Canned Food and a 401(k)

How much should we “save for the future”?
Should we save money? Should we preserve food?

Scripture says it is wise to save up enough food to get you through the winter:

Go to the ant, O sluggard; and see, and emulate his ways, and become wiser than he. For whereas he has no husbandry, nor any one to compel him, and is under no master, he prepares food for himself in the summer, and lays by abundant store in harvest. (Proverbs 6:6-8, Brenton’s LXX)

On the other hand, Scripture says it is foolish to go overboard in saving for the future:

And He said to them, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.”

Then He spoke a parable to them, saying: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ So he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’

“So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:15-21)

What is the difference between the wise man who saves food for the winter, and the foolish man who stores up an abundance of grain in his barns? And how does this principle apply to bank accounts, 401(k)s, IRAs, and other retirement accounts? Just how much should we save for the future?

At what point does our savings account switch from “good stewardship” to “covetousness”?

Think from the perspective of the wise man referenced in Proverbs. Like the ant, he recognizes the cycle of seasons, knowing that he cannot harvest year-round. Throughout the winter months, he will need something to eat, until the weather is warm enough for him to plant again. So, in wisdom, he lays back an “abundant store” of food, enough to last through the winter.

The assumption is that, when spring arrives, he will need to work again.
The cycle of planting and harvesting continues. He continues to work.

Now consider the perspective of the foolish man castigated by Christ:

  1. He was not just saving up for short-term necessities; he was saving up enough to last him “many years.” His original barns already held enough food to get him through the winter. But they were not big enough to suit him. He planned to replace those barns with bigger barns, so that he could store more food than would be needed until spring.
  2. He was not planning to return to work the following spring. Instead, for many years, he was planning to live in “ease”, and to “eat, drink, and be merry”.
  3. He focused on his own comfort, instead of focusing on his brother’s needs. He could have taken care of his own basic needs, and returned to work, using any remaining excess to feed the hungry, care for the sick, visit the lonely, clothe the naked, and comfort the poor. Instead, he wanted to waste 100% of his abundance on his own retirement.

St. Basil the Great–in agreement with many other saints–does a good job of describing the Christian view of these matters:

“The harshest form of covetousness is not even to give things perishable to those who need them. “But whom do I treat unjustly,” you say, “by keeping what is my own?” Tell me, what is your own? What did you bring into this life? From where did you receive it? It is as if someone were to take the first seat in the theater, then bar everyone else from attending, so that one person alone enjoys what is offered for the benefit of all-this is what the rich do. They first take possession of the common property, and then they keep it as their own because they were the first to take it. But if every man took only what sufficed for his own need, and left the rest to the needy, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, no one would be in need.

Did you not fall naked from the womb? Will you not go back naked to the earth? Where is your present property from? If you think that it came to you by itself, you don’t believe in God, you don’t acknowledge the creator and you are not thankful to Him who gave it to you. But if you agree and confess that you have it from God, tell us the reason why He gave it to you.

Is God unjust, dividing unequally the goods of this life? Why are you rich, while the other is poor? Isn’t it, if for no other reason, so that you can gain a reward for your kindness and faithful stewardship, and for him to be honored with the great virtue of patience? But you, having gathered everything inside the empty bosom of avarice, do you think that you wrong no one, while you rob so many people?

Who is the greedy person? It’s him, who doesn’t content himself with what he has. And who the thief? He who steals what belongs to others. And you think that you are not greedy, and that you do not rob others? What had been granted to you so that you might care for others, you claim for yourself.

He who strips a man of his clothes is to be called a thief. Is not he who, when he is able, fails to clothe the naked, worthy of no other title? The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes that you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the money that you keep locked away is the money of the poor; the acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit.

St. Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea (329-379 AD)

The book of Proverbs promises us:

“He who gives to the poor will lack nothing,
but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses.”
(Proverbs 28:27)

And Jesus plainly tells us:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth” (Matt. 6:19)

If you are physically able to work,
then continue working to support both yourself and the poor.
If you are physically unable to work,
then your family and your church can take care of you.

When you get off work Friday,
it is OK to save enough money to last until Monday.
When you harvest your crops in September,
it is OK to save enough food to last until Spring.

But as long as there are still people in the world who are starving, sick, or unclothed,
how can you justify putting another $100 into your 401(k)?

“But I’m just being a wise steward, saving for a rainy day.”

Friend, please open your eyes . . .
Your brother is standing outside, and for him, it is already raining.


