One night in Rome around AD 404, the fabulously rich twenty-year-old heiress Melania and her twenty-four-year-old husband, Pinianus, both had the same dream. “We saw ourselves, both of us, passing through a very narrow place in a wall,” Melania would later recount. “We were totally discomposed in the narrowness, so that all that remained was to give up our souls. When we came through that pain with great suffering … we found abundant great relief and ineffable joy. God manifested this to us, comforting our faintness of spirit, so that we might be brave concerning the future repose that we would receive after such suffering.”

The “suffering” that confronted the young couple arose from their families’ bitter opposition to their wish to renounce their entire fortune. Both had grown up in old-money clans with imperial connections. Their parents were Christians of varying degrees of devoutness who at the same time enjoyed living the good life as Roman aristocrats. Up until then, Pinianus and Melania had done the same (despite her longstanding misgivings). They belonged to the billionaire class of their day, owning a palace on the Caelian Hill and estates dotted across the Roman world from North Africa to Britain. Pinianus alone reportedly had a disposable income of 120,000 gold solidi per year (equivalent to 1,666 pounds or the yearly pay of 30,000 workmen).

Yet now the young couple, stirred by the recent losses of their infant son and daughter, was finding the clash between their faith and their wealth unbearable. “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor,” Jesus had told a rich young ruler who came asking how to obtain eternal life, “and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me” (Luke 18:18–23). Pinianus and Melania wanted to do just that. Jesus had added that it was as difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven as for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. These words may have helped the couple make sense of their dream, the historian Peter Brown has suggested: the painfully tight cleft through which they passed into bliss was the needle’s agonizing eye.

It’s likely the two were also thinking of another Gospel passage that loomed large in Christian writings from that time: the parable of Dives and Lazarus. In this parable, a rich man feasts daily in luxury while the poor man Lazarus lies at his gate, covered in sores and waiting for scraps to fall from the banquet table (Luke 16:19-31). When both men die, the angels bring Lazarus to blessedness, but the rich man finds himself in the fires of hell. He begs from the flames for a drink of water, but the patriarch Abraham demurs: “Son, remember that you in your lifetime received good things, and Lazarus in like manner received evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.” For Pinianus and Melania, this story would have struck close to home.

Philips Galle, The Wretchedness of Wealth, engraving, 1563.

They found that divesting themselves of their fortune was no simple undertaking. Apart from the obstacles thrown up by their families and social circle, they faced a failed ploy by the Roman Senate to preemptively confiscate their property, while also having to fend off the schemes of opportunists. Some of their first initiatives backfired. In seeking to sell off their estates outside the city, the couple freed eight thousand resident slaves. But many other slaves revolted, refused manumission, and demanded to remain on the family lands, where they could count on food and lodging (apparently they successfully negotiated their own sale at a cut rate to Melania’s brother).

Persevering, the couple found it would take years to sell the estates farther afield in Mauretania, Numidia, Gaul, Aquitaine, and Spain, some of them the size of small towns, encompassing not just farm operations but also metalworking businesses. Qualified buyers for such properties were few, even though Pinianus and Melania often took promissory notes instead of payment. The palace in Rome went unsold because none of the city’s other well-heeled families had enough liquidity to pay for it. It fell into disrepair before being burned during Alaric’s sack of the city a few years later.

There were moments when Melania and her husband felt the pang of renunciation, she would later tell her biographer, Gerontius. For her, one flash of regret came from recalling the colored-marble outdoor baths at one of their Italian villas, bordered by the sea on one side and a forest full of game on the other – you could watch the deer and wild boar while you bathed. For Pinianus, it was giving up his silk shirts for coarse secondhand clothes. But they didn’t look back. In Gerontius’ words, they had been “wounded by the divine love.”

In seeking to sell off their estates outside the city, the couple freed eight thousand resident slaves.

As the property sales went through, another challenge intensified: how to give away the money. Lacking a late-antique version of GiveWell, they donated somewhat at random. “Immediately they began, with zeal, to distribute” their movable goods, Gerontius writes, authorizing agents to speed up the process. “They sent money to different regions, through one man 40,000 coins, through another 30,000, by another 20,000, and through another 10,000, distributing the rest as the Lord helped them to do.” They contributed 3000 coins to ransom a group of captives from pirates; paid to free children from prisons; offered stipends to young men if they swore to follow Christian disciplines; and gave 500 gold pieces to the hermit Dorotheus. Melania’s wardrobe and jewelry went to churches as altar decorations. They donated the Mediterranean islands they owned to “holy men.” Over time, much of their giving went to building and endowing churches and monasteries across the empire, including large donations to the diocese of the great theologian Augustine of Hippo.

