Augustine of Hippo
ON THE WORDS OF THE GOSPEL, MATT. XVIII. 7, WHERE WE ARE ADMONISHED TO BEWARE OF THE OFFENCES 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 offences which were predicted to come, and this from the mercy of the Lord. "For what is man," saith Scripture, "saving that
Thou art mindful of him? " "Woe unto the world because of offences," saith the Lord; the Truth says so; He alarmeth and warneth 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 Thy law, and nothing is an offence to them." He hath shown us an enemy to be guarded against, but He hath not omitted to show us also a wall of defence. Thou wast thinking, as thou heardest, "Woe unto the world because of offences," whither thou mightest go beyond the world, that thou mightest not be exposed to offences. Therefore to avoid offences, whither wilt thou go beyond the world, unless thou 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 thee secure against offences doth not say, "Great peace have they who" hear "Thy law. For not the hearers of the law are just before God. But" because" the doers of the law shall be justified," and, "faith worketh by love: " it saith, "Great peace have they who love Thy law, and nothing is an offence 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 Thy law." For these" meek "ones are they who "love the law of God." For, "Blessed is the man whom Thou chastenest, O Lord, and teachest him out of Thy law, that Thou mayest give him rest from the days of adversity, until the pit be digged 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 thou canst hear, so that thou acquiesce therein, and art in loving harmony with the truth, thou will be at once filled with peace; glowing with love, and fortified against offences.
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 offences; but mark what "offences" 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 offence. By such pressure were even Martyrs pressed, but not oppressed. Of an offence beware, but of a press of trouble not so much. The last presseth thee, an offence oppresseth thee. What then is the difference between the two? In the press of trouble thou didst make ready to maintain patience, to hold fast constancy, not to abandon faith, not to consent to sin. This if thou maintain, or shall have maintained, the trouble that presseth thee shall not be thy 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 presseth thee thou ascribe praise unto God, how useful will the press be to thee, 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 "offence" to him. Where then was the "offence "? 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 offence 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 offence to him." She was an offence, 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. "Thou speakest," he says, "as one of the foolish women speaketh. 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 planteth anything, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase." Give ear, whosoever thou art, that wouldest be "meek," who wouldest have "rest from the days of adversity, who lovest the law of God," that there may be "no offence unto thee," and that thou mayest "have great peace," that thou mayest "possess the earth, and delight in the multitude of peace;" give ear, whosoever thou art that wouldest be "meek." Whatsoever good thou doest, be not pleased with thyself. "For God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble."' So then whatever good thou doest, let nought but God be pleasing to thee; whatever evil thou sufferest, let not God be displeasing to thee. What needest thou more? Do this, and thou shalt live. The days of adversity shall not overwhelm thee; thou shall escape that which is said, "Woe unto the world because of offences." For to what world is there woe because of offences, 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 searcheth out, the other the husbandman gathereth in. So therefore when thou dost hear, "Woe unto the world because of offences," be not afraid; "love the law of God, nothing shall be an offence to thee."
4. But thy wife comes to thee advising thee to some evil thing. Thou dost love her as a wife should be loved; she is one of thy members. "But if thine eye offend thee, if thine hand offend thee, if thy foot offend thee," thou hast just heard the Gospel, "cut them off, and cast them from thee." Whosoever he be that is dear to thee, whosoever he be that is held in high estimation by thee, let him be so long of high esteem with thee, so long thy beloved member, as he shall not begin to offend time, that is, to advise thee to any evil. Hear now how that this is the meaning of "offence." I have brought forward the example of Job and his wife; but there the word "offence" did not occur. Hear the Gospel: when the Lord prophesied of His Passion, Peter began to persuade him not to suffer. "Get thee behind Me, Satan, thou art an offence to Me." Here undoubtedly the Lord who hath given thee an example of life, hath taught thee both what an "offence" is, and how an offence is to be avoided. Him to whom He had a little while before said, "Blessed 'art thou, Simon Barjona;" He had shown to be His member. But when he begins to be an offence, He cuts off the member; only He restored the member, and put it into its place again. He then will be an "offence" to thee, who shall begin to persuade thee 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. Thy friend who loves thee, and is loved by thee again, thy father, thy brother, thy child, thy wife, sees thee in an evil case, and would have thee do what is evil. What do I mean by "sees thee in an evil case"? Sees thee in some press of trouble. This pressure it may be thou art suffering for righteousness' sake; art suffering it because thou will not give false witness. I would speak merely by way of illustration. Examples abound; for "woe to the world, because of offences." 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 thou shouldest deny Him that is true. That I may not dwell long on this, he is angry, he is powerful, he oppresses thee: a friend comes who would not have thee in this press of trouble, in this evil case; "I pray thee, do what is told thee; what great matter is it?" And then perhaps as Satan with the Lord, "It is written of Thee, He shall give His Angels charge concerning Thee, that Thou dash not Thy foot against a stone." Perhaps too this friend of thine, because he sees thou art a Christian, wishes to persuade thee 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 liars'?" Now is he an
"offence." He is a friend, what will you do? He is an eye, he is a hand: "Cut it off, and cast it from thee." What is, "cut it off, and cast it from thee"?
