You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.

The leaders of the Living Church Foundation spent several hours at our recent annual meeting poring over plans for an endowment project, something with which the stewards of many nonprofit institutions will be entirely familiar. Ours is a humble — and venerable, vital — ministry that we hope the Lord may continue to bless, and indeed prosper.

Alas, according to our Lord, this perhaps was not such a good idea. In seeking financial development we have precisely planned to seed wealth. I might say that we would love to see our plans succeed; and so perhaps we are Pharisees, whom Luke tells us “were lovers of money.” They ridicule Jesus for saying “You cannot serve God and wealth,” and Jesus returns the favor, with what we might call a blunt rejoinder: “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.”


Perhaps I should trot this out next time a donor says he’ll give a major gift on the condition that we name it after him. “Bless you, brother; even if your stipulation is, well…a bit of an abomination.” Admittedly, no such donor has come along yet.

Of course, the point is a serious one (and I do not actually think that naming buildings after oneself is forbidden by the gospel). Here’s the point: what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God. Jesus says: forget “the sight of others.” Focus instead on God’s eyes. He knows your hearts.

God wants absolutely everything. And knowing God, he will have it, one way or the other. This is important.

We who would seek to follow and obey him must therefore be interested in how God will have his way because God is infinitely and utterly interesting. Let us ask: How will God plumb our hearts, focusing them on what Jesus calls “the true riches”? How will, or might, God do this for the institutions that we love and seek to serve — including, by the way, our dioceses, and the parishes within them? How will he wring faithfulness from us?

The honest answer is: Painfully, but fruitfully thereby. As Augustine of Hippo — or Paul or Jesus — might say, none of us are “good” until the end, and then only as covered by the cross. The pilgrim way is providentially strewn with stones for our sanctification and continual conversion.

I’d like to explore this theme in the light of Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, who has never been formally canonized, though reported miracles at his tomb and elsewhere led to some momentum in this direction early on, and he is accorded a feast day in both the Church of England and Episcopal Church calendars.

Grosseteste lived a long life straddling the 12th and 13th centuries — 83 years in all — and he only became a bishop at age 65. He grew up poor but reputedly studied in Oxford and Paris, and was known throughout his life for “unbounding physical and intellectual energy” (ODCC). Little is known of his early life, but his surviving lectures and sermons from his mid-career in Oxford reveal a vast learning in science — astronomy, comets, rainbows — and Grosseteste produced the first known commentary in the West on Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, the philosopher’s syllogistic discussion of demonstration, definition, and scientific knowledge. At the same time, Grosseteste produced a series of theological works, notably a Hexaemeron (on creation in Genesis) and commentaries on the Psalms and Galatians. In his 50s, he began to learn Greek and acquired an impressive (and rare) competence for the time. As Bishop of Lincoln, he convened a kind of school of scholars that produced an impressive program of translations from Greek into Latin — of Psuedo-Dionysius, John of Damascus, Basil, Aristotle, and others. Grosseteste’s translation of the Nicomachean Ethics paved the way for Albert the Great’s detailed commentary a generation later, taken up in turn by Aquinas.

As if that weren’t enough, Grosseteste was said to show “conspicuous energy and dedication in his work as a bishop.” Around age 60, he may have experienced a kind of spiritual conversion — a deepening — through his close association with the newly established mendicant orders of Franciscans and Dominicans. In his episcopal capacity he arranged preaching missions of the friars; and he famously took a stand against royal and papal appropriations of diocesan resources (parochial benefices), finally appealing for episcopal independence directly to Innocent IV at the papal court, in a “carefully prepared denunciation of the abuses of power in pursuit of family and personal gain by papal officials, by the curia, and by the pope” that would much impress John Wycliffe a century later (ODCC).

This is an interesting point for us. Grosseteste was no revolutionary and had a high view of both kingship as a divine institution and of the papacy as instituted by Christ. His appeal to the pope therefore carefully distinguished between papal power itself and damaging orders or decisions of the papal office. In the presenting problem, the pope had sought a canonry in the Diocese of Lincoln for his nephew, though the nephew had no intention of residing in his benefice. Were Grosseteste to acquiesce to this, he would be complicit, he wrote, in “cheating [the people of Lincoln] of a pastor’s office and ministry,” an offense that would “bring death and damnation…to souls that should be given life and salvation by the office and ministry of the pastoral care.” Note the high view of ordained ministry. For Grosseteste, the notion of enriching the pope’s nephew with the financial resources of his own diocese, to the deprivation of his people, would be a cardinal sin — “opposed and contrary to the teaching of the apostles and of the gospel; to the Lord Jesus Christ himself hateful, detestable, and abominable; and to the human race destructive” (all from Sophie Ambler, “On Kingship and Tyranny: Grosseteste’s Memorandum and its Place in the Baronial Reform Movement” in Thirteenth Century England XIV [Boydell & Brewer, 2013], p. 120).