This is day eight of the 40 Days of Blogging.
For more articles on canned food, check out these bloggers.

About Fr Joseph Gleason

I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with eight children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog here at The Orthodox Life.
This entry was posted in 40 Days of Blogging, Luke 12:15-21, Matthew 6:19-21, Money, Proverbs 6:6-8. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Canned Food and a 401(k)

  1. tpkatsa says:

    “But as long as there are still people in the world who are starving, sick, or unclothed, how can you justify putting another $100 into your 401(k)?”

    To have to justify putting money in a saving account implies that others have an moral claim on my property by virtue of their existence. I view this notion with a very jaundiced eye.

    In the parable of the rich young ruler, Christ asks the ruler to sell everything he has, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Him. The ruler comes away from that encounter sorrowful, “for he had many possessions.” Christ did not then command His disciples to confiscate the wealth of the young ruler, and give the proceeds to the poor. Moreover, Christ did not then morally condemn the man – though He could have. In fact He held out hope – “with men it is impossible but with God all things are possible.”

    As Christians we know that the gospel calls us to be “one” with with each other and with Christ. Giving to the poor is part of that calling. But if in our ecclesiastical quest to achieve unity with each other and theosis with God, we trample the property rights of the individual person, we drift into a religious leftism which ultimately grants the state power to implement the commands of Christ on our behalf but at the expense of our neighbor. How can we say we love our neighbor, while we seek to perform acts of charity which express that love using our neighbor’s money?—and then morally condemning him if does not accede to this?

    • “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asked this, implying that there were no claims on him due to his brother’s existence. Of course, Cain was wrong. Your brother’s existence does lay a moral claim to your property and to mine.

      I make no comment regarding the government. You should give to the poor because you love him, and because you love Christ, not because Uncle Sam forces you to do so.

      Christ did morally condemn the rich young ruler . . . He said the rich ruler was not welcome to follow Him unless he was willing to part with his possessions. And when the rich young ruler walked away, Jesus did not stop him. He did not say, “I’m sorry, you can still follow me if you want to, even if you don’t sell your possessions and give to the poor.” No, Jesus just let him walk away.

      You already read Christ’s command not to lay up treasures on earth. Here are some additional admonitions to consider from the saints:

      “Share everything with your brother. Do not say, ‘It is private property.’ If you share what is everlasting, you should be that much more willing to share things which do not last.”
      ~ The Didache

      “Instead of the tithes which the law commanded, the Lord said to divide everything we have with the poor. And he said to love not only our neighbors but also our enemies, and to be givers and sharers not only with the good but also to be liberal givers toward those who take away our possessions.”
      ~ St. Irenaeus

      “The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you put into the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help but fail to help.”
      ~ St. Basil of Caesarea

      “The rich are in possession of the goods of the poor, even if they have acquired them honestly or inherited them legally.”
      ~ St. John Chrysostom

      “You are not making a gift of your possession to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his.”
      ~ St. Ambrose of Milan

  2. Jeremiah says:

    Thank you for your post. It certainly makes me think. Before becoming Orthodox I went to a church with a population that was more than half either homeless or severely impoverished. Getting to know those good folks made me rethink many things. I would like to see our churches take care of those in need, the elderly, the sick, etc. But it seems to me that many Orthodox Churches are quite small and don’t have the budget to take care of several people like that.

    Back to 401k’s and savings though, I’m still not too sure what to think. It would be wonderful to see the church taking care of their own, but I don’t think that really happens often enough. Even in my own situation, we have to save money every month for quarterly taxes since we’re self employed (and you get hit hard with taxes, health insurance costs, etc, when you’re a 1099 worker). We also own a home and car, so it seems wise to have a small amount of money set aside for those times that something in the home or on the car breaks down or needs maintenance.

    Perhaps it has more to do with the posture of our hearts than setting out blanket rules? I think we should challenge ourselves to be more generous to think of the needs of others much more frequently, but I’m not totally comfortable with saying we should have no savings for emergencies, etc.

    • I think Scripture suggests that a *limited* savings account is not only acceptable, but is actually wise. According to Proverbs 6, it is the wise man who lays up an “abundant store” of food to get his family through the several months of winter.

      Based on this Scripture, I think it makes good sense for us to save *some*, so that we would not come to utter poverty if we became unemployed for a few months. Rough times *will* come, so it makes sense to “prepare for the winter”, so to speak.

