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Home > Fathers of the Church > Sermons on the New Testament (Augustine) > Sermon 33

Sermon 33 on the New Testament

[LXXXIII. Ben.]

On the words of the Gospel, Matthew 17:21 , How oft shall my brother sin against me, etc.

1. Yesterday the holy Gospel warned us not to neglect the sins of our brethren: But if your brother shall sin against you, rebuke him between him and you alone. If he shall hear you, you have gained your brother. But if he shall refuse to hear you, take with you two or three more; that in the mouth of two or three witnesses, every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them too, tell it to the Church. But if he shall neglect to hear the Church, let him be unto you as an heathen man and a publican. Today also the section which follows, and which we heard when it was read, relates to the same subject. For when the Lord Jesus had said this to Peter, he went on to ask his Master, how often he should forgive a brother who had sinned against him; and he enquired whether seven times would be enough. The Lord answered him, Not only seven times, but seventy times seven. Then he added a parable very full of terror: That the kingdom of heaven is like an householder, which took account with his servants; among whom he found one that owed ten thousand talents. And when he commanded all that he had, and all his family, and himself to be sold, and the debt to be paid, he fell down at his lord's feet, and prayed for delay, and obtained entire remission. For as we have heard, His lord was moved with compassion, and forgave him all the debt. Then that man free from his debt, but a bondslave of iniquity, after he had gone out from the presence of his lord, found in his turn a debtor of his own, who owed him, not ten thousand talents, the sum which had been remitted to him, but a hundred denarii; and he began to drag him by the throat, and say, Pay me that you owe. Then he besought his fellow-servant as he had done his lord; but he did not find his fellow-servant such a man as the other had found his lord. He not only would not forgive him the debt; but he did not even grant him a delay. He hurried him along with great violence to make him pay, he who had been but just now set free from his debt to his lord. His fellow-servants were displeased; and went and told their lord what was done; and the lord summoned his servant to his presence, and said to him, O you wicked servant, when you owed me so great a debt, in pity to you I forgave you all. Should not you also have had compassion on your fellow-servant, even as I had pity on you? And he commanded that all which he had forgiven him should be paid.

2. It is then for our instruction that He put forth this parable, and by this warning He would save us from perishing. So, said He, shall My heavenly Father do also unto you, if you from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses. Lo, Brethren, the thing is plain, useful is the admonition, and a wholesome obedience is by all means due, that what has been bidden may be fulfilled. For every man is at once God's debtor, and has also some brother a debtor to himself. For who is there who is not God's debtor, but he in whom there can be found no sin? And who is there who has not a brother his debtor, but he against whom no one has sinned? Think you that any one among mankind can be found, who is not himself bounden to his brother by some sin? So then every man is a debtor, yet having himself his own debtors too. The righteous God therefore appoints a rule for you toward your debtor, which He also will observe with His. For two works of mercy are there, which deliver us, which the Lord has Himself briefly laid down in the Gospel: Forgive, and you shall be forgiven: give, and it shall be given unto you. Forgive, and you shall be forgiven, relates to pardoning. Give, and it shall be given unto you, relates to doing kindnesses. As to what He says of pardoning, you both wish your sin to be pardoned you, and you have another whom you may pardon. Again, as to the doing kindnesses; a beggar asks of you, and you are God's beggar. For we are all when we pray God's beggars; we stand, yea rather we fall prostrate before the door of the Great Householder, we groan in supplication wishing to receive something; and this something is God Himself. What does the beggar ask of you? Bread. And what do you ask of God, but Christ, who says, I am the living Bread which came down from heaven? Would you be forgiven? Forgive. Forgive, and it shall be forgiven you. Would you receive? Give, and it shall be given unto you.

