« Prev Sermon XV. Poverty a Holy State. Next »



2 COR. viii. 9.

“Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that ye through His poverty might be rich.”

ST. PAUL is here stirring up the Corinthians to give alms to the poor saints, by the voluntary poverty of our Lord. He tells them of the Macedonians, who, in the spirit of His example, made large offerings out of their “deep poverty;” and says that they “first gave their own selves to the Lord,” and, with themselves, all that they had to His service. He then says, “Ye know the grace,” the freeness and largeness of the charity of Christ, who, “though He was rich,” in His eternal kingdom, in the bliss of His Father, “yet for your sakes He became poor;” stripped Himself of His heavenly state, laid aside His glory, “made Himself of no reputation;” was made man, hungered, 285thirsted; was weary, wandered without a place where to lay His head; suffered all shame, hard ship, pain, and death; that through this, His poverty of all things heavenly and earthly, ye, in the remission of sins, the cleansing of the soul, the grace of adoption, and the inheritance of the kingdom of heaven, “might be rich.”

Some perhaps might have expected that, at the coming of the Son of God into the world, He would have assumed the power and disposal of all things by which the world is maintained and governed; that is to say, that He would have carried on openly, and by a visible disposal, the divine administration of worldly affairs, as He ever does in secret; that His providence would have been manifested in His person. Of course, no one would expect that He should have affected earthly state or greatness: the very thought can hardly be expressed without a sin. It seems almost like the suggestion of Satan when he shewed Him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them. And yet, we might have expected Him to be openly greater than all powers of the earth; to have made them acknowledge Him, and yield, as the winds and the waves did, to the power of His word. But, on the contrary, no man was ever lower in the world than He—more outcast, destitute, weak, and forsaken; none, perhaps, ever hungered oftener, or 286thirsted more, or wandered so wearily; was so banished, not from kings palaces, and princes courts, and the houses of great men, and the company of the soft, high, rich, and noble, but from home and hearth, and from the shelter and charities of life. Surely as the world had never seen before an example of such perfect holiness, so it had never seen such perfect and willing poverty. In the Gospels we read of His passing whole nights on the mountain, and in the fourth watch upon the sea. Once we read that He went “unto Bethany, and lodged there,”152152   St. Matt. xxi. 17. in the house of a friend, the stranger’s home. His life He began and ended as a wanderer, from the stable to the sepulchre. So true to the letter were His words, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay His head.” Of His own He had little but His raiment; even His daily food, they that followed Him “ministered to Him of their substance.”153153   St. Luke viii. 3.

Now this absolute destitution of all things needful for our bodily life was, without doubt, a designed feature in His humiliation. When He took upon Him our manhood, He took it with all its capacities of suffering; and He placed Himself, so to speak, in that position in the life of man where all the sorrows which came with sin into 287the world were surest to light upon Him. Weariness, toil, cold, hunger, loneliness, and shame, which are the portion of the destitute, He chose as His lot, and tasted in their sharpest forms. And He thereby learned to sympathise with the universal sufferings of humanity. He became a Saviour, not of any class or condition of men, but of all mankind: of man as man in his fallen, suffering, sorrowing humanity. It is this that gives to the poor a peculiar share in the sympathy of Christ. No man ever was so burdened, naked, desolate, but He was more so. His example has consecrated the state of poverty, and converted it into a discipline, and bestowed upon it a special grace. It is this that we will now consider.

1. First of all, the poverty of Christ is intended as an example to all men. To His earliest followers He gave the precept of poverty; He made it binding on them; He made it even the condition of entering His service and His kingdom. “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven;” or, as St. Mark records the same command, “One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.” Or again, “Sell that ye have, and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the 288heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth.”154154   St. Matt. xix. 21; St. Mark x. 21; St. Luke xii. 33. Peter “said unto Him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed Thee; what shall we have therefore? And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of His glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or mother, or sisters, or father, or wife, or children, or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.”155155   St. Matt. xix. 27-29. “Whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be My disciple.”156156   St. Luke xiv. 33. And this precept was obeyed to the very letter by His first followers, and by the apostolic Church. They sold their houses and lands, and laid the money at the apostles’ feet. No man “called any thing that he possessed his own;” “they had all things common.”157157   Acts iv. 32. Now, this community of goods was a close imitation of our Lord’s example—a prolonging of the fellowship which He had with them and they with Him, after His departure. Poverty, toil, and a common life, were the daily bonds of their society with Him; and they 289chose to live on as He had left them, still realising His presence “who, though He was rich, for our sakes became poor.”

