St. Basil on Famine: ‘The multitude of our sins has changed the seasons’

Note: The following is an excerpt of the homily “In Times of Famine and Drought” by Saint Basil the Great. You can read the complete sermon here. We strongly encourage you to purchase the collection of St. Basil’s homilies titled On Social Justice from SVS Press (link). Basil was a 4th century Bishop of Caesarea. Recognized as a Doctor of the Church, he is revered for his devotion to liturgical reform, doctrinal orthodoxy, and social justice.

The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?

Amos 3:8

Brothers and sisters, we see how the heavens have grown hard and unyielding, naked and bereft of clouds, while the clear blue sky makes an unwelcome and distressing appearance. In the past, we used to long for even a glimpse of the sky when it remained covered with clouds for long intervals, leaving us in the darkness and shadow. The earth is completely dried up, terrible to see, barren and utterly unsuitable for planting. Its surface is cracked and broken up by the unrelenting glare of the sun. Abundant and reliable springs have failed us, and the flow of the great rivers have dried up; tiny children now play within their banks, while women carrying burdens across them easily. Many have nothing to drink and are in danger of perishing from thirst. They are like new Israelites, seeking a new Moses with a wonder-working staff, so that the striking of stones may once again cure the thirst of the people, and miraculous clouds may again drop unaccustomed food, the manna, for human beings. Let us take care, then, that we do not become for subsequent generations a byword of starvation of punishment.

I saw the fields and wept bitterly for their unfruitfulness; I poured out my lament, since the rain does not pour down upon us. Some of the seeds dried up without germinating, buried by the plow beneath clumps of dried earth. The rest, after just beginning to take root and sprout, were withered by the hot wind in a manner pitiful to see. Thus, someone might not aptly invert the words of the Gospel and say, “the laborers are many, but the harvest is scant.” Farmers sit in their fields and clasp their hands against their knees–this, of course, is the posture of those who mourn–weeping for their wasted efforts. They look at their young children and burst into tears, they see their wives and wail with grief, as they stroke and caress the dried-up crops, racked with sobs like parents who lose their children in the flower of youth.

Let us listen again to the same prophet whom we heard at the beginning of our discourse. “And I also withheld the rain from you when there were still three months to the harvest; I would send rain on one city, and send no rain on another city; one field would be rained upon, and the field on which it did not rain withered; so two or three towns wandered to one town to drink water, and were not satisfied, because you did not return to me, says the Lord” (Amos 4:7-8). We should learn, then, that it is because we have turned away from the Lord and disregarded His ways that God has inflicted these wounds upon us. He does not seek to destroy us, but rather endeavors to turn us back to the right way, just as good parents who care for their children are stern and rebuke them when they do wrong, not because they wish them harm, but rather desiring to lead them from childish negligence and the sin of youth to mature attentiveness.

See, now, how the multitude of our sins has altered the course of the year and changed the character of the season, producing these unusual temperatures. The winter did not produce alternating wetness and dryness as usual, but rather kept all its moisture frozen into ice, and so passed with no sign of snow or rain. The spring, moreover, showed only one side of its nature, namely warmth, but without any corresponding share of wetness. Scorching heat and biting frost, exceeding their boundaries in an unprecedented way, conspired to wreak severe damage upon human beings, even depriving them of life itself. What then is the cause of this disorder, this confusion? What brought about this change in the nature of the seasons? 

Let us investigate this question as those who have intelligence; as rational beings let us reason. Has the One who governs all ceased to exist? Or has the Master Artisan forgotten His providential care?  A wise person would not say this. Rather, the reason why our needs are not provided for as usual is plain and obvious: we do not share what we receive with others. We praise beneficence, while we deprive our needy of it. When we were slaves, we were set free, yet we feel no compassion for our fellow slaves. When we were hungry, we were fed, yet we neglect the needy. Though we have a God who is generous and lacks nothing, we have become grudging and unsociable towards the poor. Our sheep give birth to many lambs, yet there are more people who go about naked than there are shorn sheep. Our storehouses groan with plenty, yet we have no mercy on those who groan with want. For this reason we are threatened with righteous judgment. This is why God does not open His hand: because we have closed up our hearts towards our brothers and sisters. This is why the field is arid: because love has dried up.