3. But now hear what in so plain a precept I may cause a difficulty. In this question of forgiveness when pardon is asked, and it is due from him who should grant it, it may be a difficulty to us as it was to Peter. How often ought I to forgive? Is up to seven times sufficient? It is not sufficient, says the Lord, I say not unto you, Until seven times; but, Until seventy times seven. Now reckon up how often your brother has sinned against you. If you can reach the seventy-eighth fault, so as to get beyond the seventy times seven, then set about revenge. Is this then what He really means, and is it really so, that if he shall sin seventy times seven, you should forgive him; but if he shall sin seventy times and eight, it should then be lawful for you not to forgive? Nay I am bold to say, that if he should even sin seventy-eight times, you must forgive. Yea, as I have said, if he shall sin seventy-eight times, forgive. And if he sin a hundred times, forgive. And why need I say, so and so often? In one word, as often as he shall sin, forgive him. Have I then taken upon me to overpass the measure of my Lord? He fixed the limit of forgiveness in the number seventy-seven; shall I presume to overleap this limit? It is not so, I have not presumed to go at all beyond. I have heard the Lord Himself speaking in His Apostle where there is no measure or number fixed. For He says, Forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Here you have the rule. If Christ have forgiven you your sins seventy times and seven only, if He have pardoned up to this point, and refused to pardon beyond it; then do you also fix this limit, and be loth to forgive beyond it. But if Christ has found thousands of sins upon sins, and has yet forgiven all; withdraw not then your mercy, but ask the forgiveness of that large number. For it was not without a meaning that the Lord said seventy times seven; forasmuch as there is no trespass whatever which you ought not to forgive. See this servant in the parable, who being a debtor was found to have a debtor, owed ten thousand talents. And I suppose that ten thousand talents are at least ten thousand sins. For I will not say how but one talent will include all sins. But how much did the other servant owe him? He owed a hundred denarii. Now is not this more than seventy and seven? And yet the Lord was angry, because he did not forgive him. For not only is a hundred more than seventy-seven; but a hundred denarii, perhaps are a thousand asses. But what was this to ten thousand talents?

4. And so let us be ready to forgive all the trespasses which are committed against us, if we desire to be forgiven. For if we consider our sins, and reckon up what we do in deed, what by the eye, what by the ear, what by thought, what by numberless movements; I know not whether we so much as sleep without a talent. And therefore do we daily beg, daily knock at the ears of God by prayer, daily prostrate ourselves and say, Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. What debts of yours? All, or a certain part? You will answer, All. So then do you with your debtor. This then is the rule you lay down, this the condition you speak of; this the covenant and agreement you mention when you pray, saying, Forgive us, as we forgive our debtors.

5. What then, Brethren, is the meaning of seventy times seven? Hear, for it is a great mystery, a wonderful sacrament. When the Lord was baptized, the Evangelist St. Luke has in that place commemorated His generations in the regular order, series, and line in which they had come down to that generation in which Christ was born. Matthew begins at Abraham, and comes down to Joseph in a descending order; but Luke begins to reckon in an ascending order. Why does the one reckon in a descending, and the other in an ascending order? Because Matthew set forth the generation of Christ by which He came down to us; and so he began to reckon when Christ was born in a descending order. Whereas, because Luke begins to reckon when Christ was baptized; in this is the beginning of ascension, he begins to reckon in an ascending order, and in his reckoning he has completed seventy-seven generations. With whom did he begin his reckoning? Observe with whom? He began to reckon from Christ up to Adam himself, who was the first sinner, and who begot us with the bond of sin. He reckoned up to Adam, and so there are reckoned seventy-seven generations; that is, from Christ up to Adam and from Adam up to Christ are the aforesaid seventy-seven generations. So then if no generation was omitted, there is no exemption of any trespass which ought not to be forgiven. For therefore did he reckon up his seventy-seven generations, which number the Lord mentioned as to the forgiveness of sins; since he begins to reckon from the baptism, wherein all sins are remitted.

6. And, Brethren, observe in this a yet greater mystery. In the number seventy-seven is a mystery of the remission of sins. So many are the generations found to be from Christ to Adam. Now then, ask with somewhat more careful diligence for the secret meaning of this number, and enquire into its hidden meaning; with more careful diligence knock, that it may be opened unto you. Righteousness consists in the observance of the Law of God: true. For the Law is set forth in ten precepts. Therefore it was that the servant in the parable owed ten thousand talents. This is that memorable Decalogue written by the finger of God, and delivered to the people by Moses, the servant of God. He owed then ten thousand talents; which signifies all sins, with reference to the number of the Law. And the other owed a hundred denarii; derived equally from the same number. For a hundred times a hundred make ten thousand; and ten times ten make a hundred. And the one owed ten thousand talents, and the other ten times ten denarii. For there was no departure from the number of the law, and in both numbers you will find every kind of sin included. Both are debtors, and both implore and beg for pardon; but the wicked, ungrateful servant would not repay what he had received, would not grant the mercy which had been undeservedly accorded to him.

