I Will Tear Down My Barns: St. Basil on Our Responsibility to the Poor
I’ve never plagiarized a sermon before, but today I preached a message (giving due credit!) originally delivered by St. Basil the Great (330–379), theologian, liturgist, monastic reformer, and builder of (most likely) the world’s first hospital.
Basil’s text is Jesus’ story, recorded Luke 12:16–21, about the rich farmer who planned to tear down his barns and replace them with larger ones, oblivious that his soul would required of him that very night. In the bishop’s hands, the story becomes a searching exposé of human avarice; our callous evasion of the call of the poor, the naked and the hungry is forced on our attention, as Basil calls us to share with lavish generosity what our divine Benefactor has poured upon us.
This sermon is adapted from On Social Justice, Paul C. Schroeder’s superbly edited translation of four of Basil’s sermons. (A few sentences were taken from the passages that appear in Charles Avila’s Ownership: Early Christian Teaching).Since I was delivering Basil’s sermon orally to an international congregation, around half of whom do not speak English as their first language, I took many liberties in abridging, clarifying, and smoothing out the text.
🎧 Want to hear the sermon as it was delivered? Listen to the TICF podcast recording.
Temptations come in two forms. Sometimes affliction proves the heart like gold in a furnace, testing its purity by means of suffering. But for many, prosperity of life forms the greatest trial. There are many examples of the temptations that come from the good life, including the rich man whose story was just read for us. Not only was he already rich, but he hoped to get even more. But God, the lover of humankind, did not immediately judge him for his ingratitude. Instead, he added even more wealth to what he already had, thus inviting him to cultivate a more generous and sociable spirit.
“The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones.’”
Why did God cause the land to produce so much, when its owner had no intention of benefiting others with its bounty? To show his patience, since God’s goodness extends even to people like this. “For He sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous, and makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good.” God sent showers upon the fields that had been worked by this man’s greedy hands, and gave sunshine to gently warm the seeds and multiply their produce. Whatever is needed for cultivation comes from God: fertile soil, mild weather, plenty of seeds, cooperation of the animals. But human beings respond with a bitter disposition, hatred of others, and an unwillingness to share.
That’s what this man offered back to the God who had blessed him. He did not remember that he shared a common nature with others, nor did it occur to him to distribute from his abundance to those in need. He did not keep one word of God’s commands: “Do not neglect to do good and to share,” “Do not let mercy and kindness forsake you,” and “Share your bread with the hungry.” He ignored the urgings of all the prophets and teachers.
The miser’s barns were bursting with his goods, but his heart was still not satisfied. His constant accumulation of riches, in fact, created a difficult problem for him. His greed meant he could never be satisfied with what he already had, but neither could he store the new harvest because of its size. He was at a loss how to proceed. “What should I do?” he wondered.
Now, who wouldn’t have pity on someone so besieged with anxiety? He was made wretched by the good things he possessed, and still more wretched by the good things he still expected to receive. He laments like those afflicted with poverty. The poor fellow is suffering; his heart is eaten away with cares. What would cause others to rejoice causes the greedy person to waste away. Instead of rejoicing at the good things he has stored away, his heart is anxious about the wealth slipping through his fingers. He’s afraid that a few grains might overflow the storehouses and be eaten by the hungry outside his walls.
This man reminds me of the glutton who would rather burst from over-indulgence than to share their meal with those in need. O mortal, recognize your Benefactor! Consider yourself, who you are, what resources have been entrusted to you, from whom you received them, and why you received more than others. You have been made a minister of God’s goodness, a steward of your fellow servants. Do not suppose that all this was furnished for your own gullet! Resolve to treat the things in your possession as belonging to others. After all, in time God will demand a strict accounting of their disbursement from you.
But you! You keep everything locked up and fastened with gates and bars. You lie awake at night worrying, “What should I do?” How easily you might have said, “I will satisfy the souls of the hungry. I will throw open the gates of my barns and summon all those in need. I will cry with generous voice: ‘Come to me, all you who lack bread, let everyone share in God’s gifts.’” But you’re not that kind of a person. How do I know this? You begrudge your fellow human beings what you yourself enjoy. Instead of considering how you might give to the needy, you scheme how to rob others of their blessings.
Those who seek the soul were at hand, and this man was conversing with his soul about food! That very night his own soul would be required of him, and all the while he was imagining he would be enjoying his possessions for years to come. God let him make all these decisions and reveal his heart, so that he might receive the sentence he deserved.
