November 19, 2023

"I Will Pull Down My Barns": A Homily of Basil the Great on Covetousness

"I Will Pull Down My Barns" (Lk. 12:18)

By St. Basil the Great

1  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,  it  is  prosperity  of  life  that  constitutes  the  greatest  trial.  For  it  is equally difficult to preserve one’s soul from despair in hard times, and to prevent it from becoming arrogant in prosperous circumstances.  The great Job, that invincible athlete, is an example of perseverance in the first kind of temptation. With a steadfast heart and an unwavering mind, he braved all the devil’s violence as if it were a raging current.  The more daunting and  formidable  the  tactics  employed  against  him  by  the  adversary,  the more Job’s superiority over the temptations was clearly demonstrated. But there are others who are examples of the temptations that come from the good  life,  including  the  rich  man  whose  story  was  just  read  for  us.  Not only did he possess wealth, but he hoped to obtain even more. As the lover of humankind, God did not immediately judge him for the ingratitude of his ways, but rather attempted to satisfy him by adding even more wealth to  what  he  already  had,  thus  inviting  his  soul  to  a  more  sociable  and civilized demeanor.

“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.’”1 Why did the land produce abundantly, when its owner had no intention of benefiting others with the abundance? So that the patience of God might be  made  manifest,  since  God’s  goodness  extends  even  to  people  such  as this.  “For  He  sends  rain  on  the  righteous  and  on  the  unrighteous,  and makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good.”2  Indeed, such goodness on God’s part actually serves to heap even more punishment upon those who do evil. God brought showers upon the earth that had been cultivated by this man’s greedy hands, and gave sunshine to gently warm the seeds and multiply  their  produce  in  abundance.  From  God  comes  everything beneficial: fertile soil, temperate weather, plenty of seeds, cooperation of the animals, and whatever else is required for successful cultivation. But human  beings  respond  with  a  bitter  disposition,  misanthropy,  and  an unwillingness to share. Such characteristics are what this man offered back to  his  Benefactor.  He  did  not  remember  that  he  shared  with  others  a common  nature,  nor  did  he  think  it  necessary  to  distribute  from  his abundance  to  those  in  need.  He  did  not  keep  even  a  word  of  the commandments:  “Do not neglect to do good for the needy,”3  and  “Do not let  mercy  and  loyalty  forsake  you,”4   and  “Share  your  bread  with  the hungry.”5  He did not heed the urgings of all the prophets and teachers.

Though  his  barns  were  filled  to  bursting  with  the  abundance  of  his goods, his miserly heart was still not satisfied. By constantly adding more to  what  he  already  possessed,  augmenting  the  existing  surplus  with annual  increases,  he  fell  into  this  intractable  dilemma.  He  refused  to  be satisfied  with  what  he  already  had  on  account  of  his  greed,  yet  neither could he store the new harvest on account of its abundance. His purposes thus  reached  an  impasse,  and  he  was  at  a  loss  how  to  proceed.  “ What should  I  do? ”   he  wondered.  Who  would  not  have  pity  on  someone  so besieged with troubles? He was made miserable by abundance, wretched by  the  good  things  he  possessed,  and  still  more  wretched  by  the  good things he still expected to receive.  The land does not produce revenue for him,  but  rather  brings  forth  sighs  of  discontent;  he  does  not  harvest  an abundance of produce, but rather cares and sorrows and severe hardship. He laments like those afflicted with poverty. Or rather, do even those hard pressed by poverty give forth such piteous cries?  “What should I do? What will I eat? What will I wear? ” These things the rich man also exclaims. He is sorely afflicted; his heart is eaten away with cares. What would cause others  to  rejoice  causes  the  greedy  person  to  waste  away.  He  does  not rejoice at all the good things he has in store, but is rather pricked to the heart  by  the  wealth  that  slips  through  his  fingers,  lest  perhaps,  as  it overflows the storehouses, some of it should trickle down to those outside his walls, so as to become a source of aid for those in need.

