aA
aA
aA
NPNF2-10. Ambrose: Selected Works and Letters
« Prev Chapter XXX. On kindness and its several parts,… Next »

Chapter XXX.

On kindness and its several parts, namely, good-will and liberality. How they are to be combined. What else is further needed for any one to show liberality in a praiseworthy manner.

143. Now we can go on to speak of kindness, which breaks up into two parts, goodwill and liberality. Kindness to exist in perfection must consist of these two qualities. It is not enough just to wish well; we must also do well. Nor, again, is it enough to do well, unless this springs from a good source even from a good will. “For God loveth a cheerful giver.”213213    2 Cor. ix. 7. If we act unwillingly, what is our reward? Wherefore the Apostle, speaking generally, says: “If I do this thing willingly, I have a reward, but if unwillingly, a dispensation is given unto me.”214214    1 Cor. ix. 17. In the Gospel, also, we have received many rules of just liberality.

144. It is thus a glorious thing to wish well, and to give freely, with the one desire to do good and not to do harm. For if we were to think it our duty to give the means to an extravagant man to live extravagantly, or to an adulterer to pay for his adultery, it would not be an act of kindness, for there would be no good-will in it. We should be doing harm, not good, to another if we gave him money to aid him in plotting against his country, or in attempting to get together at our expense some abandoned men to attack the Church. Nor, again, does it look like liberality to help one who presses very hardly on widows and orphans, or attempts to seize on their property with any show of violence.

145. It is no sign of a liberal spirit215215    Cic. de Off. I. 14, § 43. to extort from one what we give to another, or to gain money unjustly, and then to think it can be well spent, unless we act as Zacchæus216216    S. Luke xix. 8. did, and restore fourfold what we have taken from him whom we have robbed, and make up for such heathenish crimes by the zeal of our faith and by true Christian labour. Our liberality must have some sure foundation.

146. The first thing necessary is to do kindness in good faith, and not to act falsely when the offering is made. Never let us say we are doing more, when we are really doing less. What need is there to speak at all? In a promise a cheat lies hid. It is in our power to give what we like. Cheating shatters the foundation, and so destroys the work. Did Peter grow angry only so far as to desire that Ananias and his wife should be slain?217217    Acts v. 11. Certainly not. He wished that others, through knowing their example, should not perish.

147. Nor is it a real act of liberality if thou givest for the sake of boasting about it, rather than for mercy’s sake. Thy inner feelings give the name to thy acts. As it comes forth from thee, so will others regard it. See what a true judge thou hast! He consults with thee how to take up thy work, and first of all he questions thy mind. “Let not,” he says, “thy left hand know what thy right hand doth.”218218    S. Mat. vi. 3. This does not refer to our actual bodies, but means: Let not him who is of one mind with thee, not even thy brother, know what thou doest, lest thou shouldst lose the fruit of thy reward hereafter by seeking here thy price in boastfulness. But that liberality is real where a man hides what he does in silence, and secretly assists the needs of individuals, whom the mouth of the poor, and not his own lips, praises.

148. Perfect liberality is proved by its good faith, the case it helps, the time and place when and where it is shown. But first we must always see that we help those of the household of faith.219219    Gal. vi. 10. It is a serious fault if a believer is in want, and thou knowest it, or if thou knowest that he is without means, that he is hungry, that he suffer distress, especially if he is ashamed of his need. It is a great fault if he is overwhelmed by the imprisonment or false accusation of his family, and thou dost not come to his help. If he is in prison, and—upright though he is—has to suffer pain and punishment for some debt (for though we ought to show mercy to all, yet we ought to show it especially to an upright man); if in the time of his trouble he obtains nothing from thee; if in the time of danger, when he is carried off to die, thy money seems more to thee than the life of a dying man; what a sin is that to thee! Wherefore Job says beautifully: “Let the blessing of him that was ready to perish come upon me.”220220    Job xxix. 13.

149. God, indeed, is not a respecter of persons, for He knows all things. And we, indeed, ought to show mercy to all. But as many try to get help on false pretences, and make out that they are miserably off; therefore where the case is plain and the person well known, and no time is to be lost, mercy ought to be shown more readily. For the Lord is not exacting to demand the utmost. Blessed, indeed, is he who forsakes all and follows Him, but blessed also is he who does what he can to the best of his powers with what he has. The Lord preferred the two mites of the widow to all the gifts of the rich, for she gave all that she had, but they only gave a small part out of all their abundance.221221    S. Luke xxi. 3, 4. It is the intention, therefore, that makes the gift valuable or poor, and gives to things their value. The Lord does not want us to give away all our goods at once, but to impart them little by little; unless, indeed, our case is like that of Elisha, who killed his oxen, and fed the people on what he had, so that no household cares might hold him back, and that he might give up all things, and devote himself to the prophetic teaching.222222    1 [3] Kings xix. 20.

