Early Church Fathers
Sermon XI. [LXI. Ben.]
On the words of the gospel, Matt. vii. 7, "Ask, and it shall be given you;" etc. An exhortation to alms-deeds.
1. In the lesson of the Holy Gospel the Lord hath exhorted us to prayer. "Ask," saith He, "and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth, and he that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?1 Or if he ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion?2 If ye then," saith He, "though ye be evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask Him?3 Though ye be evil," He saith, "ye know how to give good gifts unto your children." A marvellous thing, Brethren! we are evil: yet have we a good Father. What is more evident? We have heard our proper name: "Though ye be evil, ye know how to give good gifts unto your children." And now see what kind of Father He showeth them, whom he called evil. "How much more shall your Father?" Father of whom? undoubtedly of the evil. And what kind of Father? "None is good but God only."4
2. For this cause have we who are evil a good Father, that we may not always continue evil. No evil man can make another man good. If no evil man can make another good, how can an evil man make himself good? He only can make of an evil man a good man, who is good eternally. "Heal me, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved."5 Why then do those vain ones6 say to me in words vain as themselves, "Thou canst save thyself if thou wilt"? "Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed." We were created good by The Good; for "God made man upright,"7 but by our own free will, we became evil. We had power from being good to become evil, and we shall have power from being evil to become good. But it is He who is ever Good, who maketh the good out of the evil; for man by his own will had no power to heal himself. Thou dost not look out for a physician to wound thyself; but when thou hast wounded thyself, thou lookest out for one to cure thee. Good things then after the time present, temporal good things, such as are concerned with the body and flesh, we do know how to give to our children, even though we are evil. For even these are good things, who would doubt it? A fish, an egg, bread, fruit, wheat, the light we see, the air we breathe, all these are good; the very riches by which men are lifted up, and which make them loth to acknowledge other men to be their equals; by which, I say, men are lifted up rather in love of their dazzling clothing, than with any thought of their common nature, even these riches, I repeat, are good; but all these goods which I have now mentioned may be possessed by good and bad alike; and though they be good themselves, yet cannot they make their owners good.
3. A good then there is which maketh good, and a good there is whereby thou mayest do good. The Good which maketh good is God. For none can make man good, save He who is Good eternally. Therefore that thou mayest be good, call upon God. But there is another good whereby thou mayest do good, and that is, whatever thou mayest possess. There is gold, there is silver; they are good, not such as can make thee good, but whereby thou mayest do good. Thou hast gold and silver, and thou desirest more gold and silver. Thou both hast, and desirest to have; thou art at once full, and thirsty. This is a disease, not opulence. When men are in the dropsy,8 they are full of water, and yet are always thirsty. They are full of water, and yet they thirst for water. How then canst thou take pleasure in opulence, who hast thereby this dropsical desire? Gold then thou hast, it is good; yet thou hast not whereby thou canst be made good, but whereby thou canst do good. Dost thou ask, What good can I do with gold? Hast thou not heard in the Psalm, "He hath dispersed abroad, he hath given to the poor, his righteousness remaineth for ever."9 This is good, this is the good whereby thou art made good; righteousness. If thou have the good whereby thou art made good, do good with that good which cannot make thee good. Thou hast money, deal it out freely. By dealing it out freely, thou increasest righteousness. "For he hath dispersed abroad, hath distributed, hath given to the poor; his righteousness remaineth for ever." See what is diminished and what increased. Thy money is diminished, thy righteousness increased. That is diminished which thou must soon have lost, that diminished which thou must soon have left behind thee; that increased which thou shalt possess for ever.
