Clement of Alexandria: True Luxury

Home » Meditations » Meditations » Clement of Alexandria: True Luxury

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. 1 Timothy 6:17-19

“God brought our race into communion by first imparting what was His own, when He gave His own Word, common to all, and made all things for all. All things therefore are common, and not for the rich to appropriate an undue share. That expression, therefore, “I possess, and possess in abundance: why then should I not enjoy?” is suitable neither to the man, nor to society. But more worthy of love is that: “I have: why should I not give to those who need?” For such an one — one who fulfills the command, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” — is perfect. For this is the true luxury — the treasured wealth. But that which is squandered on foolish lusts is to be reckoned waste, not expenditure. For God has given to us, I know well, the liberty of use, but only so far as necessary; and He has determined that the use should be common. And it is monstrous for one to live in luxury, while many are in want. How much more glorious is it to do good to many, than to live sumptuously! How much wiser to spend money on human being, than on jewels and gold! How much more useful to acquire decorous friends, than lifeless ornaments! Whom have lands ever benefited so much as conferring favours has? It remains for us, therefore, to do away with this allegation: Who, then, will have the more sumptuous things, if all select the simpler? Men, I would say, if they make use of them impartially and indifferently. But if it be impossible for all to exercise self-restraint, yet, with a view to the use of what is necessary, we must seek after what can be most readily procured, bidding a long farewell to these superfluities.”

Clement of Alexandria (150-215) in Paedagogus (The Instructor) 2.13.

In Paedagogus, Clement sets forth a distinctly Christian ethic. For him, the real instructor of life is the incarnate Logos (Word), that is, Jesus, from whom we learn how to live. Notice how he confronts cultural narratives like “I possess, and possess in abundance: why then should I not enjoy?” which is to rationalize in modern terms, “I earned this wealth, it’s mine, why should I not enjoy it.”

Three expressions stood out to me as I read him. Firstly, notice the profound truth that “[God] gave His own Word, common to all, and made all things for all.” Sit in the reality of that. God made air for all of us to breath. He made water for all of us to drink. And what do we do with creation? We wrongly try claim aspects of it as our own. The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it!

Secondly, his comment that the true luxury is not merely enjoyment, but rather having and sharing: “I have: why should I not give to those who need?” With this statement he demonstrates obedience to the command of today’s Scripture to enjoy and share God’s abundant provision rather than squander it on foolish lusts. Remember this when you are thinking about Christmas shopping.

Thirdly, let us join him with this perspective: “How much more useful to acquire decorous friends, than lifeless ornaments!” The early church fathers proclaim in unison to spend money on people rather than possessions. So friends, this Christmas, let us show self-restraint and focus not on accumulating more sumptuous things and consider whom we may bless richly in the name of Jesus.

Soon we will celebrate at Christmas that the Word has become flesh and made His dwelling among us. He not only came to make the way for us to have life but to have it abundantly. To grasp this, we must resolve to live in a distinctly Christian manner in every generation. God, give us keen minds to identify the false cultural narratives and live in a way that reflects your truth to the world.