Nicene and Ante-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol. XII:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
The Letters and Sermons of Leo the Great.: Sermon X
On the Collections, V.
I. Our goods are given us not as our own possessions but for use in Gods service.
Observing the institutions of the Apostles tradition, dearly beloved, we exhort you, as watchful shepherds, to celebrate with the devotion of religious practice that day which they 677 purged from wicked superstitions and consecrated to deeds of mercy, thus showing that the authority of the Fathers still lives among us, and that we obediently abide by their teaching. Inasmuch as the sacred usefulness of such a practice affects not only time past but also our own age, so that what aided them in the destruction of vanities, might contribute with us to the increase of virtues. And what so suitable to faith, what so much in harmony with godliness as to assist the poverty of the needy, to undertake the care of the weak, to succour the needs of the brethren, and to remember ones own condition in the toils of others 678 . In which work He only who knows what He has given to each, discerns aright how much a man can and how much he cannot do. For not only are spiritual riches and heavenly gifts received from God, but earthly and material possessions also proceed from His bounty, that He may be justified in requiring an account of those things which He has not so much put in our possession as committed to our stewardship. Gods gifts, therefore, we must use properly and wisely, lest the material for good work should become an occasion of sin. For wealth, after its kind and regarded as a means, is good and is of the greatest advantage to human society, when it is in the hands of the benevolent and open-handed, and when the luxurious man does not squander nor the miser hoard it; for whether ill-stored or unwisely spent it is equally lost.
II. The liberal use of riches is worse than vain, if it be for selfish ends alone.
And, however praiseworthy it be to flee from intemperance, and to avoid the waste of base pleasures, and though many in their magnificence disdain to conceal their wealth, and in the abundance of their goods think scorn of mean and sordid parsimony, yet such mens liberality is not happy, nor their thriftiness to be commended, if their riches are of benefit to themselves alone; if no poor folks are helped by their goods, no sick persons nourished; if out of the abundance of their great possessions the captive gets not ransom, nor the stranger comfort, nor the exile relief. Rich men of this kind are needier than all the needy. For they lose those returns which they might have for ever, and while they gloat over the brief and not always free enjoyment of what they possess, they are not fed upon the bread of justice nor the sweets of mercy: outwardly splendid, they have no light within: of things temporal they have abundance, but utter lack of things eternal: for they inflict starvation on their own souls, and bring them to shame and nakedness by spending upon heavenly treasures none of these things which they put into their earthly storehouses.
III. The duty of mercy outweighs all other virtues.
But, perhaps there are some rich people, who, although they are not wont to help the Churchs poor by bounteous gifts, yet keep other commands of God, and among their p. 121 many meritorious acts of faith and uprightness think they will be pardoned for the lack of this one virtue. But this is so important that, though the rest exist without it, they can be of no avail. For although a man be full of faith, and chaste, and sober, and adorned with other still greater decorations, yet if he is not merciful, he cannot deserve mercy: for the Lord says, “blessed are the merciful, for God shall have mercy upon them 679 .” And when the Son of Man comes in His Majesty and is seated on His glorious throne, and all nations being gathered together, division is made between the good and the bad, for what shall they be praised who stand upon the fight except for works of benevolence and deeds of love which Jesus Christ shall reckon as done to Himself? For He who has made mans nature His own, has separated Himself in nothing from mans humility. And what objection shall be made to those on the left except for their neglect of love, their inhuman harshness, their refusal of mercy to the poor? as if those on the right had no other virtues those on the left no other faults. But at the great and final day of judgment large-hearted liberality and ungodly meanness will be counted of such importance as to outweigh all other virtues and all other shortcomings, so that for the one men shall gain entrance into the Kingdom, for the other they shall be sent into eternal fire.
IV. And its efficacy, as Scripture proves, is incalculable.
Let no one therefore, dearly beloved, flatter himself on any merits of a good life, if works of charity be wanting in him, and let him not trust in the purity of his body, if he be not cleansed by the purification of almsgiving. For “almsgiving wipes out sin 680 ,” kills death, and extinguishes the punishment of perpetual fire. But he who has not been fruitful therein, shall have no indulgence from the great Recompenser, as Solomon says, “He that closeth his ears lest he should hear the weak, shall himself call upon the Lord, and there shall be none to hear him 681 .” And hence Tobias also, while instructing his son in the precepts of godliness, says, “Give alms of thy substance, and turn not thy face from any poor man: so shall it come to pass that the face of God shall not be turned from thee 682 .” This virtue makes all virtues profitable; for by its presence it gives life to that very faith, by which “the just lives 683 ,” and which is said to be “dead without works 684 :” because as the reason for works consists in faith, so the strength of faith consists in works. “While we have time therefore,” as the Apostle says, “let us do that which is good to all men, and especially to them that are of the household of faith 685 .” “But let us not be weary in doing good; for in His own time we shall reap 686 .” And so the present life is the time for sowing, and the day of retribution is the time of harvest, when every one shall reap the fruit of his seed according to the amount of his sowing. And no one shall be disappointed in the produce of that harvesting, because it is the hearts intentions rather than the sums expended that will be reckoned up. And little sums from little means shall produce as much as great sums from great means. And therefore, dearly beloved, let us carry out this Apostolic institution. And as the first collection will be next Sunday, let all prepare themselves to give willingly, that every one according to his ability may join in this most sacred offering. Your very alms and those who shall be aided by your gifts shall intercede for you, that you may be always ready for every good work in Christ Jesus our Lord, Who lives and reigns for ages without end. Amen.
See Serm. IX. n. 6, and chap. iii. n. 8.120:678
i.e. apparently to do as you would be done by.121:679
S. Matt. v. 7.121:680
Ecclesiasticus 3.30. The purifying power of almsgiving is a favourite thought with Leo: cf. for instance Serm. XII. chap. 4, and XVIII. chap. 3, where he says, castigatio corporis et instantia orationis tunc veram obtinent puritatem cum eleemosynarum sanctificatione nituntur. In several places he compares its cleansing effect to the waters of baptism: e.g. Serm. XX. chap. 3, in eleemosynis virtus quædam est instituta baptismatis, qui sicut aqua extinguit ignem, si eleemosyna peccatum—ut nemo diffidat regenerationis sibi nitorem etiam post multa peccata restitui, qui eleemosynarum studuerit purificatione mundari: and again in Serm. VII. he says, unusquisque—in usus atque alimoniam pauperum de vestris facultatibus conferatis scientes præter illud regenerationis lavacrum, in quo universorum ablutæ sunt maculæ peccatorum, hoc remedium infirmitati humanæ divinitus esse donatum ut si quod culparum in hac terrena habitatione contrahitur, eleemosynis deleatur.121:681
Prov. xxi. 13.121:682
Tob. iv. 7 (one of the offertory sentences it will be remembered in the English Prayer-book).121:683
James ii. 26.121:685
Gal. 2:10, 9.121:686
Gal. 2:9, 10.
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