God Knows the Humble Ones

From “Homily 40 on the Gospels” (591-592)

There are some who imagine that the precepts of the Old Testament are more severe than those of the New, but they are mistaken obviously, given the lack of foundation for their assertion. For the Old Testament does not condemn avarice, but only theft (Exodus 20), while in the Gospel one punishes the one who unjustly seizes something by forcing him to restore it quadruple (Luke 19).

In this passage, we blame the bad rich, not for having taken the good of others, but for not having given him of his. And it is not said that he oppressed someone by violence, but that he boasted of his fortune. It is therefore necessary to consider with great attention what punishment may be inflicted on the one who steals, if he who does not give much of his property is condemned to hell.

Let no one feel safe by saying, “I do not take the good of others, but I am content to enjoy property honestly acquired.” The rich man, indeed, is not punished for stealing property from others, but because he has misused his own property. He was also sent to hell for other reasons, such as not having kept the fear of God in the midst of his bliss, of having his goods served up to his own vanity, of having closed his entrails to all feeling mercy, and not wanting to redeem his sins, while his riches gave him the means to do so.

There are some who imagine that the search for fine and precious clothes is not a sin; but if it were not for a fault, the word of God would not note so insistently that the rich tortured in hell had been dressed in purple and fine linen. Elegant clothes are never sought except by vanity, that is, to appear more respectable to others. Vainglory is the only reason for seeking expensive clothes, since no one would want to dress them if they could not be seen by others. This fault is even better demonstrated by the opposite example, because if poverty in clothing was not a virtue, the evangelist would not insist that John the Baptist was dressed in camel hair (Matt 3).

We must pay particular attention to the order in which truth speaks to us of the rich proud and the poor humble. Jesus tells us indeed: “There was a rich man,” and he immediately adds: “And there was a poor man named Lazarus.” The name of the rich is usually better known among the people than the poor. What does it mean, then, that the Lord, speaking of a poor man and a rich man, gives the name of the poor, and not of the rich? It is because God knows the humble ones and approves them, while he wants to ignore the proud.

Therefore, on the last day, he will declare to those who take vanity from the power of their miracles: “I do not know where you are from; go away from me, artisans of iniquity” (Matt. 7:23). On the contrary, he affirms to Moses: “I have known you by your name” (Exod. 33:17). The Lord therefore calls the rich “a man” and the poor “a poor man named Lazarus”. It is as if he clearly said: “I know the poor, who is humble; I do not know the rich, who is proud. I know the first because I approve of it; I do not know the second because my judgment condemns it.”..

You can imagine what terrible temptations this poor man would undergo in his thoughts! He was short of bread and he was sick; but he had before him this rich man who possessed good health and enjoyed the pleasures of life. In the grip of pain and cold, he saw the rich man rejoice and clothe himself in purple and fine linen. He was reduced to nothing by his wounds, and the rich man was overflowing with all the goods. He lacked everything, and the rich did not want to give anything.

Do we think, my brethren, of the tumult of temptations which was to rise in the heart of the poor? Could not poverty have been a sufficient test for him without the disease being added to it? And conversely, could not the disease have been enough, even without this material deprivation? But poverty and sickness were united to better annihilate the poor and thus to better test him. The poor man also saw that when the rich man showed himself in public, a crowd of flatterers came to court him, whereas he, nobody visited him in his infirmity and misery. Dogs can testify that no one was visiting him, since they were free to lick his wounds.

In a single fact, the Almighty God has thus made two judgments appear, for by allowing the poor Lazarus to lie at the door of the rich, he made sure that both the rich without charity increased his punishment and that the poor, tempted, increased his reward. The rich man saw the poor every day without pitying him; and the poor man had to undergo the sight of the rich man, which was worth to him a greater proof. At the bottom, there were two hearts, but above, only one [God] to scrutinize them, who prepared one for glory by tempting him, and waited for the moment to punish the other by supporting him.

The text goes on: “And it came to pass that the poor man died, and was carried by the angels into the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died, and they buried him in hell. “This rich man, who had not wanted to help poor Lazarus in this life, began to seek his protection when he was delivered to the torture. For here is the following: “He lifted up his eyes, while he was tormented, and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom, and began to cry out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in the water to cool my tongue, for I suffer cruelly in these flames.”

How God is right in his judgments! And what rigor he exercises in the recompense of good and bad actions! Did not they tell us just now that Lazarus sought in this life to reach the crumbs falling from the rich man’s table, and that no one gave him any? And now we are told, as to the torture of the rich, that he desires Lazarus to let him drop a drop of water into his mouth. It is there, my brothers, yes, it is there that we must judge what can be the severity of the severity of God. This rich man, who would not give the slightest crumb of his meal to the poor covered with wounds, is reduced, once plunged into hell, to ask what is least. Because it is a drop of water that he implores, he who refused bread crumbs…

If therefore, my brothers, you have good in this world, when you remember your good deeds, have great fear about them: dread that the happiness that has been granted to you is the reward of these good deeds. And when you see poor people commit this or that reprehensible act, do not conceive for them of contempt, do not despair, because the furnace of poverty can suffice to purify them of being guilty of very small excesses. Be on the contrary, full of apprehension for yourselves, since some see their bad deeds followed by a life of happiness. As for these poor, consider that misery is for them a mistress: it crucifies their lives to rectify their orientation…

To the rich asking him to send Lazarus, Abraham answered immediately: “They have Moses and the prophets, that they hear them.” But this rich man, who had himself despised the words of his God, did not believe that his heirs would like to listen to them more than him. This is why he answers: “No, my father; but if any of the dead will find them, they will believe it. “And Abraham answered him very truthfully:” If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, even if someone would rise from the dead, they will not believe it.”

Indeed, those who despise the words of the Law will find more difficult the precepts of the risen redeemer… Because what the Law demands is much less than what the Lord commands. The Law prescribes tithing, and our redeemer commands those who want to be perfect to leave everything. The Law forbids the sins of the flesh, and our redeemer also condemns evil thoughts (Matt. 5). “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, even if somebody resurrects from the dead, they would not believe it.” Indeed, how would those who neglect to fulfill the very inferior precepts of the Law find the power to obey the higher commandments of our Savior? And it is, without a doubt, refusing to believe in him that not wanting to fulfill his words…

Honor the poor you have before your eyes. You see them outside despised in this age: consider them inside as the friends of God. Share with them what you have, so that they will one day share with you what they have.

St. Gregory the Great (ca. 540-604) served as Bishop of Rome from 586-604, during a series of invasions and political turmoils. He was a skilled administrator and diplomat, as well as a gifted preacher and writer on the spiritual life. He preached his great Homilies on the Gospels near the beginning of his ministry as bishop. His feast is celebrated on March 12.


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