p. 47b Chapter XXI.
How those are to be admonished who desire not the things of others, but keep their own; and those who give of their own, yet seize on those of others.
(Admonition 22.) Differently to be admonished are those who neither desire what belongs to others nor bestow what is their own, and those who give of what they have, and yet desist not from seizing on what belongs to others. Those who neither desire what belongs to others nor bestow what is their own are to be admonished to consider carefully that the earth out of which they are taken is common to all men, and therefore brings forth nourishment for all in common. Vainly, then, do those suppose themselves innocent, who claim to their own private use the common gift of God; those who, in not imparting what they have received, walk in the midst of the slaughter of their neighbours; since they almost daily slay so many persons as there are dying poor whose subsidies they keep close in their own possession. For, when we administer necessaries of any kind to the indigent, we do not bestow our own, but render them what is theirs; we rather pay a debt of justice than accomplish works of mercy. Whence also the Truth himself, when speaking of the caution required in shewing mercy, says, Take heed that ye do not your justice before men (Matth. vi. 1). The Psalmist also, in agreement with this sentence, says, He hath dispersed, he hath given to the poor, his justice endureth for ever (Ps. cxii. 9).
For, having first mentioned bounty bestowed upon the poor, he would not call this mercy, but rather justice: for it is surely just that whosoever receive what is given by a common Lord should use it in common. Hence also Solomon says, Whoso is just will give and will not spare (Prov. xxi. 26). They are to be admonished also anxiously to take note how of the fig-tree that had no fruit the rigorous husbandman complains that it even cumbers the ground.
For a fig-tree without fruit cumbers the ground, when the soul of the niggardly keeps unprofitably what might have benefited many. A fig-tree without fruit cumbers the ground, when the fool keeps barren under the shade of sloth a place which another might have cultivated under the sun of good works.
But these are wont sometimes to say, We use what has been granted us; we do not seek what belongs to others; and, if we do nothing worthy of the reward of mercy, we still commit no wrong. So they think, because in truth they close the ear of their heart to the words which are from heaven. For the rich man in the Gospel who was clothed in purple and fine linen, and feasted sumptuously every day, is not said to have seized what belonged to others, but to have used what was his own unfruitfully; and avenging hell received him after this life, not because he did anything unlawful but because by immoderate indulgence he gave up his whole self to what was lawful.
The niggardly are to be admonished to take notice that they do God, in the first place, this wrong; that to Him Who gives them all they render in return no sacrifice of mercy. For hence the Psalmist says. He will not give his propitiation to God, nor the price of the redemption of his soul (Psa. 49.9 1277 ). For to give the price of redemption is to return good deeds for preventing grace. Hence John cries aloud saying, Now the axe is laid unto the root of the tree. Every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit shall be hewn down and cast into the fire (Luke iii. 9). Let those, therefore, who esteem themselves guiltless because they do not seize on what belongs to others look forward to the stroke of the axe that is nigh at hand, and lay aside the torpor of improvident security, lest, while they neglect to bear the fruit of good deeds, they be cut off from the present life utterly, as it were from the greenness of the root.
But, on the other hand, those who both give what they have and desist not from seizing on what belongs to others are to be admonished not to desire to appear exceeding munificent, and so be made worse from the outward show of good. For these, giving what is their own without discretion, not only, as we have said above, fall into the murmuring of impatience, but, when want urges them, are swept along even to avarice. What, then, is more wretched than the mind of those in whom avarice is born of bountifulness, and a crop of sins is sown as it were from virtue? First, then, they are to be admonished to learn how to keep what is theirs reasonably, and then in the end not to go about getting what is anothers. For, if the root of the fault is not burnt out in the profusion itself, the thorn of avarice, exuberant through the branches, is never dried up. So then, cause for seizing is withdrawn, if the right of possession be first adjusted well. But then, further, let those who are admonished be told how to give mercifully what they have, when they have learnt not to confound the good of mercy by throwing into it the wickedness of robbery. For they violently exact what p. 48b they mercifully bestow. For it is one thing to shew mercy on account of our sins; another thing to sin on account of shewing mercy; which can no longer indeed be called mercy, since it cannot grow into sweet fruit, being embittered by the poison of its pestiferous root. For hence it is that the Lord through the prophet rejects even sacrifices themselves, saying, I the Lord love judgment, and I hate robbery in a whole burnt offering (Isa. 1:0, Isa. 61:8). Hence again He has said, The sacrifices of the ungodly are abominable, which are offered of wickedness (Prov. xxi. 28). Such persons also often withdraw from the indigent what they give to God.
But the Lord shews with what strong censure he disowns them, saying through a certain wise man, Whoso offereth a sacrifice of the substance of the poor doeth as one that killeth the son before the fathers eyes (Ecclesiasticus 34.20). For what can be more intolerable than the death of a son before his fathers eyes? Wherefore it is shewn with what great wrath this kind of sacrifice is beheld, in that it is compared to the grief of a bereaved father. And yet for the most part people weigh well how much they give; but how much they seize they neglect to consider. They count, as it were, their wage, but refuse to consider their defaults. Let them hear therefore what is written, He that hath gathered wages hath put them into a bag with holes (Hagg. i. 6). For indeed money put into a bag with holes is seen when it is put in, but when it is lost it is not seen. Those, then, who have an eye to how much they bestow, but consider not how much they seize, put their wages into a bag with holes, because in truth they look to them when they gather them together in hope of being secure, but lose them without looking.
In English Bible, xlix. 9.