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Home > Fathers of the Church > Sermons on the New Testament (Augustine) > Sermon 36

Sermon 36 on the New Testament

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[LXXXVI. Ben.]

On the words of the Gospel, Matthew 19:21 ,Go, sell that you have, and give to the poor, etc.

1. The Gospel by the present lesson has reminded me to speak to you, Beloved, of the heavenly treasure. For our God has not, as unbelieving covetous men suppose, wished us to lose what we have: if what has been enjoined us be properly understood, and piously believed, and devoutly received; He has not enjoined us to lose, but rather shown a place where we may lay up. For no man can help thinking of his treasure, and following his riches in a kind of journeying of the heart. If then they are buried in the earth, his heart will seek the lowest earth; but if they are reserved in heaven, his heart will be above. If Christians therefore have the will to do what they know that they also make open profession of (not that all who hear know this; and I would that they who have known it, knew it not in vain); if then they have the will to lift up the heart above, let them lay up there, what they love; and though yet in the flesh on earth, let them dwell with Christ in heart; and as her Head went before the Church, so let the heart of the Christian go before him. As the members are to go where Christ the Head has gone before, so shall each man at his rising again go where his heart has now gone before. Let us go hence then by that part of us which we may; our whole man will follow whither one part of us is gone before. Our earthly house must fall to ruin; our heavenly house is eternal. Let us move our goods beforehand, whither we are ourselves getting ready to come.

2. We have just heard a certain rich man seeking counsel from the Good Master as to the means of obtaining eternal life. Great was the thing he loved, and of little value was that he was unwilling to renounce. And so in perverseness of heart, on hearing Him whom he had but now called Good Master, through the overpowering love of what was valueless, he lost the possession of what was of great price. If he had not wished to obtain eternal life, he would not have asked counsel how to obtain eternal life. How is it then, Brethren, that he rejected the words of Him whom he had called Good Master, drawn out for him as they were from the doctrine of the faith? What? Is He a Good Master before He teaches, and when He has taught, a bad one? Before He taught, He was called Good. He did not hear what he wished, but he did hear what was proper for him; he had come with longing, but he went away in sadness. What if He had told him, Lose what you have? When he went away sad, because it was said, Keep what you have securely. Go, says He, sell all that you have, and give to the poor. Are you afraid, it may be, lest you should lose it. See what follows; And you shall have treasure in heaven. Before now it may be you have set some young slave to guard your treasures; your God will be the guardian of your gold. He who gave them on earth, will Himself keep them in heaven. Perhaps he would not have hesitated to commit what he had to Christ, and was only sad because it was told him, Give to the poor; as though he would say in his heart, Had You said, Give it to Me, I will keep it in heaven for you; I would not hesitate to give it to my Lord, the 'Good Master;' but now you have said, 'Give to the poor.'

3. Let no one fear to lay out upon the poor, let no one think that he is the receiver whose hand he sees. He receives it Who bade you give it. And this I say not out of my own heart, or by any human conjecture; hear Him Himself, who at once exhorts you, and gives you a title of security. I was an hungred, says He, and you gave Me meat. And when after the enumeration of all their kind offices, they answered, When saw we You an hungred? He answered, Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these of Mine, you have done it unto Me. It is the poor man who begs, but He that is Rich receives. You give to one who will make away with it, He receives it Who will restore it. Nor will He restore only what He receives; He is pleased to borrow upon interest, He promises more than you have given. Give the rein now to your avarice, imagine yourself an usurer. If you were an usurer indeed, you would be rebuked by the Church, confuted by the word of God, all your brethren would execrate you, as a cruel usurer, desiring to wring gain from other's tears. But now be an usurer, no one will hinder you. You are willing to lend to a poor man, who whenever he may repay you will do it with grief; but lend now to a debtor who is well able to pay, and who even exhorts you to receive what he promises.

4. Give to God, and press God for payment. Yea rather give to God, and you will be pressed to receive payment. On earth indeed you had to seek your debtor; and he sought too, but only to find where he might hide himself from your face. You had gone to the judge, and said, Bid that my debtor be summoned; and he on hearing this gets away, and cares not even to wish you well, though to him perhaps in his need you had given wealth by your loan. You have one then on whom you may well lay out your money. Give to Christ; He will of His own accord press you to receive, while you will even wonder that He has received ought of you. For to them who are placed on His right hand He will first say, Come, you blessed of My Father. Come whither? Receive the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For what? For I was an hundred, and you gave Me meat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you took Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick and in prison, and you visited Me. And they will say, Lord, when saw we You? What does this mean? The debtor presses to pay, and the creditors make excuses. But the trusty debtor will not let them suffer loss thereby. Do ye hesitate to receive? I have received, and are you ignorant of it? and He makes answer how He has received; Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these of Mine, you have done it unto Me. I received it not by Myself; but by Mine. What was given to them came to Me; be secure, you have not lost it. You looked to those who were little able to pay on earth; you have One who is well able to pay in heaven. I, He says, have received, I will repay.