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 thy members; thou wilt love him. But he is an offence to thee; "Cut him off, and cast him from thee." Consent not to him; drive him off from thine ears, it may be he will return amended.
5. And how wilt thou do this that I say, "Cut him off, and cast him from thee," and so, it may be, amend him? answer me, how thou art going to do it? He wished to persuade thee 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." Thou sayest, "But it is a lie." And he to excuse it, says, "All men are liars." Then do thou, my brother, say against this, "The mouth that lieth slayeth the soul." Mark, it is no light thing thou hast heard, "The mouth that lieth slayeth the soul." What can that powerful enemy, who oppresseth me, do to me, that thou pitiest me, and my condition, and wouldest not have me be in this evil case; whereas thou wouldest that I should be evil? What can that powerful man do to me, and what can he oppress? The flesh. He can oppress thy body, thou wilt 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 lieth slayeth the soul." He slays the body; and die it must, though it should not be slain; but the soul which iniquity slayeth not, the truth receiveth for ever. Preserve then what thou canst preserve; and let that perish which must perish sometime or other. Thou hast given an answer then, but thou hast 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 thee out of the Law against the Law. For it is written in the Law, "Thou shalt 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 lieth slayeth the soul." I will not lie, because it is written, "Thou shalt destroy them that speak lying." I will not lie, because it is written, "Thou shalt 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! Thou art 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 doeth 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! Ye were men, if we were the sons of men; ye 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, Ye are gods; and ye 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 thee? 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, thou, O man, art 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 offences." Now I would say a few words about "offences," of which the world is full, and how it is that offences thicken, pressing troubles abound. The world is laid waste, the winepress is trodden. Ah! Christians, heavenly shoot, ye strangers on the earth, who seek a city in heaven, who long to be associated with the holy Angels; under stand that ye have come here on this condition only, that ye should soon depart. Ye 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 offences. Be ye righteous, and they will be only exercises. Tribulation comes; it will be as ye 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 thee gold? it takes away the filth: does it find thee chaff? it turns it into ashes. The pressing troubles then which abound are not" offences." But what are "offences"? Those expressions, those words in which we are thus addressed. "See what Christian times bring about;" lo, these are the true offences. For this is said to thee, to this end, that if thou love the world, thou mayest blaspheme Christ. And this he saith to thee who is thy friend, and counsellor; and so "thine eye." This he saith to thee who ministereth to thee, and shareth thy labours, and so "thine hand." This he saith to thee it may be who supporteth thee, who lifteth thee up from a low earthly state; and so "thy foot." Cast them all aside, cut them off, throw them all away from thee; consent not unto them. Answer such men, as he who was advised to give false witness answered. So do thou answer too say to the man who saith to thee, "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 art thou disturbed? Thine 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 thy 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 thee, Christian? "In Christian times is the world laid waste, the world is failing." Did not thy Lord tell thee, the world shall be 'laid waste? Did not thy Lord tell thee, the world shall fail? Why when the promise was made, didst thou believe, and art disturbed now, when it is being completed? So then the tempest beats furiously against thine heart; beware of shipwreck, awake up Christ. The Apostle says, "that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith." Christ dwelleth in thee by faith. Present faith, is Christ present; waking faith, is Christ awake; slumbering faith, is Christ asleep. Arise and stir thyself; 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 thy faith awake, and Christ begins to speak to thee. "'Why art thou troubled? I told thee beforehand of all these things. I foretold them, that when evils came, thou mightest hope for good things, that thou mightest not faint in the evil." Wonderest thou 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 hath done for thee, in that in the world's old age, He hath sent Christ unto thee, that He may renew thee then, when all is failing? Dost thou not I know that He notified this in the seed of Abraham? "The seed of Abraham," says the Apostle, "which is Christ. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of One, And to thy 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 thee in the midst of present troubles, and to promise thee everlasting rest. Choose not then to cleave to this aged world, and to be unwilling to grow young in Christ, who telleth thee, "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, "Thy 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 thee; and therefore made He thee 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 peradventure 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 AEneas 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 AEneas were wandering about as fugitives without any settled abode, originally built and inhabited Rome." So they had their gods with them, they builded 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 AEneas 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 s of their future fall? "Love" therefore "the law of God, and nothing shall be an offence 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 enjoineth, and so will the Heathen blaspheme only to their own hurt.