St. Robert Bellarmine (+1621AD)
CHAPTER IX. THE NINTH PRECEPT, ON ALMSDEEDS.
THREE things are to be explained concerning almsdeeds; its necessity, advantages, and the method. And first, no one has ever doubted of almsdeeds being commanded in Holy Writ. Sufficient is the sentence of the just and supreme Judge, (even supposing we had nothing else,) which he will pronounce against the wicked at the last day: " Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave me not to eat: I was thirsty, and you gave me not to drink. I was a stranger, and you took me not in; naked, and you covered me not: sick and in prison, and you did not visit me: " and a little lower: " Amen, I say to you, as long as you did it not to one of these least, neither did you do it to me." (St. Matthew xxv.)
From these words we may conclude, that those only are bound to give alms, who have the means of doing so: for even our Lord is not said to have done these works, but only to have ordered, out of the money that was given to him, a part to be distributed to the poor. Hence, when our Lord said to Judas, " That which thou dost, do quickly," the disciples supposed that our Lord commanded Judas to give something to the poor out of the common purse. But some theologians suppose the precept of almsdeeds is contained in the command, "Honour thy parents: " others in the command, " Thou shalt not kill." But it is not requisite for this precept to be contained m the decalogue, since almsdeeds relate to charity; the precepts of the decalogue are precepts of justice. But if all the precepts of morality are to be referred to the decalogue, the opinion of Albert Magnus is probable that the precept concerning alms, is to be referred to the command, “Thou shalt not steal," because it seems a kind of theft not to give to the poor what we ought. But the opinion of St. Thomas seems to be more probable, who reduces it to the command, “Honour thy parents.” By the word honour, is not here understood "reverence" alone, but particularly the supply of things necessary for existence, which is a kind of alms that we owe to our neighbours especially, as St. Jerome remarks in his commentary on the xxv. chapter of St. Matthew. From this we may see, that alms ought to be given to others also, who may be in want. Moreover, the precept is not negative, but positive; and amongst the precepts of the second table, none are positive except the first, " Honour thy parents."
So much on the necessity of alms. But the fruits are most abundant. First, Almsdeeds free the soul from eternal death, whether this be in the way of satisfaction, or a disposition to receive grace, or in any other way. This doctrine the sacred Scriptures plainly teach; in the book of Tobias we thus read: " For alms deliver from all sin and from death, and will not suffer the soul to go into darkness;" and in the same book the angel Raphael says, “For alms delivereth from death, and the same is that which purgeth away sins, and maketh to find mercy and life everlasting.”And Daniel said to Nabuchodonoser: "Wherefore, king, let my counsel be acceptable to thee, and redeem thou. thy sins with alms, and thy iniquities with works of mercy to the poor, perhaps he will forgive thy offences."
(chap, iv.) Alms also, if they be given by a just man, and with true charity, are meritorious of eternal life: to this the Judge of the living and the dead beareth witness: " Come ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat," &c. And he answered: "Amen, I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me." (St. Matthew xxv.)
Thirdly, almsdeeds are, as it were, like baptism, because they do away both with the sin and the punishment thereof, according- to the words of Ecclesiasticus: "Water quencheth a flaming fire, and alms resisteth sins." (chap, iii.) Water entirely extinguishes fire, so that not even any smoke remains.
That almsdeeds are of this nature, many holy fathers teach, as St. Cyprian, St. Ambrose, St.
Chrysostom, St. Leo, whose words it is unnecessary to quote. Such, then, is one great advantage, which ought to enflame all men with a love of almsdeeds. But this must not be understood of every kind, but only of that which proceeds from great contrition and ardent charity. Such was that of St.
Mary Magdalen, who, with tears of true contrition, washed the feet of our Lord; and having purchased most precious ointment, she anointed His feet with it.
Fourthly, Almsdeeds increase confidence with God, and produce spiritual joy; for, although this is common to other good works also, yet it belongs in particular to almsdeeds, since by them we render a service grateful both to God and our neighbours: and this is a work which is not obscurely, but most plainly acknowledged to be "good." Hence the word of Tobias: "Alms shall be a great confidence before the Most High God, to all them that give it." (chap. iv. 12.) (Fiducia magna erit coram summo Deo elemosyna omnibus qui faciunt eam) And the apostle, in his Epistle to the Hebrews, says: "Do not therefore lose your confidence, which hath a great reward." (chap. x. 35.) In fine, St. Cyprian, in his Sermon on Almsdeeds, calls it, “The great comfort of believers."