5. And what have I received, and what do I repay? 'I was an hungred,' He says, 'and you gave Me meat;' and the rest. I received earth, I will give heaven; I received temporal things, I will restore eternal; I received bread, I will give life. Yea, we may even say thus, I have received bread, I will give Bread; I have received drink, I will give Drink; I have received houseroom, I will give a House; I was visited in sickness, I will give Health; I was visited in prison, I will give Liberty. The bread which you gave to My poor is consumed; the Bread which I will give both recruits the failing and does not fail. May He then give us Bread, He who is the living Bread which came down from heaven. When He shall give Bread, He will give Himself. For what did you intend when you lent on usury? To give money, and to receive money; but to give a smaller sum, and to receive a larger. I, says God, will give you an exchange for the better for all that you have given Me. For if you were to give a pound of silver, and to receive a pound of gold, with how great joy would you be possessed? Examine and question avarice. I have given a pound of silver, I receive a pound of gold! What proportion is there between silver and gold! Much more then, what proportion is there between earth and heaven! And your silver and gold you were to leave here below; whereas you will not abide yourself for ever here. And I will give you something else, and I will give you something more, and I will give you something better; I will give you even that which will last forever. So then, Brethren, be our avarice restrained, that another, which is holy, may be enkindled. Evil altogether is her counsel, who hinders you from doing good. You are willing to serve an evil mistress, not owning a Good Lord. And sometimes two mistresses occupy the heart, and tear the slave asunder who deserves to be in slavery to such a double yoke.

6. Yes, sometimes two opposing mistresses have possession of a man, avarice and luxuriousness. Avarice says, Keep; luxuriousness, says, Spend. Under two mistresses bidding and exacting diverse things what can you do? They have both their mode of address. And when you begin to be unwilling to obey them, and to take a step towards your liberty; because they have no power to command, they use caresses. And their caresses are more to be guarded against than their commands. What says avarice? Keep for yourself, keep for your children. If you should be in want, no one will give to you. Live not for the time present only; consult for the future. On the other hand is luxuriousness. Live while you may. Do good to your own soul. Die you must, and you know not when; you know not to whom you shall leave what you have, or who shall possess it. You are taking the bread out of your own mouth, and perhaps after your death your heir will not so much as place a cup of wine upon your tomb; or if so be he place a cup, he will drink himself drunk with it, not a drop will come down to you. Do well therefore to your own soul, when and while you can. Thus avarice did enjoin one thing; Keep for yourself, consult for the future. Luxuriousness another, Do well to your own soul.

7. But O free man, called unto liberty, be weary, be weary of your servitude to such mistresses as these. Acknowledge your Redeemer, your Deliverer. Serve Him, He enjoins easier things, He enjoins not things contrary one to another. I am bold further to say; avarice and luxuriousness did enjoin upon you contrary things, so that you could not obey them both; and one said, Keep for yourself, and consult for the future; the other said, Spend freely, do well to your own soul. Now let your Lord and your Redeemer come forth, and He shall say the same, and yet no contrary things. If you will not, His house has no need of an unwilling servant. Consider your Redeemer, consider your Ransom. He came to redeem you, He shed His Blood. Dear He held you whom He purchased at so dear a price. Thou dost acknowledge Him who bought you, consider from what He redeems you. I say nothing of the other sins which lord it proudly over you; for you were serving innumerable masters. I speak only of these two, luxuriousness and avarice, giving you contrary injunctions, hurrying you into different things. Deliver yourself from them, come to your God. If you were the servant of iniquity, be now the servant of righteousness. The words which they spoke to you, and the contrary injunctions they gave you, the very same you hear now from your Lord, yet are His injunctions not contrary. He does not take away their words, but he takes away their power. What did avarice say to you? Keep for yourself, consult for the future. The word is not changed, but the man is changed. Now, if you will, compare the counsellors. The one is avarice, the other righteousness.

8. Examine these contrary injunctions. Keep for yourself, says avarice. Suppose you are willing to obey her, ask her where you are to keep? Some well-defended place she will show you, walled chamber, or iron chest. Well, use all precautions; yet perhaps some thief in the house will burst open the secret places; and while you are taking precautions for your money, you will be in fear of your life. It may be while you are keeping up your store, he whose mind is set to plunder them, has it even in his thoughts to kill you. Lastly, even though by various precautions you should defend your treasure and your clothes against thieves; defend them still against the rust and moth. What can you do then? Here is no enemy without to take away your goods, but one within consuming them.

