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From No Uncertain Sound, Sermons that Shaped the Pulpit Tradition, Edited, with an Introduction, by Ray C. Petry, Professor of Church History, Duke University, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1948; pp. 185-197.

(d. 1240)


WITH this English translation of a typical sermon for people in a specific condition of life, we may see why De Vitry is said by a medieval writer to have “moved France with his preaching as no one before or after him.” A cosmopolitan in the best sense of Christian flexibility, regional impatience, and forgivable homiletic opportunism, he preached to the people, where they were, a gospel designed to move them heavenward. The sermon here translated from J. de Vitry 457-67 by Dr. Louise P. Smith proves that medieval preachers were not wholly devoid of interest in the laboring people. Nor were they lacking in illustrative devices and crowd appeal.



(LX: Popular Sermons)

Text — Zech. 13:5. I am a farmer, for Adam was my example from my youth.

In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening let not thy hand cease: for thou knowest not which may rather spring up, this or that. With these words, using the farmer as an example. Ecclesiastes (11:6) exhorts us to perseverance and industry in preaching the word of God. For there are many things which we ought to say to our people, and we must not shorten our sermons out of laziness. If one point fails to arouse our hearers, another succeeds; and when one man is not moved, another is. Some who are not convinced by the beginning of the sermon are converted by the end. This is why Ecclesiastes says that a man must sow in the morning and in the evening, for so he grows rich and becomes affluent quickly.

Also, we read in Ecclesiasticus (20:30), He that tilleth his land shall make a high heap of grain: and he that worketh justice shall be exalted. And Solomon says in Proverbs (12:11), He that tilleth his land shall be satisfied with bread. Clearly, he means tilling the land of our bodies by whipping them and inflicting pain on them, cultivating the land of the Church by teaching and instructing those subject to her, cultivating our won souls by exercising them in virtue and good works.

Therefore, in the morning we ought to sow spiritual seed in the hearts of our hearers, and we ought not to leave off in the evening. But from the beginning to the end, we should continue in good works, as the Apostle wrote to the Galatians (6:9), And in doing good, let us not fail. For in due time we shall reap, not failing. Just as a good farmer does not stop work for rain or cold, so a wise man does not cease from good works because of adversity. And as a farmer beginning his work invokes the help of God and makes the sign of the Cross before he starts his labor, so before beginning a sermon we ought with the sign of the Cross to drive off the birds of Hell, lest they snatch the seed of the word of God from the field of our hearts. And we should pray God to send the dew of tears and the sun of His 187 grace upon the seed of His word and make it bear fruit today in your hearts.

I am a farmer. . . . Agriculture, in the literal sense, and manual labor are highly praised in Holy Scripture. Without them the state cannot endure (cf. Ecclus. 38:86). After the Fall, penance was imposed upon Adam and his sons: In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread (Gen. 3:19). Consequently those who work with the intention of doing the penance imposed upon them by the Highest Priest1 certainly gain no less merit than those who chant all day in church or keep vigil from night until morning. Truly, we see many poor farmers who support a wife and children by the work of their hands and labor harder than monks in cloisters or clergy in churches. If they do this in charity, with the intention of doing the penance imposed on them by God, they merit eternal life and gain for themselves, besides, temporal maintenance. Obviously, if, like brute beasts, they have no purpose beyond gaining something to chew or guzzle, they have their reward in this life and deserve no other for their work. Such men are extremely stupid and foolish; although they could convert penalty into penance, they refuse to do it because they have eyes only for temporal gain; yet they work no less hard than the others who keep their eyes on God. Truly, in the very same field, one man can work at harvesting to do penance, another only to get money, a third to steal the sheaves. In your sight they work equally; but one merits eternal life, the second, earthly gain, the third, eternal damnation. A clever woman also can, if she so purpose, do penance and at the same time gain property; another works no less hard but gains only the property because she seeks nothing else.

Amos, the prophet, assures us that labor of this kind, the penalty imposed by God on our first parents, may be converted into penance, for he says (5:16): They shall call the husbandman to mourning and such as are skillful in lamentation to lament. But many who are not good eat the work of their hands, as we read of Cain; and also many work hard but gather no harvest, because they are devoured by mortal sin.