      But there is a difference between emergency-planning and much of modern American retirement-planning.

      People often do not retire because they are *unable* to work; rather, they retire because they are *unwilling* to continue working. Instead of saving for “a few financially rough months”, they save up many years of income. They want to spend the last years of their lives in ease, with the “eat, drink, and be merry” attitude of the fool in Christ’s parable. This is the attitude we must avoid at all costs.

      Is a given church *unwilling* to care for its own?
      If so, then it is time to relocate and find a better church.

      Are modern families and churches *unable* to care for their own?
      That depends on how much pride we have in regard to our required “standard of living”. If an elderly couple needed someone to take care of them, they could move into my home today. We have one guest bedroom that could become their room. They could eat at our table. That would be a good way to “take care of one’s own”. But it would not be a retirement involving cruises, hotels, big houses, or fancy restaurants.

      If we are going to obey Scripture and the Fathers, then we need to knock down our pride several notches, not only in regard to our present stewardship of money, but also in regard to our future plans for old-age. If we are granted long-life, do we demand luxury? Or are we content to live in the guest bedrooms of the faithful, humbly accepting their charity?

      • Jeremiah says:

        Those are good points. I think if people would just take care of their immediate family we’d have much fewer troubles today. We create all sorts of problems by having a luxurious standard of living (luxurious being comparable to how many other people in the world live). With that standard of living, both people in a marriage must work high-stress jobs to pay for the big house, nice new cars, lovely furniture, technological gadgets, etc. So, there is no time to take care of parents or loved ones in need. If the disabled or elderly family member is “lucky,” they get dumped off in an assisted living facility where they spend their remaining years in loneliness.

        Anyway, I think both you and I are pretty much on the same page as far as these things go.

  3. Molly says:

    Interesting thoughts. My first reaction was rather heated, and has cooled somewhat over the course of the day.

    Sometimes I teach financial ed, and these are certainly not things I would be willing to endorse for my students. In my (admittadly limited) experience, there isn’t an over saving problem, at least not in any of the communities where I’ve lived or worked. There is, however, a debt problem. Which is often a planning problem, and sometimes also a usury problem (600% interest should be illegal).

    I’m not 100% sure about some of the decisions I’ve made, partly for financial reasons. If I were a better person, perhaps I would have sent $2,000 to refugees rather than flying to visit Syria. If I were a better person I probably would have tried harder to get work while in college, instead of hanging out on the balcony and watching clouds all afternoon. There was a man I used to pass every day on the street who would sit in a parking space on a piece of cardboard. I must have passed him a hundred times when one day I was walking with my friend, and she told me about how he was from the village next to hers, and he was lame because some other men had tied him to the roof of his house one winter until he got such bad frost bite his feet and fingers no longer worked, and his family wouldn’t provide for him. So maybe I should have helped him and the women who always stood at the gates of the church and asked for alms, instead of… getting pizza and coffee at the cafe? And now I have a little money, and sort of mean to travel a bit more and save some of it as the present thing to do — but it would probably be well to travel less and give more away… And I’m probably going to travel and save some anyway.

    But I know some really lovely, giving, sharing retired people, and it seems too easy to start judging. And the job market is pretty crowded even with retirement as an accepted thing. So I really have no idea. I’ll probably go ahead and keep telling students that they should save and build credit, and do that some myself.

    • Hi Molly. I’m glad you mentioned debt. I wish I had taken some time to discuss it in the original article. I agree debt is an enormous problem today. It too is very dangerous to one’s soul.

      In many cases, debt stems from the same sort of greed addressed in the article. “I don’t want to save a little money and buy that thing a year from now. I want it NOW!”

      And in reference to the poor, the result is still the same. Instead of giving our resources to help the needy, we give our resources to pay off that loan that represents yesterday’s greed. Because we just “had” to have that new TV set a year ago, this year we have to skimp on helping the poor.

      The debt problem is really just the flip side of the coin, in reference to the saving problem. Instead of helping the poor, the rich save hundreds of thousands of dollars in various financial institutions. In turn, those financial institutions make their money by loaning it out . . . thus breaking the backs of the poor with debt.

      The money that greedy people illegitimately borrow, they borrow from the greedy people who illegitimately save. No wonder the Church consistently anathematized lending-at-interest for over 1000 years! Historically, “usury” was ANY interest charged on a loan, however small.

  4. Pingback: Finance | Sticky Green Leaves

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