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Our Daily Bread: an Augustinian Perspective on Poverty and Hunger
Poverty and hunger are two current problems, but not two new problems. They have existed in other places and times throughout history. They were certainly present in the north of Africa at the time of Saint Augustine. As a person concerned with the major problems of his times, Augustine frequently referred to hunger and poverty in his preaching. He constantly refers to these topics, relating them to three significant Biblical texts:
o The story told by Jesus of the rich man at his table and the poor man Lazarus -- Luke 16: 19-31
o The last judgment and the works of mercy -- Matt 25: 31ss
o The words of Paul to the rich about the dangers of avarice and the need of sharing our goods --1 Tim 6: 7-19
These texts indicate the basic lines of Augustinian thought on these topics. We will summarise them here in four points:
1. Knowledge of Social Conditions and Concern for people who are poor.
Augustine knew well the social circumstances of his people. As well as the rich minority, he knew the world of many beggars, the poor majority who suffered hunger and daily requested help from him. -- See Sermon 9: 19; Sermon 14: 1; Sermon 155: 5
God made the world for all, Augustine comments, but human pride seeks the accumulation of wealth. Although all have the same skin, all do not have the same dress. All were born naked, but now some swim in abundance while others do not have anything. -- See Sermon 39: 4; Sermon 61: 2; Sermon 177: 6-7
For that reason Augustine continually looked to the poorest. He even sold off the holy vessels of the church in order to be able to help the poor people. They were his special guests on the anniversary of his appointment as leader of the church in Hippo. He interceded continually for them before the community. He became the beggar for the beggars. -- See Sermon 66: 8 The Bishop of Hippo almost always included at the end of his preaching the same words: Do not reject the poor people, or Think of the poor people, or Give to the poor people what you have gathered. -- See Sermon 41: 6; Sermon 25: 8; Sermon 122: 6
2. Poverty and Wealth
The Augustinian perspective on poverty and wealth does not remain merely on the level of awareness of social circumstances and solidarity with the poorest people. Augustine frequently invited his listeners to discern the causes of this situation. He openly criticised what today we would call "materialism" and consumer society. Although they are worth less than interior riches, the goods and wealth of this world are not bad, Augustine proclaimed. They are good, but they can make human beings neither good nor happy.
Material goods are, on the other hand, extraordinarily dangerous, because they lead to arrogance and avarice. Avarice is the worm of wealth. It is very difficult for one who is rich not also to be arrogant. -- Sermon 39: 4
Avarice corrupts the human heart. We do not only use material goods. We allow ourselves to be enslaved by them, and they induce us to betray the love of God and one another. -- See Sermon 50: 5-8; Sermon 61: 2; Sermon 177: 3; Sermon 162: 3
From an Augustinian perspective, we could say that the problem is not in being rich, but rather in wanting to be rich. The problem is a love of property and objects that leads people to forget God. It rejects poor people and is incapable of sharing. It is capable of doing anything in order to earn and to accumulate wealth. -- See Sermon 39: 3; Sermon 61: 10; Sermon 14: 4, Sermon 85; Sermon 86
This is radically opposed to the reign of God, in which the poor people have first place, as in the story by Jesus about the hungry Lazarus and the rich man at the table filled with food. God does not listen to the rich man because the rich man did not listen to the poor and hungry Lazarus. The rich man rejected Lazarus and ignored the warnings of the prophets in the Bible. He did not want to share material goods and so neither will he share happiness in heaven, comments Augustine. -- See Sermon 41: 4ss; Sermon 367: 2
3. Charity and Sharing of Goods
Notably different, certainly, is the correct attitude from the human and Christian point of view, which Augustine reminded everyone: to give, distribute, share.
If you have money, share it, Do not give your hand rest from giving, Give as much as you can, and If you have a lot, give with more reason; if you have little, give what you can. -- Sermon 61: 3; Sermon 389: 1; Sermon 86: 17; Sermon 60: 6; Sermon 359A: 12
On the other hand, it is not simply a matter of giving from what is superfluous, but of really sharing what one has. The demanding attitude of Augustine is based on his peculiar and interesting form of understanding private property. It is always in a relative sense, according to the whole tradition of the Doctors of the Church, and subject to the principle of the Common Good, as contemporary Catholic social teaching underscores.
God is the only absolute owner of everything. Only God can truly say, "This gold and silver are mine." Everyone other than God is a mere administrator of what God has given, and is truly entitled to possess only what one uses correctly.” -- Sermon 50: 2
Augustine underlines that all that you have which is extra is needed by others, but what you have more than enough of is needed by poor people. He affirms clearly that You possess what belongs to others when you have more than enough for yourself and that it is a kind of theift not to give to those in need what you have more than enough of. -- Sermon 39: 6; Sermon 61: 12; Com. to the Ps. 147: 12; Sermon 206: 10.
4. Christ and people who are poor
Here again we have an example in Augustine of a psychological analysis being intimately united to a solid theological reflection. His thought is inspired, in this case, by his reflection on Matthew 25: 31ss and on the concept of the Whole Christ. Christ became poor and is present in the poor, who are the favourite members of his Body or Church.
Christ is at the same time a rich person and a poor person: as God, he is a rich person in heaven; as human, he is a poor person living among us, still hungry and in need because here he is a poor person and within every poor person. -- Sermon 123: 4
Today Christ is hungry in the poor people of the world. -- See Sermon 390: 2; Sermon 32: 20
You give to Christ when you give to poor people, Augustine states. Listen, then, for a moment and meditate just how great a merit is to have fed Christ, and what an enormous crime it is to have ignored the hunger of Christ. -- Sermon 389: 6
For that reason, from an Augustinian perspective, one can state that it is not possible to be Christian and to live with your back turned to the problems and pain of those who are in need. The sacrifice of a Christian is to come to the aid of poor people, and the great wealth of a Christian are the needs of poor people, if we understand where we should store what we possess. -- Sermon 42: 1; Sermon 302: 8
Not incidentally did Augustine consider as the perfect model for Christian life the practice of the Jerusalem community (-- Acts 4: 31-35) that included overcoming poverty by means of the sharing of material goods, an ideal that he continually proposed to his own flock and that he strove to exemplify in his own monastic community.
Readings for reflection
o Saint Augustine, Sermons 85 and 86 (perhaps the best Augustinian synthesis on poor people and poverty)
o General Chapter 2001 Documents, Social Apostolate in the Order of Saint Augustine Today
o United Nations, Report of the UNDP 1999 (on the distribution of wealth in the world)
Discussion questions 1. Do we know the social circumstances of people who are poor and hungry, or are we too enclosed in our own world, insensitive to people's problems, especially those of the poorest people?
2. What aspects of Augustinian thought on this topic are worthwhile to be taken into account today?
3. What are we doing to become more aware of the problem of hunger and poverty, and to contribute, insofar as we can, to their solution?
4. What can we do today in this aspect, as if Augustine were alive among us?
Photo Gallery For the Augnet gallery that contains the above three photographs, click here.