2  It seems to me that the passion afflicting this man’s soul resembles that of the gluttonous, who would rather burst as a result of over-indulgence than share part of what they have 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, they bring pleasure for only a little  while,  then  fade  away  and  disappear,  but  afterwards  a  strict accounting of their disbursement will be demanded from you.

But  you!  You  keep  everything  locked  up  and  securely  fastened  with gates  and  bars.  You  lie  awake  at  night  with  worry,  taking  counsel  with yourself (and having recourse to a most foolish counselor at that!).  “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 imitate Joseph in his philanthropic proclamation; I will cry with generous voice:  ‘Come to me, all you who lack bread, let everyone share as if from common springs in what God has graciously given.’”6  But you are not such a person. How do I know this? You begrudge your fellow human  beings  what  you  yourself  enjoy;  taking  wicked  counsel  in  your soul,  you  consider  not  how  you  might  distribute  to  others  according  to their  needs,  but  rather  how,  after  having  received  so  many  good  things, you might rob others of their benefit.

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.  He  was  permitted  to  make  all  these decisions and to clearly express his intention, so that he might receive a sentence worthy of his choice.

3  Do not suffer the same thing yourselves. Indeed, it was for this purpose that  these  things  were  written,  so  that  we  might  avoid  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.  But  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  not  only  did  you  make  what  you  gave  truly  your  own,  but  you received back even more. For just as grain, when it falls upon the ground, brings forth an increase for the one who scatters it, thus also 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."7

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,  “a good name is to be chosen rather than great riches.”8  If it is the honor that derives from wealth that attracts you, just think how much more glory you will  gain  by  having  a  multitude  of  children  call  you  “father”   than  by having a multitude of gold coins jingling in your purse.9  You must leave your money behind in the end whether you will or no, but the honor that proceeds  from  good  works  will  escort  you  to  the  Master.  All  the  people will  surround  you  when  you  stand  before  the  Judge  of  all,  calling  you “father”   and  “benefactor”   and all the other titles that pertain to those who show philanthropy. Do you not see those in the theaters, who, for the sake of momentary glory and the applause and acclaim of the crowds, scatter their wealth to wrestlers, actors, animal tamers and the like, even though they are reprehensible characters? And you, are you fainthearted in your spending, 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.

Come  now,  distribute  your  wealth  lavishly,  becoming  honorable  and glorious  in  your  expenditures  for  the  needy.  Let  what  is  said  of  the righteous  be  said  also  of  you,  “They  have  distributed  freely,  they  have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever.”10  Do not enhance your own worth by trafficking in the needs of others. Do not wait for a dearth of grain to open your granary:  “The people curse those who hold back grain.”11   Do  not  wait  for  a  famine  in  order  to  acquire  gold.  Do  not make common need a means of private gain. Do not become a dealer in human  misery.  Do  not  attempt  to  turn  the  chastisement  of  God  into  an opportunity for profit. Do not chafe the wounds of those who have already been scourged.

You, however, have regard for gold, but not for your own brothers and sisters. You recognize the inscription on the face of a coin, and can tell the counterfeit from the genuine, but you completely ignore your brothers and sisters in their time of need.

4  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,  nor  shall  they  ever. They  find  only  clothes  and  furnishings  so miserable that, if all their belongings were reckoned together, they would be worth only a few cents. What then? They turn their gaze to their own children, thinking that perhaps by bringing them to the slave-market they might  find  some  respite  from  death.  Consider  now  the  violent  struggle that  takes  place  between  the  desperation  arising  from  famine  and  a parent’s  fundamental  instincts.  Starvation  on  the  one  side  threatens  a horrible death, while nature resists, convincing the parents rather to die with  their  children.  Time  and  again  they  vacillate,  but  in  the  end  they succumb, driven by want and cruel necessity.

