So give to the poor; I am begging you, I am warning you, I am commanding you, I am ordering you.”
“It is in the poor person that Christ has wished to be fed.
“Let us not, then, reject our God in the people who are poor ….”
— St. Augustine
St. Augustine (354-430 AD) churned out 5 or 6 million words in his letters, sermons and classic books.
Somehow, the North African saint produced this massive body of work without a computer, much less a typewriter.
Think about this: he poured out those millions of words without so much as a Bic Pen or a nice, No. 2 pencil with a nice eraser head.
What’s more, during so much of his productive writing life, his day job was serving as the Bishop of Hippo, leading a community of priests and people who required constant crisis management.
Once he finally embraced God after so many years as an adventurous party boy, Augustine was embroiled in conflicts and controversies most of his 75 years. The stress of it all would have put a lesser person in an early grave.
Somehow, he was never distracted from his prolific production of eloquent books, sermons and letters.
Augustine will always rank as one of the greatest thinkers of all time for his provocative theology, which is spiced with quips like,”Lord, make me chaste; but not yet.” And with easy, breezy nuggets such as his commonly quoted “Lord, our hearts are restless until we find rest in you.”
Like most seminarians even in Protestant seminaries, I was required to read and study and be ready to discuss what seemed like a couple of million of Augustine’s prolific words.
But in re-visiting much of Augustine’s writings for my forthcoming book (which was much more enjoyable reading without the pressure of seminary expectations), I realized for the first time what a heart he had for the poor. So much of his provocative and controversial theology is studied and reconsidered in every generation that I’m thinking his advocacy for the poor has been largely overlooked.
Like all the great figureheads in Christian history–from Paul to St. Francis to Mother Theresa to John Wesley and Dorothy Day to the current Pope Francis–Augustine spoke and wrote often of seeing Christ in the face and personhood of every poor person he encountered.
Much like Pope Francis today, Augustine acknowledged that accumulating wealth can do good. But like today’s controversial Pope, he warned repeatedly, and forcefully, in plain language, that money and valuables are dangerous for the arrogance and avarice they spawn.
Avarice, St. Augustine warned in a sermon, is the “worm of wealth,” noting how easy it is to become arrogant, greedy, and corrupt in heart when you hold the gold.
He included these words toward the end of every sermon:
“Do not reject the poor people.”
That’s not one of his oft-quoted quotes, but it tells us a lot about his love and embrace of the least among us.
And for your edification, what follows are excerpts from the bishop’s works, in some of his most clear and simple words, concerning the poor and their humanity in relation to the church, harvested from the Web Site Augent:
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You have found yourselves companions [with the poor man], walking along the same road; he is carrying nothing, you have an excessive load.
He is carrying nothing with him, you are carrying more than you need.
You are overloaded; give him some of what you have. At a stroke, you feed him and lessen your load.
So give to the poor; I am begging you, I am warning you, I am commanding you, I am ordering you.
Give to the poor people whatever you like. (Sermon 389, 5-6)
“As a human being [Jesus was] a poor person. Truly, that Man rose to heaven already rich, and now sits at the right hand of the Father.
But here, among us, He still suffers hunger, thirst and nakedness: here He is a poor person and is in poor people.” (Sermon 123, 4)
“First and foremost, clearly, please remember the poor people, so that what you withhold from yourselves by living more simply, you may deposit in the treasury of heaven. Let the denial of self of one who undertakes it willingly become the support of the one who has nothing. Let the voluntary want of the person who has plenty become the needed plenty of the person in want.” (Sermon 210, 12)
“There are two types of persons to whom you must give. Two types of persons hunger; one for bread, the other for what is right. Between these two hungry persons you find yourself as the doer of the good work; if charity motivates the work, it serves the good of both. For the one desires what he may eat, the other desires what he may imitate. You feed the one, and give yourself as a pattern to the other; so you have given to both of them: the one you have given reason to thank you for killing his hunger, the other you have given reason to imitate you by setting him an example.” (Homilies on the First Letter of John 8, 9)