4. It is then a secret of gainful dealing I am giving; learn so to trade. For thou dost commend the merchant who selleth lead and getteth gold, and wilt thou not commend the merchant, who layeth out money, and getteth righteousness? But thou wilt say, I do not lay out my money, because I have not righteousness. Let him who has righteousness lay his money out; I have not righteousness, so at least let me have my money. Dost thou not then wish to lay out thy money, because thou hast not righteousness? Yea, lay it out then rather that thou mayest have righteousness. For from whence shalt thou have righteousness but from God, the Fountain of righteousness? Therefore, if thou wilt have righteousness, be God's beggar, who just now out of the Gospel urged thee to ask, and seek, and knock. He knew His beggar, and lo the Householder, the mighty rich One, rich, to wit, in riches spiritual and eternal, exhorteth thee and saith, "Ask, seek, knock; he that asketh receiveth, he that seeketh findeth, to him that knocketh it shall be opened."10 He exhorteth thee to ask, and will he refuse thee what thou askest?
5. Consider a similitude or comparison drawn from a contrary case (as of that unjust judge), which is an encouragement to us to prayer. "There was," saith the Lord, "in a city a certain judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man."11 A certain widow importuned him daily, and said, "Avenge me." He would not for a long time; but she ceased not to petition, and he did through her importunity what he would not of his own good will.12 For thus by a contrary case hath He recommended us to pray.
6. Again, He saith, "A certain man to whom some guest had come, went to his friend, and began to knock and say, A guest is come to me,lend me three loaves." He answered, "I am already in bed, and my servants with me." The other does not leave off, but stands and presses his case, and knocks and begs as one friend of another. And what saith He? "I say unto you that he riseth, and not because of his friendship," but "because of the other's importunity he giveth him as many as he wanted. Not because of his friendship," though he is his friend, but "because of his importunity."13 What is the meaning of "because of his importunity?" Because he did not leave off knocking; because even when his request was refused, he did not turn away. He who was not willing to give, gave what was asked, because the other fainted not in asking. How much more then shall that Good One give who exhorteth us to ask, who is displeased if we ask not? But when at times He giveth somewhat slowly, it is that He is showing us the value of His good14 things; not that He refuses them. Things which have been long desired, are obtained with the greater pleasure,whereas those which are given quickly, are held cheap. Ask then, seek, be instant. By the very asking and seeking thou dost grow so as to contain the more. God is keeping in reserve for thee, what it is not His will to give thee quickly, that thou mayest learn for great things to long with great desire. Therefore "ought we always to pray, and not to faint."15
7. If then God hath made us His beggars by admonishing, and exhorting, and commanding us to ask, and seek, and knock, let us for our part pay regard to those who ask from us. We ask, and from whom do we ask? Who are we that ask? What do we ask? From whom, or who are we, or what is it that we ask? We ask of the Good God; and we that ask are evil men; but we ask for righteousness, whereby we may be good. We ask then for that which we may have for ever, wherewith when we shall be filled, we shall want no more. But in order that we may be filled, let us hunger and thirst; hungering and thirsting, let us ask, and seek, and knock. "For blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness."16 Wherefore are they blessed? They do hunger and thirst, and are they blessed? Is want ever a blessing? They are not blessed in that they hunger and thirst, but in that they will be filled. There will there be blessedness, in the fulness, not in the hunger. But hunger must go before the fulness, that no loathing attach to the bread.
8. We have said then, from whom it is that we ask, and who we are that ask, and what we ask. But we also are asked ourselves. For we are God's mendicants; that He may acknowledge His mendicants, let us on our part acknowledge ours. But let us think in this case again, when anything is asked of us, who they are that ask, from whom they ask, and what they ask? Who then are they that ask? Men. From whom do they ask? From men. Who are they that ask? Mortals. From whom? From mortals. Who are they that ask? Frail beings. From whom? From frail beings. Who are they that ask? Wretches. And from whom? From wretches. Excepting in the matter of wealth, they that ask are as they of whom they ask. With what face canst thou ask before thy lord, who dost not acknowledge thine own equal? "I am not,"he will say, "as he is," far be it from me to be such as he. It is thus that one clad in silk, and puffed up with pride, speaks of one who is wrapped in rags. But I ask you when you both are stripped. I ask you not as you are now when clothed, but as you were when you were first born. Both were naked, both weak, beginning a life of misery, and therefore beginning it with cries.
