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Home > Fathers of the Church > Sermons on the New Testament (Augustine) > Sermon 27

Sermon 27 on the New Testament

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[LXXVII. Ben.]

On the words of the Gospel, Matthew 15:21 ,Jesus went out thence, and withdrew into the parts of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanitish woman, etc.

1. This woman of Canaan, who has just now been brought before us in the lesson of the Gospel, shows us an example of humility, and the way of godliness; shows us how to rise from humility unto exaltation. Now she was, as it appears, not of the people of Israel, of whom came the Patriarchs, and Prophets, and the parents of the Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh; of whom the Virgin Mary herself was, who was the Mother of Christ. This woman then was not of this people; but of the Gentiles. For, as we have heard, the Lord departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, and behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and with the greatest earnestness begged of Him the mercy to heal her daughter, who was grievously vexed with a devil. Tyre and Sidon were not cities of the people of Israel, but of the Gentiles; though they bordered on that people. So then, as being eager to obtain mercy she cried out, and boldly knocked; and He made as though He heard her not, not to the end that mercy might be refused her, but that her desire might be enkindled; and not only that her desire might be enkindled, but that, as I have said before, her humility might be set forth. Therefore did she cry, while the Lord was as though He heard her not, but was ordering in silence what He was about to do. The disciples besought the Lord for her, and said, Send her away; for she cries after us. And He said, I am not sent, but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

2. Here arises a question out of these words; If He was not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel, how came we from among the Gentiles into Christ's fold? What is the meaning of the so deep economy of this mystery, that whereas the Lord knew the purpose of His coming — that He might have a Church in all nations, He said that 'He was not sent, but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel'? We understand then by this that it behooved Him to manifest His Bodily presence, His Birth, the exhibition of His miracles, and the power of His Resurrection, among that people: that so it had been ordained, so set forth from the beginning, so predicted, and so fulfilled; that Christ Jesus was to come to the nation of the Jews, to be seen and slain, and to gain from among them those whom He foreknew. For that people was not wholly condemned, but sifted. There was among them a great quantity of chaff, but there was also the hidden worth of the grain; there was among them that which was to be burnt, there was among them also that wherewith the barn was to be filled. For whence came the Apostles? Whence came Peter? Whence the rest?

3. Whence was Paul himself, who was first called Saul? That is, first proud, afterwards humble? For when he was Saul, his name was derived from Saul: now Saul was a proud king; and in his reign he persecuted the humble David. So when he who was afterwards Paul, was Saul, he was proud, at that time a persecutor of the innocent, at that time a waster of the Church. For he had received letters from the chief priests (burning as he was with zeal for the synagogue, and persecuting the Christian name), that he might show up whatever Christians he should find, to be punished. While he is on his way, while he is breathing out slaughter, while he is thirsting for blood, he is thrown to the ground by the voice of Christ from heaven the persecutor, he is raised up the preacher. In him was fulfilled that which is written in the Prophet, I will wound and I will heal. For that only in man does God wound, which lifts itself up against God. He is no unkind physician who opens the swelling, who cuts, or cauterizes the corrupted part. He gives pain, it is true; but he only gives pain, that he may bring the patient on to health. He gives pain; but if he did not, he would do no good. Christ then by one word laid Saul low, and raised up Paul; that is, He laid low the proud, and raised up the humble. For what was the reason of his change of name, that whereas he was afore called Saul, he chose afterwards to be called Paul; but that he acknowledged in himself that the name of Saul when he was a persecutor, had been a name of pride? He chose therefore a humble name; to be called Paul, that is, the least. For Paul is, the least. Paul is nothing else but little. And now glorying in this name, and giving us a lesson of humility, he says, I am the least of the Apostles. Whence then, whence was he, but of the people of the Jews? Of them were the other Apostles, of them was Paul, of them were they whom the same Paul mentions, as having seen the Lord after His resurrection. For he says, That He was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.

4. Of this people too, of the people of the Jews, were they, who when Peter was speaking, setting forth the Passion, and Resurrection, and Divinity of Christ (after that the Holy Ghost had been received, when all they on whom the Holy Ghost had come, spoke with the tongues of all nations), being pricked in spirit as they heard him, sought counsel for their salvation, understanding as they did that they were guilty of the Blood of Christ; because they had crucified, and slain Him, in whose name though slain by them they saw such great miracles wrought; and saw the presence of the Holy Ghost. And so seeking counsel they received for answer; Repent, and be baptized every one of you, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and your sins shall be forgiven you. Who should despair of the forgiveness of his sins, when the crime of killing Christ was forgiven to those who were guilty of it? They were converted from among this people of the Jews; were converted, and baptized. They came to the Lord's table, and in faith drank that Blood, which in their fury they had shed. Now in what sort they were converted, how decidedly, and how perfectly, the Acts of the Apostles show. For they sold all that they possessed, and laid the prices of their things at the Apostles' feet; and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need; and no man said that ought was his own, but they had all things common. And, They were, as it is written, of one heart and of one soul. Lo here are the sheep of whom He said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. For to them He exhibited His Presence, for them in the midst of their violence against Him He prayed as He was being crucified, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. The Physician understood how those frenzied men were in their madness putting the Physician to death, and in putting their Physician to death, though they knew it not, were preparing a medicine for themselves. For by the Lord so put to death are all we cured, by His Blood redeemed, by the Bread of His Body delivered from famine. This Presence then did Christ exhibit to the Jews. And so He said, I am not sent, but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel; that to them He might exhibit the Presence of His body; not that He might disregard, and pass over the sheep which He had among the Gentiles.

5. For to the Gentiles He went not Himself, but sent His disciples. And in this was fulfilled what the Prophet said; A people whom I have not known has served Me. See how deep, how clear, how express the prophecy is; a people whom I have not known, that is, to whom I have not exhibited My Presence, has served Me. How? It goes on to say, By the hearing of the ear they have obeyed Me: that is, they have believed, not by seeing, but by hearing. Therefore have the Gentiles the greater praise. For the others saw and slew Him; the Gentiles heard and believed. Now it was to call and gather together the Gentiles, that that might be fulfilled which we have just now chanted, Gather us from among the Gentiles, that we may confess to Your Name, and glory in Your praise, that the Apostle Paul was sent. He, the least, made great, not by himself, but by Him whom he once persecuted, was sent to the Gentiles, from a robber become a shepherd, from a wolf a sheep. He, the least Apostle, was sent to the Gentiles, and laboured much among the Gentiles, and through him the Gentiles believed. His Epistles are the witnesses.

6. Of this you have a very sacred figure in the Gospel also. A daughter of a ruler of the synagogue was really dead, and her father besought the Lord, that He would go to her; he had left her sick, and in extreme danger. The Lord set out to visit and heal the sick; in the mean time it was announced that she was dead, and it was told the father; Your daughter is dead, trouble not the Master. But the Lord who knew that He could raise the dead, did not deprive the despairing father of hope, and said to him, Fear not: only believe. So he set out to the maiden; and in the way a certain woman, who had suffered from an issue of blood, and in her lengthened illness had spent to no purpose all that she had upon physicians, pressed herself in, how she could, among the crowds. When she touched the border of His garment, she was made whole. And the Lord said, Who touched Me? The disciples who knew not what had taken place, and saw that He was thronged by the multitudes, and that He was troubling Himself about one single woman who had touched Him gently, answered in astonishment, The multitudes press You, and sayest Thou, Who touched Me? And He said, Somebody has touched Me? For the other press, she has touched. The many then rudely press the Body of Christ, few touch it healthfully. Somebody, says He, has touched Me, for I perceive that virtue is gone out of Me. And when the woman saw that she was not hid, she fell down at His feet, and confessed what had taken place. After this He set out again, and arrived whither He was going, and raised to life the young daughter of the ruler of the synagogue who was found to be dead.

7. This was a literal fact, and was fulfilled as it is related; but nevertheless these very things which were done by the Lord had some further signification, being (if we may so say) a sort of visible and significative words. And this is especially plain, in that place where He sought fruit on the tree out of season, and because He found none, dried up the tree by His curse. Unless this action be regarded as a figure, there is no good meaning in it; first to have sought fruit on that tree when it was not the season for fruit on any tree; and then even if it were now the time of fruit, what fault in the tree was it to have none? But because it signified, that He seeks not for leaves only, but for fruit also, that is, not for the words only, but for the deeds of men, by drying up that tree whereon he found only leaves, he signified their punishment who can speak good things, but will not do them. And so it is in this place also. For surely there is a mystery in it. He who foreknows all things says, Who touched Me? The Creator makes Himself like one who is ignorant; and He asks, who not only knew this, but who even foreknew all other things. Doubtless there is something which Christ would speak to us in this significant mystery.

8. That daughter of the ruler of the synagogue was a figure of the people of the Jews, for whose sake Christ had come, who said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But the woman who suffered from the issue of blood, figured the Church from among the Gentiles, to which Christ was not sent in His bodily presence. He was going to the former, He was intent on her recovery; meanwhile the latter runs to meet Him, touches His border as though He knew it not; that is, she is healed by Him who is in some sense absent. He says, Who touched Me? as though He would say; I do not know this people; A people whom I have not known has served Me. Some one has touched Me. For I perceive that virtue is gone out of Me; that is, that My Gospel has gone out and filled the whole world. Now it is the border that is touched, a small and outside part of the garment. Consider the Apostles as it were the garment of Christ. Among them Paul was the border; that is, the last and least. For he said of himself that he was both; I am the least of the Apostles. For he was called after them all, he believed after them all, he healed more than they all. The Lord was not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But because a people whom He had not known, was also to serve Him, and to obey Him in the hearing of the ear, He made mention of them too when He was among the others. For the same Lord said in a certain place, Other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, that there may be one fold and one shepherd.

9. Of these was this woman; therefore she was not refused, but only put off. I am not sent, says He, but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And she was instant in her cries: she persevered, she knocked, as if she had already heard, Ask, and receive; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. She kept on, she knocked. For so the Lord when He spoke these words, Ask, and you shall receive; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you; had also said before, Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you; that is, lest after despising your pearls, they should even ill use you. Cast not therefore before them what they despise.

10. And how distinguish we (as might be answered) who are swine, and who are dogs? This has been shown in the case of this woman. For He only answered to her entreaties, It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs. You are a dog, you are one of the Gentiles, you worship idols. But for dogs what is so proper as to lick stones? It is not therefore meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs. Had she retired after these words, she had gone away as she had come, a dog; but by knocking she was made of a dog one of human kind. For she persevered in asking, and from that reproach as it were she manifested her humility, and obtained mercy. For she was not excited, nor incensed, because she was called a dog, as she asked the blessing, and prayed for mercy, but she said, Truth, Lord; You have called me a dog, and truly a dog I am, I acknowledge my name: it is the Truth that speaks: but I ought not on that account to be refused this blessing. Verily I am a dog; 'yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table.' It is but a moderate and a small blessing I desire; I do not press to the table, I only seek for the crumbs.

11. See, Brethren, how the value of humility is set before us! The Lord had called her a dog; and she did not say, I am not, but she said, I am. And because she acknowledged herself to be a dog, immediately the Lord said, Woman, great is your faith; be it unto you even as you have asked. You have acknowledged yourself to be a dog, I now acknowledge you to be of human kind. O woman, great is your faith; you have asked, and sought, and knocked; receive, find, be it opened unto you. See, Brethren, how in this woman who was a Canaanite, that is, who came from among the Gentiles, and was a type, that is a figure, of the Church, the grace of humility has been eminently set before us. For the Jewish nation, to the end that it might be deprived of the grace of the Gospel, was puffed up with pride, because to them it had been vouchsafed to receive the Law, because out of this nation the Patriarchs had proceeded, the Prophets had sprung, Moses, the servant of God, had done the great miracles in Egypt which we have heard of in the Psalm, had led the people through the Red Sea, when the waters retired, and had received the Law, which he gave to this people. This was that whereupon the Jewish nation was lifted up, and through this very pride it happened that they were not willing to humble themselves to Christ the author of humility, and the restrainer of proud swelling, to God the Physician, who, being God, for this cause became Man, that man might know himself to be but man. O mighty remedy! If this remedy cure not pride, I know not what can cure it. He is God, and is made Man; He lays aside His Divinity, that is, in a manner sequestrates, hides, that is, what was His Own, and appears only in that He had taken to Him. Being God He is made man: and man will not acknowledge himself to be man, that is, will not acknowledge himself to be mortal, will not acknowledge himself to be frail, will not acknowledge himself to be a sinner, will not acknowledge himself to be sick, that so at least as sick he may seek the physician; but what is more perilous still, he fancies himself in sound health.

12. So then for this reason that people did not come to Him, that is by reason of pride; and the natural branches are said to be broken off from the olive tree, that is from that people founded by the Patriarchs; in other words, the Jews are for their punishment justly barren through the spirit of pride; and the wild olive is grafted into that olive tree. The wild olive tree is the people of the Gentiles. So says the Apostle, that the wild olive tree is grafted into the good olive tree, but the natural branches are broken off. Because of pride they were broken off: and the wild olive tree grafted in because of humility. This humility did the woman show forth when she said, Truth, Lord, I am a dog, I desire only the crumbs. In this humility also did the Centurion please Him; who when he desired that his servant might be healed by the Lord, and the Lord said, I will come and heal him, answered, Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof, but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. He did not receive Him into his house, but he had received Him already in his heart. The more humble, the more capacious, and the more full. For the hills drive back the water, but the valleys are filled by it. And what then, what said the Lord to those who followed Him after that he had said, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof? Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel; that is, in that people to whom I came, I have not found so great faith. And whence great? Great from being the least, that is, great from humility. I have not found so great faith; like a grain of mustard seed, which by how much smaller it is, by so much the more burning is it. Therefore did the Lord at once graft the wild olive into the good olive tree. He did it then when He said, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.

13. Lastly, mark what follows. Therefore,— that is, because I have not found so great faith in Israel, that is, so great humility with faithTherefore I say unto you, that many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. Shall sit, that is, shall rest. For we must not form notions of carnal banquets there, or desire any such thing in that kingdom, as to change not vices for virtues, but only to make an exchange of vices. For it is one thing to desire the kingdom of heaven for the sake of wisdom and life eternal; another, for the sake of earthly felicity, as though there we should have it in more abundant and greater measure. If you think to be rich in that kingdom, you do not cut off, but only changest desire; and yet rich you will really be, and in none other place but there will you be rich; for here your want gathers together the abundance of things. Why have rich men much? Because they want much. A greater want heaps together as it were greater means; there want itself shall die. Then you shall be truly rich, when you shall be in want of nothing. For now you are not surely rich, and an Angel poor, who has not horses, and carriages, and servants. Why? Because he does not want any of these: because in proportion to his greater strength, is his want the less. Therefore there there are riches, and the true riches. Figure not to yourselves then banquets of this earth in that place. For the banquets of this world are daily medicines; they are necessary for a kind of sickness we have, wherewith we are born. This sickness every one is sensible of, when the hour for refreshment is passed. Would you see how great a sickness this is, that as an acute fever would be fatal in seven days? Do not fancy yourself then to be in health. Immortality will be health. For this present is only one long sickness. Because you support your disease by daily medicines; you fancy yourself in health; take away the medicines, and then see what you can do.

14. For from the moment we are born, we must needs be dying. This disease must needs bring us to death. This indeed physicians say when they examine their patients. For instance, This man has the dropsy, he is dying; this disease cannot be cured. This man has the leprosy: this disease too cannot be cured. He is in a consumption. Who can cure this? He must needs die, he must perish. See, the physician has now pronounced that he is in a consumption; that he cannot but die; and yet sometimes the dropsical patient does not die of his disease, and the leprous does not die of his, nor the consumptive patient of his; but now it is absolutely necessary that every one who is born should die of this. He dies of it, he cannot do otherwise. This the physician and the unskilled both pronounce upon; and though he die somewhat more slowly, does he on that account not die? Where then is there true health, except where there is true immortality? But if it be true immortality, and no corruption, no wasting, what need will there be there of nourishment? Therefore, when you hear it said, They shall sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; get not your body, but your soul in order. There shall you be filled; and this inner man has its proper food. In relation to it is it said, Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. And so truly filled shall they be that they shall hunger no more.

15. Therefore did the Lord graft in at once the wild olive tree, when He said, Many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven; that is, they shall be grafted into the good olive tree. For Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, are the roots of this olive tree; but the children of the kingdom, that is, the unbelieving Jews, shall go away into outer darkness. The natural branches shall be broken off, that the wild olive tree may be grafted in. Now why did the natural branches deserve to be cut off, except for pride? Why the wild olive tree to be grafted in, except for humility? Whence also that woman said, Truth, Lord, yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table. And thereupon she hears, O woman, great is your faith. And so again that centurion, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. Let us then learn, or let us hold fast, humility. If we have it not yet, let us learn it; if we have it, let us not lose it. If we have it not yet, let us have it, that we may be grafted in; if we have it already, let us hold it fast, that we may not be cut off.

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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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