XIII. THE POVERTY OF THE CHRISTIAN
God does not distribute talents to all alike; to one He gives five, to another two, to a third only one (Matt. xxv). It is in wisdom that He thus acts; for if the same were given to all, every one could stand alone, and there would be no need of mutual good offices. What opportunity would there be for the exercise of brotherly love, what occasions of merit?
1. Poverty is no disgrace in God’s sight; to be poor in virtue and in good works is the only thing of which one need be ashamed, for it leads to eternal damnation.
In the eyes of eternal Truth poverty is not the slightest shame (Lev. xiii.). Our Lord Himself being rich, became poor (2 Cor. viii. 9). He Who was the King of heaven and of earth passed His life in constant privations; He had not where to lay His head (Luke ix. 58). What could exceed the poverty of His birthplace! A man may be poor in this world’s goods and exceedingly rich before God; and on the other hand, a man may be rich in earthly possessions and utterly destitute before God (Luke xii. 21). “The fear of God is the glory of the rich” (Ecclus. x. 25). Virtues, not earthly treasures, constitute true riches. “He,” says St. Augustine, “is not rich who possesses chests full of silver and gold, but he in whom God dwells, who is the temple of the Holy Ghost.”
2. The poor save their souls more easily than the rich.
Our Lord declares that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matt. xix. 24). Wealth affords its possessor the means of gratifying every inordinate desire. It is otherwise with the poor; they have not this occasion of sin. Just as a traveller goes on his way more easily if he is not encumbered with baggage, so the poor man is less impeded on his journey to the goal whither he is bound. The pugilist overthrows his opponent with greater facility when he is stripped to the waist; so the poor man is better prepared to, resist the temptations of the devil. Consequently many of the poor will have a higher place in the kingdom of heaven than their richer brethren. Christ says: “Many that are first shall be last, and the last first” (Mark x. 31). Lazarus after his death was carried to Abraham’s bosom, while Dives was buried in hell.
3. God often sends poverty upon a man for his salvation.
Many, if they were rich, would misuse their wealth, lead a vicious life, and be eternally lost. This God foresees, and therefore He takes their earthly possessions from them. “Poverty and riches are from God” (Ecclus. xi. 14). St. Antoninus, Archbishop of Florence, saw angels descending and ascending around a certain house; on hearing that the inmates were a poor widow with three daughters, he made them a liberal allowance. Later on he saw evil spirits coming and going about that same house; he made inquiries and learned that the people he had assisted now led an idle and dissolute life. Thereupon he immediately withdrew his gift. God deals in like manner with us. What does the schoolmaster do if he sees one of his scholars playing with a toy instead of learning his lesson? Or a father, if he sees a knife in the hand of a very young child?
4. The poor are beloved by God.
Those who are unhappy and forsaken in this world are especially dear to God. Christ calls the poor blessed (Matt. v. 3). He invites all that labor and are burdened to come to Him, that He may refresh them (Matt. xi. 28); the oppressed and persecuted are the objects of His peculiar favor (Matt. v. 10). These truths ought to serve as an encouragement to the poor, and repress the pride of the opulent and powerful. To the poor first of all the Gospel is preached (Matt. xi. 5). The offerings of the poor are more acceptable to God than those of the rich. Our Lord said the widow’s mite was of greater value than all the gifts that the rich cast into the treasury (Mark xii. 41-43). God promises to hear the cry of the oppressed (Jas. v. 4). The poor shepherds were privileged to see the Infant Christ, not the rich Pharisees and Scribes. There is no respect of persons with God (Rom. ii. 11). Poor and rich are alike His children (Prov. xxii. 2).
5. The poor man who leads an upright life will never be forsaken by God; nay, more, he will enjoy happiness and contentment in this world.
God Who feeds the birds of the air, and clothes the lilies and grass of the field, will also provide for man, who is of so much more value than they (Matt. v. 25-30). God does not allow the just to want the necessaries of life. Our Lord says: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His justice, [i.e., be solicitous for your salvation and keep the commandments] and all these things [i.e., the wherewithal to live] shall be added unto you” (Matt. vi. 33). David says: “I have been young, and now am old, and I have not seen the just forsaken, nor his seed seeking bread” (Ps. xxxvi. 25). When we read that by God’s permission, just men, such as Job, Tobias, Joseph, fell into destitution and distress, we also read that in God’s good time they were restored to ease and plenty. Virtue is generally attended by temporal blessings here below (Ps. cxi. 2-3). A poor man may be very happy despite his poverty. Happiness by no means consists in the abundance of things that one possesses (Luke xii. 15), but in interior peace and content, and these the just man enjoys, whether he be rich or poor. St. Paul speaks of himself as having nothing, and yet possessing all things (2 Cor. vi. 10).
6. The poor are not warranted in wresting from the rich the alms which they have a right to expect; they should rather bear their lot patiently and rely on help from God.
The duty of giving alms is not required by justice, except in cases of dire necessity. It is a duty of Christian charity, consequently no man can lawfully be compelled to give. The Fathers of the Church constantly exhorted the rich to give alms. “Thou art master of thy property, and canst give or not give at thy will,” St. Jerome said to the rich: “Distribute a portion of thy wealth. But if thou refusest, I cannot force thee. I can only entreat.” The poor can however demand that their labor be sufficiently remunerated. Doubly indeed is that poor man to be commiserated who forsakes God and transgresses His law; for in that case he has nothing in this life, and after death everlasting perdition awaits him.
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