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Home > Fathers of the Church > Sermons on the New Testament (Augustine) > Sermon 55

Sermon 55 on the New Testament

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[CV. Ben.]

On the words of the Gospel, Luke 11:5 , Which of you shall have a friend, and shall go unto him at midnight, etc.

1. We have heard our Lord, the Heavenly Master, and most faithful Counsellor exhorting us, who at once exhorts us to ask, and gives when we ask. We have heard Him in the Gospel exhorting us to ask instantly, and to knock even after the likeness of intrusive importunity. For He has set before us, for the sake of example, If any of you had a friend, and were to ask of him at night for three loaves, when a friend out of his way had come to him, and he had nothing to set before him; and he were to answer that he was now at rest, and his servants with him, and that he must not be disturbed by his entreaties; but the other were to be instant and persevering in knocking, and not being alarmed in modesty to depart, but compelled by necessity to continue on; that he would rise, though not for friendship's sake, at least for the other's importunity, and would give him as many as he wished. And how many did he wish? He wished for no more than three. To this parable then, the Lord adjoined an exhortation, and urged us earnestly to ask, seek, knock, till we receive what we ask, and seek, and knock for, making use of an example from a contrary case; as of that judge who neither feared God, nor regarded man, and yet when a certain widow besought him day by day, overcome by her importunity, he gave her that which he could not in kindness give her, against his will. But our Lord Jesus Christ, who is in the midst of us a Petitioner, with God a Giver, would not surely exhort us so strongly to ask, if He were not willing to give. Let then the slothfulness of men be put to shame; He is more willing to give, than we to receive; He is more willing to show mercy, than we to be delivered from misery; and doubtless if we shall not be delivered, we shall abide in misery. For the exhortation He gives us, He gives only for our own sakes.

2. Let us awake, and believe Him who exhorts us, obey Him who promises us, and rejoice in Him who gives unto us. For perhaps, some time or other some friend out of his way has come to us too, and we have found nothing to set before him; and under the experience of this necessity, we have received both for ourselves and him. For it cannot be, but that some one of us has fallen in with a friend who asked him something, which he could not answer; and then he has discovered that he has it not, when he is pressed to give it. A friend has come to you out of the way, out, that is, of the life of this world, in which all men are passing along as strangers, and no one abides here as possessor; but to every man it is said, You have been refreshed, pass on, go on your way, give place to the next comer. Or perhaps from an evil way, that is, from an evil life, some friend of yours wearied out, and not finding the truth, by the hearing and perceiving of which he may be made happy, but exhausted amid all the lust and poverty of the world, comes to you, as to a Christian, and says, Give me an account of this, make me a Christian. And he asks what it may be you did not know through the simplicity of your faith; and so you have not whereby to recruit him in his hunger, and reminded thus you discover your own indigence; and when you wish to teach you are forced to learn; and while you blush before him who asked you, as not finding in yourself what he was seeking for, you are compelled to seek, that you may be thought worthy to find.

3. And where should you seek. Where but in the books of the Lord? Peradventure what he has asked is contained in the book, but it is obscure. Perhaps the Apostle has declared it in some Epistle: declared it in such wise, that you can read, but cannot understand it: you are not permitted to pass on. For the interrogator urges you; Paul himself, or Peter, or any of the Prophets you are not allowed to ask. For this family is now at rest with their Lord, and intense is the ignorance of this life, that is, it is midnight, and your hungry friend is urgent upon you. A simple faith haply sufficed you, him it suffices not. Is he then to be abandoned? Is he to be cast out of your house? Therefore unto the Lord Himself, unto Him with whom the family is at rest, knock by prayer, ask, be instant. He will not, as that friend in the parable, arise and give you as overcome by importunity. He wishes to give; you for your knocking hast not yet received; knock on; He wishes to give. And what He wishes to give, He defers, that you may long the more for it when deferred, lest if given quickly it should be lightly esteemed.

4. But when you have gotten the three loaves, that is, to feed on and understand the Trinity, you have that whereby you may both live yourself, and feed others. Now you need not fear the stranger who comes out of his way to you, but by taking him in may make him a citizen of the household: nor do you need fear lest you come to the end of it. That Bread will not come to an end, but it will put an end to your indigence. It is Bread, God the Father, and it is Bread, God the Son, and it is Bread, God the Holy Ghost. The Father Eternal, the Son Coeternal with Him, and the Holy Ghost Coeternal. The Father Unchangeable, the Son Unchangeable, the Holy Ghost Unchangeable. The Father Creator, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The Father the Shepherd and the Giver of life, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The Father the Food and Bread eternal, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Learn, and teach; live yourself, and feed others. God who gives to you, gives you nothing better than Himself. O you greedy one, what else were you seeking for? Or if you seek for anything else, what will suffice you whom God does suffice not?