You see how the Ninevites entreated God with repentance as they mourned over their sins, which Jonah declared to them after surviving the sea and the whale… And God, seeing how they humbled themselves by condemning themselves to an exceedingly severe period of shared distress, had mercy upon their suffering and relieved their punishment, giving cause for rejoicing to those who so prudently repented… Oh, what concerted repentance! What wise and intense affliction! And for this reason, the inspired word preserved the account of their repentance as a universal example of how to live. 

Paupers groaned, while the rich forgot their comforts and put on sackcloth as befits those who mourn. The king of Nineveh himself turned his glory and splendor into shame. He put aside his crown and poured dust on his head; he cast off his royal garment and put on sackcloth. He left his high and exalted throne and crawled pitifully on the ground. He forsook luxuries that belonged to him as king in order to grieve together with the people; he became one of them, when he saw the wrath of the common Master of all. 

This, then, is the appropriate mindset for wise servants. Such is the repentance of those who are entangled in sins. We, on the other hand, commit sins fervently, but repent in slack and half-hearted manner. Who prays with streams of tears, so as to receive rainstorms and showers in due season. Who washes away sins in imitation of the blessed David, who rained tears upon his bed? Who washes the feet of strangers, rinsing away the dust of travel, so that in time of need that person might entreat God, seeking an end to the drought? Who supports the child without parents, so that God might in turn support the wheat, which is like an orphan battered down by the unseasonable winds? Who ministers to the widow afflicted by the hardships of life, so that the provisions we need might not be measured back to us? Tear up the unjust contract, so that sin might also be loosed. Wipe away the debt that bears high rates of interest, so that the earth may bear its usual fruits. For when gold and bronze and things that do not naturally reproduce give birth in a manner contrary to nature, then the earth which bears according to nature becomes barren and is sentenced to fruitlessness as a punishment to those who dwell there.

Let those who account greed a virtue and amass far more wealth than they actually need demonstrate now the value of the things they have treasured up. What good are they, if God is angry and prolongs His chastisement? You have acquired all that you need except for one thing: the ability to feed yourself. With all your wealth, create even a single cloud! Contrive a means to produce a few raindrops; compel the earth to bear; loose with proud and arrogant wealth this catastrophe!

It is on your account that this catastrophe was decreed, because you have but do not give, because you neglect the hungry, because you pay no heed to the plight of the miserable, because you show no mercy to those who prostrate themselves before you. Evil things come upon the people for the sake of a few; for one person’s depravity the people are punished. Achar stole sacred things, and the whole company was scourged; Zimri committed fornication with Midianite women, and all Israel fell under judgment. 

Are you poor? You know someone who is even poorer. You have provision for only ten days, but someone else has only enough for one day. As a good and generous person, redistribute* your surplus to the needy. Do not shrink from giving the little that you have; do not prefer your own benefit to remedying the common distress.

Say the word that was spoken by the widow Zarephath when she was in similar circumstances; indeed, this is a good time to recall her story. “As the Lord lives, I have only enough in my house to feed myself and my children” (1 Kings 17:12). If you also give from your lack, you will have a vessel of oil ever flowing by the gift of mercy, and the inexhaustible jar of flour. For the faithful, the grace of God zealously imitates these vessels, ever poured out yet never exhausted, returning double for what is given. Lend, you who lack, to the rich God. Have faith in the One who always personally undertakes the cause of the oppressed, and makes recompense from His own resources. 

* The Greek word here translated “redistribute” is έπανίσωσον, which literally means to “restore the balance,” to take something from one side of the scale and move it to the other, a beautiful description of restorative or redistributive justice.