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Home > Fathers of the Church > Sermons on the New Testament (Augustine) > Sermon 30

Sermon 30 on the New Testament

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[LXXX. Ben.]

On the words of the Gospel, Matthew 17:19 , Why could not we cast it out? Etc., and on prayer.

1. Our Lord Jesus Christ reproved unbelief even in His own disciples, as we heard just now when the Gospel was being read. For when they had said, Why could not we cast him out? He answered, Because of your unbelief. If the Apostles were unbelievers, who is a believer? What must the lambs do, if the rams totter? Yet the mercy of the Lord did not disdain them in their unbelief; but reproved, nourished, perfected, crowned them. For they themselves, as mindful of their own weakness, said to Him, as we read in a certain place in the Gospel, Lord, increase our faith. Lord, say they, increase our faith. The knowing that they had a deficiency, was the first advantage; a greater happiness still, to know who it was of whom they were asking. Lord, say they, increase our faith. See, if they did not bring their hearts as it were to the fountain, and knocked that that might be opened to them, out of which they might fill them. For He would that men should knock at Him, not that He might repel those that knock, but that He might exercise those who long.

2. For do you think, Brethren, that God does not know what is needful for you? He knows and prevents our desires, who knows our want. And so when He taught His disciples to pray, and warned them not to use many words in prayer, He says, Use not many words; for your Father knows what things you have need of before ye ask Him. Now the Lord says something different from this. What is this? Because He misliked that we should use many words in prayer, He said to us, When ye pray, use not many words; for your Father knows what things you have need of before ye ask Him. If our Father knows what things we have need of before we ask Him, why do we use even few words? What is the use of prayer at all, if our Father knows already what things we have need of? He says to one, Do not make your prayer to Me at great length; for I know what is needful for you. If so, Lord, why should I so much as pray at all? You would not that I should use long prayers, yea rather Thou dost even bid me to use near none at all. And then what means that precept in another place? For He who says, Use not many words in prayer, says in another place, Ask, and it shall be given you. And that you might not think that this first precept to ask was given cursorily, He added, Seek, and you shall find. And that you might not think that this too was cursorily given, see what He added further, see with what He finished. Knock, and it shall be opened unto you: see what He added. He would have you ask that you may receive, and seek that you may find, and knock that you may enter in. Seeing then that our Father knows already what is needful for us, how and why do we ask? Why seek? Why knock? Why weary ourselves in asking, and seeking, and knocking, to instruct Him who knows already? And in another place the words of the Lord are, Men ought always to pray, and not to faint. If men ought always to pray, how does He say, Use not many words? How can I always pray, if I so quickly make an end? Here Thou biddest me to finish quickly; there always to pray and not to faint: what does this mean? Now that you may understand this, ask, seek, knock. For for this cause is it closed, not to shut you out, but to exercise you. Therefore, brethren, ought we to exhort to prayer, both ourselves and you. For other hope have we none amid the manifold evils of this present world, than to knock in prayer, to believe and to maintain the belief firm in the heart, that your Father only does not give you what He knows is not expedient for you. For you know what you desire; He knows what is good for you. Imagine yourself under a physician, and in weak health, as is the very truth; for all this life of ours is a weakness; and a long life is nothing else but a prolonged weakness. Imagine yourself then to be sick under the physician's hand. You have a desire to ask your physician leave to drink a draught of fresh wine. You are not prohibited from asking, for it may chance to do you no harm, or even good to receive it. Do not then hesitate to ask; ask, hesitate not; but if you receive not, do not take it to heart. Now if you would act thus in the hands of a man, the physician of the body, how much more in the hands of God, who is the Physician, the Creator, and Restorer, both of your body and soul?

3. Wherefore, see how the Lord in this passage exhorted His disciples to prayer, when He said, You could not cast out this devil because of your unbelief. For then exhorting them to prayer He ended thus; this kind is not cast out but by prayer and fasting. If a man must pray, to cast out devils from another, how much more to cast out his own covetousness? How much more to cast out his own drunkenness? How much more to cast out his own luxuriousness? How much more to cast out his own uncleanness? How many things in a man are there, which if they are persevered in, allow of no admission into the kingdom of heaven! Consider, Brethren, how a physician is entreated for the preservation of temporal health, how, if any one is desperately ill, is he ashamed or slow to throw himself at a man's feet? To bathe in tears the footsteps of any very able chief physician? And what if the physician say to him, You can not else be cured, except I bind you, and use the fire and knife? He will answer, Do what you will, only cure me. With what eagerness does he long for the health of a few days, fleeting as a vapour, that for it he is content to be bound, and submit to the fire, and knife, and to be watched, that he neither eat nor drink what, or when, he pleases! All this he will endure, that he may die a little later; and yet he will not endure ever so little, that he may never die. If God, who is the Heavenly Physician over us, says to you, Will you be cured? what would you say but Yes. Or it may be you would not say so, because you fancy yourself to be in health, that is, because you are more grievously sick.

