John Cassian: The perfect abnegation of Christ

“How we should understand these words: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” [Acts 20:35]

And he says that this is a command of the Lord: “For He Himself,” namely the Lord Jesus, “said it is more blessed to give than to receive.” That is, the bounty of the giver is more blessed than the need of the receiver, where the gift is not supplied from money that has been kept back through unbelief or faithlessness, nor from the stored-up treasures of avarice, but is produced from the fruits of our own labor and honest toil.

And so “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” because while the giver shares the poverty of the receiver, yet still he is diligent in providing with pious care by his own toil, not merely enough for his own needs, but also what he can give to one in want; and so he is adorned with a double grace, since by giving away all his goods he secures the perfect abnegation of Christ, and yet by his labor and thought displays the generosity of the rich; thus honoring God by his honest labors, and plucking for him the fruits of his righteousness, while another, enervated by sloth and indolent laziness, proves himself by the saying of the Apostle unworthy of food, as in defiance of his command he takes it in idleness, not without the guilt of sin and of obstinacy.”

John Cassian (c. 360-435) monk and theologian in The Twelve Books of John Cassian on the Institutes of the Cœnobia, and the Remedies for the Eight Principal Faults, Book X, Chapter XIX, “How we should understand these words: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

When we live in obedience to the teachings of Jesus, we exhibit God’s design. Or in plain terms, we take the better way. And what is the better way regarding handling riches? Cassian notes rightly that we must not keep back for ourselves that which God supplies richly or store up treasures in avarice but rather to share freely the fruit of our own labor. When we learn to live on enough and share the rest, we arrive at “the perfect abnegation of Christ” (cf. Philippians 2:1-11).

“Abnegation” is a word brought to life in the recent “Divergent” novels by Veronica Roth and the corresponding movies that have been produced. Abnegation means “selfless.” Roth divides society into five factions, one of which is “abnegation” or the “selfless” ones. Cassian contrasts the selfless with the selfish who are lazy and idle, the ones to which the Apostle Paul said, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).

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