal treasure: loving communion with God.
Abuses of wealth in Augustine’s society were so common, however, that the “unwealthy” hearers may have believed it impossible for the rich to fulfill those conditions and live righteously. Yet Augustine warned the poor against judging the rich merely by the exterior signs of their wealth; they might be wealthy by accident of birth, but their devotion to God could rise above material attachments. Instead, he cautioned for even the poor to watch out for the desire for riches: “What if as well as being poor you are also greedy, what if you’re both weighed down with want, and on fire with avarice? So if that’s the sort of person you are, whoever you are that are poor, it’s not that you have declined to be rich, but that you haven’t been able to be. . . . God does not inspect your means, but your will. Consider what your heart is full of, not what your money box is empty of”(Sermon 60).
Furthermore, this interdependency points to the equality of all human beings made in the image of God, and the reality that the rich and poor enter and leave this life without material possessions. Central to Augustine’s portrayal of the rich and poor as companions on a heavenly journey is a pure love for God and one another that sacrifices temporal goods for eternal treasure and the good of the other, who is a figure of Christ in need (Matt 25:35-40).
Today there is overdue emphasis on fighting the structural and systemic nature of poverty in America and around the world. But Christians more than ever need a renewed sense of purpose in seeing Jesus among the vulnerable and recognizing the needy as companions on the heavenly journey. You may not appear on a Forbes list of wealthy individuals, but God inspects your heart, not your bank account.Topics: Discernment, Economics in History, Kingdom of God, Money & Giving