The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

St Alphonsus Ligouri’s Sermon on Luke 6:36-38

Posted by Dim Bulb on March 11, 2017

“For with the same measure that you shall mete withal, it shall be measured to you again.”—Luke 6:38.

In this day’s gospel we find that Jesus Christ once said to his disciples: “Be ye merciful, as your Father also is merciful.” (Luke 6:36.) As your heavenly Father is merciful towards you, so must you be merciful to others. He then proceeds to explain how, and in what, we should practise holy charity to our neighbour. “Judge not,” he adds, “and you shall not be judged” (v. 37). Here he speaks against those who do not abstain from judging rashly of their neighbours. “Forgive, and you shall be forgiven” (ibid). He tells us that we cannot obtain pardon of the offences we have offered to God, unless we pardon those who have offended us. “Give, and it shall be given to you” (v. 38). By these words he condemns those who wish that God should grant whatsoever they desire, and are at the same time niggardly and avaricious towards the poor. In conclusion he declares, that the measure of charity which we use to our neighbour shall be the same that God will use towards us. Let us, then, see how we should practise charity to our neighbour: we ought to practise it, first, in our thoughts; secondly, in words; thirdly, by works.

First Point. How we should practise charity to our neighbour in our thoughts.

1. “And this commandment we have from God, that he who loveth God, love also his brother.” (1 John 4:21.) The same precept, then, which obliges us to love God, commands us to love our neighbour. St. Catherine of Genoa said one day to the Lord: “My God, thou dost wish me to love my neighbour; but I can love no one but thee.” The Lord said to her in answer: “My child, he that loves me loves whatsoever I love.” Hence St. John says: “If any man say: I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar.” (1 John 4:20.) And Jesus Christ has declared that he will receive, as done to himself, the charity which we practise towards the least of his brethren.

2. Hence we must, in the first place, practise fraternal charity in our thoughts, by never judging evil of any one without certain foundation. “Judge not, and you shall not be judged.” He who judges without certain grounds that another has committed a mortal sin, is guilty of a grievous fault; if he only rashly suspects another of a mortal sin, he commits at least a venial offence. But, to judge or suspect evil of another is not sinful when we have certain grounds for the judgment or suspicion. However, he that has true charity thinks well of all, and banishes from his mind both judgments and suspicions. “Charity thinketh no evil.” (1 Cor. 13:5.) The heads of families are obliged to suspect the evil which may be done by those who are under their care. Certain fathers and foolish mothers knowingly allow their sons to frequent bad company and houses in which there are young females, and permit their daughters to be alone with men. They endeavour to justify the neglect of their children by saying: “I do not wish to entertain bad thoughts of others.” O folly of parents! They are in such cases bound to suspect the evil which may happen; and, in order to prevent it, they should correct their children. But they that are not entrusted with the care of others, ought to abstain carefully from inquiring after the defects and conduct of others.

3. When sickness, loss of property, or any misfortune happens to a neighbour, charity requires that we regret, at least with the superior part of the soul, the evil that has befallen him. I say, “with the superior part of the soul;” for, when we hear of the misfortunes of an enemy, our inferior appetite appears to feel delight; but, as long as we do not consent to that delight, we are not guilty of sin. However, it is sometimes lawful to desire, or to be pleased at, the temporal evil of another, when we expect that it will be productive of spiritual good to himself or to others. For example: it is lawful, according to St. Gregory, to rejoice at the sickness or misfortune of an obstinate and scandalous sinner, and even to desire that he may fall into sickness or poverty, in order that he may cease to lead a wicked life, or at least to scandalize others. Behold the words of St. Gregory: “Evenire plerumque potest, ut non amissa charitate, et inimici nostri ruina lætificet, et ejus gloria sine invidiæ culpa contristet; cum et, ruente eo, quosdam bene erigi credimus, et proficiente illo plerosque injuste opprimi formidamus.” (Lib. xxii., Moral., cap. ii.) But, except in such cases, it is unlawful to rejoice at the loss of a neighbour. It is also contrary to charity to feel regret at a neighbour’s prosperity merely because it is useful to him. This is precisely the sin of envy. The envious are, according to the Wise Man, on the side of the devil, who, because he could not bear to see men in heaven, from which he had been banished, tempted Adam to rebel against God. “But by the envy of the devil death came into the world; and they follow him that are of his side.” (Wis. 2:25.) Let us pass to the next point.

Second Point. On the charity which we ought to practise towards our neighbour in words.

