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Home > Fathers of the Church > Sermons on the New Testament (Augustine) > Sermon 39

Sermon 39 on the New Testament

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[LXXXIX. Ben.]

On the words of the Gospel, Matthew 21:19 , where Jesus dried up the fig-tree; and on the words, Luke 24:28 , where He made a pretence as though He would go further.

1. The lesson of the Holy Gospel which has just been read, has given us an alarming warning, lest we have leaves only, and have no fruit. That is, in few words, lest words be present and deeds be wanting. Very terrible! Who does not fear when in this lesson he sees with the eyes of the heart the withered tree, withered at that word being spoken to it, Let no fruit grow on you henceforward for ever? Let the fear work amendment, and the amendment bring forth fruit. For without doubt, the Lord Christ foresaw that a certain tree would deservedly become withered, because it would have leaves, and would have no fruit. That tree is the synagogue, not that which was called, but that which was reprobate. For out of it also was called the people of God, who in sincerity and truth waited in the Prophets for the salvation of God, Jesus Christ. And forasmuch as it waited in faith, it was thought worthy to know Him when He was present. For out of it came the Apostles, out of it came the whole multitude of those who went before the ass of the Lord, and said, Hosanna to the Son of David, blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord. There was a great company then of believing Jews, a great company of those who believed in Christ before He shed His Blood for them. For it was not in vain that the Lord Himself had come to none but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But in others, after He was crucified, and was now exalted into heaven, He found the fruit of repentance; and these He did not make to wither, but cultivated them in His field, and watered them with His word. Of this number were those four thousand Jews who believed, after that the disciples and those who were with them, filled with the Holy Ghost, spoke with the tongues of all nations, and in that diversity of tongues announced in a way beforehand, that the Church should be throughout all nations. They believed at that time, and they were the lost sheep of the house of Israel; but because the Son of Man had come to seek and to save that which was lost, He found these also. But they lay hid here and there among thorns, as though wasted and dispersed by the wolves; and because they lay hid among thorns, He did not come to find them, save when torn by the thorns of His Passion; yet come He did, He found, He redeemed them. They had slain, not Him so much, as themselves. They were saved by Him who was slain for them. For, as the Apostles spoke, they were pricked; they were pricked in conscience, who had pricked Him with the spear; and being pricked they sought for counsel, received it when it was given, repented, found grace, and believing drunk that Blood which in their fury they had shed. But they who have remained in this bad and barren race, even unto this day, and shall remain unto the end, were figured in that tree. You come to them at this day, and find with them all the writings of the Prophets. But these are but leaves; Christ is an hungred, and He seeks for fruit; but finds no fruit among them, because He does not find Himself among them. For He has no fruit, who has not Christ. And he has not Christ, who holds not to Christ's unity, who has not charity. And so by this chain he has no fruit who has not charity. Hear the Apostle, Now the fruit of the Spirit is charity; so setting forth the praise of this cluster, that is, of this fruit; The fruit of the Spirit, he says, is charity, joy, peace, long-suffering. Do not wonder at what follows, when charity leads the way.

2. Accordingly, when the disciples marvelled at the withering of the tree, He set forth to them the value of faith, and said to them, If you have faith, and doubt not; that is, if in all things you have trust in God; and do not say, God can do this, this He cannot do; but rely on the omnipotence of the Almighty; you shall not only do this, but also if you shall say to this mountain, Be removed, and be cast into the sea, it shall be done. And all things whatsoever you shall ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive. Now we read that miracles were wrought by the disciples, yea rather by the Lord through the disciples; for, without Me, He says, ye can do nothing. The Lord could do many things without the disciples, but the disciples nothing without the Lord. He who could make even the disciples themselves, was not certainly assisted by them to make them. We read then of the Apostles' miracles, but we nowhere read of a tree being withered by them, nor of a mountain removed into the sea. Let us enquire therefore where this was done. For the words of the Lord could not be without effect. If you are thinking of trees and mountains in their ordinary and familiar sense, it has not been done. But if you think of that tree of which He spoke, and of that mountain of the Lord of which the Prophet said, In the last days the mountain of the Lord's house shall be manifest; if you think of it, and understand it thus, it has been done, and done by the Apostles. The tree is the Jewish nation, but I say again, that part of it which was reprobate, not that which was called; that tree which we have spoken of is the Jewish nation. The mountain, as the prophetic testimony has taught us, is the Lord Himself. The withered tree is the Jewish nation reft of the honour of Christ; the sea is this world with all the nations. Now see the Apostles speaking to this tree which was about to be withered away, and casting the mountain into the sea. In the Acts of the Apostles they speak to the Jews who gainsay and resist the word of truth, that is, who have leaves and have no fruit, and they say to them, It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing you have put it from you (for you use the words of the Prophets, yet do not acknowledge Him whom the Prophets foretold, that is, you have leaves only), lo, we turn to the Gentiles. For this also was foretold by the Prophets; Behold, I have given You for a light of the Gentiles, that You may be My salvation unto the end of the earth. See then, the tree has withered away; and Christ has been removed unto the Gentiles, the mountain into the sea. For how should not the tree wither away which is planted in that vineyard, of which it was said, I will command my clouds that they rain no rain upon it?