Out of this common life came the fixed endowments of the Church. First, the bishop and his clergy, and the poor of Christ, lived of one stock and revenue, as it were at one table, at which the spiritual father presided in Christ’s stead. After wards, when the Church had peace, and, in God’s good providence, was permitted to make itself fixed homes and certain dwelling-places, the necessity which lay on them by reason of the then “present distress” ceased; the members of the Church were not compelled to give up lands and houses; they had no longer to forsake their homes, to go out from all that they possessed; and the poor of Christ, the widows and orphans, had a full and certain living, “in peaceable habitations, and in quiet resting-places.” That which was a precept of necessity, became a counsel of perfection. It was a fuller and closer imitation of the life of Christ for those who, by the providence of God, were permitted to forsake all for the love of their heavenly Master. And there have been many, in all ages of the Church, who have willingly made themselves poor for Christ’s sake, that through their poverty and labour of love the elect might be made rich in God’s kingdom. Some forsook all that they possessed 290at once, and gave all their worldly goods at one offering to the service of the Church, or to the poor of Christ, and thenceforward lived by the labour of their hands or by the work of the gospel. Others retained their inheritance and their right to the goods that they possessed, but converted the enjoyment of them into a stewardship. They lived of them; but after taking for their own use just so much as their bare need required, they gave the rest, by a perpetual and daily oblation, in alms to the poor. It may perhaps be said, that the state of the Church at this day, in its intermixture with the Christian world, with its political and social relations, is such as to make it neither right nor possible for most, if for any, to give up all that they possess, and to throw themselves into a state of poverty and dependence. Perhaps it may be; though the question admits of more discussion than people think; and we may refer to it hereafter. For the present it is enough to say, that, at all events, the other principle, of holding the wealth of this world as a stewardship, as if the title were in God and the inheritance in the poor, is altogether possible, and easy to many, if only they have charity and devotion to adopt it. I do not say that it is possible for all men; far from it: rather that it is, like Holy Orders, a high privilege to which a man is called by God Himself. It is plain that they 291who have a household and family depending on them must first maintain them with all needful provisions. This is the stewardship of most men, to provide for their own, and is a kind of poverty in itself. But there are those who either have a larger income than they and their families require, or have none at all depending on them. In both these cases it is quite possible so to pitch the scale of household and personal expenses, as to leave a portion of their yearly income to be administered as a stewardship. I do not undertake to say what proportion ought to be so devoted. The divine wisdom has prescribed a tenth at least. St. Paul has given us a rule which cannot be gainsayed: “Having food and raiment, let us be therewith content.” And the reason on which he grounds it is very awful, from its severe and simple truth: “for we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.” The needs of an immortal being are very real, narrow, and few. If we would but measure our needs by the measure of a death-bed, or the necessities of a holy state, we should look with amazement and fear on the excessive and artificial habits of our daily life. Things we now look on as necessary would be seen to be wanton indulgences of self; our wants would be for the most part discovered to be fictitious, and our permitted indulgences to be a luxurious and dangerous softness.


