Wednesday, March 28, 2012

St. Basil Offers a Snarky Word on Estate Planning

In our last post we saw Basil point to the dangers of leaving one's wealth to her children because she could be leading her children into the sin of using wealth for personal gain instead of an aid to the poor.  It seems like a better solution might be to leave one's estate to charity, right? Wrong:

Yet you say, "I will enjoy all of these things during my life, but after my death I will leave my goods to the poor, making beneficiaries of my will and granting them all my possessions." When you are no longer among your fellow human beings, then you will become a philanthropist! When I see you dead, then I will call you a lover of your brothers and sisters! You deserve great thanks for your magnanimity, since you became so generous and noble-hearted after you were laid in the grave and your body had dissolved in the earth. 
You can't win the game once the play is over.
Oh, snark alert! Basil makes plain that failure to love one's neighbor during one's lifetime isn't a fault that can be corrected by promising generosity in one's death. For starters, Basil insists that whatever cosmic scorecard you have gets tallied when you die. You can't earn a million bonus points in your "good deeds" column after your death because you're plain through playing the game of life. If that doesn't make you feel absurd, Basil adds the practical note that you'll have no real control over the execution of your will because, well, you'll be dead. Even the best documented will is subject to the interpretation of others, and a few false witnesses can undo your best intentions. Unfortunately, Basil doesn't even think your intentions are very good. "Read your own will: 'I wish I could have gone on living and enjoying my own things, but...' Thus the gratitude is due to death, not to you." Ouch. Someone call the burn unit.

So what is one to do? The only option Basil offers is to be so engaged in constantly giving to the poor that one simply has nothing that could be passed on after death. What Basil demands in that instruction is that we devote ourselves tirelessly to caring for the needs of others. It's a tall order. It's a hard word, but at the end of the day, Basil understands it as nothing more than a means of honoring the commandment to love our neighbor.

And maybe we should just do that so Basil will stop bullying us.

     St. Basil the Great, "To the Rich," in On Social Justice, trans. C. Paul Schroeder (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009) 55-56.

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