From the start, they didn’t just give to the poor, but also lived with them. For the first few years, they continued to stay in a spacious villa outside Rome. It soon became a thronging Christian commune that was home to thirty families and fifty single women (many of them apparently their former slaves), also offering hospitality to travelers. After five years, as the invading Goths approached the city, the couple moved to North Africa and continued their communal pattern of living there, before visiting the Christian communities in Egypt and finally moving to the Holy Land. Arriving in Jerusalem, they were enrolled in the list of the city’s poor. Pinianus became a familiar character around town, known for his only garment, a robe made of woven straw.

Saint Melania the Younger, miniature from the Menologion of Basil II, AD 985.

They stayed in Jerusalem for the rest of their lives, eventually founding several monasteries on the Mount of Olives. Pinianus died after fifteen years there; Melania survived him by seven years. When her last illness struck around Christmas 439, she was a simple nun, having earlier quashed her sisters’ attempts to make her the convent’s superior. Gerontius, an eyewitness, reports that she died surrounded by her community, “tranquilly and placidly in gladness and rejoicing”: a fulfillment perhaps of her dream from years before, which had promised her “ineffable joy” on the other side of the needle’s eye. Her biographer adds that the only piece of linen she owned at her death was the sheet used to shroud her.

Pinianus and Melania’s story can sound like a colorful oddity without much modern relevance – a historical footnote from an age known for the kind of ascetic heroics that few today would imitate. But even from a secular point of view their life choices make a certain sense. Their decision to get rid of their wealth proved to be, as the newish field of study called happiness research would say, an effective investment in their wellbeing: they exchanged financial wealth for richness of relationships.

“Happiness is love. Full stop,” concluded the psychiatrist George Vaillant in a 2012 interview with the Atlantic, summing up the results of Harvard’s Grant Study, the lengthiest longitudinal research ever conducted into what makes for “successful living.” This widely publicized study, launched in 1937, tracked the life paths of 268 Harvard students, among them the future US president John F. Kennedy. (It was later expanded to include the students’ spouses and descendants.) The selected undergraduates were evaluated with a battery of medical and psychological tests, then tracked over the next seventy-five years with periodic questionnaires that asked about their social, professional, and family lives. Vaillant served as the study’s principal investigator for more than thirty years and wrote three books about its findings.

According to Vaillant, several factors emerged from the study as key for overall life satisfaction, many of them unsurprising: having a good marriage, keeping a normal weight, avoiding smoking and alcoholism. Conspicuously, getting or staying rich was not among these key factors. Instead, reports the Atlantic:

The factor Vaillant returns to most insistently is the powerful correlation between the warmth of your relationships and your health and happiness in old age. After [he first published this claim], critics questioned the strength of this correlation. Vaillant revisited the data he had been studying since the 1960s for his book, an experience that further convinced him that what matters most in life are relationships.

If Vaillant’s analysis is right, the old adage is demonstrably true: money can’t buy you happiness. Love can.

It’s a research result that ever fewer people are taking to heart. That, at least, seems to be the takeaway from a survey on American values by the Wall Street Journal and NORC at the University of Chicago that was released in March 2023. The poll collected the responses of more than one thousand US adults on the values they considered very important and compared their answers to a similar survey in 1998. Over that twenty-five-year span, the share of “very important” responses for several survey questions dropped precipitously: “community involvement” fell from 47 percent to 27 percent, “having children” from 59 to 30 percent, “patriotism” from 70 to 38 percent, and “religion” from 62 to 39 percent. (Viewing such results side by side with Vaillant’s research, it’s striking that the four declining values are all ones that, if acted on, seem likely to encourage the building of relationships.) In contrast, the share of respondents who viewed money as very important rose, from 31 percent to 43 percent, beating out all the other four values.

What explains these shifts? Here’s at least the germ of a theory: Traditional religious teachings tend to subvert or at least relativize the importance of money. So when religion’s influence declines, the share of those who prioritize wealth goes up. More speculatively, perhaps a loss of religious faith spills over into a loss of other kinds of faith as well – for example, in one’s country, local community, and family future – thus explaining the decline in the other values as well. In any case, one prediction seems safe to make, bearing in mind Vaillant’s findings about what makes for a happy life: the erosion of commitment to religion, patriotism, community involvement, and childbearing will tend to reduce the number and quality of relationships, to literally depressing effect. And that prediction matches what’s actually happening all too well: according to other studies examining the decades also covered by the WSJ-NORC survey, the number of Americans who say they feel isolated has risen sharply, so that one in two report suffering from loneliness. As transcendent values lose their sway, money-chasing goes up, while happiness goes down.

