Ver. 30.—And they that buy as though they possessed not. Let them not regard themselves as possessors for ever, but only as tenants for life. Paul is forbidding that inordinate love of things which makes them possess us rather than we them. We are not to fix our heart on transitory things, not with inordinate affection cling to any creature that so soon passeth away. S. Anselm, S. Augustine (in Joan. Tract. 40), in giving to a rich man a rule for the due use of money, says beautifully: “Use money as a traveller in an inn uses a table, or a cup, or a ewer—as one soon to depart, not to abide for ever.”
That God might effectually teach the Jews this lesson, He appointed every fiftieth year to be a year of Jubilee, when all lands that had been sold should return without payment to their first owner. Cf. Lev. xxv. 23. He said to them in effect: “I, the Most High, have true and real dominion over your land; and therefore it belongs to Me to lay down what conditions of sale that I please, especially since I have put you into possession as settlers and colonists, and with you to always remain such. Wherefore I will and decree that all possessions whatsoever return in the year of Jubilee to their first owners, and that for this reason, that you may know, says Philo (de Cherubim), that God alone is the true Lord and possessor of all things, and that men have but usufruct of them, not dominion. “Hence,” says Philo, “it is clear that we use the goods of another; that we possess in the way of right and dominion neither glory, nor riches, nor power, not anything whatever, even if it be some power of the body or faculty of the mind: we merely have the usufruct of them while we live.”
Ver. 31.—And they that use this world as not abusing it. By not giving themselves to it overmuch. The Latin version translates the compound word as if it were a simple one—as not using it; but the meaning is the same. Not to use it is to abuse it by holding too tightly to it; for we must use things according to what they are. A world that is fleeting must therefore be used loosely, and by the way as it were, which is as though it were not used. But if you cling to the world you abuse it, for you use a thing that is ever changing, as though it were firm, fixed, and solid. For abuse, as Theophylact says, is use that is immoderate—exceeding the measure and mature of the thing. Hence the Syriac renders this passage, “Let not those that use this world use it beyond its proper measure.” Abuse is found in 1 Cor. ix. 18 in the sense of “use to the full.” Wherefore S. Basil (Reg. Brev. Interrog. 70) says: “The Apostle condemns
abuse in the words, ‘use the world as not abusing it.’ The very need that we gave of things that are for use is the measure of their use. He who goes beyond what necessity enjoins is a victim, either to covetousness, or lust, or vain glory.”
S. Leo (Serm.5 de Jej. Sept. Mensis) says excellently: “In the love of God is no excess; in the love of the world everything is harmful. And therefore should we hold fast to the things that are eternal, use the things of time in passing, as being pilgrims hastening along the road which takes us back to our country, and regarding whatever good things the world has given us as rather sustenance on the road than inducements to remain.
Therefore is it that the Apostle says: ‘The time is short, it remaineth that they that have wives be as though they had them not. &c.; ‘for the fashion of this world is passing away.’ But it is not easy to turn aside from the blandishments of form, of abundance, of novelty, unless in the beauty of visible things we love the Creator and not the creature.” Again (Serm. xi. de Quadrag.), after quoting these words of the Apostle, he adds: “Happy is the man who, in pure self-control, passes the time of his pilgrimage here, and does not rest contentedly in those things amongst which he must walk; who is s guest rather than a master in his earthly home; who does not depend on human affections, not lose sight of the Divine promises.”
For the fashion of this world passeth away. The Greek verb may be also translated “is deceitful” or “acts falsely.” For, as S. Augustine says (Ep. xxxix. ad Licentium): “The chains of this world gall while they seem to please, bring certain pain and uncertain pleasure, painful fear and fearful rest; a reality full of misery, and an empty hope of happiness. Will you of your own accord bind your hands and feet with these?” And again (Serm. xxiii. de Verb. Apostol.) he says: “Temporal things never cease to enflame us with expectation of their coming, to corrupt us when they do come, and to torture us when they have gone by. When longed for they enkindle, when obtained they lose their value, when lost they vanish away.” And S. Bernard says “Do not love the things of this world, for they burden us when we have them, defile us when we love them, and torture us when we lose them.”
Again, S. Gregory (lib. vi. Ep. ad Andream) says: “Our life is as the journey of a sailor: for the sailor stands, sits, lies down, and is borne along whither the shop carries him. So is it with us: whether waking or sleeping, whether silent or speaking, or walking, or willing or not willing, through the moments of time we are hastening daily to our end. When, then, the day of our end comes, what good will all that do us that we have so eagerly sought after, and so anxiously got together? It is not honour or riches that we should seek after: all these things must be left behind. But if we want to find what is good, let us live those things which we shall have for ever; if we fear what is evil, let us fear those sufferings which the lost suffer eternally.” Then, shortly after, he advises Andrew for the short span of our life and pilgrimage here, “to give himself to sacred reading, to meditate on heavenly words, to kindle himself with love of eternity, to do all good works in his power with his earthly things, and to hope for an everlasting kingdom as a reward for them. So to live is to have a part already in the life of eternity.” S. Jerome says, in his life of S. Hilarion, that “he was wont to remind every one that the fashion of this world is passing away, and that that is the true life which is purchased by the sufferings of this present life.”
Fashion. The nature, appearance, and fugitive state of the world, as Ambrose and Anselm say. The Apostle does not attribute form to the world, which is something more firm and constant, but fashion, which is ever changeful, fugitive, and ready to vanish away. Cf. note to Rom. xii. 2. “Do not,” says Anselm, “give the world a constant love; for the object of your love is inconstant. In vain do you firmly fix your heart on it: it flies while you love.” If the world is fugitive, so then is marriage and everything else contained in the world.
