In the second century, Saint Clement of Alexandria taught:
Generally speaking, riches that are not under complete control are the citadel of evil. If the ordinary people look on them covetously, they will never enter the kingdom of heaven, because they are letting themselves become contaminated by the things of the world and are living above themselves in self-indulgence. Those concerned for their salvation should take this as their first principle, that, although the whole creation is ours to use, the universe is made for the sake of self-sufficiency, which anyone can acquire by a few things.
Like the Lord Himself, Clement and other fathers of the Church do not condemn having riches, but remain critical of those who do properly use the wealth – the material blessings – that God has entrusted to their care. The eighteenth century saint, Tikhon of Zadonsk concludes: “Riches either harm or benefit a man. They benefit you when you administer its expenditure according to the will of God. It harms you when you use it inappropriately. Then be a faithful steward of the Lord’s estate, O man, and you shall truly be rich.”
Do be a faithful steward, the Didache, a document attributed to the Apostles directs the Christian to:
…Not be one who holds his hand out to take, but shuts it when it comes to giving. If your labor has brought you earnings, pay a ransom for your sins. Do not hesitate to give and do not give with a bad grace; for you will discover who He is that pays you back a reward with a good grace. Do not turn your back on the needy, but share everything with your brother and call nothing your own. For if you have what is eternal in common, how much more should you have what is transient!
Sharing what one has been entrusted by God, either through labor or inheritance, is then a blessing unto salvation. When we share, we become rich in the Word, which is Christ. Saint Clement explains:
If a man is rich, he will obtain salvation by sharing his wealth. Like the spring that remains full naturally, returning to its original measure after water has been drawn off, or like milk that flows back to breasts that have been suckled or milked, so too, generosity, which is the wellspring of love for men, increases and becomes full again when it gives drink to the thirsty. He who possesses the Word, who is Almighty God, needs nothing and never lacks any of the things he desires, for the Word is an infinite possession and the source of all our wealth.
Saint Tikhon offers the faithful practical instruction to better identify their true wealth in God:
First, riches are a gift of God bestowed upon men, for the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof (Ps. 23:1) They are given you, O Christian, not for your sake alone, but also for the sake of the poor. Then take pleasure in it with moderation, and give thanks to God, and provide for the needs of the poor. This is the correct use of riches. Remember that you are a steward, not the master of your riches, for you will be strictly examined for everything.
Second, the holy word of God praises and blesses those that are merciful and generous to the poor. Blessed is the man that hath understanding for the poor man and the pauper (Ps. 40:2) Works of mercy are exalted before the whole world by Christ, the just Judge and in other places in Holy Scripture. Christian! If you wish to partake of this blessedness be merciful and generous to the poor.
Do you have much? Then give much. Do you have little? Then give a little, but give from the heart. Alms are judged not by the number of what is given, but by the zeal of the giver, for God loveth a cheerful giver, (II Cor. 9:7) Now you give into the hands of the poor man and the pauper, but you will receive a hundredfold from the hands of Christ. Then give, do not be afraid. What is given shall not be lost, for He that promised is faithful.
Third, many Christians do not think that alms receive such a great reward and either guard their property like watchmen or they squander it on their whims and luxuries. Hoarded property will be left to strangers, and often even falls into the hands of enemies. What is squandered on whims and luxury perishes, as you see for yourself, O man. But both of these, hoarders and squanders, are not only deprived of blessedness, but they shall be cast out by God as wicked servants. Beware of this, O Christian!
For those in the third century Church who struggled with almsgiving Saint Ambrose of Milan offered the following admonition:
The poor man seeks money and has it not; a man asks for bread, and your horse champs gold under his teeth. And precious ornaments delight you, although others do not have grain…The people are starving, and you close your barns; the people weep bitterly, and you toy with jeweled ring…the jewel in your ring could preserve the lives of the whole people.
Saint Basil the Great offered a similar admonition in the fourth century:
If you had truly loved your neighbor, it would have occurred to you long ago to divest yourself of this wealth. But now your possessions are more a part of you than the members of your own body, and separation from them is as painful as the amputation of one of your limbs. Had you clothed the naked, had you given your bread to the hungry, had your door been open to every stranger, had you been a parent to the orphan, had you made the suffering of very helpless person your own, what money would you have left, the loss of which you grieve. Had you determined long ago to give to those in need, how would it be unbearable now to distribute whatever was left? At festival time, people do not regret parting with what they have at hand in order to gain whatever is necessary for the feast; rather, the cheaper they are able to purchase valuable commodities, the more they rejoice at receiving such a bargain. But you lament at relinquishing gold and silver and property – that is, stones and dust – in order to obtain the blessed life.
In the nineteenth century, Bishop Nikolai, of blessed memory preached: “If you are rich, in what are you rich save in that which is God’s? The things that comprise your wealth, whose are they if not God’s? Why do you mock the poor man who has borrowed less than you have from God? The Creator of the poor man and your Creator are one and the same.”
I close with the words of Clement of Alexandria:
Wealth, in fact, seems to me like a snake; unless a person knows how to grasp it properly, dangling it without harm from just above the tip of the tail, the snake will twist about to the hand and strike. Wealth, too, twisting in the grasp, whether experienced or not, can cling to the hand and bite unless a man rises superior to it and uses it with discretion; that is, to say, he may train the beast by the invocation of the Word and remain unharmed.