"In verbo veritatis" (2 Cor 6:7)

April 9, 2019

Christ’s enriching poverty

Augustine begins his exposition of Psalm 40[41] by referring to one of the more common mocking criticisms of faith made by pagans of his time: that Christians worship a mere man, a mortal who died a disgraceful death, and from their taunts we can get some sense of what a revolution of beliefs and expectations Christianity required in the ancient world. But it is not clear, seventeen centuries later, that this “transvaluation of values,” to use Nietzsche’s phrase, is any easier today than then, and the proponents of what is called “the New Atheism” don’t hesitate to encourage public taunting of Christian beliefs. The passage below doesn’t represent an argument designed to convince the pagans; it’s more like an invitation.

What you believe against him is vain; it would be better to believe in him that you may “understand about the needy and poor one” (Ps 40[41]:2, for “he who was rich became poor,” says the Apostle, “so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). But now because he became poor, he is despised and people say, “He was a man. He died; he was crucified. You’re worshipping a man, placing your hope in a man, adoring a dead man.” No, you’re wrong. Understand about the needy and poor one so that you may be made rich by his poverty. What does it mean: “Understand about the needy and poor one?” So that you may recognize a needy and poor Christ, who says in another Psalm: “”But I am needy and poor, the Lord has a care for me” (Ps 39[40]:18). What is it to understand about the needy and poor one? That “he emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man” (Ph 2:7). He was rich with his Father and poor among us; rich in heaven, poor on the earth, rich as God, poor as man.

Does this disturb you, that you see a man, that you look upon flesh, that you look at his death, that you mock his cross? Is this what disturbs you? “Understand about the needy and poor one.” What does this mean? Understand that where weakness is displayed before you, divinity lies hidden there. Rich because that is what he is, but poor because that is what you were. But his poverty is our riches, just as his weakness is our strength, just as his foolishness is our wisdom, just as his mortality is our immortality. Consider what this poor one is, and don’t measure him by the poverty of others. He came to fill the poor, he who was made poor. Open yourself to faith, then; receive the poor one lest you remain poor….

Understand about the needy and poor one, that is, about Christ; understand the hidden riches in him whom you see as poor. For in him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col 2:3)…. Don’t let his death narrow you and turn you aside from seeing his divinity. “Blessed is the one who understands about the needy and poor one.”

And look also at the poor, the needy, the hungry and thirsty, the naked, the ill, those in prison, and understand also about such a poor one, because when you are understanding about such a one, you are understanding about him who said, “I was hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, ill, in prison” (Mt 25:35, 36). (EnPs 40, 1-2; PL 38, 454-55)

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