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Home > Fathers of the Church > Sermons on the New Testament (Augustine) > Sermon 31

Sermon 31 on the New Testament

[LXXXI. Ben.]

On the words of the Gospel, Matthew 18:7 , where we are admonished to beware of the offenses of the world.

1. The divine lessons, which we have just heard as they were being read, warn us to gather in a stock of virtues, to fortify a Christian heart, against the offenses which were predicted to come, and this from the mercy of the Lord. For what is man, says Scripture, saving that You are mindful of him? Woe unto the world because of offenses, says the Lord; the Truth says so; He alarms and warns us, He would not have us to be off our guard; for surely He would not make us desperate. Against this woe, against this evil, that is, which is to be feared, and dreaded, and guarded against, Scripture counsels, and exhorts, and instructs us in that place, where it is said, Great praise have they who love Your law, and nothing is an offense to them. He has shown us an enemy to be guarded against, but He has not omitted to show us also a wall of defence. You were thinking, as you heard, Woe unto the world because of offenses, whither you might go beyond the world, that you might not be exposed to offenses. Therefore to avoid offenses, whither will you go beyond the world, unless you fly to Him who made the world? And how shall we be able to fly to Him who made the world, unless we give ear to His law which is preached everywhere? And to give ear to it is but a small matter, unless we love it. For divine Scripture in making you secure against offenses does not say, Great peace have they who hear Your law. For not the hearers of the law are just before God. But because the doers of the law shall be justified, and, faith works by love: it says, Great peace have they who love Your law, and nothing is an offense to them. To this sentiment also agrees the passage which we have chanted in course; But the meek shall inherit the earth, and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace. Because, great peace have they who love Your law. For these meek ones are they who love the law of God. For, Blessed is the man whom You chasten, O Lord, and teachest him out of Your law, that You may give him rest from the days of adversity, until the pit be dug for the sinner. How diverse seem those words of Scripture, yet into one meaning do they so flow and meet together, that whatsoever out of that most rich fountain you can hear, so that you acquiesce therein, and art in loving harmony with the truth, you will be at once filled with peace; glowing with love, and fortified against offenses.

2. It is our place then to see, or seek, or learn, how we must be meek; and we are guided by that which I have just brought forward out of the Scriptures, to find what we are in quest of. Be attentive then, Beloved, for a little while; it is a weighty matter that is in hand, that we may be meek; a necessary thing in the adversities of life. But it is not the adverse circumstances of this life which are called offenses; but mark what offenses are. A man, for instance, under some hard necessity is weighed down by a press of trouble. That he is weighed down with a press of trouble, is no offense. By such pressure were even Martyrs pressed, but not oppressed. Of an offense beware, but of a press of trouble not so much. The last presses you, an offense oppresses you. What then is the difference between the two? In the press of trouble you made ready to maintain patience, to hold fast constancy, not to abandon faith, not to consent to sin. This if you maintain, or shall have maintained, the trouble that presses you shall not be your fall; but that press of trouble shall avail to the same end as in the oil press, not to destroy the olive, but to extract the oil. In a word, if in this trouble that presses you you ascribe praise unto God, how useful will the press be to you, whereby such oil is pressed out! Under such a press the Apostles sat in chains, and in that press they sang a hymn to God. What precious oil was this that was pressed and forced out! Beneath a heavy press did Job sit on the dunghill, without resource, without help, without substance, without children; full, but of worms only, as far, that is, as concerned the outward man, but because he too was full of God within, he praised God, and that press was no offense to him. Where then was the offense? When his wife came to him and said, Speak a word against God, and die. When all had been taken from him by the devil, an Eve was reserved for the exercised sufferer, not to console but to tempt her husband. See then where the offense was. She exaggerated his miseries, and her miseries too with his, and began to persuade him to blaspheme. But he who was meek, because God had taught him out of His law, and given him rest from the days of adversity; had great peace in his heart as loving the law of God, and nothing was an offense to him. She was an offense, but not to him. In a word, behold the meek man, behold one taught in the law of God, the eternal law of God I mean. For that law on tables was not yet given to the Jews in the time of Job, but in the hearts of the godly there remained still the eternal law, from which that which was given to the people was copied. Because then by the law of God he had rest given him from the days of adversity, and had great peace as loving the law of God, behold how meek he is, and what he answers. Learn hereby what I propose to enquire; who are the meek. You speak, he says, as one of the foolish women speaks. If we have received good from the hand of the Lord, shall we not bear the evil?