Do not suffer the same judgment yourselves. These things were written to warn us from a similar fate. Imitate the earth, O mortal. Bear fruit as it does; do not show yourself inferior to inanimate soil. After all, the earth does not nurture fruit for its own enjoyment, but for your benefit. Then again, whatever fruit of good works you bring forth, you produce for yourself, since the grace of good works redounds to those who perform them. You gave to the poor, and in so doing you received back even more. For just as seed brings forth an increase for the one who scatters it on the ground, bread cast to the hungry yields considerable profit at a later time. Therefore, let the end of your harvesting be the beginning of a heavenly sowing. As the Scripture says, “Sow for yourselves righteousness.”
Why then do you go to so much trouble, why do you wear yourself out, seeking to secure your wealth with bricks and mortar? After all, according to Proverbs, “a good name is to be chosen rather than great riches.” You’ll have to leave your money behind in the end whether you want to or not, but the honour that proceeds from good works will escort you to the Master. All the people will surround you when you stand before the Judge, calling you “father” and “benefactor” and “philanthropist.” Are you fainthearted in your generosity, when you are about to attain such great glory? God will receive you, angels will extol you, all people from the creation of the world will bless you. Your glory will be eternal; you will inherit the crown of righteousness and the Kingdom of Heaven. All these things will be your reward for your stewardship of perishable things. But you do not even consider them, forgetting about things hoped for in your concern for the things of the present. Distribute your wealth lavishly, becoming honorable and glorious in your gifts to the needy. Let the words of Psalm 112 be said about you, “They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever.”
You care about money, but not for your own brothers and sisters. Yes, while the glitter of gold so allures you, you fail to notice how great are the groans of the needy that follow you wherever you go. How can I bring the sufferings of the poverty-stricken to your attention? When they look around inside their hovels, they do not spy any gold among their things, and they never will. Their clothes and furnishing are so miserable they’re worth only pennies. What then? They stare at their own children, thinking that perhaps by bringing them to the slave-market they might find some reprieve from death. Imagine the violent struggle between the desperation of famine and a parent’s basic instincts. Time and again they vacillate, but in the end they succumb, driven by want and cruel necessity.
And while the parents come with tears streaming down their faces to sell the dearest of their children, you are not swayed by their sufferings. While famine oppresses these wretches, you hem and haw, faking ignorance of their plight, and thus prolonging the agony. They come offering their very heart in exchange for food. And yet not only is your hand not stricken with paralysis for taking profits from such misfortune, but you haggle for even more! You haggle to extract much and give little in return, increasing the tragedy on every side for these wretches. Tears do not move you, groans do not soften your heart, but you remain adamant and unbending.
In everything you see gold, you imagine everything as gold; it is your dream when you sleep and your first thought when you wake up. Like an insane person who sees hallucinations, your soul, seized with greed, imagines everything as gold or silver. You would rather see gold than the sun itself. You wish that everything could be transformed by nature and become gold, and for your part you intend to turn as many things into gold as you can.
To what lengths will you not go for gold? Your grain becomes gold for you, your wine solidifies into gold, your wool is converted into gold. Every exchange, every thought produces gold for you. Gold itself brings forth even more gold, multiplying itself through loans at interest. There is no satisfying the craving; no limit to the desire is to be found. We often permit greedy children to gorge themselves on treats so that their upset stomach will teach them something about moderation. But greedy people are not like this; rather, the more they stuff themselves, the more they desire. “If riches flow in,” Psalm 62 says, “do not set your heart on them.” But you block the flow and stop up the outlets. When riches are closed up like this so that they become stagnant, what do they do for you? Once wealth has been dammed up until it becomes a flood, it washes away all its embankments. It destroys the storehouses of the rich man and tears down his treasuries, charging like some kind of enemy warrior.
But will he have time to build larger storehouses? It seems doubtful that he will leave anything but ruins to his successors. For his departure from life came much sooner than his greedy plan to rebuild the storehouses could be accomplished. Let him meet the fate that his evil deserves, but you, if you’ll listen to me, will flint open your vaults and let your wealth gush forth.
As a great river flows by a thousand channels through fertile country, so let your wealth run through many conduits to the homes of the poor. Wells become more productive if they are drained completely, while they silt up if they are left standing. Thus wealth left idle is of no use to anyone, but put to use and exchanged it becomes fruitful and beneficial for the whole community.
Let the example of this rich man keep you company everywhere. By hoarding what he already had, while at the same time straining to gain even more, he committed tomorrow’s sins today. No beggar had even approached yet, but he showed his cruelty in advance. He had not yet gathered his harvest, yet he was already found guilty of avarice. The earth was welcoming all to its richness. It germinated the crops deep in the furrows, produced large clusters of grapes on the vine, made the olive tree bend under a vast quantity of fruit. But the rich man himself was unwelcoming and unfruitful. He did not even possess as yet, and already he begrudged the needy.