4. With regard to the practice of fraternal charity in words, we ought, in the first place, and above all, to abstain from all detraction. “The tale-bearer shall defile his own soul, and shall be hated by all.” (Eccl. 21:31.) As they who always speak well of others are loved by all, so he who detracts his neighbour is hateful to all—to God—and to men, who, although they take delight in listening to detraction, hate the detractor, and are on their guard against him. St. Bernard says that the tongue of a detractor is a three-edged sword. “Gladius equidem anceps, immo triplex est lingua detractoris” (in Ps. 56). With one of these edges it destroys the reputation of a neighbour; with the second it wounds the souls of those who listen to the detraction; and with the third it kills the soul of the detractor by depriving him of the divine grace. You will say: “I have spoken of my neighbour only in secret to my friends, and have made them promise not to mention to others what I told them.” This excuse will not stand: no; you are, as the Lord says, the serpent that bites in silence. “If a serpent bite in silence, he is nothing better that backbiteth secretly.” (Eccl. 10:11.) Your secret defamation bites and destroys the character of a neighbour. They who indulge in the vice of detraction are chastised not only in the next, but also in. this life, because their uncharitable tongues are the cause of a thousand sins, by creating discord in whole families and entire villages. Thomas Cantaprensis (Apum, etc., cap. xxxvii.) relates, that he knew a certain detractor, who at the end of life became raging mad, and died lacerating his tongue with his teeth. The tongue of another detractor, who was going to speak ill of St. Malachy, instantly swelled and was filled with worms. And, after seven days, the unhappy man died miserably.

5. Detraction is committed not only when we take away a neighbour’s character, by imputing to him a sin which he has not committed, or exaggerating his guilt, but also when we make known to others any of his secret sins. Some persons, when they know anything injurious to a neighbour, appear to suffer, as it were, the pains of childbirth, until they tell it to others. When the sin of a neighbour is secret and grievous, it is a mortal sin to mention it to others without a just cause. I say, “without a just cause;” for, to make known to a parent the fault of a child, that he may correct him and prevent a repetition of the fault, is not sinful, but is an act of virtue; for according to St. Thomas (2, 2, qu. 2, art. 73), to let others know the sins of a neighbour is unlawful, when it is done to destroy his reputation, but not when it is done for his good, or for the good of others.

6. They who listen to detraction, and afterwards go and tell what was said to the person whose character had been injured, have to render a great account to God. These are called talebearers. Oh! how great is the evil produced by these talebearing tongues that are thus employed in sowing discord. They are objects of God’s hatred. “The Lord hateth … him that soweth discord among brethren.” (Prov. 6:16, 19.) Should the person who has been defamed speak of his defamer, the injury which he has received may, perhaps, give him some claim to compassion. But why should you relate what you have heard? Is it to create ill-will and hatred that shall be the cause of a thousand sins? If, from this day forward, you ever hear anything injurious to a neighbour, follow the advice of the Holy Ghost. “Hast thou heard a word against thy neighbour? let it die with thee.” (Eccl. 19:10.) You should not only keep it shut up in your heart, but you must let it die within you. He that is only shut up may escape and be seen; but he that is dead cannot leave the grave. When, then, you know anything injurious to your neighbour, you ought to be careful not to give any intimation of it to others by words, by motions of the head, or by any other sign. Sometimes greater injury is done to others by certain singular signs and broken words than by a full statement of their guilt; because these hints make persons suspect that the evil is greater than it really is.

7. In your conversations be careful not to give pain to any companion, either present or absent, by turning him into ridicule. You may say: “I do it through jest;” but such jests are contrary to charity. “All things, therefore,” says Jesus Christ, “that you will that men should do to you, do you also unto them.” (Matt. 7:12.) Would you like to be treated with derision before others? Give up, then, the practice of ridiculing your neighbours. Abstain also from contending about useless trifles. Sometimes, certain contests about mere trifles grow so warm that they end in quarrels and injurious words. Some persons are so full of the spirit of contradiction, that they controvert what others say, without any necessity, and solely for the sake of contention, and thus violate charity. “Strive not,” says the Holy Ghost, “in matters which do not concern thee.” (Eccl. 11:9.) But they will say: “I only defend reason; I cannot bear these assertions which are contrary to reason.” In answer to these defenders of reason, Cardinal Bellar-mine says, that an ounce of charity is better than an hundred loads of reason. In conversation, particularly when the subject of it is unimportant, state your opinion, if you wish to take part in the discourse, and then keep yourself in peace, and be on your guard against obstinacy in defending your own opinion. In such contests it is always better to yield. B. Egidius used to say, that he who gives up conquers; because he is superior in virtue, and preserves peace, which is far more valuable than a victory in such contests. St. Joseph Calasanctius was accustomed to say, that “he who loves peace never contradicts any one.”