Obviously Grosseteste showed great courage in all of this. What became of his efforts? Scholars debate the extent to which he anticipated, and otherwise influenced, subsequent reform movements. That he wished to defend ecclesial hierarchy is clear, but he also believed that Christ invests certain offices in the Church with power “only to construct, not to destroy.” In this view, loyal subjects are obligated to disobey destructive orders precisely so as “to uphold the integrity of the apostolic see itself.” By doing so, on a case-by-case basis, disobedience may actually serve to affirm the legitimacy of authoritative offices and signal a deep affection for them (Ambler, pp. 120-1). This marks a fascinating working out of how to be the loyal opposition in an orderly way.

And on this count Grosseteste did prove influential, if not immediately successful. “Suffused with [his] spirit,” a series of limited reforms were pursued in England in the years immediately following his death: “to control and limit royal spending…; to introduce greater efficiency into the administration, cutting waste and corruption; and to ensure that the collection of revenue at the local level was fair, putting an end to oppression and extortion” (Ambler, pp. 123-4). And a wider baronial reform program was permeated by the influence of Grosseteste, as well.

Are there particular lessons here for us? I think there are several, and they cycle back to the texts with which we began.

1. In case we wondered, it has never been easy to lead old institutions, the more when they have been fitted out with, or otherwise appropriated, power and prestige. A major presenting problem in England that the baronial reform movement had in view was the real and frightening diminution of the monarch’s net worth — by some two-thirds compared to the previous century. We sometimes hear talk of decline today as if the first one thousand nine hundred and fifty years of Christendom amounted to the steady amassing of great wealth, the sources of which have just now suddenly disappeared. In fact, financial deprivation has been closer to the norm.

2. More theologically, if and as the beloved institutions that we serve meet material and financial success, our common wealth will need careful stewarding by wise leaders of a disciplined, ascetical sort — replete with theological training and spiritual wisdom. These last are not negotiable. In the case of Grosseteste’s Lincoln, the largest geographical diocese in the Church of England with considerable resources at its disposal, it was precisely the obligation of stewardship that led the bishop to take painful and risky action, the outcome of which he could not have known in advance. He died, we are told, “with a deep sense of failure and foreboding for the future” (ODCC). And yet his work did bear fruit, in so many ways.

3. Therefore, the word from Paul in Acts to the Ephesian elders — the “overseers” or “shepherds [of] the church of God,” the bishops (cf. 1 Tim. 3:1; Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:7-9) — is both fitting and sobering. Listen again: “I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” — and who, recalling the history of the Church, her wounds and blood spilled, could say this prophecy has not been fulfilled? We ourselves are often ravenous, doing not what we want, but the very thing we hate (Rom. 7:15), and so we must repent. Happily, the good word of Holy Scripture is outfitted for just this purpose. As Paul says in Acts 20: “Therefore be alert.” And he commends the Ephesians to God, “to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified.” Paul is saying that the message itself is effective, as grace is a power of God, capable of enacting change. This message is inevitably, necessarily fruitful, as an inheritance associated with sanctity. How amazing.

God has an inheritance for us. And surely our institutions and their wealth — beautiful buildings, amazing teachers, holy priests — are part of this, as they are placed in service of sanctification, holiness, by God’s grace.

It’s interesting that, in the very next verse of Acts 20, Paul elaborates on the materiality of the foregoing teaching: “I coveted no one’s silver or gold,” remembering the words of Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Here is a deep truth, and an encouraging one, for all Christians working in development and fundraising: generous persons will give, and in such a fashion as not to covet their own wealth, but give it away joyfully for the fruitfulness of the kingdom. This, in fact, is what it means for all of us to be faithful: having ordered our affairs first of all spiritually, centered on God, and given up everything to follow him, he gives back to us in our poverty, and multiplies his own gifts for a vast fruitfulness. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much.”