And besides, how many perils there are before the ingathering of the harvest! For hail may flatten the crops, searing heat may snatch them out of hand, or unseasonable rain may ruin them as it pours down from the clouds. Yet you do not pray to the Lord to complete the good work. Rather, your presumption makes you unworthy of receiving what has only begun to sprout.
But what sort of things do you say to yourself? “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, and be merry day after day.” Oh, what senselessness! This is a future fit only for a pig.
Are you really so animal-like that you only feed your soul things that end up in the toilet? If your soul possesses virtue and dwells near to God, then indeed it has “many good things,” and should rejoice with the soul’s own pure joy. But because you have made your belly into a god, hear the fitting description that is given to you by the Lord Himself: “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Worse even than eternal punishment is this scorn on account of your folly.
In moments the rich man’s life will be snatched away, and what is he thinking? “I will pull down my barns and build larger ones.” Well done, I would say for my part. The treasuries of injustice well deserve to be torn down. With your own hands, raze these misbegotten structures. Destroy the granaries from which no one has ever gone away satisfied. Demolish every storehouse of greed, pull down the roofs, tear away the walls, expose the moldering grain to the sunlight. Lead forth from prison the fettered wealth, vanquish the gloomy vaults of Mammon.
“I will pull down my barns and build larger ones.” But if you fill these larger ones, what do you intend to do next? Will you tear them down yet again only to build them up once more? What could be more ridiculous than this incessant toil, laboring to build and then laboring to tear down again? If you want storehouses, you have them in the stomachs of the poor. Lay up for yourself treasure in heaven. The things deposited there are not devoured by moths, nor are they spoiled by corruption, nor do thieves break in and steal them. But you reply, “I will give to the needy when I have filled the second set of barns.” You are so sure that the years of your life will be many; beware, lest death the pursuer catch up to you sooner than you expect!
And even your promises to help the poor betray your evil intent. For you promise, not so that you might give in the future, but rather so that you might evade responsibility in the present. At this very moment, what prevents you from giving? Are not the needy near at hand? Are not your barns already full? Is not your heavenly reward waiting? Is not the commandment crystal clear? The hungry are perishing, the naked are freezing to death, the debtors are unable to breathe, and will you put off showing mercy until tomorrow? Listen to Solomon: “Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it.’” You do not know what tomorrow will bring.
How many precepts you ignore, since your ears are plugged with avarice! How much gratitude you ought to have shown to your Benefactor! How joyful and radiant you ought to have been that you are not one of those who crowd in at others’ doors, but rather others are knocking at your door. But now you lower your eyes and quicken your step, muttering hasty responses, lest anyone pry some small coin from your grasp. You know how to say only one thing: “I do not have, I cannot give, I myself am poor.” You are poor indeed and bereft of all goodness: poor in love, poor in kindness, poor in faith towards God, poor in eternal hope. Make your brothers and sisters sharers of your grain; give to the needy today what rots away tomorrow. Truly, this is the worst kind of covetousness: not even to share perishable goods with those in need.
“Wait a second,” you object. “How am being unjust if I keep what belongs to me?” Tell me, what is your own? What did you bring into this life? Where did you get it from? It’s like someone grabbing the first seat in the theatre, and then barring anyone else from entering. That’s what the rich are like; having seized what belongs to all in common, they claim it as their own on the basis of having got there first. Whereas if everyone took for himself enough to meet his immediate needs and released the rest for those in need of it, there would be no rich and no poor.
Did you not come naked out of the womb? Will you not go naked back into the earth? So where did the wealth you now enjoy come from? If you say “from nowhere,” you deny God, ignore the Creator, are ungrateful to the Giver. If you say “from God,” then you should ask yourself why it was given to you. 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 is enough for their own needs. Who are the robbers? Those who take for themselves what 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 in your pantry belongs to the hungry. The coat in your closet belongs to the naked. The shoes you allow to rot belong to the barefoot. The money you keep buried underground belongs to the destitute. You are thus guilty of injustice toward as many as you could have helped but never did.
Oh, how delightful would it be to hear these words on the day of judgement:
‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was naked, and you gave me clothing.
But how great will be the trembling, the sweat, and the darkness that surround you when you hear the sentence:
Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing.
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 made plain. I hope that make a better choice than the rich man. May you progress toward the treasure that has been prepared for us in heaven, by the grace of the One who calls us all into His Kingdom. To Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.