“God does not demand much of you.  He asks back what he gave you, and from him you take what is enough for you.  The superfluities of the rich are the necessities of the poor.  When you possess superfluities, you possess what belongs to others.” – Saint Augustine (Exposition of the Psalms 147)


Why did Augustine say this?

Augustine begins this quote in the context of a sermon on Psalm 147 which speaks of God gathering the dispersed people of Israel as He rebuilds Jerusalem.  Such a gathering of dispersed people invites us to reflect on Saint Augustine’s own ideal of a just society articulated most clearly at the beginning of his Rule:  

The main purpose for you having come together is to live harmoniously in your house, intent upon God in oneness of mind and heart.  Call nothing your own,  but let everything be yours in common.

Saint Augustine (The Rule I, 3-4)

Inspired by the model of the early Christian community found in Acts 4:32-35, Augustine’s ideal community is one in which all property is held in common and each member receives according to his or her needs.  Where there is common property, there is common concern.  Where there is common concern, there is a pathway to unity among people.  

Conversely, Augustine sees private property as a pathway to pride, oppression, and division that disrupts unity: The soul, loving its own power, slides away from the whole which is common to all into the part which is it’s own private property” (Trinity, 10.14).[1]

For Augustine, unity among people therefore requires the rights and needs of all to be prioritized over that of any individual.[2]  This same sentiment was emphasized centuries later by Pope Paul VI just after the Second Vatican Council:  Now if the earth truly was created to provide man with the necessities of life and the tools for his own progress, it follows that every man has the right to glean what he needs from the earth … the right to private property is not absolute and unconditional.[3]

As Augustine sees it, since we brought nothing into the world, the goods of the earth have been provided as a gift from God for the common good of all. We are all therefore “beggars” before God (Sermon 29, 2).

The mercy we show to the beggar at our door reflects the mercy God will show to us, the beggars at His door (Sermon 56, 9). Therefore, care for the common good is an essential ingredient for the journey to God. The more concerned we are with the common good, the more progress we make on the journey to the God of mercy (The Rule V).

Have compassion of man, O man, and God will have compassion on you. You are a man, and he is a man – two unhappy creatures. God is not unhappy; he is merciful. If the unhappy have no compassion on the unhappy, how can he ask for mercy from him who shall never know unhappiness? If you wish to receive mercy from God, then, be merciful. If you deny the humanity of your fellow man, God will deny you his divinizing grace.

Saint Augustine (Sermon 259, 4)

In his reflection on Psalm 147, Augustine reflects on how such mercy is expected in order to find mercy: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others” (Matthew 6:12). Augustine uses the example of how two small coins were all the poor widow needed to do a deed of mercy (Mark 12:42).

Thus for Augustine, in the eyes of God the superfluities (or excess / over-supply)[4] we possess belongs to others. A willingness to share from our excess is an act of mercy that propels our own journey to God. As our journey to God is propelled, we are united with others on their journey. It is then that the dispersed people are united in a way that Psalm 147 speaks of.

For where there is common concern for the common good, there lies a pathway to unity among people.

What does this mean for us today?

When we live simply and without a sense of “possessiveness” or “personal ownership” over that which is excess in our lives, we live in a way that allows others to simply live. When we possess an excess of something, Augustine invites us to consider giving it to someone else who is presently going without. Perhaps this is an unused coat in our closet that can go to someone without a coat. Perhaps we are called to donate some of our excess spare time to volunteer for a charity. To possess an education is to possess a degree of knowledge that has infinite value. Perhaps one is called to use their education to mentor a young person at-risk due to educational inequality. Perhaps another is called to share some of their spare time to help an overburdened co-worker or family member.

As Augustine reveals in his reflection on the poor widow, it doesn’t take much to make a difference today. A small step today in the direction of sharing our surplus with the common good of all people leads us towards another step forward in spiritual progress on our own journey to God.


References

[1] John C. Cavadini, “Pride,” in Augustine Through the Ages, eds. Allan D. Fitzgerald, John Cavadini, Marianne Djuth (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Erdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 680

[2] Augustine, and Joseph T. Kelley. Selections from Confessions and Other Essential Writings: Annotated and Explained. SkyLight Paths Pub., 2010, 182

[3] Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio (1967), nos. 22-23, https://www.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_26031967_populorum.html

[4] “Superfluity.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/superfluity. Accessed 21 Jan. 2022

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