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Moments in Time Words of power

By Gary Macy

One of the joys of teaching Christian history is that one gets to read great Christian sermons. Always moving and insightful, some of the sermons are also painful to read simply because they are so challenging. One can only imagine what would happen, for instance, if the sermon of St. Ambrose of Milan were preached today. You may never have heard of this sermon, but the words might ring a bell. The following section was quoted by St. Thomas Aquinas, then Vatican II and most recently by the present pope. It needs no commentary.

“What you, rich, give to the needy brings profit to yourself; for yourself too your possession is increased when it is diminished. You yourself are fed by the bread you give to the poor, because whoever has mercy on the poor is himself sustained by the fruits of his compassion. Mercy is sown on earth and sprouts in heaven; what is planted in the poor produces in front of God. ‘Do not say, I will give tomorrow,’ says the Lord (Proverbs 3:28). If He does not suffer that you say: ‘I will not give tomorrow,’ how can He bear you to answer: ‘I will not give’? When giving to the poor you are not giving him what is yours; rather you are paying back to him what is his. Indeed what is common to all and has been given to all to make use of, you have usurped for yourself alone. The earth belongs to all, and not only to the rich; yet those who do not enjoy it are far fewer than those who do. You are paying back, therefore, your debt; you are not giving gratuitously what you do not owe.” No wonder these words have echoed down through Catholic teaching. If only we could live up to them!

Gary Macy is a theology professor at the University of San Diego.

National Catholic Reporter, February 1, 2002