And what does a parent think at such times?  “ Which one should I sell first?  Which  one  will  earn  the  greatest  favor  with  the  grain  merchant? Should  I  choose  the  eldest?  But  I  cannot  bear  to  do  so,  since  he  is  the firstborn.  The youngest? But I take pity on his youth, as yet untouched by tragedy.  This one looks just like his mother, that one shows aptitude in his lessons. Curse this helplessness! What am I to do? Which of my children shall  I  strike?  What  kind  of  beast  shall  I  become?  How  can  I  forget  the bond of nature? If I hold onto all of them, I must watch them all perish with hunger. If I send one of them away, how will I be able to look the others in the eye ever again?  They will always view me with suspicion and mistrust. How can I manage my household, when I am responsible for the loss  of  one  of  my  own  children?  How  can  I  ever  sit  down  at  the  table, which now has plenty of food as a result of such a decision? ”

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; you  take  no  account  of  nature.  While  famine  oppresses  these  miserable wretches, you hem and haw, feigning 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 wrangle so  as  to  take  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 awaken. Just as those  who  are  out  of  their  mind  do  not  see  reality,  but  rather  imagine things out of their malady, thus also your soul, being seized with avarice, sees 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.

5  To what lengths will you not go for gold? Your grain becomes gold for you,  your  wine  solidifies  into  gold,  your  wool  is  transformed  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 immoderate children to gorge themselves on the things they desire the  most,  so  that  by  means  of  overindulgence  they  might  learn moderation. But greedy people are not like this; rather, the more they stuff themselves, the more they desire.  “If riches  flow in, do not set your heart on them.”12  But you check the  fl ow 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 forcibly contained 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 indeed 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 end that accords with his evil intent; but you, if you are persuaded by me, will throw open all the gates of your treasury, supplying liberal outlets for your wealth. Like a mighty river that is divided into many streams in order to irrigate the fertile soil, so also are those who give their wealth to be divided up and distributed in the houses of the poverty-stricken. 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 public.

How  great  is  the  praise  of  the  recipients  of  beneficence;  do  not discount  it!  How  great  is  the  reward  from  the  righteous  Judge;  do  not doubt  Him!  Let  the  example  of  the  rich  man  who  is  under  examination accompany you everywhere. By keeping what he already had, while at the same time endeavoring to gain even more, he committed tomorrow’s sins today.  No  suppliant  had  yet  approached,  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, and offered every delicious variety of the fruit tree. But the rich man 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, by  anticipation  you  make  yourself  unworthy  of  receiving  what  has  just begun to sprout.

6 Though  you  speak  to  yourself  in  secret,  your  words  are  examined  in heaven.  Thus, it is from heaven that you will receive your reply. 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!  If  you  had  the  soul  of  a  pig,  what  better  news  could  you have given it? Are you really so animal-like, so devoid of understanding as to what is good for the soul, that you offer it the foods of the  flesh and serve it things that go into the latrine? If your soul possesses virtue, if it is full of good works 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 consider only earthly things and have made your belly into a god, because you  are  entirely  fleshly  and  enslaved  by  passions,  hear  the  fitting appellation that is given to you, not by any human being, but 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  just  a  little  while,  his  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  promise  is  not  a  token  of goodness, but rather a sign of 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.’”13 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 avarice: not even to share perishable goods with those in need.

7 “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, 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.

8 “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.”14 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.”15 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.


1 Lk 12.16–17.
2 Cf. Mt 5.45; Basil reverses the usual order.
3 Prov 3.27 LXX.
4 Prov 3.3 LXX.
5 Is 58.7.
6 Cf. Gen 41.53 – 57.
7 Hos 10.12.
8 Prov 22.1.
9 Basil here seems to play on the assonance between  pater  (“father”) and  stater  (a gold coin).
10 Ps 112.9.
11 Prov 11.26.
12 Ps 61.10 LXX.
13 Prov 3.28.
14 Mt 25.34–36.
15 Mt 25.41–43.

Translation from the book On Social Justice.

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