According to Genesis (2:15), The Lord . . . put man in Paradise  . . . to188 dress it and to keep it. Therefore, it is necessary both to cultivate and to preserve. Otherwise, work is of no use. We should therefore preserve by cultivating and thus by preserving cultivate. For the idle, who do not wish to cultivate, not only fail to gain any good, but lose what they have. Unless then, we cultivate, we shall not succeed in preserving what we have. But by cultivation, we are made perfect, just as is said in Ecclesiasticus (20:30): He that tilleth his land shall make a high heap of corn. And again he says (Ecclus. 7:16): Hate not laborious works, nor husbandry ordained by the Most High. And Solomon says (Eccles. 5:18: D. 5:17): This therefore hath seemed good to me that a man should eat and drink and enjoy the fruit of his labor wherewith he hath labored under the sun.

Again, a life of labor in the literal sense and living by one’s own toil are praised by the Apostle when he says (Eph. 4:28): He that stole, let him now steal no more; but rather let him labor, working with his hands . . . that he may have something to give him that suffereth need. Two hands then we must have, one for working, the other for giving, and he who lacks either is considered maimed. The farmer’s work is also recognized as especially honorable since this kind of labor is allowed to the clergy and to those under monastic rule (regularibus persones); they may cultivate their lands and work with their own hands provided they do not omit the church services to which they are bound. But business is forbidden them. He speaks against the greedy who are always troubled and worried by their anxiety to gain and hoard: There is none worse than he that envieth himself (Ecclus. 14:6). This is the greedy man who deprives himself of necessities and this is the reward of his wickedness (14:6), that he is subjected to the deprivation which he endures for his baseness. So Ambrose says of the greedy: What worse can you wish him than a long life? And Augustine: Who is more greedy than the man whom God cannot satisfy? And in Proverbs (15:27) we read: He that is reedy of gain troubleth his own house because he opens his mind to the winds and the suggestions of demons. Now he disturbs his own house, that is, his family, by restricting their necessities and by saying, “You eat too much, you drink too much.” And in Ecclesiastes (2:23) it is stated: All his days are full of sorrows and miseries, even in the night he doth not rest his mind. Again he says (5:13, 14; D. 5:12, 13) riches kept to the hurt of the owner . . . are lost with 189 very great affliction. A little farther on (5:17; D. 5:16), All the days of his life he eateth in darkness and in many cares, and in misery and sorrow. Once more he says off the greedy (6:2), A man to whom God hath given riches and substance and honor . . . yet God doth not give him power to eat thereof but a stranger shall eat it. With Ecclesiasticus 14:10 we read, the poor man is not satisfied with bread and will sit by his table in sadness. And again the greedy are admonished (11:18-20), there is one who is rich by doing — that is, by grasping — greedily and this is the portion of his reward. In that he saith: I have found me rest and now I will eat of my goods alone, and he knoweth not what time shall pass and that death approacheth, and that he must leave all to others and die. This is what the greedy rich man said who wished to enlarge his barns and store up wealth for many years. My soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years (Luke 12:19). To him it was said: Thou fool, this night they shall require thy soul of thee (vs. 20). And Ecclesiasticus says (5:1), Set not thy heart upon unjust possessions and say not: I have enough to live on: or it shall be of no service in the time of vengeance and darkness, that is, of death. There are some men who are always struggling to acquire and never have enough, who are always unhappy and in want. Of such men Ecclesiasticus (11:11) says: There is an ungodly man that laboreth and maketh haste and is in sorrow and is so much the more in want. For the Devil (Diabolus) displays riches to lead men to desire them, and takes them away to make them more conscious of poverty; just as small boys punch a hole in a quarter and tie a string to it, and when a passer-by bends over and tries to pick it up, they pull it back to tease him. So Pharaoh, that is, the Devil, too away the straw of riches and none-the-less demanded the same number of bricks. For although men are poor, they are still greedy and long for great wealth. Truly the Devil catches those who are confined within the narrow bounds of poverty as easily as a hunter shoots his arrows and wound wild beasts in a narrow ravine. For Tyre is the diminutive daughter of Sidon (that is, hunting2).

