Early Church Fathers
Sermon LXIV. [CXIV. Ben.]
On the words of the gospel, Luke xvii. 3, "If thy brother sin, rebuke him," etc., Touching the remission of sins.Delivered at the Table of St. Cyprian, in the presence of Count Boniface.
1. The Holy Gospel which we heard just now as it was being read, has admonished touching the remission of sins. And on this subject must ye be admonished now by my discourse. For we are ministers of the word, not our own word, but the word of our God and Lord, whom no one serves without glory, whom no one despises without punishment. He then the Lord our God, who abiding with the Father made us, and having been made for us, re-made us, He the Lord our God Jesus Christ Himself says to us what we have heard just now in the Gospel. "If," He saith, "thy brother shall sin against thee, rebuke him, and if he shall repent, forgive him; and if he shall sin against time seven times in a day, and shall come and say, I repent, forgive him."1 He would not have "seven times in a day" otherwise understood than "as often as may be," lest haply he sin eight times, and thou be unwilling to forgive. What then is "seven times "? Always, as often as he shall sin and repent. For this, "Seven times in a day will I praise thee,"2 is the same as in another Psalm, "His praise shall always be in my mouth."3 And there is the strongest reason why seven times should be put for that which is always: for the whole course of time revolves in a circle of seven coming and returning days.
2. Whosoever then thou art that hast thy thoughts on Christ, and desirest to receive what He hath promised, be not slow to do that which He hath enjoined. Now what hath He promised? "Eternal life." And what hath He enjoined? That pardon be given to thy brother. As if He had said to thee, "Do thou, O man, give pardon to a man, that I, who am God, may come unto thee." But that I may pass over, or rather pass by for a while, those more exalted divine promises in which our Creator engages to make us equal with His Angels, that we may with Him, and in Him, and by Him, live without end; not to speak of this just now, dost thou not wish to receive of thy God this very thing, which thou art commanded to give thy brother? This very thing, I say, which thou art commanded to give thy brother, dost thou not wish to receive from thy Lord? Tell me if thou wishest it not; and so give it not. What is this, but that thou shouldest forgive him that asks thee, if thou require to be forgiven? But if thou have nothing to he forgiven thee, I dare to say, be unwilling to forgive. Though I ought not even to say this. Though thou have nothing to be forgiven thee, forgive.
3. Thou art just on the point of saying to me, "But I am not God, I am a man, a sinner." God be thanked that thou dost confess thou hast sins. Forgive then, that they may be forgiven thee. Yet the Lord Himself our God exhorteth us to imitate Him. In the first place God Himself, Christ, exhorteth us, of whom the Apostle Peter said, "Christ hath suffered for us, leaving you an example that ye should follow His steps, who did no sin, neither was guile, found in His mouth."4 He then verily had no sin, yet did He die for our sins, and shed His Blood for the remission of sins. He took upon Him for our sakes what was not His due, that He might deliver us from what was due to us. Death was not due to Him, nor life to us. Why? Because we were sinners. Death was not due to Him, nor life to us; He received what was not due to Him, He gave what was not due to us. But since we are speaking of the remission of sins, lest ye should think it too high a thing to imitate Christ, hear the Apostle saying, "Forgiving one another, even as God in Christ hath forgiven you."5 Be ye therefore imitators of God." They are the Apostle's words, not mine. Is it indeed a proud thing to imitate God? Hear the Apostle, "Be ye imitators of God as dearly beloved children."6 Thou art called a child: if thou refuse to imitate Him, why seekest thou His inheritance?
4. This would I say even if thou hadst no sin which thou mightest desire to be forgiven thee. But as it is, whosoever thou art, thou art a man; though thou be righteous, thou art a man; be thou layman, or monk, or clerk, or Bishop, or Apostle, thou art a man. Hear the Apostle's voice, "If we shall say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves."7 He, that famous John and an Evangelist, he whom the Lord Christ loved beyond all the rest, who lay on His breast, he says, "If we shall say." He did not say, "If ye shall say that ye have no sin," but "if we shall say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." He joined himself in the guilt, that he might be joined in the pardon also. "If we shall say." Consider who it is that says, "If we shall say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we shall confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all iniquity."8 How does He cleanse? By forgiving, not as though He found nothing to punish, but as finding something to forgive. So then, Brethren, if we have sins, let us forgive them that ask us. Let us not retain enmities in our heart against another. For the retaining of enmities more than anything corrupts this heart of ours.
5. I would then that thou shouldest forgive, seeing that I find thee asking forgiveness. Thou art asked, forgive: thou art asked, and thou wilt ask thyself; thou art asked, forgive; thou wilt ask to be forgiven; for, lo, the time of prayer will come: I have thee fist in the words thou wilt have to speak. Thou wilt say, "Our Father, which art in heaven." For thou wilt not be in the number of children, if thou shalt not say, "Our Father." So then thou wilt say, "Our Father, which art in heaven." Follow on; "Hallowed be Thy Name." Say on, "Thy kingdom come." Follow still on, "Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth." See what thou addest next, "Give us this day our daily bread."9 Where are thy riches? So thou art a beggar. Nevertheless in the mean while (it is the point I am speaking of), say what is next after, "Give us this day our daily bread." Say what follows this: "Forgive us our debts." Now thou hast come to my words, "Forgive us our debts." By what right? by what covenant? on what condition? on what express stipulation? "As we also forgive our debtors." It is but a small thing that thou dost not forgive; yea thou dost more, thou liest unto God. The condition is laid down, the law fixed. "Forgive as I forgive." Therefore He does not forgive, unless thou forgivest. "Forgive as I forgive." Thou wishest to be forgiven when thou askest, forgive him that asks of thee. He that is skilled in heaven's laws10 has dictated these prayers: He does not deceive thee; ask according to the tenor of His heavenly voice: say, "Forgive us, as we also forgive," and do what thou sayest. He that lies in his prayers, loses the benefit he seeks: he that lies in his prayers, both loses his cause, and finds his punishment. And if any one lies to the emperor, he is convicted of his lie at his coming: but when thou liest in prayer, thou by thy very prayer art convicted. For God does not seek for witness as regards thee to convict thee. He who dictated the prayers to thee, is thine Advocate: if thou liest, He is a witness against thee: if thou dost not amend thyself, He will be thy Judge. So then both say it, and do. For if thou say it not, thou wilt not obtain making thy requests contrary to the law; but if thou say it and do it not, thou wilt be further guilty of lying. There is no means of evading that verse, save by fulfilling what we say. Can we blot this verse out of our prayer? Would ye that clause, "Forgive us our debts," should be there, and that we should blot out what follows, "As we also forgive our debtors "? Thou shalt not blot it out, lest thou be first blotted out thyself. So then in this prayer thou sayest, "Give," and thou sayest, "Forgive:" that thou mayest receive what thou hast not, and may be forgiven what thou hast done amiss. So then thou wishest to receive, give; thou wishest to be forgiven, forgive. It is a brief summary. Hear Christ Himself in another place, "Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven." What will ye forgive? What others have sinned against you. What shall ye be forgiven? What ye have sinned yourselves. "Forgive." "Give, and there shall be given you what ye desire,"11 eternal life. Support the temporal life of the poor man, sustain the poor man's present life, and for this so small and earthly seed ye shall receive for harvest life eternal. Amen.