It would seem, then, that the rules by which any one who has the care of a family committed to him should proceed are these: First, to provide for those depending on him whatsoever is really needed for proper food, raiment, and instruction of life; next, for the maintenance of his relations to others among whom the providence of God has cast his lot. We hear much of the duty of maintaining our position in society; and it is a worldly way of expressing what, beyond all doubt, is a truth, namely, that the circumstances of our birth, and the intellectual and moral condition into which we have been brought, are facts determined by the will of God; and as such demand a reverent observance. The whole political and social state of mankind is the work and ordinance of God; and therefore all the parts of it are the subjects of His disposition, and all parts and members of it have their functions, duties, and responsibilities, which we may not without strong and special reasons neglect or withdraw from. It cannot be doubted, therefore, that we are bound, for the sake of others to whom we are thus related, to bear our part in the burden of society. But nothing that has been said warrants our going beyond the strictest interpretation of what that position absolutely demands. And they that will fairly, and without secret inclinations to a lax 293judgment, ascertain what their position in life really demands, will find its exactions incredibly small. Again: it is undoubtedly the duty of pa rents to lay by such a measure of their means of life as a discreet foresight, checked by an honest trust in the providence of God, will prescribe. But this will not warrant hoarding, or carefulness to increase in wealth, or to leave riches to heirs and successors. It warrants no more than such a care for others as prudence, I may say honesty, prescribes for ourselves. Now these principles may be fairly and safely laid down for the direction of those that desire, in the midst of worldly cares and burdens, to imitate at least the spirit of our Lord’s poverty. If, after satisfying these obligations, there remain any yearly income, it may be administered as the patrimony of the poor. And they that possess it may, to an extent and in matters which it is impossible to describe, follow the poverty of Christ by personal self-denials. It has pleased God to ordain the lot of many of His most perfect servants in the midst of the riches, state, and glitter of the world; to charge them with great possessions, vast revenues, large dominions, high offices, and a numerous retinue. Some times they have been set on thrones, or detained in courts and councils of state; or they have had great lordships, and the responsibility of a spiritual 294rule, and their whole life and outward condition has been full of power, and dignity, and worldly encumbrances. And yet in the midst of all, by secret self-denial and self-renouncement, they have lived a life of personal poverty in the presence of luxury and splendour. I put these as extreme cases; for what was possible in them must be easy to us. If they whose outward state was the very antagonist and contradiction of our Lord’s poverty, could in secret make themselves poor like Him, then much more may we all, whose outward state is moderate and easy to control. All that is needed is energy of will and perseverance in maintaining the practice of personal self-denial. No one can say how far he may be able to advance in the spirit of poverty till he has tried it. A mind truly bent on following our Lord in this part of His humiliation will discover seasons, and times, and opportunities of exercising it, which it is impossible to set down. If one were to do so, it would lose its grace and dignity, and seem trivial, unmeaning, commonplace, unworthy of the greatness and sanctity of the subject. It must be left, therefore, to the conscience of each person. And so it may be dismissed; once more saying, that what has been here thrown out is practicable for all persons, in whatsoever rank of life, even for the very highest in this earthly state; for the 295most burdened with worldly relations and offices; for the most encumbered with household cares, and the like; because, after all, it depends chiefly upon the secret mortification and impoverishment of the heart, which may be perfect, even when the natural expressions of it in act and deed are not permitted.

But there are others, as has been said, on whom the providence of God has laid no greater charge than to provide the little which is necessary for their own subsistence; and they may much more closely approach the example of our Divine Master. Suppose a man to receive an inheritance greater than his personal needs; what hinders his making the poor to be usufructuaries of his estate, and himself the steward, whose recompense is his own food and raiment? He need do no violence to the context of society; he may leave all things in their natural channel. The legal securities of his possessions would remain untouched. They might be bequeathed to his lawful heirs; only he would for sake his life-interest for the love of Christ, and to follow the example of His holy poverty. Perhaps the very suggestion may be thought almost fanatical, or at least to be a treason against the prerogatives of a refined selfishness by which the world is ruled. Nevertheless, there is in it more of reason, reality, sound sense, Christian prudence, than in 296the popular theory and practice of ordinary life. It is capable of being demonstrated by a severer and more certain proof than any worldly projects will admit, to be wise, cautious, forecasting, and in the highest degree expedient to the man that adopts it for his rule of life, and even to the world. This is taking the lowest ground. But let us not for get that there are higher reasons which will occur hereafter. Hitherto we have spoken only of those who are rich in this world, because to them the imitation of the poverty of our Lord may seem at first sight impossible. It is hardly necessary to do more than to say, that to those who are actually poor, His example is a singular consolation. It elevates their inevitable condition into an opportunity of following His footsteps in a path which leads to great perfection.