7. Consider then, Brethren; every man begins from Baptism; he goes out free, the ten thousand talents are forgiven him; and when he goes out, he will soon find some fellow-servant his debtor. Let him note then, what sin itself is; for the number eleven is the transgression of the law. For the law is ten, sin eleven. For the law is denoted by ten, sin by eleven. Why is sin denoted by eleven? Because to get to eleven, there is the transgression of the ten. But the due limit is fixed in the law; and the transgression of it is sin. Now when you have passed beyond the ten, you come to eleven. This high mystery was figured out when the tabernacle was commanded to be built. There are many things mentioned there in number, which are a great mystery. Among the rest, curtains of haircloth were ordered to be made not ten, but eleven; because by haircloth is signified the confession of sins. Now what do you require more? Would you know how that all sins are contained in this number seventy-seven? Seven then is usually put for a whole; because in seven days the revolution of time is completed, and when the seventh is ended, it returns to the first again, that the same revolution may be continued. In such revolutions whole ages pass away: yet there is no departure from the number seven. For He spoke of all sins, when He said seventy times seven; for multiply that eleven seven times, and it makes seventy-seven. Therefore would He have all sins forgiven, for He marked them out by the number seventy-seven. Let no one then retain against himself by refusing to forgive, lest it be retained against him, when he prays. For God says, Forgive, and you shall be forgiven. For I have forgiven you first; you at least forgive after that. For if you will not forgive, I will call you back, and put upon you again all that I had remitted to you. For the Truth does not speak falsely; Christ neither deceives, nor is deceived, and He has said at the close of the parable, So likewise shall your Father which is in heaven do unto you. Thou findest a Father, imitate your Father. For if you will not imitate Him, you are devising to be disinherited. So likewise then shall My heavenly Father do also unto you, if you from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses. Say not with the tongue, I forgive, and put off to forgive in the heart; for by His threat of vengeance God shows you your punishment. God knows where you speak. Man can hear your voice; God looks into your conscience. If you say, I forgive; forgive. Better is it that you should be violent in words, and forgive in the heart, than in words be soft, and in the heart relentless.

8. Now then unruly boys will beg, and take it hard to be beat taking exception against us when we wish to chastise them after this fashion. I have sinned, but forgive me. Well, I have forgiven, and he sins again. Forgive me, he cries, and I have forgiven him. He sins a third time. Forgive me, he cries, and a third time I have forgiven him. Now then the fourth time let him be beat. And he will say, What! Have I tired you out to seventy-seven times? Now if by such exceptions the severity of discipline sleep, upon the suppression of discipline wickedness will rage with impunity. What then is to be done? Let us reprove with words, and if need be with scourges; but let us withal forgive the sin, and cast away the remembrance of it from the heart. For therefore did the Lord add, from your hearts, that though through affection discipline be exercised, gentleness might not depart out of the heart. For what is so kind and gentle as the surgeon with his knife? He that is to be cut cries, yet cut he is; he that is to be cauterized cries, but cauterized he is. This is not cruelty; on no account let that surgeon's treatment be called cruelty. Cruel he is against the wounded part that the patient may be cured; for if the wound be softly dealt with, the man is lost. Thus then would I advise, my Brethren, that we love our brethren, howsoever they may have sinned against us; that we let not affection toward them depart out of our hearts, and that when need is, we exercise discipline toward them; lest by the relaxation of discipline, wickedness increase, and we begin to be accused on God's behalf, for it has been read to us, Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear. Certainly, if one, as is the only true way, distinguishes the times, and so solves the question, all is true. If the sin be in secret, rebuke it in secret. If the sin be public and open, rebuke it publicly that the sinner may be reformed; and that others also may fear.

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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/160333.htm>.

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