Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Who Will Inherit Our Sin?

In our first look at Basil's sermon "To the Rich" we saw him condemn wealth as evidence of a failure to love one's neighbor. Basil continues his sermon by tackling the issue of inheritances. As we journey toward the upcoming seminar on "Pastoral Care in the Context of Wealth," Basil's words offer us some advice on one of the practical issues that we expect to hear addressed there. Listen up, world!

Reading the Will by David Wilkie, 1820
The really wonderful thing about this section is that Basil again frames his argument in terms of uplifting the law of love. Now one might assume that leaving an inheritance is a sign of love to one's beneficiaries. That's how we interpret a will, isn't it? An estate is usually distributed to those persons or organizations for whom the deceased most cared so that they might flourish after his departure. If we didn't understand inheritances that way, then we wouldn't get to enjoy all of those scandalous soap opera plots in which we discover that our hero left his fortune to a secret mistress or an illegitimate son or his unknown homosexual lover. Who wants to miss out on those?

But we're forgetting what Basil said about wealth. It's no prize; it's an obligation to be used for the benefit of the neighbor. An inheritance then is something of a burden. Passing on wealth is passing on the task of distributing it to one's neighbors. The tricky thing though is that there's just no telling whether or not your beneficiaries will act so benevolently because, well, you'll be dead:
Who will vouch for the prudence of your children, that they will use what is left to them for good ends? For many, wealth becomes an aid to immortality. Or do you not hear what is said in Ecclesiastes, "There is a grievous ill that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owners to their heart," and moreover, "I will leave that for which I have toiled to those who come after me, and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?" Take care then, lest after countless efforts to acquire riches, you end up providing others with resources to commit sins. In that case, you find yourself doubly punished, both for acting unjustly in your own right, and for furnishing others with the opportunity to do the same.
Well, what is one to do then? If we leave our wealth to our children, then we risk contributing to their sinfulness. According to Basil that leaves us again being found guilty of failing the commandment to love our neighbor. Surely troubling our children with the means of sin is no way to love them. What's left to do?

(Hint: If you are thinking that we should leave all of our wealth to charity, then you're a different kind of wrong.)

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     St. Basil the Great, "To the Rich," in On Social Justice, trans. C. Paul Schroeder (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009) 54.

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