The empire was beset by foreign invaders and war in the Middle East. Far-flung wars meant more taxes for the provinces and an increase in poverty. Some men had to choose between feeding their families and paying for medical care. Some couldn’t afford either.
In the large urban centers, the poor were getting poorer, while the rich were getting richer. The wealthy—even in the churches—were given to elaborate and expensive entertainments. Keeping pedigreed horses was a favorite hobby. Aristocrats gobbled up the land of poor farmers and created vast estates for their champion thoroughbreds. Houses were lavishly decorated with gilded ceilings and mosaic-covered walls. Personal chefs and confectioners were employed.
To make matters worse, a false version of Christianity was on the rise. Within living memory, the emperor himself had confessed that Jesus Christ is fully God, “being of one substance with the Father.” But now a new emperor, while claiming to be a Christian, was professing just the opposite. Soon, all of the old heretic pastors were out of the closet, and the emperor, in the interests of unity, was applying gentle persecution to bring the conservative pastors into line. In such an environment, any reasonable man would batten down the hatches, circle the wagons, and protect himself, his family, and his way of life.
Basil sold his vast inheritance and gave the money to the poor.
Now, Basil was no dummy. As his friend Gregory would write, Basil had mastered all of the classical arts—at Athens, no less—“with all the learning attainable by the nature of man.” However, his interest was not in making piles of cash but in eternal salvation, and when he read the Gospels, he realized that this required, among other things, a “refusal to allow the soul to be turned by any sympathy towards things of earth.”
Basil preferred to work out his salvation separated from the world in prayer and contemplation, but heresy and the needs of people intervened. So he found himself on a debate tour, arguing against Arianism and for the Nicene Creed. Before long he was ordained to the priesthood in his native Caesarea, Cappodocia, smack dab in the middle of Asia Minor. His powerful teaching captivated audiences—to the extent that he had to dial it back a bit, as the faithful preferred him to their bishop, Eusebius.
When Basil was not writing and preaching in defense of the deity of Christ, he was thundering against Christians who make an idol of their own possessions, loving wealth instead of others:
You who dress your walls, and let your fellow-creatures go bare, what will you answer to the Judge? You who harness your horses with splendor, and despise your brother if he is ill-dressed; who let your wheat rot, and will not feed the hungry; who hide your gold and despise the distressed?
“Consider now the violent struggle that takes place between the desperation arising from famine and a parent’s fundamental instincts,” he continues. “Starvation on the one side threatens a horrible death, while nature resists, convincing the parents rather to die with their children.”
Basil was no bleeding-heart liberal. He didn’t think everyone everywhere deserves everything. He didn’t blame the emperor for poverty or a lack of “adequate healthcare.” His problem was with Christians who claimed to love God but refused to love their neighbors in need.
And so, in a.d. 370, when he took Eusebius’ place as bishop, he built a hospital. Using alms from the diocese, Basil constructed a massive complex in suburban Caesarea for the care of the sick who couldn’t afford medical treatment. This Ptochoptopheion or “New Town” (also called the Basiliad) was a wonder to the people of Cappodocia. It not only offered medical care but provided lodging for the homeless, job training for the indigent, and food for the hungry. The heresy-warrior bishop donned an apron and served in the soup kitchen.
That’s a great story, but it’s just not practical to apply it to our situation. Our government would never allow such a thing.
The emperor Valens had threatened Basil with exile repeatedly for his refusal to knuckle under to Arianism. At one point, Valens’ prefect delivered the threat directly to Basil, who boldly defied him. The emissary marveled that no one ever used that tone with him. Basil replied, “Maybe you’ve never talked to a bishop before.” Valens retaliated by hacking up Basil’s diocese and installing an Arian as a rival bishop.
A few years later, a curious Valens came to hear St. Basil the Great on Theophany. He was so moved by the preaching that he donated the land for the Basiliad.
This article first appeared in the May 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.