3. Now that in order to convey this truth the Lord acted prophetically, I mean that, as concerning this tree, it was not His will merely to exhibit a miracle, but that by the miracle He conveyed the intimation of something to come, there are many things which teach and persuade us, yea even against our wills force us to believe. In the first place, what fault in the tree was it that it had no fruit, when even if it had no fruit at the proper season, that is, the season of its fruit, it would not assuredly be any fault in the tree; for the tree as being without sense and reason could not be to blame. But to this is added, that as we read it in the narrative of the other Evangelist who expressly mentions this, it was not the time for that fruit. For that was the time when the fig-tree shoots forth its tender leaves, which come, we know, before the fruit; and this we prove, because the day of the Lord's Passion was at hand, and we know at what time He suffered; and if we did not know it, we ought of course to give credit to the Evangelist who says, The time of figs was not yet. So then if it was only a miracle that was to have been set forth, and not something to be prophetically figured, it would have been much more worthy of the clemency and mercy of the Lord, to have made green again any tree He might find withered; as He healed the sick, as He cleansed the lepers, as He raised the dead. But then contrariwise, as though against the ordinary rule of His clemency, He found a green tree, not yet bearing fruit out of its proper season, but still not refusing the hope of fruit to its dresser, and He withered it away; as though He would say to us, I have no delight in the withering away of this tree, but thus I would convey to you, that I have not designed to do this without any cause for it, but only because I desired thereby to convey to you a lesson you might the more regard. It is not this tree that I have cursed, it is not on a tree without sense that I have inflicted punishment, but I have made you fear, whosoever you are that dost consider the matter, that you might not despise Christ when He is an hungered, that you might love rather to be enriched with fruit, than to be overshadowed by leaves.

4. This one thing is that which the Lord intimates that He designed to signify by what He did. What else is there? He comes to the tree being hungry, and seeks fruit. Did He not know that it was not the time for it? What the cultivator of the tree knew, did not its Creator know? He seeks on the tree then for fruit which it had not yet. Does He really seek for it, or rather make a pretence of seeking it? For if He really sought it, He was mistaken. But this be far from Him, to be mistaken! He made then a pretence of seeking it. Fearing to allow this, that he makes a pretence, you confess that He was mistaken. Again, you turn away from the idea of His being mistaken, and so run into that of His making a pretence. We are parched up between the two. If we are parched, let us beg for rain, that we may grow green, lest in saying anything unworthy of the Lord, we rather wither away. The Evangelist indeed says, He came to the tree, and found no fruit on it. He found none, would not be said of Him, unless He had either really sought for it, or made a pretence of seeking, though He knew that there was none there. Wherefore we do not hesitate, let us by no means say that Christ was mistaken. What then? Shall we say He made a pretence? Shall we say this? How shall we get out of this difficulty? Let us say what, if the Evangelist had not said of the Lord in another place, we should not of ourselves dare to say. Let us say what the Evangelist has written, and when we have said, let us understand it. But in order that we may understand it, let us first believe. For, unless ye believe, says the Prophet, you shall not understand. The Lord Christ after His Resurrection, was walking in the way with two of His disciples, by whom He was not yet recognised, and with whom He joined company as a third traveller. They came to the place whither they were going, and the Evangelist says, But He made a pretence as though He would have gone further. But they kept Him, saying, in the spirit of a courteous kindness, that it was already drawing toward evening, and praying Him to tarry there with them; being received and entertained by them, He breaks Bread, and is known of them in blessing and breaking of the Bread. So then, let us not now fear to say, that He made a pretence of seeking, if He made a pretence of going further. But here there arises another question. Yesterday I insisted at some length on the truth which is in the Apostles; how then do we find any pretence in the Lord Himself? Therefore, Brethren, I must tell you, and teach you according to my poor abilities, which the Lord gives me for your benefit, and must convey to you what ye may hold as a rule in the interpretation of all Scripture. Everything that is said or done is to be understood either in its literal signification, or else it signifies something figuratively; or at least contains both of these at once, both its own literal interpretation, and a figurative signification also. Thus I have set forth three things, examples of them must now be given; and from whence, but from the Holy Scriptures? It is said in its literal acceptation, that the Lord suffered, that He rose again, and ascended into heaven; that we shall rise again at the end of the world, that we shall reign with Him for ever, if we do not despise Him. Take all this as spoken literally, and look not out for figures; as it is expressed, so it really is. And so also with various actions. The Apostle went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, the Apostle actually did this, it actually took place, it was an action peculiar to himself. It is a fact which he tells you; a simple fact according to its literal meaning. The stone which the builders refused, has become the Head of the corner, is spoken in a figure. If we take the stone literally, what stone did the builders refuse, which became the Head of the corner? If we take the stone literally, of what corner is this stone become the Head? If we admit that it was figuratively expressed, and take it figuratively, the Cornerstone is Christ: the head of the corner, is the Head of the Church. Why is the Church the Corner? Because she has called the Jews from one side, and the Gentiles from another, and these two walls as it were coming from different quarters, and meeting together in one, she has bound together by the grace of her peace. For, He is our peace, who has made both one.