Fifthly, Almsdeeds conciliate the goodwill of many, who pray to God for their benefactors, and obtain for them either the grace of conversion, or the gift of perseverance, or an increase of merit and glory.
And in all these ways may be understood these words of our Lord: "Make unto you friends of the mammon of iniquity, that when you shall fail they may receive you into everlasting dwellings." (St.
Luke xv.i. 9.)
Sixthly, Almsdeeds is a disposition for receiving justifying grace. Of this fruit Solomon speaks in the
Proverbs, where he says: “By mercy and faith sins are purged away." And when our Lord had heard the liberality of Zaccheus, saying: "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor: and if I have wronged any man of anything, I restore him four-fold." he said: " This day is salvation come to this house." (St. Luke xix.) In fine, we read in the Acts of the Apostles that it was said to Cornelius, who was not yet a Christian, but who gave large alms: “Thy prayers and thy alms are ascended for a memorial in the sight of God." (chap, x.) From this place St. Augustine proves, that Cornelius by his alms obtained from God the grace of faith and perfect justification.
Lastly, Almsdeeds are often instrumental in increasing our temporal goods. This the wise man affirms where he says: "he that hath mercy on the poor, lendeth to the Lord ;" and again: “He that giveth to the poor shall not want." Our Lord has taught us this truth by His own example, when He ordered His disciples, who possessed only the five loaves and the two fishes, to distribute them to the poor: in return they received twelve baskets-full of the fragments, which served them for many days. Tobias also, who liberally distributed his goods to the poor, in a short time obtained great riches; and the widow of Sarephta, who gave to Elias only a handful of meal and a little oil, obtained from God by this act of charity an abundance of meal and oil, which for a long time did not fail. Many other remarkable examples may be read in St. Gregory of Tours, in the 5th Book of his History of France; and in Leontius, in his Life of St. John the Almoner; and Sophronius, in his Spiritual Meadow. The same doth St. Cyprian confirm in his Sermon on Almsdeeds, and St. Basil in his Oration to the Rich, in which, by an elegant similitude, he compares riches to water in wells, that gushes forth the purer and more copiously the oftener it is drawn out; but if it should remain stagnant, it soon becomes putrid. These things covetous rich men will not willingly hear, and scarcely will believe; but after this life they will understand them and believe them to be true, when such faith and knowledge will be of no avail to them. We will now dwell a little on the method of giving alms; for this is especially necessary, that we may live well and die a most happy death. First, then, we must give our alms with the pure intention of pleasing God, and not of obtaining human praise. This our Lord teaches us when He says: "Therefore, when them dost an almsdeed, sound not a trumpet before thee, &c.... Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doth." (St. Matthew vi.) St. Augustine, in his Explanation of St. John’s Epistle, expounds the passage thus: " By the left hand is meant the intention of giving alms for worldly honour or any other temporal advantage; by the right hand is signified the intention of bestowing alms to gain eternal life, or for the glory of God, and charity for our neighbour.”
Secondly, Our alms should be given promptly and willingly, so that they may not seem to be extorted through entreaties, nor deferred from day to day, if possible. The wise man saith: "Say not to thy friend: Go, and come again; and tomorrow I will give to thee: when thou canst give at present." (Proverbs iii. 28.) Abraham, the friend of God, requested the angels to take up their abode with him: he did not wait to be asked: so also did Lot do the same. And we read that Tobias did not wait for the poor to come to him, but he sought them himself.
Thirdly, We should give our alms with joy, not with sadness. Ecclesiasticus saith: "In every gift show a cheerful countenance;" and St. Paul: " Every one as he hath determined in his heart, not with sadness, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver." (2 Epist. to Corinth, ix. 7.)
Fourthly, Our alms should be given with humility, that so the rich man may remember that he receives much more than he gives. On this point St. Gregory thus speaks: "When he gives earthly goods, he would find it avail much in taming his pride, were he to remember and carefully ponder on the words of his heavenly Master: “Make unto you friends of the mammon of iniquity, that when you shall fail they may receive you into everlasting dwellings” If by their friendship we purchase everlasting dwellings, those that give should doubtless remember that they offer their gifts rather to patrons than to the poor” (Lib, Moral, xxi. cap. 14.)
