St. Ambrose, for his part, is remarkably forthright about the need for discernment in almsgiving, in light of the limited resources we have. In thinking about these words, we should keep in mind what great lengths he took to redeem captives in his own lifetime, even selling vessels of worship in order to do so.
St. Ambrose stresses throughout "De Officiis," which was written as a practical guide for clergy, the value of justice (among Cicero's four cardinal virtues, together with prudence, fortitude and temperance, which St. Ambrose re-defines for a Christian audience)-- assigning to each what is right and what honor is due them. The positive value of treating different people of different character differently, while acting always in love and in solicitude for their salvation, is continuously affirmed.
He's also clearly of the opinion that public acts of charity, if not done for the sake of ostentation, are a terrific witness. We need to be concerned with what other people think and avoid scandal-- to the extent possible (we do, after all, proclaim the triumph of a crucified Lord, in and of itself a scandal).
"It is clear, then, that there ought to be due measure in our liberality, that our gifts may not become useless. Moderation must be observed, especially by priests, for fear that they should give away for the sake of ostentation, and not for justice's sake. Never was the greed of beggars greater than it is now. They come in full vigour, they come with no reason but that they are on the tramp. They want to empty the purses of the poor— to deprive them of their means of support. Not content with a little, they ask for more. In the clothes that cover them they seek a ground to urge their demands, and with lies about their lives they ask for further sums of money. If any one were to trust their tale too readily, he would quickly drain the fund which is meant to serve for the sustenance of the poor. Let there be method in our giving, so that the poor may not go away empty nor the subsistence of the needy be done away and become the spoil of the dishonest. Let there be then such due measure that kindness may never be put aside, and true need never be left neglected.
Many pretend they have debts. Let the truth be looked into. They bemoan the fact that they have been stripped of everything by robbers. In such a case give credit only if the misfortune is apparent, or the person is well known; and then readily give help. To those rejected by the Church supplies must be granted if they are in want of food. He, then, that observes method in his giving is hard towards none, but is free towards all. We ought not only to lend our ears to hear the voices of those who plead, but also our eyes to look into their needs. Weakness calls more loudly to the good dispenser than the voice of the poor. It cannot always be that the cries of an importunate beggar will never extort more, but let us not always give way to impudence. He must be seen who does not see you. He must be sought for who is ashamed to be seen. He also that is in prison must come to your thoughts; another seized with sickness must present himself to your mind as he cannot reach your ears.
The more people see your zeal in showing mercy, the more will they love you. I know many priests who had the more, the more they gave. For they who see a good dispenser give him something to distribute in his round of duty, sure that the act of mercy will reach the poor. If they see him giving away either in excess or too sparingly, they contemn either of these; in the one case because he wastes the fruits of another's labours by unnecessary payments, on the other hand because he hoards them in his money bags. As, then, method must be observed in liberality, so also at times it seems as though the spur must be applied. Method, then, so that the kindness one shows may be able to be shown day by day, and that we may not have to withdraw from a needful case what we have freely spent on waste. A spur, because money is better laid out in food for the poor than on a purse for the rich. We must take care lest in our money chests we shut up the welfare of the needy, and bury the life of the poor as it were in a sepulchre.
Joseph could have given away all the wealth of Egypt, and have spent the royal treasures; but he would not even seem to be wasteful of what was another's. He preferred to sell the grain rather than to give it to the hungry. For if he had given it to a few there would have been none for most. He gave good proof of that liberality whereby there was enough for all. He opened the storehouses that all might buy their grain supply, lest if they received it for nothing, they should give up cultivating the ground. For he who has the use of what is another's often neglects his own."
From "De Officiis," Book II, Chapter XVI
Edited by Evan, 08 December 2010 - 06:30 PM.