As too great thirst at times forces a man to drink dirty water; greed, which is the root of all evils (I Tim. 6:10),, drives farmers and laborers to many sins — even to the losing of their souls — for the sake of a small strip of land. To gain at most a single extra furrow 190 for themselves, they drive their wagons on their neighbors’ land, or they move the posts and boundary lines of the fields. Hosea (10:13) says of them: You have ploughed wickedness, that is, land wrongfully acquired, you have reaped iniquity, that is, you have gathered harvest which was not yours, you have eaten the fruit of lying; by lying is meant saying the land stolen from another is mine. And again Hosea says (5:10): The princes of Judah are as they that take up the bound, that is, moving the boundaries of the fields. And in Proverbs (22:28) we find: Pass not beyond the ancient bounds which thy fathers have set. This is intended to be applied to the heretics who transgress beyond the bounds of the Catholic faith which the doctors of the Church set up in the beginning. Deuteronomy (19:14) says: Thou shalt not take nor remove thy neighbor’s landmark, which thy predecessors have set in thy possession.

Still other men are in danger of losing their souls by greedily keeping back the tithes they owe. Such men are judged to be not only thieves, but sacrilegious, besides. For tithes are consecrated to the officials of the Church and belong to them, as is proved by the last chapter of Leviticus, All tithes of the land whether of grain or of the fruits of trees are the Lord’s and are sanctified to Him (vs. 30). And Jerome — To rob a friend of anything is treacherous: to defraud the Church is sacrilege. Not only the Old Testament, but the New also, teaches that tithes should be paid. For the Lord says in Matthew (23:23): Woe to you scribes and Pharisees . . . because you tithe mint and anise and cummin, and have left the weightier things of the law, judgment and mercy and faith. These things you ought to have done, and not to have left those undone. Further Augustine says: Pay tithes. Whatever you keep back from the tithe which is the share of the angels, sinks straight into hell. For tithes are the dues we owe for an eternal inheritance. And he who does not pay such dues loses land and home. Note Proverbs (28:34): He that stealeth anything of his father or from his mother and saith, This is no sin, is the partner of a murderer. From this it is clear how heinous a sin it is to withhold what is due to a spiritual Father, and to Mother Church; it is compared to murder.

It is said of the swan that it bears ten cygnets and is the enemy of snakes, and those who pay tithes honestly are enemies of the Devil and friends of God. Equally, those who fail to pay in full are enemies 191 of God. As God himself said through Malachi (3:8, 9): Shall a man afflict God? For you afflict me. And you have said: Wherein do we afflict thee? in tithes and in first fruits and in money you are cursed. See how great a sin it is to keep back tithes, since God complains that He Himself is afflicted and tortured. And Malachi continues (3:10): Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in my house and try me in this, saith the Lord: if I open not unto you the floodgates of heaven, and pour you out a blessing even to abundance. This proves that when tithes are not paid God sends unfruitfulness and poverty, but to those who pay fully he sends abundance. Besides that, Give and it shall be given to you (Luke 6:38). And it is commanded in Exodus (22:29), Thou shalt not delay to pay thy tithes and thy first fruits. Augustine says, If you delay paying your tithes, it is a sin; it is a still worse sin not to pay them at all. And again he says: If you give your tithes, not only will you receive abundant crops, you will also gain health of body. Now, with the ecclesiastical tax, the Church can force you to pay each year tithes of all your crops and of your young animals. Not from compulsion, but voluntarily and joyfully, ought you to give God His due, that is, the tithes which God requires of us for the payment of His servants and as acknowledgment of His universal dominion. Compare Ecclesiasticus (35:11): In every gift show a cheerful countenance and sanctify thy tithes with joy. But the laity not only object to paying tithes from their property, they expect also to receive, in the sacraments, much more than the value of the tithes which the Lord assigned to officials of the church and to those who administer the sacraments. For the laborer is worthy of his hire (Luke 10:7). If, then, laymen do not administer the sacraments nor celebrate mass, it is pure impudence for them to arrogate to themselves the pay of clergy and the spiritual dues, and to presume to appropriate them for themselves as if they had a hereditary right to them, to the danger of their souls. There are some who pay not a tenth but scarcely a twentieth or a fortieth.