4. For if we suppose two sick persons, one who implores the physician with tears, the other, who in his sickness with infatuation derides him; he will hold out hope to the one that weeps, and will deplore the case of the other that laughs. Why? But because the sounder in health he thinks himself, the more dangerous his sickness is! This was the case with the Jews. Christ came to them that were sick; He found them all sick. Let no one then flatter himself on his healthful state, lest the physician give him up. He found all sick; it is the Apostle's judgment, For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God. Though He found them all sick, yet were there two sorts of sick folk. The one came to the Physician, clave to Christ, heard, honoured, followed Him, were converted. He received all without disdaining any, for to heal them, who healed of free favour, who cured by Almighty power. When then He received them, and joined them to Himself to be healed, they rejoiced. But there was another sort of sick, who had already become infatuated through the sickness of iniquity, and did not know themselves to be sick; they mocked Him, because He received the sick, and said to His disciples, Lo, what manner of man is your Master, who eats with publicans and sinners. And He who knew what and who they were answered them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. And He showed them who the whole were, and who the sick. I am not come, He says, to call the righteous, but sinners. If sinners, He would say, do not come to Me, wherefore am I come? For whose sake am I come? If all are whole, wherefore has so great a Physician come down from heaven? Why has He prepared for us a medicine not out of His stores, but of His own blood? That sort of sick then who had a milder sickness, who felt themselves to be sick, clave to the Physician, that they might be healed. But they whose sickness was more dangerous mocked the Physician, and abused the sick. Whither did their frenzy proceed at last? To seize the Physician, bind, scourge, crown Him with thorns, hang Him upon a Tree, kill Him on the Cross! Why do you marvel? The sick slew the Physician; but the Physician by being slain healed the frantic patient.

5. For first, not forgetting on the Cross His own character, and manifesting forth His patience to us, and giving us an example of love to our enemies; as He saw them raging round Him, who had known their disease, seeing He was the Physician, who had known the frenzy by which they had become infatuated, He said at once to the Father, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. Now suppose ye that those Jews were not malignant, cruel, bloody, turbulent, and enemies of the Son of God? Suppose ye that that cry, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do, was ineffectual and in vain? He saw them all, but He knew among them those that should one day be His. In a word, He died, because it was so expedient, that by His Death He might kill death. God died, that an exchange might be effected by a kind of heavenly contract, that man might not see death. For Christ is God, but He died not in that Nature in which He is God. For the same Person is God and man; for God and man is one Christ. The human nature was assumed, that we might be changed for the better; He did not degrade the Divine Nature down to the lower. For He assumed that which He was not, He did not lose that which He was. Forasmuch then as He is both God and man, being pleased that we should live by that which was His, He died in that which was ours. For He had nothing Himself, whereby He could die; nor had we anything whereby we could live. For what was He who had nothing whereby He could die? In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. If you seek for anything in God whereby He may die, you will not find it. But we all die, who are flesh; men bearing about sinful flesh. Seek out for that whereby sin may live; it has it not. So then neither could He have death in that which was His own, nor we life in that which was our own; but we have life from that which is His, He death from what is ours. What an exchange! What has He given, and what received? Men who trade enter into commercial intercourse for exchange of things. For ancient commerce was only an exchange of things. A man gave what he had, and received what he had not. For example, he had wheat, but had no barley; another had barley, but no wheat; the former gave the wheat which he had, and received the barley which he had not. How simple it was that the larger quantity should make up for the cheaper sort! So then another man gives barley, to receive wheat; lastly, another gives lead, to receive silver, only he gives much lead against a little silver; another gives wool, to receive a ready-made garment. And who can enumerate all these exchanges? But no one gives life to receive death. Not in vain then was the voice of the Physician as He hung upon the tree. For in order that He might die for us because the Word could not die, The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. He hung upon the Cross, but in the flesh. There was the meanness, which the Jews despised; there the dearness, by which the Jews were delivered. For for them was it said, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. And that voice was not in vain. He died, was buried, rose again, having passed forty days with His disciples, He ascended into heaven, He sent the Holy Ghost on them, who waited for the promise. They were filled with the Holy Ghost, whom they had received, and began to speak with the tongues of all nations. Then the Jews who were present, amazed that unlearned and ignorant men, whom they had known as brought up among them with one tongue, should in the Name of Christ speak in all tongues, were in astonishment, and learned from Peter's words whence this gift came. He gave it, who hung upon the tree. He gave it, who was derided as He hung upon the tree, that from His seat in heaven He might give the Holy Spirit. They of whom He had said, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do, heard, believed. They believed, were baptized, and their conversion was effected. What conversion? In faith they drank the Blood of Christ, which in fury they had shed.