9. No good counsel then has avarice given. See she has enjoined you to keep, yet has not found a place where you may keep. Let her give also her next advice, Consult for the future. For what future? For a few and those uncertain days. She says, Consult for the future, to a man who, it may be, will not live even till tomorrow. But suppose him to live as long as avarice thinks he will, not as long as she can prove, or assure him, or have any confidence about, but suppose him to live as long as she thinks, that he grow old and so come to his end: when he is even now bent double with old age, and leaning on his stick for support, still is he seeking gain, and hears avarice saying still, Consult for the future. For what future? When he is even at his last breath she speaks. She says, for your children's sake. Would that at least we did not find the old men who had no children avaricious. Yet to these even, to such as these even, who cannot even excuse their iniquity by any empty show of natural affection, she ceases not to say, Consult for the future. But it may be that these will soon blush for themselves; so let us look to those who have children, whether they are certain that their children will possess what they shall leave? Let them observe in their lifetime the children of other men, some losing what they had by the unjust violence of others, others by their own wickedness consuming what they possessed; and they remain in poor estate, who were the children of rich men. Cease then to be the home-born slaves of avarice. But a man will say, My children will possess this. It is uncertain; I do not say, it is false, but at best, it is uncertain. But now suppose it to be certain, what do you wish to leave them? What you have gotten for yourself. Assuredly what you have gotten was not left you, yet you have it. If you have been able to get possession of what was not left to you, then will they also be able to get what you shall not leave to them.

10. Thus have the counsels of avarice been refuted; but now let the Lord say the same words, now let righteousness speak: the words will be the same, but not the same the meaning. Keep for yourself, says the Lord, consult for the future. Now ask Him, Where shall I keep? You shall have treasure in heaven, where no thief approaches, nor moth corrupts. Against what an enduring future shall you keep it! Come, you blessed of My Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. And of how many days this kingdom is, the end of the passage shows. For after He had said of those on the left hand, So these shall go away into everlasting burning; of those on the right hand He says, but the righteous into life eternal. This is consulting for the future. A future which has no future beyond it. Those days without an end are called both days, and a day. For one when he was speaking of those days, says, That I may dwell in the house of the Lord for length of days. And they are called a day, This day have I begotten you. Now those days are one day; because there is no time, in it; that day is neither preceded by a yesterday, nor succeeded by a tomorrow. So then let us consult for the future: the words indeed which avarice said to you are not different in terms from this, yet by them is avarice overthrown.

11. One thing may yet be said, But what am I to do about my children? Hear on this point also the counsel of your Lord. If your Lord should say to you, The thoughts of them concern Me more who did create, than you who begot them, perhaps you could have nothing to say. Yet you will look upon that rich man who went away sorrowful, and was rebuked in the Gospel, and will say to yourself perhaps, That rich man did evil in not selling all and giving to the poor, because he had no children; but I have children; I have those for whom I should be keeping something. In this weakness too the Lord is ready to advise with you. I would be bold to speak through His mercy; I would be bold to say something, not of my own imagining, but of His pity. Keep then for your children too, but hear me. Suppose (such is man's condition) any one should lose one of his children; mark, Brethren, mark how that avarice has no excuse, either as respects this world or the world to come. Such, I say, is man's condition; for it is not that I wish it, but we see instances. Some Christian child has been lost: you have lost a Christian child; not that you have indeed lost him, but hast sent him before you. For he is not gone quite away, but gone before. Ask your own faith: surely you too will go there presently, where he has gone before. It is but a short question I ask, which yet I suppose no one will answer. Does your son live? Ask your faith. If he live then, why is his portion seized upon by his brothers? But you will say, What, will he return and possess it? Let it then be sent to him whither he is gone before; he cannot come to his goods, his goods can go to him. Consider only with Whom he is. If any son were serving at the Court, and became the Emperor's friend, and were to say to you, Sell my portion, which is there, and send it to me; would you find what to answer him? Well, your son is now with the Emperor of all emperors, with the King of all kings, with the Lord of all lords; send to Him. I do not say your son is in need himself; but his Lord with whom he is, is in need upon the earth. He vouchsafes to receive here, what He gives in heaven. Do what some avaricious men are wont to do, make out a conveyance, bestow upon those who are in pilgrimage, what you may receive in your own country.