If they do pay a tenth of some things, they offer the worse to God and keep the better for themselves. That way they lose both property and reward, as it is said of Cain that he offered to God grain from the road sides which had been eaten by animals; and God, therefore, had no respect to Cain and his offerings (Gen. 4:5). For we ought to 192 take the best fruits of our land and bring them as gifts to the Man (cf. Eph. 4:8) — that is, to Christ. Compare Numbers (18:29): All things that you shall offer of the tithes, and shall separate for the gifts of the Lord, shall be the best and choicest things; and Malachi (1:8): If you offer the blind for sacrifice is it not evil? . . . Offer it to thy prince if he will be pleased with it (this means that it will not please him). And he says again (1:14): Cursed is the deceitful man that hath in his flock a male and making a vow offereth in sacrifice that which is feeble to the Lord. So it is plain that we ought to pay the full tithes to the Lord and take them from the better, or even the best of our possessions, in universal recognition of his dominion. For we are enrolled servants of a master who has left us nine shares and willed to keep only one tenth for himself and his clergy. Indeed when there were no clergy of the church, nor any officials to receive tithes in the name of the Lord, he even then desired that a part of His own goods be returned to Him and be burned with fire in His honor. This is clearly stated of Abel’s sacrifice in another translation (Gen. 4:4), God blazed above Abel and his offerings.

God ordered not only tithes but also first fruits to be offered, compare Proverbs (3:9), Honor the Lord with thy substance and give to the poor3 the first of all thy fruits. In obedience to this command, some give to the poor the first loaf of bread instead of the first fruits, In the same way, before they eat meat or fish, they always separate a piece for the use of the poor, and give them the first dish of sauce. And in the same way, they allot a portion from the threshing floor and wine press. I have even heard that some devout and wise matrons, when the have finished their weaving, donate the first part to the poor before they take any for their own use. And in this way, in places where the first fruits are not given to the clergy of the church, almsgiving of this kind is practiced instead of offering the first fruits. But some men are so dominated by greed that they give to the poor neither the first nor the last portion, but devour and consume the whole themselves. Of such it is said in Job (20:21), Noting shall continue of his goods. These are men who bestow the food of the poor, that is, the left-over food, on their dogs or chickens, or keep it until it spoils. For example, I have heard of a certain rich miser who had a pie saved so long that when it was cut at the table before 193 himself and the guests who were dining with him, mice ran out. Some men, influenced by the same greed, keep needed garments which they ought to give the poor until they are fit for nothing at all. Our Lord Jesus Christ gave freely to us the garment of his body at the time when it was best for us — that is, when he was thirty-three — but they [the greedy] cheat the poor of what is due them. And this tale I have heard, of a certain miserly soldier. He had dined in the hall of a nobleman and after dinner was looking for his cloak which a servant had put with the other garments. He could not find it quickly, and he began to scold the servant in front of all the company and said, “You son of a harlot, bring my cloak quickly, don’t you know which it is?” The offended servant answered indignantly while everyone listened, “I have known it very well, sir, for the last seven years; but I cannot find it.” The soldiers who heard began to laugh and deride the miser, to his great discomfort.

Others send to be sold the old clothes which should, by right, belong to the poor, or hand them over as payment to their barbers or their washer women. I have even heard of some who make a short coat out of a cloak, and after they have worn the coat for a long time they make a jacket, and later from the jacket slippers, and at last from the slippers, half shoes and thus deprive the poor of the whole. They prefer to have the mice, rather than the poor, keep themselves warm in the clothes which they allow to grow mouldy on clothes racks. But the handsomest clothes rack for a rich man is the body of a poor man where garments are kept safe and not eaten by moths nor stolen by thieves. I have even seen certain greedy, rich men who kept the year’s harvest in their granaries and the wine in their cellars while they waited for a time of scarcity; and they kept it so long that when they brought it out the grain was good for nothing, and the wine spoiled and fetid; because they were not willing either animals or poor should have any use of it. Such are not only labeled thieves or robbers as Isaiah (3:14) says, the spoil of the poor is in your house, but besides they will be condemned as murderers since they made no effort to help the poor who were dying of hunger. For so far as it depends on them, while they are waiting for a time of scarcity, they are desiring the death of the poor. I have heard of such a woman whose husband gave her the keys and the guardianship of all his property. She kept everything without any pity for the poor and 194 she gave nothing for God’s sake to the needy, since she promised herself a long life. But it happened that she died. When they asked her husband to give alms for the sake of his wife’s soul, he was more concerned with his second marriage than with the soul of his dead wife and replied with the French proverb: “Berta had all my property in her power, let her have the benefit of what she did for her own soul.” Berte fu ale mait, se elle dona si en ait.

