“But whom do I treat unjustly,” you say, “by keeping what is my own?” Tell me, what is your own? What did you bring into this life? From where did you receive it? It is as if someone were to take the first seat in the theater, then bar everyone else from attending, so that one person alone enjoys what is offered for the benefit of all in common—this is what the rich do. They seize common goods before others have the opportunity, then claim them as their own by right of preemption. For if we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be rich, so no one would be poor, and no one would be in need.
Did you not come forth naked from the womb, and will you not return naked to the earth? Where then did you obtain your belongings? If you say that you acquired them by chance, then you deny God since you neither recognize your Creator, nor are you grateful to the One who gave these things to you. But if you acknowledge that they were given to you by God, then tell me, for what purpose did you receive them? Is God unjust, when he distributes to us unequally the things that are necessary for life? Why then are you wealthy while another is poor? Why else, but so that you might receive the reward of benevolence and faithful stewardship, while the poor are honored for patient endurance in their struggles? But you, stuffing everything into the bottomless pockets of your greed, assume that you wrong no one; yet how many do you in fact dispossess?
Who are the greedy? Those who are not satisfied with what suffices for their own needs. Who are the robbers? Those who take for themselves what rightfully belongs to everyone. And you, are you not greedy? Are you not a robber? The things you received in trust as a stewardship, have you not appropriated them for yourself? Is not the person who strips another of clothing called a thief? And those who do not clothe the naked when they have the power to do so, should they not be called the same? The bread you are holding back is for the hungry, the clothes you keep put away are for the naked, the shoes that are rotting away with disuse are for those who have none, the silver you keep buried in the earth is for the needy. You are thus guilty of injustice toward as many as you might have aided, and did not.
“These are fine words,” you say, “but gold is finer still.” It is just as in the case of those who converse with the licentious concerning chastity: while they are condemning immorality, those whom they address are burning with desire at the reminder. How can I bring the sufferings of the poor to your attention, so that you might realize from what misery you are collecting riches for yourself? Oh, how desirable will these words appear to you on the day of judgment: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was naked and you gave me clothing” (Matthew 25:34–36). But how great will be the trembling, the sweat, and the darkness that surround you when you hear the sentence: “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was naked and you did not give me clothing” (Matthew 25:41–43). Moreover, those who are under accusation in this passage are not those who have stolen anything; these charges are rather leveled against those who have not shared with others.
I have spoken words that I thought would be profitable for you. For you who are persuaded, the promised good things that await are evident; for you who disobey, the threatened punishments have been plainly written down. I hope that you may escape these chastisements by making a better choice than the rich man, so that your own riches may become a ransom for you, and you may progress toward the good things that have been prepared for us in heaven, by the grace of the One who calls us all into his Kingdom, to whom be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
St. Basil the Great, On Social Justice, trans. C. Paul Schroeder, Popular Patristics (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009), 69–71. Reprinted with permission.