9. See then, recall, O rich man, to mind thy first beginnings; see whether thou broughtest anything into the world. Now thou hast come indeed, and hast found so great abundance. But tell me, I pray thee, what didst thou bring hither? Tell me, or if thou art ashamed to say, hear the Apostle. "We brought nothing into this world."17 He saith, "We brought nothing into this world." But perhaps because thou broughtest in nothing, but yet hast found much here, thou wilt take away something hence? This too, peradventure through love of riches, thou art afraid to confess. Hear this also, and let the Apostle who will not flatter, tell thee. "We brought nothing into this world," to wit when we were born; "neither can we carry anything out," to wit when we shall depart out of the world. Thou broughtest in nothing, and thou shalt carry nothing away. Why then dost thou puff up thyself against the poor man? When infants first are born, let only the parents, servants, dependants, and the crowds of obsequious attendants, get out of the way; and then let the wealthy children with their cries be recognised. Let the rich woman and the poor give birth together; let them take no notice of their children, let them go away for a little while; then let them return, and recognise them if they can. See then, O rich man, "thou broughtest nothing into this world; neither canst thou carry anything out." What I have said of them at their birth, I may say of them in death.If it be not so, when by any chance old sepulchres are broken up, let the bones of the rich be recognised if they can. Therefore, thou rich man, give ear to the Apostle, "We brought nothing into this world." Acknowledge it, true it is. "Neither can we carry anything out." Acknowledge it, this is true also.
10. What follows then? "Having food and covering, let us be therewith content; for they who wish to be rich fall into temptation, and many and hurtful lusts, which drown then in destruction and perdition. For avarice is the root of all evil, which some following after, have erred from the faith."18 Now consider what they have abandoned. Grieved thou art that they have abandoned this, but see now in what they have entangled themselves. Hear; "They have erred from the faith, and entangled themselves in many sorrows." But who? "They who wish to be rich." It is one thing to be rich, another to wish to become rich. He is rich, who is born of rich parents, and he is rich not because he wished it, but because many left him their inheritances. His19 wealth I see, I make no question as to the pleasure he takes in it. In this Scripture it is covetousness that is condemned, not gold, or silver, or riches, but covetousness. For they who do not wish to become rich, or do not care about it, who do not burn with covetous desires, nor are inflamed by the fires of avarice, but who yet are rich, let them hear the Apostle (it has been read to-day), "Charge them that are rich in this world."20 Charge them what? Charge them before all things, not to be proud in their conceits, for there is nothing which riches do so much generate as pride. Each several fruit, each several grain of corn, each several tree, has its peculiar worm, and the worm of the apple is of one kind, and of the pear another, and of the bean another, and of the wheat another. The worm of riches is21 pride.
11. "Charge therefore the rich of this world that they be not proud in their conceits." He hath shut out the abuse,22 let him teach now the proper use. "That they be not proud in their conceits." But whence cometh the defence against pride? From that which follows: "Nor trust in the uncertainty of riches." They who trust not in the uncertainty of riches, are not proud in their conceits. If they be not proud in their conceits," let them fear. If they fear, they are not proud in their conceits. How many are they who were rich yesterday, and are poor to-day? How many go to sleep rich, and through robbers coming and taking all away, wake up poor? Therefore "charge them not to trust in the uncertainty of riches, but in the Living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy," things temporal, and things eternal. But things eternal more for enjoyment, the things temporal for use. Things temporal as for travellers, things eternal as for inhabitants. Things temporal, whereby we may do good; things eternal, whereby we may be made good. Therefore let the rich do this, "Let them not be proud in their conceits, nor trust in the uncertainty of riches, but in the Living God,who giveth us all things richly to enjoy." Let them do this. But what can they do with what they have? Hear what. "Let them be rich in good works, let them easily distribute."23 For they have wherewithal. Why then do they not do it? Poverty is a hard estate. But they may give easily, for they have the means. "Let them communicate," that is, let them acknowledge their fellow-mortals as their equals. "Let them communicate, let them lay up for themselves a good foundation against the time to come."24 For, saith he, when I say, Let them distribute easily, let them communicate," I have no wish to spoil, or strip them, or leave them empty. It is a painful lesson I teach; I show them a place to put their goods, "let them lay up in store for themselves." For I have no wish that they should remain in poverty. "Let them lay upfor themselves in store." I do not bid them lose their goods, but I show them whither to remove them. "Let them lay up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may hold on the true25 life." The present then is a false life; let them lay hold on the true life·"For it is vanity of vanities, and all is vanity. What so great abundance hath man in all his labour, wherewith he laboureth under the sun?"26 Therefore the true life must be laid hold upon, our riches must be removed to the place of the true life, that we may find there what we give here. He makeththis exchange of our goods who also changeth ourselves.