Also, there are men who lack all pity and piety, for they do not allow the poor to gather the stalks left by the reapers but keep these for their pigs. Likewise, in the vintage they do not allow the few clusters missed by the grape-gatherers to be collected by the poor, and are not even willing to leave the straw after threshing for the use of the poor. All this is contrary to good custom and honor and it is also against the commands of God and the divine law. For Leviticus (23:22) requires: When you reap the grain of your land, you shall not cut it to the very ground: neither shall you gather the ears that remain; but you shall leave them for the poor and for the strangers.

And again Leviticus says (19:9, 10): When thou reapest the grain of thy land, thou shalt not cut down all that is on the face of the ground to the very ground; nor shalt thou gather the ears that remain. Nether shalt thou gather the bunches and grapes that fall down in thy vineyard, but shalt leave them to the poor and the strangers to take. And Deuteronomy (24:19-21): When thou hast reaped the corn in thy field and hast forgot and left a sheaf, thou shalt not return to take it away: but thou shalt suffer the stranger, and the fatherless and the widows to take it away: that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all the works of thy hands. If thou have gathered the fruit of thy olive trees, thou shalt not return to gather whatsoever remaineth on the trees: but shalt leave it for the stranger and the widow. If thou make the vintage of thy vineyard, thou shalt not gather the clusters that remain, but they shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.

See how the Lord cuts off every occasion for sordid greed from His servants since He wishes them to be kind, generous, and noble, that is, bountiful. The first ill-gotten money brought death to aliens, and enervating riches destroyed the world with shameful luxury.

Again, from those who through greed or carelessness allow their animals to go into the fields and destroy the property of others, Exodus 195 (22:5) requires, If any man hurt a field or a vineyard and put in his beast to feed upon that which is other men’s: he shall restore the best of whatsoever he hath in his own field or in his vineyard according to the estimation of the damage. And those who treat their workmen badly, Deuteronomy (24:14 f.) commands: Thou shalt not refuse the hire of the needy and the poor, whether he be thy brother or a stranger that dwelleth with thee in the land, and is within thy gates: but thou shalt pay him the price of his labor the same day before the going down of the sun, because he is poor and with it maintaineth his life. In Leviticus (19:13) the Lord says: The wages of him that hath been hired by thee shalt not abide with thee until the morning. Tobias says (4:15) to his son: If any man hath done any work for thee, immediately pay him his hire, and let not the wages of thy hired servant stay with thee at all. Witness, further, Ecclesiasticus (34:25): The bread of the needy is the life of the poor: he that defraudeth them thereof is a man of blood. And farther on (34:27): He that sheddeth blood and he that defraudeth the laborer of his hire are robbers [D. brothers]. And Job declared (31:39 f.): If I . . . have afflicted the soul of the tillers of the soil let thistles grow up to me instead of wheat. And James said (5:4): Behold the hire of the laborers who have reaped down your fields, which by fraud has been kept back by you, crieth: and the cry of them hath entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.

However, there are dishonest laborers who hurry and try to be working hard when the employer is present; but when they are out of sight, they are slow and lazy, not considering that he who receives twelve denarii for a day’s work, and, by pretending to work, does less than six denarii worth, is under obligation to return the extra he received of which he defrauded his employer. Compare Colossians (3:22): Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not serving to the eye as pleasing men, but in simplicity of heart, fearing God.

But on the other hand, let farmers and other laborers beware lest they be led by greed to work on the Lord’s day and other holy days, the celebration of which is required. For the Lord in the law strictly commands the keeping of the Sabbath, and in many places complaint is made by the holy prophets over the violation of the Sabbath, like that of Ezekiel (23:38): They . . . profaned my sabbath. 196 God orders the keeping of the Lord’s day to begin the preceding evening, and the same is true of other holy days which are similar to the Sabbath. Even the saints complain of these who fail to keep their festivals as the Church directs them to be celebrated. Those who work for gain on such days will be far from successful. For if the law orders a man who collected sticks on the Sabbath to be stoned — a punishment never ordered except for mortal sin — those who do not keep the holy days enjoined in the time of grace will be stoned much harder in hell. Therefore, on these holy and sacred days, we ought not to do servile work but to attend to spiritual things and the safety of our souls. We ought not to buy or sell, except perhaps those things which are necessary for the day. But it would be safer to prepare for the holy day by buying food beforehand. No public market should be held. No entertainments should be presented, nor any lawsuits prosecuted on these days which Christians should spend in psalms, hymns, and spiritual canticles (Col. 3:16). Also, not only men, but animals, are required to rest, so that we may not carry loads on pack animals or wagons. Compare Jeremiah (17:22, 24): Do not bring burdens out of your house on the Sabbath day, and bring them not in by the gates. And our Lord says in Exodus (20:9): Six days shalt thou labor . . . on the seventh day thou shalt cease, that thy ox and ass may rest, and the son of thy handmaid and the stranger may be refreshed (cf. Deut. 5:14).

But if necessity forces you to plow or to gather fruit because of an enemy who, on other days, would capture or kill the workmen, then — because necessity knows no law — by order of the Church, work of this kind can be done, but greater donations than usual must be given to the poor. Therefore, farmers and other workmen ought to come to church on the Lord’s day to hear from the priests when and how they should keep the holy days. But some (especially those who spend their days in the fields and forests) are so careless and ignorant and uncivilized, because they rarely enter a church, that they do not know when a holy day comes except as they see no wagons in the field or hear no wood-chopping. There is an old story that there once lived, in an old country mansion, an elderly man who, through long practice, had learned the holy days. Always, on the days which were generally celebrated in that district, he put on his boots that he had painted red. When the neighbors saw the color, they said to 197 their households, “Today we must celebrate, for Master Gocelinus is wearing his red shoes.”

Still worse are the men who not only work on holy days, but even sneak in when others have gone to church and stealthily carry off their property. Or, because on such days there are no people in the fields and vineyards as there are on ordinary days, these cursed men steal the grain or fruit from the fields and gardens and the grapes from the vines. By their wickedness they make themselves obnoxious to all and come, at last, to a bad end. They are like the lion who spared no one when he was strong; when he grew old so that he could not defend himself, he was maltreated by those whom he had injured. The wild boar wounded him with his tusks; the bull tossed him on his horns; the ass kicked him with his hoofs; the wolf scattered filth on him; and many who had not themselves been harmed by him, now inflicted injuries on him because of his ferocity.

So it is good to show oneself kind and friendly. For example, I have heard of some who not only drive strayed animals out of their own fields and the fields of their friends, but even from the fields of their enemies. The repair broken hedges; and if they see an ass belonging to those who hate them fallen down under a load, they help their enemies by getting it on its feet again. For a man who helps many will find someone who repays him, as in the story of the lion who had a thorn in his foot. He was forced by necessity to stretch out his paw to a shepherd, who drew out the thorn from the lion’s paw. After some time it happened that the lion was caught and presented alive to the Emperor, and the Emperor had him put with the other wild beasts. Later the shepherd, for something he had done, was captured and taken to the Emperor and was sent to the wild beasts to be devoured. The lion recognized him and not only spared him, but prevented his being harmed by the other beasts. When this was told the Emperor, he was greatly astonished and had the shepherd brought before him. When he had learned the truth he allowed, not only the shepherd, but also the lion, to go free.

Therefore, do not be rough and boorish but generous and kind. For the labor of farmers and other workmen, when it is well done, is of great value and is acceptable to our Lord Jesus Christ who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.



1  I.e., God, cf. below.

2  By derivation from the Hebrew root tsud, hunt.

3  Douay, to Him, but compare Tob. 4:7.


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