The day flies by; none knows the morrow’s fount, whether toil or rest it brings: so the world’s glory fades. So too Lipsius, our brother, a man as wise as lifted up above man and human things, was wont with great discernment to say, when we talked together, as we often did freely, of the vanity of knowledge and all human things, that he had long thought of what he would have inscribed on his tomb. It was this: “Do you wish me to speak to you still more loudly? All human things are smoke, shadow, vanity, stage-play, and in one word—nothing.”
For all the world’s a play in which this life’s story is given. Men are the platers; they have their exits and their entrances; and the place of the theatre is the earth. “One generation passeth away and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth for ever,” says Ecclesiastes i. 4. On the stage are two doors—that of birth for those coming on, that of death for those going off. Each receives the dress fitted to his part. He who personates a king will not take away with him the purple which he wore. Soon the comedy comes to an end. Seneca says that the same hour which gave us life began to end it. We often hear it said: “Tell me, O farm, O house, O prebend. O money, how many lords thou hast had, and how many yet await thee. Tell me where is Solomon and his wisdom, Samson and his strength, Absalom and his beauty, Cicero and his eloquence, Aristotle and his subtle intellect. Where are the illustrious princes, the things of old, the favour of governors, and strong limbs, the power of the princes of the world?” They are food for worms; they have returned to the dust. Transient as the morning dew, they have fled away. What seek you? What are you so eager for. Happy the man who was able to despise the world! Gregory of Nazianzen enumerates in detail and describes most beautifully and tersely the empty and fugitive nature of everything in this world (de Vitæ Itineribus). He says: “Who am I, and whence came I into this life? and who shall I be, after that having been nursed for a short time in the lap of earth, I return from the dust to life? Where in His universe will God place me? Many are the sorrows that await the traveller on life’s road. and there is no good amongst men unalloyed with evil. And would that evils did not claim for themselves the greater part! Wealth is beset by snares, and the pride of high office and of thrones is the mere dream of a sleeper. To be subject to another’s power is grievous and burdensome. Poverty drags down; beauty is as short lived as the lightning of summer; youth is nothing more than a temporary glow; old age is the gloomy sunset of life. Words take wings, glory is but breath, nobility old blood, strength is shared with the wild-boar, satiety is disgusting, matrimony a bond, a large family is the mother of inevitable anxiety, to be bereaved is as a disease, the market is the seed-plot of vices, rest is feebleness, arts are practised by worthless men, the bread of another is scanty, agriculture is toilsome, the greater number of sailors go to the bottom, one’s native land is a prison, and the region beyond it a scorn.” Then he comprehends them all in one view, and holds up to our gaze the vanity of all things in many apt similitudes, saying: “All things, in short, are full of sorrow for mortals, all human things are fearful and yet ridiculous—like to thistle-down, to a shadow, to dew, to the idle wind, the flight of a bird, to a vapour, a dream, a wave, a ship, a foot-print, a breath; to dust, to a world perpetually changing all things as it revolves—now stable, now rotating, now falling, now fixed by seasons, days, nights, labours, death, sorrows, pleasures, diseases, calamities, prosperity. Not without great wisdom is it, O Christ, that you have so appointed that all the things of this life are uncertain and unstable. Doubtless it was that we might learn to glow with love and desire of something firm and settled, that we might tear away the mind from thoughts of the folly of the flesh, and might preserve pure and intact that image given us from above; might lead a life apart from this life, and, in short, by changing this world for another, bear with fortitude all the difficulties and trials of this life.”
S. Augustine too remarks appositely (Enarr. Ps. cx.) on the words, “He shall drink of the brook on the way,” that, “a brook is the current of man’s mortality. As a brook is swollen by the rains, overflows, roars as it goes, hurries along, and as it hurries hastens to its end, so is the whole current of mortality. men are born, they live, they die; and while they die others are born, What stands still here? what is there that does not hasten onwards? what is there that is not as it were collected from the rain, and on its way to the sea, unto the deep?”
The fashion of this world implies that it is dressed and masked as an actor. Just as if a man were to sell you a horse and its trappings, you would take off its covering and examine the body and limbs of the horse before buying—even so do here. The world offers you for sale dressed-up honours, masked pleasures, decorated riches. Remove the decorations, take off the mask, look what lurks behind them: you will see that all is foreign, slender,
The Wise Man pathetically describes (v. 8) the complaint of the ungodly, and the late remorse that follows on the love of vanity; and he compares it to a slight shadow, a messenger hastening by, a ship cutting the sea, the flight of a bird, an arrow shot forth—to thistle-down, foam, smoke, wind, and to an inn where one spends a night. S. Jerome explains these images at length in his letter to Cyprianus, in which, commenting on Ps. xc. 4, he says: “Compared to eternity the length of all tome is short.” Then, at ver. 6, he says: “As in the morning the grass flourishes, and delights with its verdure the eyes of all that see it, and then gradually withers and loses its beauty, and is turned into hay to be trodden under foot, even so does the whole race of men show the freshness of spring in childhood, blossom in youth, and flourish in manhood; but suddenly, when he knows not, the head turns white, the face wrinkles, the skin contracts, and at last, in the evening of old age, he can scarcely move. He is hardly recognised for what he used to be, and seems almost changed into another man; and, lastly, as Symmachus turns Ps. xc.10, we are suddenly cut down and fly away.”