On Excess

Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries. Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten, your gold and silver have corroded, and that corrosion will be a testimony against you; it will devour your flesh like a fire. You have stored up treasure for the last days. Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure; you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter. You have condemned; you have murdered the righteous one; he offers you no resistance.

In this passage from the Letter of St. James (5:1-6), the news is quite sobering as James takes people to task for failing to properly use the gifts they’ve been given. For some commentators, this reading is an indictment against the wealthy. For other commentators, it is an opportunity to critique the class system that pits workers against the owners who fail to pay adequate wages. I would like to share with you some thoughts from St. John Chrysostom, one of my favorite saints.

Chrysostom was a bishop in the fourth century and he had his share of problems. He was known as a great preacher; hence the name “Chrysostom” which means “golden mouth.” Against his will, he was ordained the bishop of Constantinople. However, he never forgot the ordinary person. He was often their champion against the abuses of civic and religious leaders. He so angered the empress Eudoxia that he was sent into exile twice. He died in 407 and is venerated as a saint by almost all the major Christian faiths.

This is what St. John has to say about this excerpt from James: “What then? Has luxury been condemned? It certainly has—so why do you continue to strive for it? A man has made bread, but the excess has been trimmed away. A man has made wine, but the excess has been cut off there also. God desires that we should pray not for impure food but for souls set free from excess. For everything God has created is good, and nothing which has been received with thanks is to be despised.”

The issue that St. John alludes to is the focus on having too much; that is, excess. Our souls need to be purified from having too much excess. I would like to suggest that when we have excess, we usually get into trouble. Or conversely, when we desire to have more, we get into trouble.

However, what defines “excess?” What is “too much” for one person, may not be enough for another. A case in point: bathrooms. If a family lives in a house with one bathroom, they may have to become creative in sharing bathroom space and time. In this case they may have too little bathroom space. They could benefit from having two or three bathrooms. On the other hand, for a person who has incontinence or other digestive disorders, they may require three bathrooms (basement, first floor, second floor) in order to feel comfortable in their own home. A single bathroom would not suffice.

I say this as a caution not to judge what another has or doesn’t have. Before passing judgment on a particular situation, make sure that you have all of the facts. And even if you have the facts, be very careful about judging since only God can know what is in a person’s heart.

If we read the letter of St. James (with Chrysostom’s commentary in mind) in light of the Gospel from St. Mark (9:38-48), we notice a strong connection: Jesus says to cut off whatever leads us to sin. James implies that the excesses (i.e., earthly treasures) need to be cut out lest we risk condemnation. In other words, we need to cut off or cut out those temptations, actions, attitudes, and possessions that hinder us from fully embracing the Gospel.

Now the Fathers of the Church certainly did not think that Jesus was implying that one should literally cut off one’s hand, foot, or pluck out one’s eye; however, the sinful action that one does with those body parts certainly should be eradicated. Ultimately, all sin originates in a person’s brain. But I do not think that Jesus would suggest cutting off one’s head to stop the sinning. Yet, because we have free will and intellect, we have the capacity to eliminate sinful behavior from our lives by making correct choices.

I would like to suggest for our reflection that sin originates in our excesses. That is, when we have too much time on our hands, we sometimes fall into temptation which leads us to sinful behavior. The old adage “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” is often quite accurate. When we have too many possessions, sometimes we may crave having even more. Sometimes when we eat a delicious meal, we may gorge ourselves because the food is there. How many of us have taken a second or third piece of bumpy cake or eaten the whole bag of chips or pistachios simply because those things were available? We didn’t really need to have more, but since it was sitting there on the counter, we decided to take it.

If we are to do the will of the Father, we should really take the words of the Our Father to heart: “give us this day our daily bread.” This phrase reminds us that we are to ask God to take care of our needs for today and not to ask for future needs or wants. In other words, we need to focus on necessities and not excesses.

May everything we do be a reflection of our relationship with Christ and may our attitudes, opinions, actions, and possessions lead us closer to God’s kingdom instead of being sources of sin that prevent us from truly living our Christian faith.

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Written by
Msgr John Kasza