5. But necessary it is that you have charity, that you have faith, that you have hope; that that which is given may be sweet unto you. And these same, faith, hope, charity, are three. And these too are gifts of God. For faith we have received from Him; As God, says he, has distributed to every one the measure of faith. And hope we have received from Him, to whom it is said, Wherein You have caused me to hope. And charity we have received from Him, of whom it is said, The charity of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, which has been given to us. Now these three are likewise in some measure different; but all gifts of God. For there abide these three, faith, hope, charity; but the greatest of these is charity. In those loaves it is not said that any one loaf was greater than the others; but simply that three loaves were asked for, and were given.

6. See other three things: Who is there of you, whom if his son ask a loaf, will he give him a stone? Or who is there of you of whom if his son ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? Or if he ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him! Let us then again consider these three things, if haply there be not here those three, faith, hope, charity; but the greatest of these is charity. Set down then these three things, a loaf, a fish, an egg; the greatest of these is a loaf. Therefore in these three things do we well understand charity by the loaf. On which account He has opposed a stone to a loaf; because hardness is contrary to charity. By a fish we understand faith. A certain holy man has said, and we are glad to say it too; The 'good fish' is a godly faith. It lives amidst the waves, and is not broken or dissolved by the waves. Amidst the temptations and tempests of this world, lives godly faith; the world rages, yet it is uninjured. Observe only that serpent is contrary to faith. For My faith is she betrothed to whom it is said in the Song of Songs, Come from Lebanon, My spouse, coming and passing over to Me from the beginning of faith. Therefore betrothed too, because faith is the beginning of betrothal. For something is promised by the bridegroom, and by this plighted faith is he held bound. Now to the fish the Lord opposed the serpent, to faith the devil. Wherefore to this betrothed one does the Apostle say, I have betrothed you to One Husband, to present you a chaste virgin to Christ. And, I fear lest as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds also should be corrupted from the purity which is in Christ; that is, which is in the faith of Christ. For he says, That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith. Therefore let not the devil corrupt our faith, let him not devour the fish.

7. There remains hope, which, as I think, is compared to an egg. For hope has not yet arrived at attainment; and an egg is something, but not yet the chicken. So then quadrupeds give birth to young ones, but birds to the hope of young. Hope therefore exhorts us to this, to despise things present, to wait for things to come; forgetting those things which are behind, let us, with the Apostle, reach forth unto those things which are before. For so he says; But one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, reaching forth unto those things which are before, I follow on earnestly unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing then is so hostile to hope, as to look back, to place hope, that is, in those things which flit by and pass away; but in those things should we place it, which are not yet given, but which sometime will be given, and will never pass away. But when the world is deluged by trials, as it were the sulphureous rain of Sodom, the example of Lot's wife must be feared. For she looked behind; and in the spot where she looked behind, there did she remain. She was turned into salt, that she might season the wise by her example. Of this hope the Apostle Paul speaks thus; For we are saved in hope; but hope that is seen is not hope; for what a man sees, why does he yet hope for: but if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it. For what a man sees, why does he yet hope for. It is an egg, and not as yet the chicken. And it is covered with a shell; it is not seen because it is covered; let it be with patience waited for; let it feel the warmth, that it may come to life. Press on, reach forth unto the things which are before, forget the past. For the things which are seen, are temporal. Not looking back, says he, at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal. Unto those things which are not seen then extend your hope, wait, endure. Look not back. Fear the scorpion for your egg. See how he wounds with the tail, which he has behind him. Let not then the scorpion crush your egg, let not this world crush your hope (so to say) with its poison, therefore against you, because behind. How loudly does the world talk to you, what an uproar does it make behind your back, that you may look back! That is, that you may place your hope in present things (and yet not even present, for they cannot be called present which have no fixedness), and may turn your mind away from that which Christ has promised, and not yet given, but who, seeing He is faithful, will give it, and may be content to look for rest in a perishing world.

