Gregory, as Bernard Coulie has effectively demonstrated in a long study devoted to the subject,[1] had spent a long time in his career reflecting on the moral value of wealth. This is hardly surprising when we consider his personal situation as the son of a very wealthy, landowning, bishop who wished to follow the ascetical life but could never extricate himself from civic and ecclesiastical responsibility. His Oration 14 rises from, and represents, his wider consideration of wealth as part of the divine economy of salvation. In his mind the only proper approach to the possession of wealth is one that accepts its extreme conditionality. No one can claim an absolute right to property since all humanity is given everything by the providence of a generous God. All things, the possession of life itself, but especially  material goods, can only be held in temporary stewardship by human beings.[2] It is, however, the current distribution of material wealth which is particularly problematic in any generation, for some have more than they need, while others go without basic necessities. Gregory sees this inequity among humans, again in the light of Origen’s doctrine of creation’s primal fall from spiritual equality, as something which is the particular mark of sin.[3] In the original creation, and again in the ultimate plan of God for the restoration of creatures, such inequality is not envisaged as part of the Kingdom. [4] Those who seek to remove it, therefore, by redistributing their wealth in benefactions to the indigent, are sharing in God’s work of salvation[5] and making some movement, however conditional and limited, to that equality of statues (isotés), a life lived in communion rather than under dominance, that marks the plan of God for the world. He comes, at the end, to a startling yet illuminating conclusion–only almsgiving can restore to a human being that condition of freedom that humanity lost in the ancient fall from grace, since it renders us liberal in the image of God, rather than cramped in cupidity which is the mark of oppression.[6]

The hideous condition of leprosy Gregory takes as a starting point for a harrowing reflection on the fragility of the human condition. It exemplifies for him one of the clearest examples of the fundamental philosophical question: why are we alive at all? His point is that suffering makes philosophers of us all by facing us with the meaninglessness of an existence that is frustrated in its fundamental design for transcendence and liberation.[7] The image of the leper stands, of course, as the supreme example of the loss of “balance” in the human condition: a loss of wealth, status and even the very image of human form. Gregory’s point, both philosophically and theologically, is that if the case can be made for the leper as an icon of God, it can be made even more easily for the whole list of other indigents he enumerated earlier.

[1] Coulie (1985). See esp. pp. 171-177.

[2] Orat. 14.22-24, 29. PG 35.885f.

[3] He regards slavery as the result and mark of sin also. Orat. 14.25, PG 35.892.

[4] Cf. Orat. 14.25, PG 35.889-892; Orat. 32.33, PG 36.200. Echoing the Apostolic Constitutions he says: “Blush with shame you who withhold what belongs to someone else. Imitate the equitableness of God, and then no one will be poor.” Orat. 14.24, PG 35.889.

[5] Almsgiving mimics God’s providence as a small sacrament of it. Orat. 14.25, PG 35.889.

[6] Orat. 14.26, PG 35.892.

[7] Orat. 14.6, PG 35.865.

John McGuckin, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography (SVS Press: Crestwood, 2001), 152-153.


 

Some thoughts about this section from McGuckins book (which is a fantastic read and I highly recommend it). What McGuckin is describing here must be kept in context of Gregory’s debate with the Emperor Julian, his arch-nemesis whose ideology he combats even after the Emperor has died. For Julian, the “Galileans,” as he called Chrisitans, have a strange affinity for poverty (indeed, their founder lived in poverty himself!). Poverty for Julian, and he is somewhat representative of Roman paganism, is a punishment. If you suffer poverty, you probably deserved it (and this idea, I think, is common to all places and all times). Gregory accepts this (note the reference to Origen’s theory of the primeval fall–a topic I really need to do a post on), but turns what would be the Emperor’s conclusion on its head. Yes, they may deserve it, but those who are wealthy are so, so that they can imitate the mercy of God. By doing so, the benefactor actually finds freedom. How similar or different is this from contemporary Christian attempts to raise funds to help the poor? How does this help wealthy Christians (and most American Christians are wealthy) reconcile their wealth with the poverty of their Lord?

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