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Nicene and Ante-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol. X:
Dogmatic Treatises, Ethical Works, and Sermons.: Chapter XV. Of liberality. To whom it must chiefly be shown, and how men of slender means may show it by giving their service and counsel.

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter XV.

Of liberality. To whom it must chiefly be shown, and how men of slender means may show it by giving their service and counsel.

68. But if it is praiseworthy to have one’s soul free from this failing, how much more glorious is it to gain the love of the people by liberality which is neither too freely shown to those who are unsuitable, nor too sparingly bestowed upon the needy.

69. There are many kinds of liberality. 479 Not only can we distribute and give away food to those who need it from our own daily supply, so that they may sustain life; but we can also give advice and help to those who are ashamed to show their want openly, so long as the common supplies of the needy are not exhausted. I am now speaking of one set over some office. If he is a priest or almoner, let him inform the bishop of them, and not withhold the name of any he knows to be in any need, or to have lost their wealth and to be now reduced to want; especially if they have not fallen into this trouble owing to wastefulness in youth, but because of another’s theft, or through loss of their inheritance from no fault of their own, so that they cannot now earn their daily bread.

70. The highest kind of liberality is, to redeem captives, to save them from the hands of their enemies, to snatch men from death, and, most of all, women from shame, to restore children to their parents, parents to their children, and, to give back a citizen to his country. This was recognized when Thrace and Illyria were so terribly devastated. 480 How many captives were then for sale all over the world! Could one but call them together, their number would have surpassed that of a whole province. Yet there were some who would have sent back into slavery those whom the Church had redeemed. They themselves were harder than slavery itself to look askance at another’s mercy. If they themselves (they said) had come to slavery, they would be slaves freely. If they had been sold, they would not refuse the service of slavery. They wished to undo the freedom of others, though they could not undo their own slavery, unless perchance it should please the buyer to receive his price again, whereby, however, slavery would not be simply undone but redeemed.

71. It is then a special quality of liberality to redeem captives, 481 especially from barbarian enemies who are moved by no spark of human feeling to show mercy, except so far as avarice has preserved it with a view to redemption. It is also a great thing to take upon oneself another’s debt, if the debtor cannot pay and is hard pressed to do so, and where the money is due by right and is only left unpaid through want. So, too, it is a sign of great liberality to bring up children, and to take care of orphans.

72. There are others who place in marriage maidens that have lost their parents, so as to preserve their chastity, and who help them not only with good wishes but also by a sum of money. There is also another kind of liberality which the Apostle teaches: “If any that believeth hath widows let him relieve them, that the Church be not burdened by supplying them, that it may have enough for those that are widows indeed.” 482

73. Useful, then, is liberality of this sort; but it is not common to all. For there are many good men who have but slender means, and are content with little for their own use, and are not able to give help to lighten the poverty of others. However, another sort of kindness is ready to their hand, whereby they can help those poorer still. For there is a twofold liberality: 483 one that gives actual assistance, that is, in money; the other, which is busy in offering active help, is often much grander and nobler.

74. How much grander it was for Abraham to have recovered his captured son-in-law by his victorious arms, 484 than if he had ransomed him! How much more usefully did holy Joseph help King Pharaoh by his counsel to provide for the future, than if he had offered him money! For money would not have bought back the fruitfulness of any p. 55 one state; whilst he by his foresight kept the famine for five years 485 from the whole of Egypt.

75. Money is easily spent; counsels can never be exhausted. They only grow the stronger by constant use. Money grows less and quickly comes to an end, and has failed even kindness itself; so that the more there are to whom one wants to give, the fewer one can help; and often one has not got what one thinks ought to be given to others. But as regards the offer of advice and active help, the more there are to spend it on, the more there seems to be, and the more it returns to its own source. The rich stream of prudence ever flows back upon itself, and the more it has reached out to, so much the more active becomes all that remains.


Footnotes

54:479

Cic. de Off. II. 9, § 32.

54:480

This was in the year 378. These provinces were invaded by the Goths, who after the defeat and death of Valens at Hadrianople ravaged the whole country, and carried away with them a vast number of captives and afterwards sold them into slavery. St. Ambrose busied himself in redeeming all he could. He tells us himself how his efforts were met by the Arian party.

54:481

Cic. de Off. II. 16.

54:482

1 Tim. v. 16.

54:483

Cic. de Off. II. 15, § 52.

54:484

Gen. xiv. 16.

55:485

Gen. xli. 53-57.


Next: Chapter XVI. Due measure must be observed in liberality, that it may not be expended on worthless persons, when it is needed by worthier ones. However, alms are not to be given in too sparing and hesitating a way. One ought rather to follow the example of the blessed Joseph, whose prudence is commended at great length.

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