8. Thus, dearly beloved brethren, if you wish to be loved by God and by men, endeavour always to speak well of all. And, should you happen to hear a person speak ill of a neighbour, be careful not to encourage his uncharitableness, nor to show any curiosity to hear the faults of others. If you do, you will be guilty of the same sin which the detractor commits. “Hedge in thy ears with thorns,” says Ecclesiasticus, “and hear not a wicked tongue.” (Eccl. 28:28.) When you hear any one taking away the character of another, place around your ears a hedge of thorns, that detraction may not enter. For this purpose it is necessary, at least, to show that the discourse is not pleasing to you. This may be done by remaining silent, by putting on a sorrowful countenance, by casting down the eyes, or turning your face in another direction. In a word, act, says St. Jerome, in such a way that the detractor, seeing your unwillingness to listen to him, may learn to be more guarded for the future against the sin of detraction. “Discat detractor, dum te videt non libenter audire, non facile detrahere.” (S. Hier. ep. ad Nepot.) And when it is in your power to do it, it will be a great act of charity to defend the character of the persons who have been defamed. The Divine Spouse wishes that the words of his beloved be a veil of scarlet. “Thy lips are as a scarlet lace.” (Cant. 4:3.) That is, as Theodoret explains this passage, her words should be dictated by charity (a scarlet lace), that they may cover, as much as possible, the defects of others, at least by excusing their intentions, when their acts cannot be excused. “If,” says St. Bernard, “you cannot excuse the act, excuse the intention.” (Serm. xl. in Cant.) It was a proverb among the nuns of the convent of St. Teresa, that, in the presence of their holy mother, their reputation was secure, because they knew she would take the part of those of whom any fault might be mentioned.

9. Charity also requires that we be meek to all, and particularly to those who are opposed to us. When a person is angry with you, and uses injurious language, remember that a “mild answer breaketh wrath.” (Prov. 15:1.) Reply to him with meekness, and you shall find that his anger will be instantly appeased. But, if you resent the injury, and use harsh language, you will increase the flame; the feeling of revenge will grow more violent, and you will expose yourself to the danger of losing your soul by yielding to an act of hatred, or by breaking out into expressions grievously injurious to your neighbour. Whenever you feel the soul agitated by passion, it is better to force yourself to remain silent, and to make no reply; for, as St. Bernard says, an eye clouded with anger cannot distinguish between right and wrong. “Turbatus præ ira oculus rectum non videt.” (Lib. 2 de Consid., cap. xi.) Should it happen that in a fit of passion you have insulted a neighbour, charity requires that you use every means to allay his wounded feelings, and to remove from his heart all sentiments of rancour towards you. The best means of making reparation for the violation of charity is to humble yourself to the person whom you have offended. With regard to the meekness which we should practise towards others, I shall speak on that subject in the thirty-fourth Sermon, or the Sermon for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost.

10. It is also an act of charity to correct sinners. Do not say that you are not a superior. Were you a superior, you should be obliged by your office to correct all those who might be under your care; but, although you are not placed over others, you are, as a Christian, obliged to fulfil the duty of fraternal correction. “He gave to every one of them commandment concerning his neighbour.” (Eccl. 17:12.) Would it not be great cruelty to see a blind man walking on the brink of a precipice, and not admonish him of his danger, in order to preserve him from temporal death? It would be far greater cruelty to neglect, for the sake of avoiding a little trouble, to deliver a brother from eternal death.

Third Point. On the charity we ought to practise towards our neighbour by works.

11. Some say that they love all, but will not put themselves to any inconvenience in order to relieve the wants of a neighbour. “My little children,” says St. John, “let us not love in word, nor in tongue, but in deed and truth.” (1 John 3:18) The Scripture tells us that alms deliver men from death, cleanse them from sin, and obtain for them the divine mercy and eternal life. “Alms delivereth from death, and the same is that which purgeth away sins, and maketh to find mercy and life everlasting.” (Job 12:9.) God will relieve you in the same manner in which you give relief to your neighbour. “With what measure you shall mete, it shall be measured to you again.” (Matt. 7:2.) Hence St. Chrysostom says, that the exercise of charity to others is the means of acquiring great gain with God. “Alms is, of all acts, the most lucrative.” And St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi used to say, that she felt more happy in relieving her neighbour than when she was wrapt up in contemplation. “Because,” she would add, “when I am in contemplation God assists me; but in giving relief to a neighbour I assist God;” for, every act of charity which we exercise towards our neighbour, God accepts as if it were done to himself. But, on the other hand, how, as St. John says, can he who does not assist a brother in want, be said to love God? “He that hath the substance of this world, and shall see his brother in need, and shall shut up his bowels from him, how doth the charity of God abide in him?” (1 John 3:17.) By alms is understood, not only the distribution of money or other goods, but every succour that is given to a neighbour in order to relieve his wants.

