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Works And Letters Of St Ambrose by St. Ambrose

Chapter XII. To prevent any one from being checked in the exercise of mercyà

To prevent any one from being checked in the exercise of mercy, he shows that God cares for human actions; and proves on the evidence of Job that all wicked men are unhappy in the very abundance of their wealth.

40. But many are kept back from the duty of showing active mercy, because they suppose that God does not care about the actions of men, or that He does not know what we do in secret, and what our conscience has in view. Some again think that His judgment in no wise seems to be just; for they see that sinners have abundance of riches, that they enjoy honours, health, and children; while, on the other hand, the just live in poverty and unhonoured, they are without children, sickly in body, and often in grief.

41. That is no small point. For those three royal friends of Job declared him to be a sinner, because they saw that he, after being rich, became poor; that after having many children, he had lost them all, and that he was now covered with sores and was full of weals, and was a mass of wounds from head to foot. But holy Job made this declaration to them: |If I suffer thus because of my sins, why do the wicked live? They grow old also in riches, their seed is according to their pleasure, their children are before their eyes, their houses are prosperous; but they have no fear; there is no scourge from the Lord on them.|

42. A faint-hearted man, seeing this, is disturbed in mind, and turns his attention away from it. Holy Job, when about to speak in the words of such a one, began thus, saying: |Bear with me, I also will speak; then laugh at me. For if I am found fault with, I am found fault with as a man. Bear, therefore, the burden of my words.| For I am going to say (he means) what I do not approve; but I shall utter wrong words to refute you. Or, to translate it in another way: |How now? Am I found fault with by a man?| That is: a man cannot find fault with me because I have sinned, although I deserve to be found fault with; for ye do not find fault with me on the ground of an open sin, but estimate what I deserve for my offences by the extent of my misfortunes. Thus the faint-hearted man, seeing that the wicked succeed and prosper, whilst he himself is crushed by misfortune, says to the Lord: |Depart from me, I desire not the knowledge of Thy ways. What good is it that we serve Him, or what use to hasten to Him? In the hands of the wicked are all good things, but He sees not their works.|

43. Plato has been greatly praised, because in his book |on the State,| he has made the person who undertook the part of objector against justice to ask pardon for his words, of which he himself did not approve; and to say that that character was only assumed for the sake of finding out the truth and to investigate the question at issue. And Cicero so far approved of this, that he also, in his book which he wrote |on the Commonwealth,| thought something must be said against that idea.

44. How many years before these did Job live! He was the first to discover this, and to consider what excuses had to be made for this, not for the sake of decking out his eloquence, but for the sake of finding out the truth. At once he made the matter plain, stating that the lamp of the wicked is put out, that their destruction will come; that God, the teacher of wisdom and instruction, is not deceived, but is a judge of the truth. Therefore the blessedness of individuals must not be estimated at the value of their known wealth, but according to the voice of their conscience within them. For this, as a true and uncorrupted judge of punishments and rewards, decides between the deserts of the innocent and the guilty. The innocent man dies in the strength of his own simplicity, in the full possession of his own will; having a soul filled as it were with marrow. But the sinner, though he has abundance in life, and lives in the midst of luxury, and is redolent with sweet scents, ends his life in the bitterness of his soul, and brings his last day to a close, taking with him none of those good things which he once enjoyed -- carrying away nothing with him but the price of his own wickedness.

45. In thinking of this, deny if thou canst that a recompense is paid by divine judgment. The former feels happy in his heart, the latter wretched; that man on his own verdict is guiltless, this one a criminal; that man again is happy in leaving the world, this man grieves over it. Who can be pronounced guiltless that is not innocent in the sight of his own conscience? |Tell me,| he says, |where is the covering of his tabernacle; his token will not be found.| The life of the criminal is as a dream. He has opened his eyes. His repose has departed, his enjoyment has fled. Nay, that very repose of the wicked, which even while they live is only seeming, is now in hell, for alive they go down into hell.

46. Thou seest the enjoyments of the sinner; but question his conscience. Will he not be more foul than any sepulchre? Thou beholdest his joy, thou admirest the bodily health of his children, and the amount of his wealth; but look within at the sores and wounds of his soul, the sadness of his heart. And what shall I say of his wealth, when thou readest: |For a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth|? When thou knowest, that though he seems to thee to be rich, to himself he is poor, and in his own person refutes thy judgment? What also shall I say of the number of his children and of his freedom from pain -- when he is full of grief and decides that he will have no heir, and does not wish that those who copy his ways should succeed him? For the sinner really leaves no heir. Thus the wicked man is a punishment to himself, but the upright man is a grace to himself -- and to either, whether good or bad, the reward of his deeds is paid in his own person.

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