5. You have heard instances of a literal expression, and a literal action, and of a figurative expression; you are waiting for an instance of a figurative action. There are many such, but meanwhile, as is suggested by this mention of the corner-stone, when Jacob anointed the stone which he had placed at his head as he slept, and in his sleep saw a mysterious dream, ladders rising from the earth to heaven, and Angels ascending and descending, and the Lord standing upon the ladder, he understood what it was designed to figure, and took the stone for a figure of Christ, to prove to us thereby that he was no stranger to the understanding of that vision and revelation. Do not wonder then that he anointed it, for Christ received His Name from the anointing. Now this Jacob was said in the Scripture to be a man without guile. And this Jacob ye know was called Israel. Accordingly in the Gospel, when the Lord saw Nathanael, He said, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile. And that Israelite not yet knowing who it was that talked with him, answered, Whence knew Thou me? And the Lord said to him, When you were under the fig-tree I saw you; as though he would say, When you were in the shadow of sin, I predestinated you. And Nathanael, because he remembered that he had been under the fig-tree, where the Lord was not, acknowledged His Divinity, and answered, You are the Son of God, You are the King of Israel. He who had been under the fig-tree was not made a withered fig-tree; he acknowledged Christ. And the Lord said to him, Because I said, When you were under the fig-tree I saw you, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these. What are these greater things? Verily I say unto you (for he is an Israelite in whom is no guile; remember Jacob in whom was no guile; and recollect of what he is speaking, the stone at his head, the vision in his sleep, the ladder from earth to heaven, the Angels ascending and descending; and so see what it is that the Lord would say to the Israelite without guile); Verily I say unto you, You shall see heaven opened (hear, you guileless Nathanael, what guileless Jacob saw); you shall see heaven opened, and Angels ascending and descending (unto whom?) unto the Son of Man. Therefore was He, as the Son of Man, anointed on the head; for the head of the woman is the man, and the Head of the man is Christ. Now observe, He did not say, ascending from the Son of Man, and descending to the Son of Man, as if He were only above; but ascending and descending unto the Son of Man. Hear the Son of Man crying out from above, Saul, Saul. Hear the Son of Man from below, Why do you persecute Me?

6. You have heard an instance of a literal expression, as that we shall rise again; of a literal action, as that, according as it is said, Paul went up to Jerusalem to see Peter. The stone which the builders refused, is a figurative expression; the anointed stone which was at Jacob's head, is a figurative action. There is now due to your expectation an example made out of both together, something which is at once a literal fact, and which also signifies something else figured by it. We know that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a free-woman; this was literally a fact, not only a story, but a fact; are you looking for that which was figured in it? These are the two Testaments. That then which is spoken figuratively, is a sort of fiction. But since it has some real event represented by it, and the very figure itself has its ground of truth, it escapes all imputation of falsehood. The sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell by the way side, some fell upon stony places, some fell among thorns, and some fell upon good ground. Who went out to sow, or when went he out, or upon what thorns, or stones or way side or in what field did he sow? If we receive this as a fictitious story, we understand it in a figurative sense; it is fictitious. For if any sower really went out, and did cast the seed in these different places, as we have heard, it were no fiction, and so no falsehood. But now though it be a fiction, yet it is no falsehood. Why? Because the fiction has some further signification, it deceives you not. It requires only one to understand it, and does not lead any one into error. And thus Christ wishing to convey this lesson to us, sought for fruit, and hereby set forth to us a figurative, and no deceiving fiction; a fiction therefore worthy of praise, not of blame; not one by the examination of which we might run into what was false; but by the diligent investigation of which we might discover what is true.

7. I see that one may say, Explain to me; what did that signify, that He made a pretence of going further? For if it had no further meaning, it is a deceit, a lie. We must then according to our rules of exposition, and distinctions, tell you what this pretence of going further, signified; He made a pretence of going further, and is kept back from going further. In so far then as the Lord Christ being as they supposed absent in respect of His Bodily presence, was thought to be really absent, He will as it were go further. But hold Him fast by faith, hold Him fast at the breaking of Bread. What shall I say more? Have ye recognised Him? If so, then have ye found Christ. I must not speak any longer on this Sacrament. They who put off the knowledge of this Sacrament, Christ goes further from them. Let them then hold It fast, let them not let Him go; let them invite Him to their home, and so they are invited to heaven.

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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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