8. For this cause does God mingle bitternesses with the felicities of earth, that another felicity may be sought, in whose sweetness there is no deceit; yet by these very bitternesses does the world endeavour to turn you away from your longing pursuit after the things which are before, and to turn you back. For these bitternesses, for these tribulations do you murmur and say, See, all things are perishing in Christian times. What complaint is this! God has not promised me that these things shall not perish; Christ has not promised me this. The Eternal has promised things eternal: if I believe, from a mortal, I shall be made eternal. What noise is this, O world impure! What murmuring is this! Why are you trying to turn me back? Perishing as you are, you wish to detain me; what would you do, if you had any permanence? Whom would you not beguile by your sweetness, if with all your bitternesses you impose your false nourishment upon us? For me, if I have hope, if I hold fast my hope, my egg has not been wounded by the scorpion. I will bless the Lord at all times, His praise shall be ever in my mouth. Be the world prosperous, or be the world turned upside down; I will bless the Lord, who made the world. Yes, verily, I will bless Him. Be it well with me according to the flesh, or be it ill according to the flesh, I will bless the Lord at all times, His praise shall be ever in my mouth. For if I bless when it is well, and blaspheme when it is ill with me; I have received the scorpion's sting, being pricked I have looked back; which be far from us. The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away: it is done, as the Lord pleased; blessed be the name of the Lord.

9. The city which has given us birth according to the flesh still abides, God be thanked. O that it may receive a spiritual birth, and together with us pass over unto eternity! If the city which has given us birth according to the flesh abide not, yet that which has given us birth according to the Spirit abides forever. The Lord does build up Jerusalem. Has He by sleeping brought His building to ruin, or by not keeping it, let the enemy into it? Except the Lord keep the city, he that keeps it wakes but in vain. And what city? He that keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. What is Israel, but the seed of Abraham? What the seed of Abraham, but Christ? And to your seed, he says, which is Christ. And to us what says he? But you are Christ's, therefore Abraham's seed, heirs according to the promise. In your seed, says He, shall all nations be blessed. The holy city, the faithful city, the city on earth a sojourner, has its foundation in heaven. O faithful one, do not corrupt your hope, do not lose your charity, gird up your loins, light, and hold out your lamps before you; wait for the Lord, when He will return from the wedding. Why are you alarmed, because the kingdoms of the earth are perishing? Therefore has a heavenly kingdom been promised you, that you might not perish with the kingdoms of the earth. For it was foretold, foretold distinctly, that they should perish. For we cannot deny that it was foretold. Your Lord for whom you are waiting, has told you, Nation shall rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. The kingdoms of the earth have their changes; He will come of whom it is said, and of His kingdom there shall be no end.

10. They who have promised this to earthly kingdoms have not been guided by truth, but have lied through flattery. A certain poet of theirs has introduced Jupiter speaking, and he says of the Romans;

To them no bounds of empire I assign,
Nor term of years to their immortal line.

Most certainly truth makes no such answer. This empire which you have given without term of years, is it on earth, or in heaven? On earth assuredly. And even if it were in heaven, yet heaven and earth shall pass away. Those things shall pass away which God has Himself made; how much more rapidly shall that pass away which Romulus founded! Perhaps if we had a mind to press Virgil on this point, and tauntingly to ask him why he said it; he would take us aside privately, and say to us, I know this as well as you, but what could I do who was selling words to the Romans, if by this kind of flattery I did not promise something which was false? And yet even in this very instance I have been cautious, when I said, 'I assigned to them an empire without term of years,' I introduced their Jupiter to say it. I did not utter this falsehood in my own person, but put upon Jupiter the character of untruthfulness: as the god was false, the poet was false. For would ye know that I well knew the truth of it? In another place, when I did not introduce this stone, called Jupiter, but spoke in my own person, I said,

'Th' impending ruin of the Roman state.'

See how I spoke of the impending ruin of the state. I spoke of its impending ruin. I did not suppress it. When he spoke in truth he was not silent as to its ruin; when in flattery, he promised that it should abide forever.

11. Let us not then faint, my Brethren: an end there will be to all earthly kingdoms. If that end be now, God knows. For perhaps it is not yet, and we, through some infirmity, or mercifulness, or misery, are wishing that it may not be yet; nevertheless will it not therefore some day be? Fix your hope in God, desire the things eternal, wait for the things eternal. You are Christians, Brethren, we are all Christians. Christ did not come down into the flesh that we might live softly; let us endure rather than love the things present; manifest is the harm of adversity, deceitful is the soft blandishment of prosperity. Fear the sea, even when it is a calm. On no account let us hear in vain, Let us lift up our hearts. Why place we our hearts in the earth, when we see that the earth is being turned upside down? We cannot but exhort you, that you may have something to say and answer in defense of your hope against the deriders and blasphemers of the Christian name. Let no one by his murmuring turn you back from waiting for the things to come. All who by reason of these adversities blaspheme our Christ, are the scorpion's tail. Let us put our egg under the wings of that Hen of the Gospel, which cries out to that false and abandoned city, O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered your children together, even as a hen her chickens, and you would not! Let it not be said to us, How often would I, and you would not! For that hen is the Divine Wisdom; but assumed flesh to accommodate Itself to its chickens. See the hen with feathers bristling, with wings hanging down, with voice broken, and tremulous, and faint, and languid, accommodating herself to her little ones. Our egg then, that is, our hope, let us place beneath the wings of this Hen.

12. You have noticed, it may be, how a hen will tear a scorpion in pieces. O then that the Hen of the Gospel would tear in pieces and devour these blasphemers, creeping out of their holes, and inflicting hurtful stings, would pass them over into Her Body, and turn them into an egg. Let them not be angry; we seem to be excited; but we do not return curses for curses. We are cursed, and we bless, being defamed, we entreat. But let him not speak of Rome, it is said of me: O that he would hold his tongue about Rome; as though I were insulting it, and not rather entreating the Lord for it, and exhorting you all, unworthy as I am. Be it far from me to insult it! The Lord avert this from my heart, and from the grief of my conscience. Have we not had many brethren there? Have we not still? Does not a large portion of the pilgrim city Jerusalem live there? Has it not endured there temporal afflictions? But it has not lost the things eternal. What can I say then, when I speak of Rome, but that is false, which they say of our Christ, that He is Rome's destroyer, and that the gods of wood and stone were her defenders? Add what is more costly, gods of brass. Add what is costlier still, of silver and gold: the idols of the nations are silver and gold. He did not say, stone; he did not say, wood; he did not say, clay; but, what they value highly, silver and gold. Yet these silver and golden idols have eyes, and see not. The gods of gold, of wood, are as regards their costliness unequal; but as to having eyes, and seeing not, they are equal. See to what sort of guardians learned men have entrusted Rome, to those who have eyes, and see not. Or if they were able to preserve Rome, why did they first perish themselves? They say; Rome perished at the same time. Nevertheless they perished. No, they say, they did not perish themselves, but their statues. Well, how then could they keep your houses, who were not able to keep their own statues? Alexandria once lost such gods as these. Constantinople some time since, ever since it was made a grand city, for it was made so by a Christian Emperor, lost its false gods; and yet it has increased, and still increases, and remains. And remain it will, as long as God pleases. For we do not to this city either promise an eternal duration because we say this. Carthage remains now in its possession of the Name of Christ, yet once on a time its goddess Cælestis was overthrown; because celestial she was not, but terrestrial.

13. And that which they say is not true, that immediately on losing her gods Rome has been taken and ruined. It is not true at all; their images were overthrown before; and even so were the Goths with Rhadagaisus conquered. Remember, my Brethren, remember; it is no long time since, but a few years, call it to mind. When all the images in the city of Rome had been overthrown, Rhadagaisus king of the Goths came with a large army, much more numerous than that of Alaric was. Rhadagaisus was a Pagan; he sacrificed to Jupiter every day. Everywhere it was announced, that Rhadagaisus did not cease from sacrificing. Then said they all, Lo, we do not sacrifice, he does sacrifice, we, who are not allowed to sacrifice must be conquered by him who does sacrifice. But God making proof that not even temporal deliverance, nor the preservation of these earthly kingdoms, consist in these sacrifices, Rhadagaisus, by the Lord's help, was marvellously overcome. Afterwards came other Goths who did not sacrifice, they came, who though they were not Catholics in the Christian faith, were yet hostile and opposed to idols, and they took Rome; they conquered those who put their trust in idols, who were still seeking after the idols they had lost, and desiring still to sacrifice to the lost gods. And among them too were some of our brethren, and these were afflicted also: but they had learned to say, I will bless the Lord at all times. They were involved in the afflictions of their earthly kingdom: but they lost not the kingdom of heaven; yea, rather, they were made the better for obtaining it through the exercise of tribulations. And if they did not in their tribulations blaspheme, they came out as sound vessels from the furnace, and were filled with the blessing of the Lord. Whereas those blasphemers, who follow and long after earthly things, who place their hope in earthly things, when these they have lost, whether they will or no, what shall they retain? Where shall they abide? Nothing without, nothing within; an empty coffer, an emptier conscience. Where is their rest? Where their salvation? Where their hope? Let them then come, let them give over blaspheming, let them learn to adore; let the scorpions with their stings be devoured by the Hen, let them be turned into His body who makes them pass over into it; let them on earth be exercised, in heaven be crowned.

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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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