3. We have heard by an example who the meek are: let us, if we can, define them in words. The meek are they, to whom in all their good deeds, in all the things they do well, nothing is pleasing but God; to whom in all the evils they suffer, God is not displeasing. Now, Brethren, attend to this rule, to this pattern; let us stretch ourselves out to it, let us seek for increase, that we may fill it. For what does it profit, that we plant, and water, except God shall give the increase? For neither is he that plants anything, neither he that waters; but God that gives the increase. Give ear, whosoever you are, that would be meek, who would have rest from the days of adversity, who lovest the law of God, that there may be no offense unto you, and that you may have great peace, that you may possess the earth, and delight in the multitude of peace; give ear, whosoever you are that would be meek. Whatsoever good you do, be not pleased with yourself. For God resists the proud, but gives grace unto the humble. So then whatever good you do, let nought but God be pleasing to you; whatever evil you suffer, let not God be displeasing to you. What do you need more? Do this, and you shall live. The days of adversity shall not overwhelm you; you shall escape that which is said, Woe unto the world because of offenses. For to what world is there woe because of offenses, but to that of which it is said, And the world knew Him not? Not to that world of which it is said, God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself. There is an evil world, and there is a good world; the evil world, are all the evil men in this world; and the good world, all the good in this world. As we observe frequently with a field. This field is full: of what? Of wheat. Yet we say also, and say truly too, This field is full of chaff. So with a tree, it is full of fruit. Another says, it is full of leaves. And both he who says it is full of fruit, says true; and he who says it is full of leaves, says true. Neither has the full display of leaves taken away the room for the fruit, nor the full display of the fruit driven off the abundance of leaves. It is full of both; but the one the wind searches out, the other the husbandman gathers in. So therefore when you hear, Woe unto the world because of offenses, be not afraid; love the law of God, nothing shall be an offense to you.

4. But your wife comes to you advising you to some evil thing. Thou dost love her as a wife should be loved; she is one of your members. But if your eye offend you, if your hand offend you, if your foot offend you, you have just heard the Gospel, cut them off, and cast them from you. Whosoever he be that is dear to you, whosoever he be that is held in high estimation by you, let him be so long of high esteem with you, so long your beloved member, as he shall not begin to offend you, that is, to advise you to any evil. Hear now how that this is the meaning of offense. I have brought forward the example of Job and his wife; but there the word offense did not occur. Hear the Gospel: when the Lord prophesied of His Passion, Peter began to persuade him not to suffer. Get behind Me, Satan, you are an offense to Me. Here undoubtedly the Lord who has given you an example of life, has taught you both what an offense is, and how an offense is to be avoided. Him to whom He had a little while before said, Blessed are you, Simon Bar-jona; He had shown to be His member. But when he begins to be an offense, He cuts off the member; only He restored the member, and put it into its place again. He then will be an offense to you, who shall begin to persuade you to any evil thing. And here, Beloved, take heed; this takes place for the most part not through any evil will, but through a mistaken good will. Your friend who loves you, and is loved by you again, your father, your brother, your child, your wife, sees you in an evil case, and would have you do what is evil. What do I mean by sees you in an evil case? Sees you in some press of trouble. This pressure it may be you are suffering for righteousness' sake; art suffering it because you will not give false witness. I would speak merely by way of illustration. Examples abound; for woe to the world, because of offenses. See, for instance, some powerful person, to cover his rapine and plunder, asks of you the service of a false witness. You refuse: refuse the false oath, lest you should deny Him that is true. That I may not dwell long on this, he is angry, he is powerful, he oppresses you: a friend comes who would not have you in this press of trouble, in this evil case; I pray you, do what is told you; what great matter is it? And then perhaps as Satan with the Lord, It is written of You, He shall give His Angels charge concerning You, that Thou dash not Your foot against a stone. Perhaps too this friend of yours, because he sees you are a Christian, wishes to persuade you out of the Law to do what he thinks you ought to do. Do what the other tells. What? Do what the other wishes. But it is a lie, it is false. Well, have you not read, 'All men are liar.'? Now is he an offense. He is a friend, what will you do? He is an eye, he is a hand: Cut it off, and cast it from you. What is, cut it off, and cast it from you? Consent not to him. For members in our body make up unity by consent, by consent they live, by consent are joined together one with the other. Where there is dissent, there is disease, or a sore. He is then one of your members; you will love him. But he is an offense to you; Cut him off, and cast him from you. Consent not to him; drive him off from your ears, it may be he will return amended.