150. True liberality also must be tested in this way:223223    Cic. de Off. I. 17, § 58. that we despise not our nearest relatives, if we know they are in want. For it is better for thee to help thy kindred who feel the shame of asking help from others, or of going to another to beg assistance in their need. Not, however, that they should become rich on what thou couldst otherwise give to the poor. It is the facts of the case we must consider, and not personal feeling. Thou didst not dedicate thyself to the Lord on purpose to make thy family rich, but that thou mightest win eternal life by the fruit of good works, and atone for thy sins by showing mercy. They think perhaps that they are asking but little, but they demand the price thou shouldst pay for thy sins. They attempt to take away the fruits of thy life, and think they are acting rightly.224224    “Et se juste facere putant.” These words are omitted in many mss. And one accuses thee because thou hast not made him rich, when all the time he wished to cheat thee of the reward of eternal life.

151. So far we have given our advice, now let us look for our authority. First, then, no one ought to be ashamed of becoming poor after being rich, if this happens because he gives freely to the poor; for Christ became poor when He was rich, that through His poverty He might enrich all.225225    2 Cor. viii. 9. He has given us a rule to follow, so that we may give a good account of our reduced inheritance; whoever has stayed the hunger of the poor has lightened his distress. “Herein I give my advice,” says the Apostle, “for this is expedient for you, that ye should be followers of Christ.”226226    2 Cor. viii. 10. Advice is given to the good, but warnings restrain the wrong-doers. Again he says, as though to the good: “For ye have begun not only to do, but also to be willing, a year ago.”227227    2 Cor. viii. 10. Both of these, and not only one, is the mark of perfection. Thus he teaches that liberality without good-will, and good-will without liberality, are neither of them perfect. Wherefore he also urges us on to perfection, saying:228228    2 Cor. viii. 11–15. “Now, therefore, perform the doing of it; that as the will to do it was ready enough in you, so also there may be the will to accomplish it out of that which ye have. For if the will be ready, it is accepted according to that a man hath, and not according to that he hath not. But not so that others should have plenty, and ye should be in want: but let there be equality,—your abundance must now serve for their want, that their abundance may serve for your want; that there may be equality, as it is written: “He that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack.”229229    Ex. xvi. 18.

152. We notice how the Apostle includes both good-will and liberality, as well as the manner, the fruits of right giving, and the persons concerned. The manner certainly, for he gave advice to those not perfect: For only the imperfect suffer anxiety. But if any priest or other cleric, being unwilling to burden the Church,230230    St. Ambrose, allowing clergy to retain some of their patrimony so as not to burden the Church, is less strict than St. Augustine, who would have them give up everything and live in common. Serm. 355. does not give away all that he has, but does honourably what his office demands, he does not seem to me to be imperfect. I think also that the Apostle here spoke not of anxiety of mind, but rather of domestic troubles.

153. And I think it was with reference to the persons concerned that he said: “that your abundance might serve for their want, and their abundance for your want.” This means, that the abundance of the people might arouse them to good works, so as to supply the want of food of others; whilst the spiritual abundance of these latter might assist the want of spiritual merits among the people themselves, and so win them a blessing.

154. Wherefore he gave them an excellent example: “He that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack.” That example is a great encouragement to all men to show mercy. For he that possesses much gold has nothing over, for all in this world is as nothing; and he that has little has no lack, for what he loses is nothing already. The whole matter is without loss, for the whole of it is lost already.

155. We can also rightly understand it thus. He that has much, although he does not give away, has nothing over. For however much he gets, he always is in want, because he longs for more. And he who has little has no lack, for it does not cost much to feed the poor. In like manner, too, the poor person that gives spiritual blessings in return for money, although he has much grace, has nothing over. For grace does not burden the mind, but lightens it.

156. It can further be taken in this way: Thou, O man, hast nothing over! For how much hast thou really received, though it may seem much to thee? John, than whom none was greater among those born of woman, yet was less than he who is least in the kingdom of heaven.231231    S. Matt. xi. 11.

157. Or once more. The grace of God is never superabundant, humanly speaking, for it is spiritual. Who can measure its greatness or its breadth, which one cannot see? Faith, if it were as a grain of mustard seed, can transplant mountains—and more than a grain is not granted thee. If grace dwelt fully in thee, wouldst thou not have to fear lest thy mind should begin to be elated at so great a gift? For there are many who have fallen more terribly, from spiritual heights, than if they had never received grace at all from the Lord. And he who has little has no lack, for it is not tangible so as to be divided; and what seems little to him that has is much to him that lacks.

158. In giving we must also take into consideration age and weakness; sometimes, also, that natural feeling of shame, which indicates good birth. One ought to give more to the old who can no longer supply themselves with food by labour. So, too, weakness of body must be assisted, and that readily. Again, if any one after being rich has fallen into want, we must assist, especially if he has lost what he had from no sin of his own, but owing to robbery or banishment or false accusation.

159. Perchance some one may say: A blind man sits here in one place, and people pass him by, whilst a strong young man often has something given him. That is true; for he comes over people by his importunity. That is not because in their judgment he deserves it, but because they are wearied by his begging. For the Lord speaks in the Gospel of him who had already closed his door; how that when one knocks at his door very violently, he rises and gives what is wanted, because of his importunity.232232    S. Luke xi. 8.


« Prev Chapter XXX. On kindness and its several parts,… Next »

Advertisements


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |