Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Fathers of the Church

Sermon XCIX


The content of Augustine’s sermons is rich and varied, embraces all the themes of Scripture and the liturgy and serves as a valuable commentary on the great dogmatic and exegetical works. They are a model of popular eloquence which is at the same time clear yet profound, lively and incisive, direct and effective. (Agostino Trapè) Sermon 99 is on forgiveness of sins, against the Donatists, and begins from the account in Luke 7:37 of the sinful woman who washed Jesus’s feet with her tears.


Augustine’s Sermons are the fruit of a career of preaching which continued without interruption for almost forty years. The library at Hippo must have contained very many sermons, perhaps three or four thousand, the greater part of which were probably never revised and published by Augustine, and have perished. Around five hundred are now extant, of which those numbered 51 ff. are on the New Testament.

by Augustine of Hippo in Uncertain | translated by R. G. Macmullen; Ed. Philip Schaff

1. SINCE I believe that it is the will of God that I should speak to you on the subject whereof we are now reminded by the words of the Lord out of the Holy Scriptures, I will by His assistance deliver to you, Beloved, a Sermon touching the remission of sins. For when the Gospel was being read, ye gave most earnest heed, and the story was reported, and represented before the eyes of your heart. For ye saw, not with the body, but with the mind, the Lord Jesus Christ" sitting at meat in the Pharisee's house," and when invited by him, not disdaining to go. Ye saw too a "woman" famous in the city, famous indeed in ill fame, "who was a sinner," without invitation force her way into the feast, where her Physician was at meat, and with an holy shamelessness seek for health. She forced her way then, as it were unseasonably as regarded the feast, but seasonably as regarded her expected blessing; for she well knew under how severe a disease she was labouring, and she knew that He to whom she had come was able to make her whole; she approached then, not to the Head of the Lord, but to His Feet; and she who had walked long in evil, sought now the steps of Uprightness. First she shed tears, the heart's blood; and washed the Lord's Feet with the duty of confession. She wiped them with her hair, she kissed, she anointed them: she spake by her silence; she uttered not a word, but she manifested her devotion.

2. So then because she touched the Lord, in watering, kissing, washing, anointing His feet; the Pharisee who had invited the Lord Jesus Christ, seeing He was of that kind of proud men of whom the Prophet Isaiah says, "Who say, Depart far from me, touch me not, for I am clean;" thought that the Lord did not know the woman. This he was thinking with himself, and saying in his heart, "This man if He were a prophet, would have known what woman this is that" hath approached His feet. He supposed, that He did not know her, because He repelled her not, because He did not forbid her to approach Him, because He suffered Himself to be touched by her, sinner as she was. For whence knew he, that He did not know her? But what if He did know, O thou Pharisee, inviter and yet derider of the Lord! Thou dost feed the Lord, yet by whom thou art to be fed thyself, thou dost not understand. Whereby knowest thou, that the Lord did not know what that woman had been, save because she was permitted to approach Him, save because by His sufferance she kissed His Feet, save because she washed, save because she anointed them? For these things a woman unclean ought not to be permitted to do with the Feet that are clean? So then had such a woman approached that Pharisee's feet, he would have been sure to say what Isaiah says of such; "Depart from me, touch me not, for I am clean." But she approached the Lord in her uncleanness, that she might return clean: she approached sick, that she might return whole: she approached Him, confessing, that she might return professing Him.

3. For the Lord heard the thoughts of the Pharisee. Let now the Pharisee understand even by this, whether He was not able to see her sins, who could hear his thoughts. So then He put forth to the man a parable concerning two men, who owed to the same creditor. For He was desirous to heal the Pharisee also, that He might not eat bread at his house for nought; He hungered after him who was feeding Him, He wished to reform him, to slay, to eat him, to pass him over into His Own Body; just as to that woman of Samaria, He said, "I thirst." What is, "I thirst"? I long for thy faith. Therefore are the words of the Lord in this parable spoken; and there is this double object in them, both that that inviter might be cured together with those who ate at the table with Him, who alike saw the Lord Jesus Christ, and were alike ignorant of Him, and that that woman might have the assurance her confession merited, and not be pricked any more with the stings of her conscience. "One," said He, "owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty; He forgave them both: which loved him most?" He to whom the parable was proposed answered, what of course common reason obliged him to answer. "I suppose, Lord, he to whom he forgave most. Then turning to the woman he said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest Me no water for My feet: she hath washed My feet with tears, and wiped them with her hairs. Thou gavest Me no kiss: this woman since the time she came in, hath not ceased to kiss My feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed My feet with ointment. Therefore I say, her many sins are forgiven her, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little."

4. Here arises a difficulty which must in real truth be resolved, and which requires your fixed attention, Beloved, lest haply my words may not be equal to the removing and clearing of the whole obscurity of it by reason of the stress of time; especially as this flesh of mine exhausted by its heat, now longs to be recruited, and demanding its due, and clogging the eagerness of the soul gives proof of that which is said, "The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." Cause there is for fear, yea great cause for fear, lest by these words of the Lord, there steal over the minds of those who understand them not aright, who indulge their fleshly lusts, and are loth to be brought away from them into liberty, that sentiment which, even as the Apostles preached, sprung up in the tongues of slanderous men, of whom the Apostle Paul says, "And as some affirm that we say, Let us do evil that good may come." For a man may say, "If 'he to whom little is forgiven, loveth little;' and he to whom more is forgiven, loveth more; and it is better to love more, than to love less; it is right that we should sin much, and owe much which we may desire to be forgiven us, that so we may love Him the more who forgiveth us our large debts. For that woman in the Gospel who was a sinner, in the same proportion as she owed more, loved the more Him who forgave her her debts, as the Lord Himself saith, 'Her many sins are forgiven her, for she loved much.' Now why did she love much, but because she owed much? And afterwards He added and subjoined, 'But to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.' Is it not better," he may say, "that much should be forgiven me, than less, that thereupon I may love my Lord the more"? Ye see no doubt the great depth of this difficulty; ye see it, I am sure. Ye see too my stress of time; yes, this also do ye see and feel.

5. Accept then a few words. If I shall not do justice to the magnitude of the question, lay up for a time what I shall say at present, and hold me a debtor for some future time. Suppose now two men, that by the clearer force of examples ye may think upon what I have proposed to you. One of them is full of sins, has lived most wickedly for a length of time; the other of them has committed but few sins; they come both to grace, are both baptized, they enter debtors, they go out free; more has been forgiven to one, less to the other. I ask, how much does each love? If I shall find that he loves most, to whom the most sins have been forgiven, it is to his greater advantage that he has sinned much, his ranch iniquity was to his greater advantage, that so his love might not be lukewarm. I ask the other how much he loves, I find less; for if I find that he too loves, as much as the other, to whom much has been forgiven, how shall I make answer to the words of the Lord, how shall that be true which the Truth hath said, "To whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little"? "See," a man says, "but little has been forgiven me, I have not sinned much; yet I love as much as he, to whom much has been forgiven." Dost thou speak truth, or Christ? Has thy lie been forgiven thee to this end, that thou shouldest fix the charge of lying on Him who forgave thee? If little has been forgiven thee, thou lovest little. For if but little has been forgiven thee, and thou lovest very much, thou contradictest Him who said, "To whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little." Therefore I give the more credit to Him, who knoweth thee better than thou dost know thyself. If thou dost suppose that but little hath been forgiven thee, it is certain that thou lovest but little. "What then," says he, "ought I to do? Ought I to commit many sins, that there may be many which He shall be able to forgive me, that I may be able to love more?" It presses me sore, but may the Lord, who hath proposed this saying of truth to us, deliver me out of this strait.

6. This was spoken on account of that Pharisee who thought that he had either no sins, or but few. Now unless he had had some love, he would not have invited the Lord. But how little was it! He gave Him no kiss, not so much as water for His Feet, much less tears; he did not honour Him with any of those offices of respect, with which that woman did, who well knew what need she had of being cured, and by whom she might be cured. O Pharisee, therefore dost thou love but little, because thou dost fondly think that but little is forgiven thee; not because little really is forgiven thee, but because thou thinkest that that which is forgiven is but little. "What then?" he says; "Am I who have never committed murder, to be reckoned a murderer? Am I who have never been guilty of adultery, to be punished for adultery? Or are these things to be forgiven me, which I have never committed?" See: once more suppose two persons, and let us speak to them. One comes with supplication, a sinner covered over with thorns as a hedgehog, and timid exceedingly as a hare. But the rock is the hedgehog's and the hare's refuge. He comes then to the Rock, he finds refuge, he receives succour. The other has not committed many sins; what shall we do for him that he may love much? what shall we persuade him? Shall we go against the words of the Lord, "To whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little"? Yes, most truly so, to whom little is really forgiven. But O thou who sayest that thou hast not committed many sins: why hast thou not? by whose guidance? God be thanked, that by your movement and voice ye have made signs that ye have understood me. Now then, as I think, the difficulty has been solved. The one has committed many sins, and so is made a debtor for many; the other through God's guidance has committed but few. To Him to whom the one ascribes what He hath forgiven, does the other also ascribe what he hath not committed. Thou hast not been an adulterer in that past life of thine, which was full of ignorance, when as yet thou wast not enlightened, as yet discerned not good and evil, as yet believed not on Him, who was guiding thee though thou didst not know Him. Thus doth thy God speak to thee: "I was guiding thee for Myself, I was keeping thee for Myself. That thou mightest not commit adultery, no enticers were near thee; that no enticers were near thee, was My doing. Place and time were wanting; that they were wanting again, was My doing. Or enticers were nigh thee, and neither place nor time was wanting; that thou mightest not consent, it was I who alarmed thee. Acknowledge then His grace, to whom thou also owest it, that thou hast not committed the sin. The other owes me what was done, and thou hast seen forgiven him; and thou owest to me what thou hast not done." For there is no sin which one man commits, which another man may not commit also, if He be wanting as a Director, by whom man was made.

7. Now then seeing I have resolved this profound difficulty, as best I could in so short a space of time (or if I have not resolved it yet, let me be held, as I have already said, a debtor for the rest); let us now rather consider briefly that question of the remission of sins. Christ was supposed to be but a man both by him who invited Him, and by them who sat as guests at the table with Him. But that woman who was a sinner had seen something more than this in the Lord. For why did she all those things, but that her sins might be forgiven her? She knew then that He was able to forgive sins; and they knew that no man was able to forgive them. And we must believe that they all, they who were at the table, that is, and that woman who approached to the Feet of the Lord, all knew that no man could forgive sins. Forasmuch then as they all knew this; she who believed that He could forgive sins, understood Him to be more than man. So when He had said to the woman, "Thy sins are forgiven thee;" they immediately said, "Who is this that forgiveth sins also?" Who is this, whom the woman who was a sinner already knew? Thou who sittest at the table as if in sound health, knowest not thy Physician; because it may be through a stronger fever thou hast even lost thy reason. For thus the frantic patient as he laughs is bewailed by those who are in health. Nevertheless, ye do well to know, and hold fast that truth; yea, hold it fast, that no than is able to forgive sins. This woman who believed that she could be forgiven by Christ, believed Christ not to be man only, but God also. "Who," say they, "is this that forgiveth sins also?" And the Lord did not tell them as they said, "Who is this?" "It is the Son of God, the Word of God;" He did not tell them this, but suffering them to abide for a while still in their former opinion, He really solved the question which had excited them. For He who saw them at the table, beard their thoughts, and turning to the woman, He said, "Thy faith hath made thee whole." Let these who say, "Who is this that forgiveth sins also?" who think me to be but a man, think me but a man. For thee "thy faith hath made thee whole."

8. The Good Physician not only cured the sick then present, but provided also for them who were to be hereafter. There were to be men in after times, who should say, "It is I who forgive sins, I who justify, I who sanctify, I who cure whomsoever I baptize." Of this number are they who say, "Touch me not." Yes, so thoroughly are they of this number, that lately, in our conference, as ye may read in the records of it, when a place was offered them by the commissary, that they should sit with us, they thought it right to answer, "It is told us in Scripture with such not to sit," lest of course by the contact of the seats, our contagion (as they think) should reach to them. See if this is not, "Touch me not, for I am clean." But on another day, when I had a better opportunity, I represented to them this most wretched vanity, when there was a question concerning the Church, how that the evil in it do not contaminate the good: I answered them, because they would not on this account sit with us, and said that they had been so advised by the Scripture of God, seeing forsooth that it is written," I have not sat in the council of vanity;" I said, "If ye will not sit with us, because it is written, 'I have not sat in the council of vanity;' why have ye entered this place with us, since it is written in the following words, 'And with them that do iniquity I will not enter in'?" So then in that they say, "Touch me not, for I am clean," they are like to that Pharisee, who had invited the Lord, and who thought that He did not know the woman, simply because He did not hinder her from touching His Feet. But in another respect the Pharisee was better, because whereas he supposed Christ to be but a man, he did not believe that by a man sins could be forgiven. There was shown then a better understanding in Jews than heretics. What said the Jews? "'Who is this that forgiveth sins also?' Does any man dare to usurp this to himself?" What on the other hand says the heretic? "It is I who forgive, I cleanse, I sanctify." Let not me, but Christ, answer him: "O man, when I was thought by the Jews to be but a man, I gave forgiveness of sins to faith. (It is not I, but Christ who answereth thee.) And thou, O heretic, mere than as thou art, dost say, "Come, O woman, I will make thee whole." Whereas when I was thought to be but a man, I said," Go, woman, thy faith hath made thee whole."

9. They answer, "knowing not," as the Apostle says, "either what they speak, or whereof they affirm:" they answer and say, "If men do not forgive sins, then that is false which Christ saith, 'Whatsoever ye shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven also.'" But thou dost not know why this is said, and in what sense this is said. The Lord was about to give to men the Holy Spirit, and He wished it to be understood that sins are forgiven to His faithful by His Holy Spirit, and not by men's deserts. For what art thou, O man, but an invalid who hast need of healing. Wouldest thou make thyself my physician? Together with me, seek the Physician. For that the Lord might show this more plainly, that sins are forgiven by the Holy Spirit, which He hath given to His faithful ones, and not by men's deserts, after He had risen from the dead, He saith in a certain place, "Receive ye the Holy Ghost;" and when He had said, "Receive ye the Holy Ghost," He subjoined immediately, "Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them;" that is, the Spirit remits them, not ye. Now the Spirit is God. God therefore remits, not ye. But what are ye in regard to the Spirit? "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?" And again, "Know ye not that your bodies are the temples of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God?" So then God dwelleth in His holy temple, that is in His holy faithful ones, in His Church; by them doth He remit sins; because they are living temples.

10. But He who remitteth by man, can also remit even without man. For He who is able to give by another, hath no less the power to give by Himself. To some He gave by the ministry of John. By whom did He give to John himself? With good reason, as God wished to show this, and to attest this truth, when certain in Samaria had had the Gospel preached to them? and had been baptized, and baptized by Philip the Evangelist, one of the seven deacons that were first chosen, they did not receive the Holy Ghost, though they had been baptized. Tidings were brought to the disciples who were at Jerusalem, and they came to Samaria, in order that they who bad been baptized, might by imposition of their hands receive the Holy Ghost. And so it was; "They came and laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost." For the Holy Ghost was at that time given in such sort, that He even visibly showed Himself to have been given. For they who received Him spake with the tongues of all nations; to signify that the Church among the nations was to speak in the tongues of all. So then they received the Holy Ghost, and He appeared evidently to be in them. Which when Simon saw, supposing that this power was of men, he wished it might be his also. What he thought to be of men, he wished to buy of men. "How much money," says he, "will ye take of me, that by imposition of my hands the Holy Ghost may be given?" Then Peter says to him with execration, "Thou hast neither part nor lot in this faith. For thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. Thy money perish with thee; and the rest which he spake in the same place suitably to the occasion.

11. Now why I have wished to bring this subject before you, give heed, Dearly Beloved. It was meet that God should first show that He worketh by the ministry of men; but afterwards by Himself, lest men should think, as Simon thought, that it was man's gift, and not God's. Though the disciples themselves knew this well already. For there were one hundred and twenty men collected together, when without the imposition of any hand the Holy Ghost came upon them. For who had laid hands on them at that time? And yet He came, and filled them first. After that offence of Simon, what did God do? See Him teaching, not by words but by things. That same Philip, who had baptized the men, and the Holy Ghost had not come upon them, unless the Apostles had met together and laid their hands upon them, baptized the officer, that is, the eunuch of queen Candace, who had worshipped in Jerusalem, and returning thence was reading in his chariot Isaiah the Prophet, and understood it not. Philip being admonished went up to his chariot, explained the Scripture, unfolded the faith, preached Christ. The eunuch believed on Christ, and said when they came unto a certain water, "See water, who doth hinder me to be baptized? Philip said to him, Dost thou believe on Jesus Christ? He answered, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Immediately he went down with him into the water." When the mystery and sacrament of Baptism had been accomplished, that the gift of the Holy Ghost might not be thought to be of men, there was no waiting, as in the other case, for the Apostles to come, but the Holy Ghost came forthwith. Thus was Simon's thought destroyed, lest in such a thought he might have followers.

12. Again, another more wonderful example. Peter came to Cornelius the centurion, to a Gentile man, uncircumcised: he began to preach Christ Jesus both to him, and to those who were with him. "While Peter was yet speaking,"' I do not say, when as yet he had not laid on his hands, but when he had not even yet baptized them, and when they who were with Peter were in doubt whether the uncircumcised ought to be baptized (for there had arisen an offence between the Jews who believed, and those who had been brought to the faith from among the Gentiles, between the Jews, that is, and the Christians who were baptized though uncircumcised), that God might take away this question, "while Peter was speaking, the Holy Ghost came," filled Cornelius, filled them who were with him. And by this very attestation of so great a thing, as it were a loud voice came to Peter, "Why dost thou doubt of water? Already I am here."

13. So then let every soul which is to be delivered from her manifold wickedness by the grace of the Lord, to be cleansed as it were in the Church from her filthy prostitution, believe with all assurance, approach the Feet of the Lord, seek His Footsteps, confess in pouring out tears upon them, and wipe them with her hair. The Feet of the Lord are the preachers of the Gospel. The woman's hair is all superfluous possessions. Let her wipe the Feet with her hair, yea by all means wipe them, let her do works of mercy; and when she has wiped them, let her kiss them, let her receive peace, that she may have love. She has approached to such an one, has been baptized by such an one as the Apostle Paul: from him let her hear, "Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ." But she has been baptized by another, by one "who seeks his own things, not the things which are Jesus Christ's:" let her hear from the Lord, "Do what they say, but do not what they do." So let her assurance be in Him, whether she meet with a good Evangelist, or with one who acts not as he speaks. For she hears from the Lord with firm assurance, "O woman, go thy way, thy faith hath made thee whole."

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.

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