12. If charity obliges us to assist all, it commands us still more strictly to relieve those who are in the greatest need; such as the souls in Purgatory. St. Thomas teaches, that charity extends not only to the living, but also to the dead. Hence, as we ought to assist our neighbours who are in this life, so we are bound to give relief to those holy prisoners who are so severely tormented by fire, and who are incapable of relieving themselves. A deceased monk of the Cistercian order appeared to the sacristan of his monastery, and said to him: “Brother, assist me by your prayers; for I can do nothing for myself.” (Cron. Cist.) Let us, then, assist, to the utmost of our power, these beloved spouses of Jesus Christ, by recommending them every day to God, and by sometimes getting Mass offered for their repose. There is nothing which gives so much relief to those holy souls as the sacrifice of the altar. They certainly will not be ungrateful; they will in return pray for you, and will obtain for you still greater graces, when they shall have entered into the kingdom of God.

13. To exercise a special charity towards the sick, is also very pleasing to God. They are afflicted by pains, by melancholy, by the fear of death, and are sometimes abandoned by others. Be careful to relieve them by alms, or by little presents, and to serve them as well as you can, at least by endeavouring to console them by your words, and by exhortations to practise resignation to the will of God, and to offer to him all their sufferings.

14. Above all, be careful to practise charity to those who are opposed to you. Some say: I am grateful to all who treat me with kindness; but I cannot exercise charity towards those who persecute me. Jesus Christ says that even pagans know how to be grateful to those who do them a service. “Do not also the heathens this?” (Matt. 5:47.) Christian charity consists in wishing well, and in doing good to those who hate and injure us. “But I say to you: Love your enemies; do good to them that hate you; and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you.” (Matt. 5:44.) Some seek to injure you, but you must love them. Some have done evil to you, but you must return good for evil. Such the vengeance of the saints. This is the heavenly revenge which St. Paulinus exhorts us to inflict on our enemies. “To repay good for evil is heavenly revenge.” (Epis. xvi.) St. Chrysostom teaches, that there is nothing which assimilates us so much to God as the granting of pardon to enemies. “Nothing makes men so like to God as to spare enemies.” (Hom. xxvii. in Gen.) Such has been the practice of the saints. St. Catherine of Genoa continued for a long time to relieve a woman who had endeavoured to destroy the saint’s reputation. On an assassin, who had made an attempt on his life, St. Ambrose settled a sum for his support. Venustanus, governor of Tuscany, ordered the hands of St. Sabinus to be cut off, because the holy bishop confessed the true faith. The tyrant, feeling a violent pain in his eyes, entreated the saint to assist him. The saint prayed for him, and raised his arm, from which the blood still continued to flow, blessed him, and obtained for him the cure of his eyes and of his soul; for the tyrant became a convert to the faith. Father Segneri relates, that the son of a certain lady in Bologna was murdered by an assassin, who by accident took refuge in her house. (Christ. Instr., part 1, disc. 20, n. 20.) What did she do? She first concealed him from the ministers of justice, and afterwards said to him: Since I have lost my son, you shall henceforth be my son and my heir. Take, for the present, this sum of money, and provide for your safety elsewhere, for here you are not secure. It is thus the saints resent injuries. With what face, says St. Cyril of Jerusalem, can he that does not pardon the affronts which he receives from his enemies, say to God: Lord, pardon me the many insults which I have offered to thee? “Qua fronte dices Domino: remitte mihi multa peccata mea, si tu pauca conservo tuo non remiseris?” (Catech. ii.) But he that forgives his enemies is sure of the pardon of the Lord, who says: “Forgive, and you shall be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37.) And when you cannot serve them in any other way, recommend to God those who persecute and calumniate you. “Pray for them that persecute and calumniate you.” This is the admonition of Jesus Christ, who is able to reward those who treat their enemies in this manner.

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