Personally, I really do not know what to make of this book. Yes it does challenge those of us who are wealthy (and that pretty much includes most people who live in a developed country) but we still must remember that this book was written in the 4th Century and there are a lot of differences between the fourth century and now. In looking at this book I will first consider the differences, and I will then look at some of the themes that come out of this book. However, before I go into that I must point out that this book was not 'written' by St Basil but rather contains a small number of his essays, or sermons, that deal with the issue of wealth.
Now, first of all in the introduction the editor stated that this book was more relevant today that it was back then. I could not disagree more with this statement. I have noted that a lot of Christians do not like it when we suggest that things have changed in the interceding two thousand years, but they have. While the Bible is as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago, many of the writings that have come out of the Bible are not. Take for instance the writings of, I believe, Clement, who suggested that the animals that the Jews were forbidden to eat were forbidden because they represent some form of sin that we humans need not participate in. In particular the idea that weasals procreate through fallatio. As it turns out, weasels procreate like every other mammal that we know, so it turns out that Clement's theory was wrong.
With St Basil we must remember that when he was writing he might have been writing as a citizen of the most powerful empire at the time, but this empire was still an agrarian society. In those days people were tied to the mercy of the seasons and the weather. If there was a drought then people would starve. This is not true these days because we in Australia have just lived through a seven year drought, and I tell you what, I was fed every day, and there was little in the way of changes to the price of food. The only time that the price of food spiked was when Cyclone Larry, and later Cyclone Yasi, struck far north Queensland and wiped out our banana crop. To be honest, I was able to live without Bananas for the year that it took to replant the crops and grow them again. In our industrialised society we can go without.
However I would suggest that industrialised is a little backward to describe our society. I would call it computerised. The reason I raise that is that there is a lot of discussion on debt. Now, debt is not in itself bad. Our society was built of debt, but on the flip side, debt has brought it close to collapse. Now, going into debt always brings about a risk that you will not be able to pay it back, but it is not necessarily bad. Companies and businesses always go into debt to meet their day to day obligations, but these companies generally plan and make sure that they can service this debt. If you look at the average annual report from the average company you will discover that they all carry a debt. This debt is also used for expansion and growth, and there are even methods (such as 'Interest Cover') which measures a company's ability to service its debt. I am in debt, I had to go into debt to pay my way through University, but this debt is a government debt, and the government says that I can pay it back when I can afford it. As a friend of mine once said, 'I try my best to pay as little of this debt off as possible' and this friend of mine is a doctor. She definitely does not have money problems.
However let us consider the bad side of debt, and that bad side comes out in two ways: the first is through greed, and the second is through desperation. Now, the first comes about when people simply want to feather their nests in a way that they could not normally afford. Many people buy big houses, nice cars, lots of furniture and electronic gadgets, and suddenly discover that they are in over their head. Further, many of them get so caught up in the use of debt that they resort to debt to meet their obligations, such as phone and electricity bills. Secondly, there are those that simply struggle to make ends meet and get themselves into debt to get by. Now, Basil pretty much goes off at the first type if people, and goes off at those who exploit the second type of people. He was writing during a drought, and it is clear that the haves were loaning money to the poor at exorbitant rates, so they could buy food to eat. That generally does not happen anymore, but when I walk down the main street of Salisbury I notice that there are pawn brokers and payday loan shops everywhere. However, I will hold off on this now because there are other books that address this.
Now, what St Basil is really attacking is not so much wealth and debt, but the greed that lays behind it. He is a big believer in being generous, and it is not as if St Basil was poor and had a chip on his shoulder. Far from it: he was quite a wealthy man, but he used his wealth to help those less fortunate than him, and established what could be considered the ancient Roman version of the Salvation Army. He rebukes those who store up all their goods in barns but do not release it to those who need it. Remember, this is an agrarian society, so there were no banks (at least the modern type). Everything was traded in kind, though they did have money. If you grew crops, you will sell some and store others. It is to those who store up their wealth and let the poor suffer that he is rebuking.
Now, once again, there is a difference here. In those days they did not have pensions or an advanced welfare state. Pretty much everybody was left to fend for themselves and it was left to the generous to support them. These days we have pensions, but we also have the ability to save for our retirement. While on one hand Basil raises the parable of the man who wanted to build bigger barns, he forgets the passage where we are told not to be a burden to others. They did not have superannuation in those days, but they do now. Look, there is nothing wrong with saving or investing money, just as debt in the right context is okay. However, there are concerns when one becomes miserly and ungenerous, and it is this attitude that Basil, and indeed the Bible, attacks.