Fifthly, Our alms should be given abundantly, in proportion to our means: thus doth Tobias teach us that most generous alms-giver: “According to thy ability be merciful. If thou have much, give abundantly: if thou have little, take care even so to bestow willingly a little,” (chap. iv. 9.) And the apostle teaches that alms are to be given to obtain a benediction, and not with avarice. St. John Chrysostom adds: “Not merely to give, but to give abundantly, is almsdeeds.” And in the same sermon he says again: That those who wish to be heard by God when they say, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy, ought to have mercy on the poor themselves, according to their means."
Lastly, It is necessary above all things, if we wish to be saved and to die a good death, diligently to enquire, either by our own reading and meditation, or by consulting holy and learned men, whether our "superfluous" riches can be retained with out sin, or whether we ought of necessity to give them to the poor; and again, what are to be understood by superfluities, and what by necessary goods. It may happen that to some men moderate riches may be superfluous; whilst to others great riches may be absolutely essential. But, since this treatise does not include nor require tedious scholastic questions, I will briefly note passages from Holy Writ and the Fathers, and so end this part of the subject. The passages of Scripture: “You cannot serve both God and mammon.” “He that hath two coats, let him give to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do in like manner." And in the 12th chapter of St. Luke it is said of one who had such great riches, that he scarcely knew what to do with them: " Thou fool, this night do they require thy soul of thee." St. Augustine, in the 50th book of his Homilies, and the 7th Homily, explains these words to mean, that the rich man perished for ever, because he made no use of his superfluous riches.
The passages from the Fathers are chiefly these: St. Basil, in his Sermon to the Rich, thus speaks: "And thou, art thou not a robber, because what thou hast received to be given away, thou supposest to be thy own?" And a little farther he continues: " Wherefore, as much as thou art able to give, so much dost thou injure the poor." And St. Ambrose, in his 81st Sermon, says: "What injustice do I commit, if, whilst I do not steal the goods of others, I keep diligently what is my own? impudent word! Dost thou say thy own ? What is this ? It is no less a crime to steal than it is not to give to the poor out of thy abundance." St. Jerome thus writes in his Epistle to Hedibias: " If you possess more than is necessary for your subsistence, give it away, and thus you will be a creditor." St. John Chrysostom says in his 34th Homily to the people of Antioch: "Do you possess anything of your own ? The interest of the poor is entrusted to you, whether the estate is yours by your own just labours, or you have acquired it by inheritance." St. Augustine, in his Tract on the 147th Psalm: “Our superfluous wealth belongs to the poor; when it is not given to them, we possess what we have no right to retain.” St. Leo thus speaks: “Temporal goods are given to us by the liberality of God, and He will demand an account of them, for they were committed to us for disposal as well as possession.” And St. Gregory, in the third part of his Pastoral Care: “Those are to be admonished, who, whilst they desire not the goods of others, do not distribute their own; that so they may carefully remember, that as the common origin of all men is from the earth, so also its produce is common to them all: in vain, then, they think themselves innocent, who appropriate to themselves the common gifts of God.” St. Bernard, in his Epistle to Henry, archbishop of Sens, saith: “It is ours, for the poor cry out for what you squander; you cruelly take away from us what you spend foolishly.” St. Thomas also writes: “The superfluous riches which many possess, by the natural law belong to the support of the poor”; and again: “The Lord requires us to give to the poor not only the tenth part, but all of our superfluous wealth.” In fine, the same author, in the fourth book of his “Sentences,” asserts that this is the common opinion of all theologians. I add also, that if one be inclined to contend that, taking the strict letter of the law, he is not bound to give his superfluous riches to the poor; he is obliged to do so, at least by the law of charity. It matters little whether we are condemned to hell through want of justice or of charity.
I shall be presenting this work at length, but in chapter-length installments each Sunday. If you simply can't wait for the next chapter, or want to read it all at once, you can find the full text here: http://goodcatholicbooks.org/pdf/bellarmine_art-of-dying-well.pdf