5. And how will you do this that I say, Cut him off, and cast him from you, and so, it may be, amend him? Answer me, how you are going to do it? He wished to persuade you out of the Law to tell a lie. For he said, speak. And perhaps he did not dare to say, speak a lie; but thus, speak what the other wishes. You say, But it is a lie. And he to excuse it, says, All men are liars. Then do you, my brother, say against this, The mouth that lies slays the soul. Mark, it is no light thing you have heard, The mouth that lies slays the soul. What can that powerful enemy, who oppresses me, do to me, that you pity me, and my condition, and would not have me be in this evil case; whereas you would that I should be evil? What can that powerful man do to me, and what can he oppress? The flesh. He can oppress your body, you will say: I grant he may oppress it to destruction. Still how much more mildly does he deal with me, than I should with myself were I to lie! He kills my flesh; I kill my soul. He in his power and anger slays the body; the mouth that lies slays the soul. He slays the body; and die it must, though it should not be slain; but the soul which iniquity slays not, the truth receives for ever. Preserve then what you can preserve; and let that perish which must perish sometime or other. You have given an answer then, but you have not solved the All men are liars. Make answer to him to this too, that he may not fancy that he has said anything to persuade to lying, in bringing a testimony out of the Law; so urging you out of the Law against the Law. For it is written in the Law, You shall not bear false witness; and it is written in the Law, All men are liars. Recur then to that which I just lately suggested, when I defined in words as best I could the meek man. He is meek to whom in all things that he does well, nothing but God is pleasing, and in all the evils which he suffers, God is not displeasing. Make answer then to him who says, Lie, for it is written, All men are liars: I will not lie, for it is written, The mouth that lies slays the soul. I will not lie, because it is written, You shall destroy them that speak lying. I will not lie, because it is written, You shall not bear false witness. Though he whom I displease by the truth harass my body with oppressions, I will give ear to my Lord, Fear not them which kill the body.

6. How then are all men liars? What! You are not a man, I suppose? Answer quickly and truly. And O that I may not be a man, that so I may not be a liar. For see; God looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are all together become unprofitable: there is none that does good, no not even one. Why? Because they wished to be sons of men. But in order that he might deliver them from these iniquities, cure, heal, change, the sons of men; he gave them power to become the sons of God. What marvel then! You were men, if we were the sons of men; you were all men, and were liars, for, All men are liars. The grace of God came to you, and gave you power to become the sons of God. Hear the voice of My Father saying, I have said, You are gods; and you are all the children of the Most High. Since then they are men, and the sons of men, if they are not the children of the Most High, they are liars, for, all men are liars. If they are the sons of God, if they have been redeemed by the Saviour's grace, if purchased with His precious Blood, if born again of water and of the Spirit, if predestinated to the inheritance of heaven, then indeed are they children of God. And so thereby are gods. What then would a lie have to do with you? For Adam was a mere man, Christ, man and God; God, the Creator of all creation. Adam a mere man, the Man Christ, the Mediator with God, the Only Son of the Father, the God-man. Lo, you, O man, are far from God, and God is far above man; between them the God-man placed Himself. Acknowledge Christ, and by Him as Man ascend up to God.

7. Being then now reformed, and, if my words have been so blessed, meek, let us hold fast our profession without wavering. Let us love the law of God, that we may escape that which is written, Woe unto the world because of offenses. Now I would say a few words about offenses, of which the world is full, and how it is that offenses thicken, pressing troubles abound. The world is laid waste, the winepress is trodden. Ah! Christians, heavenly shoot, you strangers on the earth, who seek a city in heaven, who long to be associated with the holy Angels; understand that you have come here on this condition only, that you should soon depart. You are passing on through the world, endeavouring to reach Him who created it. Let not the lovers of the world, who wish to remain in the world, and yet, whether they will or no, are compelled to move from it; let them not disturb you, let them not deceive nor seduce you. These pressing troubles are not offenses. Be righteous, and they will be only exercises. Tribulation comes; it will be as you choose it, either an exercise, or a condemnation. Such as it shall find you to be, will it be. Tribulation is a fire; does it find you gold? It takes away the filth: does it find you chaff? It turns it into ashes. The pressing troubles then which abound are not offenses. But what are offenses? Those expressions, those words in which we are thus addressed. See what Christian times bring about; lo, these are the true offenses. For this is said to you, to this end, that if you love the world, you may blaspheme Christ. And this he says to you who is your friend, and counsellor; and so your eye. This he says to you who ministers to you, and shares your labours, and so your hand. This he says to you it may be who supports you, who lifts you up from a low earthly state; and so your foot. Cast them all aside, cut them off, throw them all away from you; consent not unto them. Answer such men, as he who was advised to give false witness answered. So do you answer too; say to the man who says to you, See, it is in Christian times that there are such pressing troubles; that the whole world is laid waste; answer him, And this Christ foretold me, before it came to pass.