12. Give then, my brethren, to the poor, "Having food and covering, let us be therewith content." The rich man has nothing from his riches, but what the poor man begs of him, food and covering. What more hast thou from all that thou possessest? Thou hast got food andnecessary covering. Necessary I say, not useless, not superfluous. What more dost thou get from thy riches? Tell me. Assuredly all thou hast more will be superfluous. Let thy super fluities then be the poor man's necessaries. But thou wilt say, I get costly banquets, I feed on costly meats. But the poor man, what does he feed on? On cheap food; the poor man feeds on cheap, and I, says he, on costly meats. Well, I ask you, when you both are filled, the costly enters into thee, but when it is once entered, what does it become? If we had but looking-glasses within us, should we not be put to shame for all the costly meat whereby thou hast been filled? The poor man hungers, and so does the rich; the poor man seeks to be filled, so does the rich. The poor man is filled with inexpensive, the rich with costly meats. Both are filled alike, the object27 whither both wish to attain is one and the same, only the one reaches it by a short, the other by a circuitous way. But thou wilt say, I relish better my costly food. True, and it is hard for thee to be satisfied, dainty as thou art. Thou knowest not the relish of that which hunger seasons.28 Not that I have said this to force the rich to feed on the meat and drink of the poor. Let the rich use what their infirmity has accustomed them to; but let them be sorry, that they are not able to do otherwise. For it would be better for them if they could. If then the poor man be not puffed up for his poverty, why shouldest thou for thine infirmity? Use then choice, and costly meats, because thou art so accustomed, because thou canst not do otherwise, because if thou dost change thy custom,thou art made ill. I grant thee this, make use of superfluities, but give to the poor necessaries; make use of costly meats, but give to the poor inexpensive food. He is looking to receive from thee, and thou art looking to receive from God; he is looking to the hand which was made as he was, and thou art looking to the hand that made thee, and made not thee only, but the poor man with thee. He set you both one and the same journey, this present life: you have found yourselves companions in it, you are walking one way: he is carrying nothing, thou art loaded excessively: he is carrying nothing with him, thou art carrying with thee more than thou dost need. Thou art loaded: give him of that thou hast; so shalt thou at once feed him, and lessen thine own burden.
13. Give then to the poor; I beg, I advise, I charge, I command you. Give to the poor whatever ye will. For I will not conceal from you, Beloved, why it is that I have deemed it necessary to deliver this discourse to you. As I am going to and from the Church, the poor importune me, and beg me to speak to you, that they may receive something of you. They have urged me to speak to you; and when they see that they receive nothing from you, they suppose that all my labour among you is in vain. Something also they expect from me. I give them all I can; but have I the means sufficient to supply all their necessities? Forasmuch then as I have not means sufficient to supply all their necessity, I am at least their ambassador to you. You have heard and applauded; God be thanked. You have received the seed, you have returned an answer. But these your commendations weigh me down rather, and expose me to danger. I bear them, and tremble whilst I bear them. Nevertheless, my brethren, these your commendations are but the tree's leaves; it is the fruit I am in quest of.