6. Therefore, to finish this discourse with that with which we began it, let us pray, and let us rely on God; let us live as He enjoins; and when we totter in this life, let us call upon Him as the disciples called, saying, Lord, increase our faith. Peter both put his trust in Him, and tottered; but notwithstanding he was not disregarded and left to sink, but was lifted up and raised. For his trust whence was it? Not from anything of his own; but from what was the Lord's. How? Lord, if it be Thou, bid me come unto You on the water. For on the water was the Lord walking. If it be Thou, bid me come unto You on the water. For I know that if it be Thou, Thou biddest, and it is done. And He says, Come. He went down at His bidding, but in his own weakness he was afraid. Nevertheless when he was afraid, he cried out, Lord, save me. Then the Lord took him by the hand, and said, O you of little faith, wherefore did you doubt? He first invited him, He delivered him, as he tottered, and stumbled; that it might be fulfilled which was said in the Psalm, If I said my foot has slipped, Your mercy, O Lord, aided me.

7. There are then two kinds of blessings, temporal and eternal. Temporal blessings are health, substance, honour, friends, a home, children, a wife, and the other things of this life in which we are sojourners. Put we up then in the hostelry of this life as travellers passing on, and not as owners intending to remain. But eternal blessings are, first, eternal life itself, the incorruption and immortality of body and soul, the society of Angels, the heavenly city, glory unfailing, Father and father-land, the former without death, the latter without a foe. These blessings let us desire with all eagerness, let us ask with all perseverance, not with length of words, but with the witness of groans. Longing desire prays always, though the tongue be silent. If you are ever longing, you are ever praying. When sleeps prayer? When desire grows cold. So then let us beg for these eternal blessings with all eager desire, let us seek for those good things with an entire earnestness, let us ask for those good things with all assurance. For those good things do profit him that has them, they cannot harm him. But those other temporal good things sometimes profit, and sometimes harm. Poverty has profited many, and wealth has harmed many; a private life has profited many, and exalted honour has harmed many. And again, money has profiled some, honourable distinction has profited some; profited them who use them well; but from those who use them ill, the not withdrawing them has harmed them more. And so, Brethren, let us ask for those temporal blessings too, but in moderation, being sure that if we do receive them, He gives them, who knows what is expedient for us. You have asked, and what you have asked, has not been given you? Trust your Father, who would give it you, were it expedient for you. Lo! judge in this case by your own self. For such as your son who knows not the ways of men is in regard to you, such in regard to the Lord art you yourself, who know not the things of God. Lo, your son cries a whole day before you, that you would give him a knife, or a sword; you refuse to give it him, you will not give it, you disregard his tears, lest you should have to bewail his death. Let him cry, and beat himself, or throw himself upon the ground, that you may set him on horseback; you will not do it, because he does not know how to govern the horse, he may throw and kill him. To whom you refuse a part, you are reserving the whole. But that he may grow up, and possess the whole in safety, you give him not that little thing which is full of peril to him.

8. And so, Brethren, we say, pray as much as you are able. Evils abound, and God has willed that evils should abound. Would that evil men did not abound, and then evils would not abound. Bad times! Troublesome times! This men are saying. Let our lives be good; and the times are good. We make our times; such as we are, such are the times. But what can we do? We cannot, it may be, convert the mass of men to a good life. But let the few who do give ear live well; let the few who live well endure the many who live ill. They are the grain, they are in the floor; in the floor they can have the chaff with them, they will not have them in the barn. Let them endure what they would not, that they may come to what they would. Wherefore are we sad, and blame we God? Evils abound in the world, in order that the world may not engage our love. Great men, faithful saints were they who have despised the world with all its attractions; we are not able to despise it even disfigured as it is. The world is evil, lo, it is evil, and yet it is loved as though it were good. But what is this evil world? For the heavens and the earth, and the waters, and the things that are therein, the fish, and birds, and trees, are not evil. All these are good: but it is evil men who make this evil world. Yet as we cannot be without evil men, let us, as I have said, while we live pour out our groans before the Lord our God, and endure the evils, that we may attain to the things that are good. Let us not find fault with the Master of the household; for He is loving to us. He bears us, and not we him. He knows how to govern what He made; do what He has bidden, and hope for what He has promised.

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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. <>.

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