2. Another reason for His choosing so bare and destitute a condition was, that He, by His poverty, might set us an example of deadness to the world. The gifts and allurements of the secular state are among the chief dangers of Christ’s servants. There are very few that can resist the offers of wealth, ease, elevation, power, and the like. The world is strangely versatile and seducing, and is at the best a dangerous friend. Prosperity destroys not fools only. There is something peculiarly subtil and persuasive in high station, titles, 297and appointments, and in full homes, fair prospects, abundant incomes. What but this does St. John mean by saying, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, are not of the Father, but are of the world.”158158   1 St. John ii. 15, 16. It was to be the note of Christ’s true followers, “they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.”159159   St. John xvii. 14. In our baptism we renounced it. And He, foreseeing its peculiar subtilty, and the trial of His Church, especially in the days when the world was to come into its fold, stamped for ever in His own example the visible tokens of perfect deadness to the secular state, by choosing for Himself a life of poverty. “Though He was rich, yet for our sakes He be came poor.” He gave Himself for us, “that He might deliver us from this present evil world.”160160   Gal. i. 4. And in His own visible example He shewed openly the work He came to do. He stood out from the world, apart from all its powers, gifts, and greatness. He had no share in it, and it had nothing in Him. In the full tide of life He was as dead to it as upon the Cross. It was simply colourless, tasteless, powerless. He was there to counterwork 298the whole mystery of this tempting world, and to abolish all its lures. And this He did first by Himself. He stood aloof from it, disengaged and free to rebuke, warn, condemn, abase it. And such is the condition on which alone we can overcome the world. Just in the measure in which we accept its favours, and consent to be honoured, gifted, enriched by it, we give it hostages or make ourselves its hirelings. I am not speaking of gross worldliness, ambition, and covetousness. They are self-condemned. I mean that far more insidious form of worldliness, in which interest and advancement seem to coincide with the line of duty. Men think they ought to refuse nothing that comes to them: as if all offers were necessarily from God; as if, by indirect means at least, and through the agency of the world, Satan could not in some measure fulfil his words, “all these things will I give thee.” Now it is a remarkable fact, that many men to whom the world seems to open itself that they may set themselves in its very heart, in places of the greatest power, influence, popularity, lose their real force in the measure in which they advance into it, and are simply powerless when they are at the highest point of apparent mastery. The world knows with whom it has to do, and lays its ambush for those who in secret are still alive to it. While they seem to be carrying God’s 299kingdom into the very core of the world, they are only taken in a snare. Their admonitions, reproofs, and rebukes, with how much soever of human emotion and effect, fall very light upon it. The world hires them as eloquent orators to grace a feast-day, or “as one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument,” to drive away the vexing spirit, when, in spite of itself, it is disquieted. In the turmoil and onward movement of its affairs, when the blood stirs, and plans are laid deep, and great casts are ventured, for pleasure, or gain, or self-exaltation, the voice of the charmer is drowned, or rudely bid to be still, and he himself cast out. A pitiful lot; full of humiliation and heart-breaking when any deep or noble thought is still in a man! What might not such have been and done, if only they had been dead to the world, had refused its offers, and used no powers but those which God bestowed, or they themselves had wrung by force from the world itself! This is another great lesson set us in the poverty of our Lord: so to die to the world, that it cannot find the price at which to buy our submission. This is the secret of strength and stedfastness: when the prince of this world hath nothing in us, nothing to which he can speak smooth things through the eye, or through the ear; when for us gold has no brightness, and honour is a burden, and high office 300wearisome to bear, and the multitude of followers make us long to be forgotten, and the manifold duties of exalted station are irksome to the soul whose single intention is to be united with the presence of God, then we are beginning to learn what it is to be dead to the life of the world. And this temper is an absolute condition to the doing of any great and high service for Christ in His Church. There is a poverty of design, a weakness of purpose, an uncertainty and vacillation about all who still harbour a secret affection for the world. Howsoever high their theories or aspirations, there is some sidelong glance at the opinion, or judgment, or standard of others, which mars the singleness of their aim; some remote interest which pulls them back; some calculation of results, some forecasting of consequences, which make them seldom true to their present position or to themselves. But the man that covets nothing, seeks nothing, looks for nothing, nay, that would refuse and reject the solicitations of the world, unless they bore on them some sure and expressive marks of his Master’s hand, is above all worldly power. He is truly independent; out of the reach of hope and fear; self-resolved, and, next under God, lord of his own spirit.