Friends, this is good news. As we labor in service of the Church and her Lord, let us focus on this necessarily evangelical foundation of renewal. Here is the truth: God’s initiating action is primary; everything else follows. Because this is so, daily conversion is our task, in the confidence that he will do the rest.

This sermon was preached at Nashotah House Theological Seminary on the Feast of Robert Grosseteste (Oct. 9). The image above is an untitled picture (2009) by the Flickr user giveawayboy. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 

About The Author

Dr. Christopher Wells is Director of Unity, Faith and Order for the Anglican Communion.

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One Response

  1. Todd Welty

    A few hours before reading this post yesterday, I was working on materials for a presentation on stewardship and financial management that my wife and I will give at the the Church of the Incarnation’s Pre-marriage Weekend next Saturday. In particular, I was focusing on the point that stewardship is a matter of the heart — recognizing the Church’s need for funds, asking for them, and donors responding is part of being a good and faithful servants/stewards. But as always and in everything, temptation lurks here.

    In was in this context, that I read some writings of Evagrios the Solitary, which I share below. By way of background, Evagrios was born in 345 or 346. He was a disciple of the Cappadocian Fathers; he was ordained a reader by St. Basil the Great and a deacon by St. Gregory the Theologian whom he accompanied to the Council of Constantinople (the second Ecumenical Council). Evagrios was never ordained a priest. After a stay in Jerusalem, he moved in 383 to Egypt where he became a monk, living an ascetic lifestyle for the last 16 years of his life.

    When reading his writings on discrimination, I could not help but think of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, which are written from the perspective of a master demon (Screwtape) to his disciple (Wormwood) on how to tempt men into sin. In contrast, Evagrios’ writings are from the perspective of a Desert Father to his disciples on how to resist the temptations of demons.

    “Suppose, for instance that a thought full of avarice is suggested to you [by a demon]. Distinguish between the component elements: the intellect which has accepted the thought [by agreeing to think on what the demon has suggested], the intellection [i.e. the process of thinking carefully] of gold, gold itself, and the passion of avarice. Then ask: in which of these does the sin exist? Is it the intellect? But how then can the intellect be the image of God? Is it the intellection of gold? But what sensible person would ever say that? Then is it gold itself the sin? In that case, why was it created? It follows, then, that the cause of sin is the fourth element . . . which is a certain noxious pleasure which, once it is freely chosen, compels the intellect to misuse what God has created. It is this pleasure that the law of God commands us to cut off. Now as you investigate the thought in this way and analyze its components, it will be destroyed; and the demon will take to flight once your mind is raised to a higher level by this spiritual knowledge.”

    “The demon of avarice, it seems to me, is extraordinarily complex and baffling in his deceits. Often, when face with the strictness of our renunciation, he immediately pretends to be a steward and a lover of the poor; he urges us to prepare a welcome for strangers who have not yet arrived or to send provisions to absent brethren. . . .
    He makes us mentally visit prisons in the city and ransom those on sale as slaves. He suggests that we should attach ourselves to wealthy women, and advises us to be obsequious to others who have a full purse. And so, after deceiving the soul, little by little he engulfs it in avaricious thoughts and then hands it over to the demon of self-esteem. The latter calls up in our imagination crowds of admirers who praise the Lord for the works of mercy we have performed; he makes us picture people talking to one another about how we deserve to be ordained, and he suggests to us that the present priest is bound to die before long. So our wretched intellect, entangled by these thoughts, attacks anyone who (as it imagines) opposes the ideas of our ordination, while those who support the idea it lavishes gifts and flattery. Some of our critics we bring in our mind’s eye before the judges and demand expulsion from the city. As these thoughts circle in our minds, the demon of pride suddenly appears, filling our cell with lightning and visions of terror and trying to make us mad. But let us call down destruction upon all such thoughts and thankfully live in poverty. ‘For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can take nothing out of it. Having food and raiment, let us be content with them’ (1 Tim. 6:7-8), remembering the words of St. Paul: ‘Avarice is the root of all evil’ (1 Tim. 6:10).’’ The Philokalia, compiled by St. Nikodimas of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth (18th Century), translated from the Greek by Palmer, Sherrard and Ware, Volume I at 50-51 (1979).

    There is great wisdom in Evagrios’ words for both fundraisers and donors: proceed thoughtfully and humbly, lifting your hearts up to the Lord so that all are acting as good and faithful servants/stewards.


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