Today’s plague of valuing money over relationships and happiness seems to have a longer backstory, one in which Christianity isn’t entirely innocent.

Such an explanation may well be true as far as it goes. But in assigning all blame to the current state of our culture – a culture that, despite post-Christian drift, is still the product of a Christian heritage – it lets Christianity off the hook too easily. Is it plausible that the problem stems exclusively from twenty-first century secularization? Already two centuries ago, Tocqueville remarked on Americans’ avidity for material gain, which, in his account, went side by side with a penchant for religiosity. As Eugene McCarraher describes in fascinating detail in The Enchantments of Mammon, parallel patterns have played out in European Christianity’s relationship to wealth since the rise of capitalism. Today’s plague of valuing money over relationships and happiness seems to have a longer backstory, one in which the forms of Christianity we moderns have inherited aren’t entirely innocent.

Consider the question: Over the past couple of hundred years, has the bulk of Christian preaching on wealth heard in Western churches – whether mainline Protestant, evangelical, or Catholic – been of the kind apt to spur new Pinianuses and Melanias to forsake their possessions? In their day, it must be borne in mind, they were outliers only in the size of the fortune they abandoned. As Peter Brown documents in his 2011 book Through the Eye of a Needle (on which this essay draws), they were just two out of a multitude of lesser-known believers in the first centuries who made similar choices. In early Christianity, the idea of renouncing possessions was routine teaching, as one moral challenge among many in a young religion unafraid to make life-changing demands. In light of the Bible’s strictures on wealth, the prominence of this theme in sermons preached from ancient pulpits isn’t surprising. What needs explaining rather is later Christianity’s relative silence, accompanied by its long détente with what Max Weber called “the spirit of capitalism” and Jesus called Mammon.

The New Testament writings have now been sacred scripture for eighteen centuries, which can give them an otherworldly aura. As a result, it’s easy to lose sight of just how economically radical they are. Many Christian readers tend to approach them not freshly but with the voices of later theologians whispering in their heads, offering reassurances that the words about money don’t really mean what they say. So it’s worth reminding ourselves just how often and insistently the New Testament hammers home its anti-wealth message.

Notoriously, the sayings of Jesus himself include some of the strongest language. He urges unstinting giving to anyone who asks (Matt. 5:42), forbids storing up wealth (6:19), discourages caring for the next day’s food and clothing (6:31), and warns that to serve both God and money is impossible (6:24). He pronounces blessings on the poor and woes on the wealthy (Luke 6:20–26). His counsel to the rich young ruler to “sell all” is thus of a piece with a broader agenda, which draws on the Hebrew prophets. Although it’s often noted that in this particular case Jesus’ call to total renunciation applies to just one individual, in Luke’s Gospel he addresses almost identical words to all his disciples (he uses second-person-plural verb forms): “Sell your possessions, and give alms … and you shall have treasure in heaven” (Luke 12:33–34). Two chapters later, he doubles down with an even more categorical statement: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (Luke 14:33).

How were his followers to put such teachings into practice? Luke suggests the answer in the sequel to his Gospel, the Book of Acts, when he describes the founding of the first church in Jerusalem after Pentecost. Here, at the very moment of the Christian movement’s birth, common ownership of wealth figures as an original mark of the church:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. (Acts 2:44–45)

Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. … There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32–35)

As the theologian David Bentley Hart sums up: “Simply said, the earliest Christians were communists … not as an accident of history but as an imperative of the faith.” This was a communism arising voluntarily from mutual love, not from state-enforced conformity. Even for believers, it’s presented as an exemplary model, not a legalistic rule. All the same, this “communism” is hardly just a spiritualized ideal, but rather a practical economic reality. The apostle Paul strikes similar notes in his repeated exhortations to the Gentile churches to practice koinonia – the generous sharing, including economic sharing, that for Paul is central to the Christian way (2 Cor. 8:13–15).

This anti-wealth message didn’t disappear from Christianity after the faith was legalized by Constantine. On the contrary, as Charles Avila shows in his 1983 study Ownership: Early Christian Teaching, bishops of the fourth and fifth centuries – notably Clement of Alexandria, Ambrose of Milan, John Chrysostom, Basil of Caesarea, and Augustine of Hippo – preached fiercely and often on these very scriptural passages. The church fathers went on to root the New Testament’s teachings in nature itself. As Ambrose put it:

Nature has brought forth all things for all in common. Thus God has created everything in such a way that all things be possessed in common. Nature therefore is the mother of common right, usurpation of private right.