12. But now I am not speaking at all of yourself, but of your child. You are hesitating to give what is your own, yea, rather art hesitating to restore what is another's; surely you are hereby convicted, that it was not for your children that you were laying up. See, you do not give to your children, seeing you will even take away from your children. From this child at all events will you take away. Why is he unworthy to receive his part, because he is living with One worthier than all? There would be reason in it, if he with whom your son is living, were unwilling to receive it. Rich shall you now be for your house, but that the house of God. So far it is then from me to say to you, Give what you have; that I am saying to you, Pay that you owe. But you will say, His brothers will have it. O evil maxim, which may teach your children to wish for their brother's death. If they shall be enriched by the property of their deceased brother, take heed how they may watch for one another in your house. What then will you do? Will you divide his patrimony, and so give lessons of parricide?

13. But I am unwilling to speak of the loss of a child, lest I seem to threaten calamities, which do befall men. Let us speak in some more happy and auspicious tone. I do not say then, you will have one less; reckon rather that you have one more. Give Christ a place with your children, be your Lord added to your family; be your Creator added to your offspring, be your Brother added to the number of your children. For though there is so great a distance, yet has He condescended to be a Brother. And though He be the Father's Only Son, He has vouchsafed to have coheirs. Lo, how bountifully has He given! Why will you give in such barren sort? You have two children; reckon Him a third: you have three, let Him be reckoned as a fourth: you have five, let Him be called a sixth; you have ten, let Him be the eleventh. I will say no more; keep the place of one child for your Lord. For what you shall give to your Lord, will profit both you and your children; whereas, what you keep for your children wrongly, will hurt both you and them. Now you will give one portion, which you have reckoned as one child's portion. Reckon that you have got one child more.

14. What great demand is this, my Brethren? I give you counsel only; do I use violence? As says the Apostle, This I speak for your own profit, not that I may cast a snare upon you. I imagine, Brethren, that it is a light and easy thought for a father of children to suppose that he has one child more, and thereby to procure such an inheritance as you may possess for ever, both you and your children. Avarice can say nothing against it. You have cried out in acclamation at these words. Turn your words rather against her; let her not overcome you; let her not have greater power in your hearts, than your Redeemer. Let her not have greater power in your hearts, than He who exhorts us to lift up our hearts. And so now let us dismiss her.

15. What says luxuriousness? What? Do well to your own soul. See also the Lord says the same, Do well to your own soul. What luxuriousness was saying to you, the same says Righteousness to you. But consider here again in what sense the words are used. If you would do well to your own soul, consider that rich man who wished to do well to his soul, after the counsel of luxuriousness and avarice. His ground brought forth plentifully, and he had no room where to bestow his fruits; and he said, What shall I do? I have no room where to bestow my fruits; I have found out what to do; I will pull down my old barns, and build new, and will fill them, and say to my soul, You have much goods; take your pleasure. Hear the counsel against luxuriousness; You fool, this night your soul shall be required of you; and whose shall those things be which you have provided? And whither must that soul which shall be required of him go? This night it shall be required, and shall go he knows not whither.

16. Consider that other luxurious, proud, rich man. He feasted sumptuously every day, and was clothed in purple and fine linen; and the poor man laid at his gate full of sores, and desired in vain the crumbs from the rich man's table; he fed the dogs with his sores, but he was not fed by the rich man. They both died; one of them was buried; of the other what is said? He was carried by the Angels into Abraham's bosom. The rich man sees the poor man; yea rather it is now the poor man sees the rich; he longs for a drop of water on his tongue from his finger, from him who once longed for a crumb from his table. Indeed their lot was changed. The dead rich man asks for this in vain: O let not us who are alive hear it in vain. For he wished to return again to the world, and was not permitted; he wished one of the dead to be sent to his brethren, neither was this granted him. But what was said to him? They have Moses and the Prophets; and he said, They will not hear except one go from the dead. Abraham said to him, If they hear not Moses and the Prophets, neither will they believe though one go from the dead.

17. What luxuriousness then said in a perverted sense concerning the giving of alms, and procuring rest for our souls against the time to come, that so we may do well to our souls, Moses also and the Prophets have spoken. Let us give ear while we are alive. Because there he will desire in vain to hear, who has despised these words when he heard them here. Are we expecting that one should rise even from the dead, and tell us to do well to our own souls? It has been done already: your father has not risen again, but your Lord has risen. Hear Him, and accept good counsel. Spare not your treasures, spend as freely as you can. This was the voice of luxuriousness: it has become the Lord's Voice. Spend as freely as you can, do well to your soul, lest this night your soul be required. Here then you have in Christ's Name a discourse as I think on the duty of almsgiving. This your voice now applauding, is then only well-pleasing to the Lord, if He see withal your hands active in works of mercy.

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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. <>.

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