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Home > Fathers of the Church > Sermons on the New Testament (Augustine) > Sermon 11

Sermon 11 on the New Testament

[LXI. Ben.]

On the words of the Gospel, Matthew 7:7 , Ask, and it shall be given you; etc. An exhortation to almsdeeds.

1. In the lesson of the Holy Gospel the Lord has exhorted us to prayer. Ask, says He, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asks receives, and he that seeks finds, and to him that knocks 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? Or if he ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If you then, says 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? Though you be evil, He says, 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 you be evil, you know how to give good gifts unto your children. And now see what kind of Father He shows 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.

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. Why then do those vain ones say to me in words vain as themselves, You can save yourself if you will? Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed. We were created good by The Good; for God made man upright, 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 makes 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 yourself; but when you have wounded yourself, you look out for one to cure you. 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 makes good, and a good there is whereby you may do good. The Good which makes good is God. For none can make man good, save He who is Good eternally. Therefore that you may be good, call upon God. But there is another good whereby you may do good, and that is, whatever you may possess. There is gold, there is silver; they are good, not such as can make you good, but whereby you may do good. You have gold and silver, and you desire more gold and silver. Thou both hast, and desirest to have; you are at once full, and thirsty. This is a disease, not opulence. When men are in the dropsy, they are full of water, and yet are always thirsty. They are full of water, and yet they thirst for water. How then can you take pleasure in opulence, who hast thereby this dropsical desire? Gold then you have, it is good; yet you have not whereby you can be made good, but whereby you can do good. Do you ask, What good can I do with gold? Have you not heard in the Psalm, He has dispersed abroad, he has given to the poor, his righteousness remains for ever. This is good, this is the good whereby you are made good; righteousness. If you have the good whereby you are made good, do good with that good which cannot make you good. You have money, deal it out freely. By dealing it out freely, you increase righteousness. For he has dispersed abroad, has distributed, has given to the poor; his righteousness remains for ever. See what is diminished and what increased. Your money is diminished, your righteousness increased. That is diminished which you must soon have lost, that diminished which you must soon have left behind you; that increased which you shall possess for ever.

4. It is then a secret of gainful dealing I am giving; learn so to trade. For you commend the merchant who sells lead and gets gold, and will you not commend the merchant, who lays out money, and gets righteousness? But you will 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. Do you not then wish to lay out your money, because you have not righteousness? Yea, lay it out then rather that you may have righteousness. For from whence shall you have righteousness but from God, the Fountain of righteousness? Therefore, if you will have righteousness, be God's beggar, who just now out of the Gospel urged you 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, exhorts you and says, Ask, seek, knock; he that asks receives, he that seeks finds, to him that knocks it shall be opened. He exhorts you to ask, and will he refuse you what you ask?

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, says the Lord, in a city a certain judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man. 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. For thus by a contrary case has He recommended us to pray.

6. Again, He says, A certain man to whom some guest had come, went to his friend, and began to knock and say, A guest has 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 says He? I say unto you that he rises, and not because of his friendship, but because of the other's importunity he gives him as many as he wanted. Not because of his friendship, though he is his friend, but because of his importunity. 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 exhorts us to ask, who is displeased if we ask not? But when at times He gives somewhat slowly, it is that He is showing us the value of His good 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 you grow so as to contain the more. God is keeping in reserve for you, what it is not His will to give you quickly, that you may learn for great things to long with great desire. Therefore ought we always to pray, and not to faint.

7. If then God has 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. 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 fullness, not in the hunger. But hunger must go before the fullness, 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 can you ask before your lord, who dost not acknowledge your 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 your first beginnings; see whether you brought anything into the world. Now you have come indeed, and hast found so great abundance. But tell me, I pray you, what did you bring hither? Tell me, or if you are ashamed to say, hear the Apostle. We brought nothing into this world. He says, We brought nothing into this world. But perhaps because you brought in nothing, but yet hast found much here, you will take away something hence? This too, perhaps through love of riches, you are afraid to confess. Hear this also, and let the Apostle who will not flatter, tell you. 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. You brought in nothing, and you shall carry nothing away. Why then do you puff up yourself 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, you brought nothing into this world; neither can you 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, you 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 men in destruction and perdition. For avarice is the root of all evil, which some following after, have erred from the faith. Now consider what they have abandoned. Grieved you are 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. His 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 today), Charge them that are rich in this world. 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 grain, 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 is pride.

11. Charge therefore the rich of this world that they be not proud in their conceits. He has shut out the abuse, let him teach now the proper use. That they be not proud in their conceits. But whence comes 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 today? 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 gives 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 gives 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. 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. For, says 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 up for 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 true 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 has man in all his labour, wherewith he labours under the sun? 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 makes this exchange of our goods who also changes 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 have you from all that you possess? You have got food and necessary covering. Necessary I say, not useless, not superfluous. What more do you get from your riches? Tell me. Assuredly all you have more will be superfluous. Let your superfluities then be the poor man's necessaries. But you will 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 you, 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 you have 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 object 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 you will say, I relish better my costly food. True, and it is hard for you to be satisfied, dainty as you are. You know not the relish of that which hunger seasons. 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 should you for your infirmity? Use then choice, and costly meats, because you are so accustomed, because you can not do otherwise, because if you change your custom, you are made ill. I grant you 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 you, and you are looking to receive from God; he is looking to the hand which was made as he was, and you are looking to the hand that made you, and made not you only, but the poor man with you. 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, you are loaded excessively: he is carrying nothing with him, you are carrying with you more than you need. You are loaded: give him of that you have; so shall you at once feed him, and lessen your own burden.

13. Give then to the poor; I beg, I advise, I charge, I command you. Give to the poor whatever you 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 while I bear them. Nevertheless, my brethren, these your commendations are but the tree's leaves; it is the fruit I am in quest of.

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Source. Translated by R.G. MacMullen. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/160311.htm>.

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