The Milanese bishop seems to have anticipated by fifteen hundred years Proudhon’s maxim, “Private property is theft.”

All this helps explain why in Pinianus and Melania’s day, there had been no “Constantinian shift” on wealth, no abrupt relaxation of primitive rigor. (By contrast, in those same years the church jettisoned another of its once-widely-held convictions – that Christians may not kill – rather more rapidly and thoroughly.) Long after Christianity had become a majority faith, as McCarraher observes, “a barely repressed desire for communism … lurked as the political unconscious of medieval Christendom.”

Even so, with the passage of time the church’s economic radicalism, though never forgotten, did come to be politely bracketed. The voluntary communism of the early church survived in muffled form in Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of the universal destination of goods, the principle that ownership is not absolute but should serve the common weal. Yet at the same time, Aquinas regarded private property as a right derived from human nature, something that Ambrose and Augustine had explicitly denied. The dissonance persists within modern Catholic social teaching. Its great nineteenth-century architect, Pope Leo XIII, on the one hand retrieved the economic teachings of the church fathers, insisting that their unanimous interpretation of scripture has “supreme authority.” On the other hand, following Aquinas, he also continued to teach the natural goodness of private ownership. This continues to be a source of perplexity to Catholic theologians hoping to discern a unified tradition.

Jacopo Bassano, Lazarus and the Rich Man, oil on canvas, ca. 1550

The roots of this tension go back at least partly to Augustine, though he could hardly have foreseen how his words would contribute to later developments. He still strongly affirmed community of goods as the Christian ideal – he himself had renounced all his wealth, and had founded a community whose rule invoked the Book of Acts, mandating, “Do not call anything your own; possess everything in common.” Yet his teachings on money from later life laid the groundwork for what was to come (it’s a plotline Brown charts in greater detail in his book). As a bishop serving a growing number of rich believers, and in reaction to the self-righteous legalism he associated with various heresies, he came to regard wealth not as wrong in itself, but wrong only through misuse: “Get rid of pride, and riches will do no harm.” He assured rich congregants that they could retain their wealth – not wholly innocently, since private property remained a mark of the Fall, but redeemably if they gave generous alms.

In time the early church’s economic radicalism, though never forgotten, did come to be politely bracketed.

Augustine could make this move in two steps. First, he hardened a division that Ambrose had earlier made much more cautiously, distinguishing between teachings he considered binding on all Christians – the Ten Commandments, for example – and what came to be known as “counsels of perfection” applicable only to those with a special calling. Into the latter category he grouped much of the Sermon of the Mount as well as Jesus’ commands to renounce possessions, even though in the Gospels these sayings are addressed to the disciples generally.

Second, he defined the existing distribution of wealth as providential: one’s economic lot in life was determined by God. Riches were a gift apportioned unevenly according to the mysterious divine will, just like other unequally distributed gifts such as beauty or intelligence. For the individual Christian, the task was to use such gifts not selfishly but to God’s glory.

In hindsight, the long-term ramifications of this view of wealth seem unsurprising. Defining riches as providential would prove highly welcome to those who possessed them, even as Augustine’s complementary insistence on self-sacrificial almsgiving would drop into the background. By the nineteenth century, much of Christianity would affirm the class divides between rich and poor as God-ordained. In the words of a stanza from Cecil Francis Alexander’s 1848 hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful”:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

The hymn presents a perfect inversion of Jesus’ parable of Dives and Lazarus. The rich man feasts by God’s will, Lazarus waits “at his gate” by God’s will, and (here comes the chorus) all is bright and beautiful. But of course, the crass difference between having and lacking money is no such thing.

Six years ago, a friend emailed me from the village of San Jose del Sur on the island of Ometepe, Nicaragua. Did I remember Igdael, the guy we’d both worked with on the big farm outside the village twenty years ago? Igdael’s twelve-year-old son Miguel had just been diagnosed with brain cancer. The doctors said treatment was urgent. It would cost ten thousand US dollars, maybe more. He knew it was a crazy request, but could I help come up with the money?

As it happened, at that moment I couldn’t remember Igdael. Pulling out disposable-camera snapshots from my travels after college in the late 1990s, I puzzled over which of the men in the group photos was him. Anyway, I could be pretty sure he didn’t have ten thousand dollars. My former coworkers had all been subsistence farmers; Ometepe, though a place of astonishing beauty and ecological richness, is also a cash-strapped hinterland even by the standards of the Western Hemisphere’s second-poorest country. When I’d been volunteering there, the workers had brought home $3.50 a day, which on the island counted as above-average pay; from my friend’s periodic reports, it sounded like not much had changed since. Although in theory Nicaragua guarantees universal free healthcare (a legal relic from the Sandinista government’s optimistic early years), in reality patients must pay for anything beyond the basics. Diagnostics, drugs, chemotherapy, radiation: these would require ready money, at prices not much below those in wealthier countries.

Today’s plague of valuing money over relationships and happiness seems to have a longer backstory, one in which Christianity isn’t entirely innocent.

At the same time, I didn’t have ten thousand dollars either, though for different reasons. As a member of a religious community who has taken a vow of voluntary poverty, I don’t have disposable income or a bank account. I and my family live comfortably at a living standard far above that prevailing in San Jose del Sur, but strictly in financial terms, I own and earn nothing.

What about urging others to donate? Given my lack of billionaire friends and the dollar amount, that too seemed unrealistic, especially since my pitch to potential donors would be based only on a second-hand request from someone I barely knew. Charitable foundations would want documentation, a budget, follow-up. Short of traveling to Ometepe, it was hard to imagine how to provide that. In the end, I collected a few hundred bucks from friends willing to chip in and sent a Western Union transfer.

Three months later, I asked my friend how Igdael was doing. Not good, he said. No, the boy Miguel hadn’t got the treatment. Yes, he had died.

A year later, I happened to be in Nicaragua again – I was meeting the organizers of a Catholic diocesan program that Plough supports – and went back to San Jose del Sur for the first time since the ’90s. My friend invited Igdael over. As soon as we met, I realized I did know him after all. He was great company, and an expert woodsman – I now remembered how one day he had supplied all twelve of us with a lunch of armadillo, roasted whole in its shell then sliced like a watermelon. He agreed to join us the next day and guide us through a rain forest and up the nearby volcano.

After we came back down the mountain the following evening, we visited the cemetery. They’d used the Western Union money for Miguel’s grave, Igdael said. He showed it to me proudly – an aboveground cinderblock box faced with ceramic tiles, one of them screen-printed with Miguel’s photo. We stood there a while and took a picture to show my own son back home.

Igdael Mena and a younger son at the grave of Miguel, San Jose del Sur, Nicaragua. Photograph courtesy of the author.

It was strange to look at the boy’s smiling portrait and wonder what his last weeks had been like and if money might have saved him. For all I know, Igdael’s appeal for help to a guy from New York he’d known long ago had been one of his last desperate efforts to find a way to get his son treatment. How can it be that money, an artificial fiction created on bankers’ digital ledgers, can have the power of life or death?

At any rate, Augustine was wrong about the cruel disparities in wealth being providential. Money is a human invention, after all; to blame providence for humankind’s failure to distribute it according to need is to duck our own responsibility. As Tolstoy put it: “Men pray to the Almighty to relieve poverty. But poverty comes not from God’s laws – it is blasphemy of the worst kind to say that. Poverty comes from man’s injustice to his fellow man.”

Standing there, Igdael and I didn’t discuss might-have-beens. He thanked me again for the money for building the grave, and then it was time to go.

Our next stop was a meeting in San Jose del Sur to talk through plans to help those in the village who were especially badly off. A group of friends had formed a grassroots organization that operated under the umbrella of the local Catholic parish, even though some participants were Pentecostals.

For several years, they’d been working together to buy school supplies for children entering the first grade who couldn’t afford the required shoes and knapsack. With the priest, they’d assembled a list of elderly people with the greatest need for assistance in getting groceries and medical care. There was a plan to buy a used truck to transport food-bank items from the mainland to the island, then transport the crops from Ometepe’s subsistence farmers back to the mainland to market. Igdael was collecting hand tools to start a weekly program for teenage boys – they would fix up the public areas around the village while he taught them construction skills in the process.

By North American standards, the organizers themselves were extremely low-income. I knew that several sometimes struggled to cover the cost of food for their own families and had little in the way of savings, let alone adequate medical insurance or a retirement account. Yet rather than setting aside an emergency fund for their families – something that, given their financial precarity, might seem more than justified – they had donated sizable chunks of their earnings to others with more pressing needs.

Requests for help far outstripped the funds available. Interpersonal dynamics had to be worked through. No doubt not all the plans would come to fruition. (Though the truck did: it’s been making trips for the last three years.) All the same, in a very different time and place, a community of people was setting out to do something not so different from what Pinianus and Melania had done: giving recklessly, and gaining treasure in heaven.

That, Christianity suggests, is what money is for.