8. For wherefore are you disturbed? Your heart is disturbed by the pressing troubles of the world, as that ship was, in which Christ was asleep. Lo! What is the cause, stout-hearted man, that your heart is disturbed? That ship in which Christ is asleep, is the heart in which faith is asleep. For what new thing, what new thing, I ask, is told you, Christian? In Christian times is the world laid waste, the world is failing. Did not your Lord tell you, the world shall be laid waste? Did not your Lord tell you, the world shall fail? Why when the promise was made, did you believe, and art disturbed now, when it is being completed? So then the tempest beats furiously against your heart; beware of shipwreck, awake up Christ. The Apostle says, that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith. Christ dwells in you by faith. Present faith, is Christ present; waking faith, is Christ awake; slumbering faith, is Christ asleep. Arise and stir yourself; say, Lord, we perish. See what the Heathen say to us; and what is worse, what evil Christians say! Awake up, O Lord, we perish. Let your faith awake, and Christ begins to speak to you. 'Why are you troubled?' I told you beforehand of all these things. I foretold them, that when evils came, you might hope for good things, that you might not faint in the evil. Do you wonder that the world is failing? Wonder that the world is grown old. It is as a man who is born, and grows up, and waxes old. There are many complaints in old age; the cough, the rheum, the weakness of the eyes, fretfulness, and weariness. So then as when a man is old; he is full of complaints; so is the world old; and is full of troubles. Is it a little thing that God has done for you, in that in the world's old age, He has sent Christ unto you, that He may renew you then, when all is failing? Do you not know that He notified this in the seed of Abraham? The seed of Abraham, says the Apostle, which is Christ. He says not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of One, And to your seed, which is Christ. Therefore was there a son born to Abraham in his old age, because in the old age of this world was Christ to come. He came when all things were growing old, and made them new. As a made, created, perishing thing, the world was now declining to its fall. It could not but be that it should abound in troubles; He came both to console you in the midst of present troubles, and to promise you everlasting rest. Choose not then to cleave to this aged world, and to be unwilling to grow young in Christ, who tells you, The world is perishing, the world is waxing old, the world is failing; is distressed by the heavy breathing of old age. But do not fear, Your youth shall be renewed as the eagle's.

9. See, they say, in Christian times it is that Rome perishes. Perhaps Rome is not perishing; perhaps she is only scourged, not utterly destroyed; perhaps she is chastened, not brought to nought. It may be so; Rome will not perish, if the Romans do not perish. And perish they will not if they praise God; perish they will if they blaspheme Him. For what is Rome, but the Romans? For the question is not of her wood and stones, of her lofty insulated palaces, and all her spacious walls. All this was made only on this condition that it should fall some other day. When man built it, he laid stone on stone; and when man destroyed it, he removed stone from stone. Man made it, man destroyed it. Is any injury done to Rome, because it is said, She is falling? No, not to Rome, but to her builder perhaps. Do we then its builder any injury, because we say, Rome is falling, which Romulus built? This world itself will be burnt with fire, which God built. But neither does what man has made fall to ruin, except when God wills it; nor what God has made, except when He wills. For if the work of man fall not without God's will, how can God's work fall by the will of man? Yet God both made the world that was one day to fall for you; and therefore made He you as one who was one day to die. Man himself, the city's ornament, man himself, the city's inhabitant, ruler, governor, comes on this condition that he may go, is born on this condition that he may die, entered into the world on this condition that he may pass away; Heaven and earth shall pass away: what wonder then if some time or other there should be an end of a single city? And yet perhaps the city's end is not come now; yet some time or other come it will. But why does Rome perish amid the sacrifices of Christians? Why was her mother Troy burnt amid the sacrifices of Heathens? The gods in whom the Romans have placed all their hope, yea the Roman gods in whom the Heathen Romans placed their hope, removed from the flames of Troy to found Rome. These very gods of Rome were originally the gods of Troy. Troy was burnt, and Æneas took the fugitive gods; yea rather himself a fugitive he took away these senseless gods. For they could be carried by the fugitive; but they could not flee away themselves. And coming with these gods into Italy, with these false gods, he founded Rome. It is too long to go through the whole story; yet would I briefly mention what their own writings contain. An author of theirs well known to all speaks thus; As I have received the account, the Trojans who under the guidance of Æneas were wandering about as fugitives without any settled abode, originally built and inhabited Rome. So they had their gods with them, they built Rome in Latium, and there they placed the gods to be worshipped, which before were worshipped in Troy. Juno is introduced by their poet, incensed against Æneas and the fugitive Trojans, saying,

A race of wandering slaves abhorred by me,
With prosperous passage cuts the Tuscan sea,
To fruitful Italy their course they steer,
And for their vanquished gods, design new temples
there.

Now when these vanquished gods were carried into Italy, was it as a protecting deity, or as a presage of their future fall? Love therefore the law of God, and nothing shall be an offense to you. We pray you, we beseech you, we exhort you; be meek, sympathize with the suffering, bear the weak; and on this occasion of the concourse of so many strangers, and needy, and suffering people, let your hospitality and your good works abound. Let but Christians do what Christ enjoins, and so will the Heathen blaspheme only to their own hurt.

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Source. Translated by R.G. MacMullen. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/160331.htm>.

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