3. And once more: the example of the Son of God was no doubt designed to shew us the relation 301between poverty and holiness. The very state of poverty is a wholesome corrective of many subtil and stubborn hindrances of our sanctification. Let us embrace it with gladness. Let us, when the choice is before us, choose it rather than to be rich. In His awful warnings on the danger of riches, our Lord neither meant to say that rich men could not be saved, nor that the abuse of riches alone is dangerous; but that the very possession of them is full of peril. They intoxicate the heart; they raise its pulse above the natural beat, and make the desires of the mind flushed and feverish. Even the blameless and upright among rich men are full of artificial feelings, false sympathies, unreal standards of what is necessary, becoming, and right. Riches take them out of the universal category of man, and train them up in a sickly and unnatural isolation from the real wants, sorrows, sufferings, fears, and hopes of mankind. Certainly they hinder, in a marked degree, the secret habits of humiliation, self-chastisement, and self-affliction, without which no high reach of sanctity is ever attained. How can a man who, without toil, fore thought, or faith, lives daily on a full fare, and is warm and well furnished, put himself in the point of sight from which alone the Sermon on the mount or the Passion of our Lord can be fully read? There must be something of antipathy between 302states that are so remote, if not opposed. It is not only the pampered and luxurious, but the easy and full, who harbour strange desires, excessive anxieties, irregular wishes, foolish cares. There is something of self-worship, which greatly retards their sanctification, and even hinders their conversion to God. Now, poverty is a very whole some medicine for all this; sharp, indeed, and rough to the taste, yet full of potent virtues. It is a sort of discipline—the ascetic rule of God’s providence. They that are poor are already and unconsciously under a discipline of humility and self-denial. What so chastens the desires of the heart, and restrains them within due bounds and order? what so reduces a man within the limit of his own sphere? How great simplicity and abstinence of mind there is in the poor of the world. A hard life, scanty fare, coarse raiment, plain food, a low-roofed dwelling, are all they have, and the continuance of them all they desire. Surely none stand fairer for Christ’s kingdom than they. From what unnumbered temptations, day-dreams, hankerings, schemes, speculations, snares, are they altogether free. Their whole life lies in the well-known precinct of a lonely hamlet, where, from birth to the grave, they dwell in familiar daily converse with the very stones, and trees, and brooks, with simple and true thoughts of life and death, 303and the realities of our fallen state. How clear and direct is their insight into the world beyond the grave. How little have they to divide their thoughts with God. How soon they release themselves from life. How simply they die. What are our hurried days and waking nights, but the tyranny of a multitude of thoughts, which are worldly, ambitious, selfish, or needless, empty, and vain? What is it that keeps us perpetually straining, and moiling, and wearing ourselves away, but some desire which is not chastened, some thought of the heart which is not dead to this worldly state? What makes us lament the flight of time, and the changes of the world, but that we are still a part of it, and share its life? What makes us die so hard, but that we leave behind us more treasures than we have laid up in heaven—that our hearts are not there, but here? How much of mercy and meaning does this put into all worldly reverses. The loss of fortune is, as it were, a call to perfection; the appointment of a poor lot in life, or of a precarious livelihood, are tokens of His will to make us share in the likeness of His poverty. Let us bless Him for every degree of approach He permits us to make towards His perfect life. Whether we be in the sacred or secular state, let us use the narrowness of worldly fortunes as a means of chastening our desires, subduing our 304thoughts, strengthening our trust in His care for us, and in making ourselves independent of all things but His truth, His Spirit, the laws of His Church, and the hope of His heavenly kingdom.

« Prev Sermon XV. Poverty a Holy State. Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection