Fathers of the Church
by Augustine of Hippo in Uncertain | translated by R. G. Macmullen; Ed. Philip Schaff
1. Touching "the fig-tree" which had its three years' trial, and bare no fruit, and "the woman which was in an infirmity eighteen years," hearken to what the Lord may grant me to say. The fig-tree is the human race. And the three years are the three times; one before the Law, the second under the Law, the third under grace. Now there is nothing unsuitable in understanding by "the fig-tree" the human race. For when the first man sinned, he covered his nakedness with fig-leaves; covered those members, from which we derive our birth. For what before his sin should have been his glory, after sin became his shame. So before that, "they were naked, and were not ashamed." For they had no reason to blush, when no sin had gone before; nor could they blush for their Creator's works, because they had not yet mingled any evil work of their own with the good works of their Creator. For they had not yet eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, of which they had been forbidden to eat. After then that they had eaten and sinned, the human race sprang from them; that is, man from man, debtor from debtor, mortal from mortal, sinner from sinner. In this "tree" then he entitles those, who through the whole range of time would not bear fruit; and for this cause the axe was hanging over the unfruitful tree. The gardener intercedes for it, punishment is deferred, that help may be administered. Now the gardener who intercedes, is every saint who within the Church prays for those who are without the Church. And what does he pray? "Lord, let it alone this year also;" that is, in this time of grace, spare the sinners, spare the unbelievers, spare the barren, spare the unfruitful. "I will dig about it, and put a basket of dung about it; if it bear fruit, well; but if not, thou shall come and cut it down." "Thou shall come:" When? Thou shalt come in judgment, when Thou shall come to judge the quick and dead. Meanwhile they are spared. But what is the "digging "? What is the "digging about it," but the teaching lowliness and repentance? For a ditch is low ground. The basket of dung understand in its good effects. It is filthy, but it produces fruit. The gardener's filth is the sinner's sorrows. They who repent, repent in filthy robes; if, that is, they understand aright, and repent in truth. To this tree then is it said, "Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
2. What is that "woman who was in an infirmity eighteen years"? In six days God finished His works. Three times six are eighteen. What the "three years" then in "the tree" signified, that do the "eighteen years" in this woman. She was bent down, she could not look up; because in vain did she hear, "Up with your hearts." But the Lord made her straight. There is hope then, for the children, that is, even until the day of judgment come. Man ascribes much to himself. Yet what is man? A righteous man is something great. But yet a righteous man is righteous only by the grace of God. "For what is man, save that thou art mindful of him ?" Wouldest thou see what man is? "All men are liars." We have chanted, "Arise, Lord; let not man prevail." What is, "let not man prevail"? Were not the Apostles men? Were not Martyrs men? The Lord Jesus Himself, without ceasing to be God, vouchsafed to be Man. What then is, "Arise, Lord; let not man prevail"? If "all men are liars; arise," Truth, "let not" falsehood "prevail." If man then would be anything good, it must not be of anything of his own. For if he should wish to be anything of his own he will be "a liar." If he would wish to be true, he must be so of that which is from God, not of anything of his own.
3.Therefore, "Arise, Lord; let not man prevail." So much did lying prevail before the flood, that after the flood only eight men remained. By them the earth was again replenished with lying men, and out of them was elected the people of God. Many miracles were wrought, divine benefits imparted. They were brought right through to the land of promise, delivered from Egyptian bondage: Prophets were raised up among them, they received the temple, they received the priesthood, they received the anointing, they received the Law. Yet of this very people was it said afterwards, "The strange children have lied unto me." At last He was sent who had been promised afore by the Prophets. "Let not man prevail," even the more, because that God was made Man. But even He, though He did divine works, was despised, though He showed forth so many acts of mercy, He was apprehended, He was scourged, He was hanged. Thus far "did man prevail," to apprehend the Son of God, to scourge the Son of God, to crown the Son of God with thorns, to hang the Son of God upon the tree. So far "did man prevail:" how far, but up to the time that having been taken down from the tree, He was laid in the sepulchre? If He had remained there, man would have "prevailed" indeed. But this prophecy addresses the very Lord Jesus Himself, saying, "Arise, Lord, let not man prevail." O Lord, Thou hast vouchsafed to come in the flesh, the Word made Flesh. The Word above us, the Flesh among us, the Word-flesh between God and Man: Thou didst choose a virgin to be born from according to the flesh, when Thou wast to be conceived, Thou didst find a Virgin; when Thou wast born, Thou didst leave a Virgin. But Thou wast not acknowledged; Thou wast Seen, and yet wast hidden. Infirmity was seen, Power was hidden. All this was done, that Thou mightest shed that Blood, which is our Price.
Thou didst so great miracles, didst give health to the weaknesses of the sick, didst show forth many acts of mercy, and receivedst evil for good. They mocked Thee, Thou didst hang upon the tree; the ungodly wagged their heads before Thee, and said, "If Thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross." Hadst Thou then lost Thy power, or rather wast Thou showing forth Thy Patience? and yet they mocked Thee, and yet they derided Thee, yet, when Thou wast slain, they went away as if victorious. Lo, Thou art laid in the sepulchre: "Arise, Lord, let not man prevail." "Let not" the ungodly enemy "prevail, let not" the blind Jew "prevail." For when Thou wert crucified, the Jew in his blindness seemed to himself to have "prevailed." "Arise, Lord, let not man prevail." It is done, yea, it is done. And now what remains, but that "the nations be judged in thy sight"? For He hath risen again, as ye know, and ascended into heaven; and from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
4. Ah! unfruitful tree, mock not, because thou art yet spared; the axe is delayed, be not thou secure; He will come and thou shalt be cut down. Believe that He will come. All these things which now ye see, once were not. Once the Christian people were not over the whole world. It was read of in prophecy, not seen in the earth; now it is both read and seen. Thus was the Church herself completed. It was not said to her, "See, O daughter, and hear;" but, "Hear and see." Hear the predictions, see the completions. As then, my beloved Brethren, Christ had once not been born of a Virgin, but His birth was promised, and He was born; He had once not done His miracles, they were promised, and He did them: He had not yet suffered, it was promised, and so it came to pass: He had not risen again, it was foretold, and so fulfilled: His Name was not throughout the world, it was foretold, and so fulfilled: the idols were not destroyed and broken down, it was foretold, and so fulfilled: heretics had not assailed the Church, it was foretold, and so fulfilled. So also the Day of Judgment is not yet, but seeing it hath been foretold, it shall be fulfilled. Can it be that He who in so many things hath shown Himself true, should be false touching the Day of Judgment? He hath given us a bond of His promises. For God hath made Himself a debtor, not by owing ought, that is, not by borrowing; but by promising. We cannot therefore say to Him, "Give back what Thou hast received." Since "who hath first given to Him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?" We cannot say to Him, "Give what Thou hast received;" but we say without scruple, "Give what Thou hast promised."
5. For hence it is that we are bold to say, day by day, "Thy kingdom come;" that when His kingdom comes, we too may reign with Him. Which hath been promised to us in these words; "Then will I say unto them, Come, ye blessed of My Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world." But assuredly only if we shall have done what follows in that place. "For I was an hungred, and ye gave Me meat," etc. He made these promises to our fathers; but He hath given us a security, for us too to read. If He who hath vouchsafed to give us this security, were to make a reckoning with us and say," Read my debts, the debts, that is, of my promises, and reckon up what I have already paid, and reckon also what I still owe; see how many I have paid already; and what I owe is but little; will ye for that little that remains, think Me an untrustworthy promiser?" What should we have to answer against this most evident truth? Let him then who is barren repent, and bear "fruit worthy of repentance." He that is bent down, who looks only on the earth, rejoices in earthly happiness, who thinks this the only happy life, where he may be happy, and who believes no other can be; whosoever he be that is so bent down, let him be made straight; if he cannot by himself, let him call upon God. For was that woman made straight by herself? Woe had it been for her, if He had not stretched out His Hand.
Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (NPNF I/VI, Schaff). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.