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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. 95-102.

(540 [590]-604)


GREGORY’S life recalls the noble Roman scion, the papal ambassador at Constantinople, and the pontiff with a shepherd’s watchfulness as great as that celebrated in the Pastoral Rule. He was a consistent derogator of pagan learning, an ardent patron of the monastic life, a credulous retailer of miracle lore. Great as a Christian administrator, rather than as a scholar or preacher, his life and writings impressed the medieval world profoundly. The following selection, translated by Miss Dorothy Ann Freeman, is edited from MPL 76:909-15.




(Homily XI — Book I)

If I say to the wicked, You shall die, and you do not warn him, nor admonish him to turn from the way of his wickedness and live; the wicked one shall die in his iniquity, but I shall require his blood at your hand(Ezek. 3:18).

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9.  In these words, what else should we note, or carefully consider, except this, that neither does the subordinate die from the guilt of his superior, nor is the superior without guilt when his subordinate, not hearing the word of life, dies from his own guilt? The wicked one deserves death, but, nevertheless, the onlooker ought to make known to him the way of life, and rebuke his wickedness. If, in truth, the onlooker keeps silent, the wicked one will die in his iniquity, because it was the reward of his wickedness that he should not be worthy of the word of warning. But God will require his blood at the hand of the spectator, because he killed him, since by keeping silence he gave him over to death. In both these considerations we ought to realize how closely the sins of subordinates and superiors are united, because when one of lower rank dies from his own guilt, then he who is superior to him is held culpable for his death, because he has kept silent. Think then, my dearest brothers, think how the fact that we are not worthy pastors is indeed your fault, whose prelates we are. For if you fall into iniquity, we are held to account, who did not withstand you and reclaim you from your depraved desires. You spare, therefore, both yourselves and us, when you cease from the work of wickedness. We spare both you and ourselves when we are not silent respecting that which offends. Oh, how free from the blood of those entrusted to him was the noble preacher who said: I am clear from the blood of all men, for I have not spared to declare unto you all the counsel of God (Acts 20:26-27). If he had not proclaimed it, surely he would not have been stainless. But he was free 98 from the blood of those to whom he was zealous to announce all the counsel of God. By this word we are summoned to trial; we are fettered; we are shown to be guilty, we who are called priests, who, to our own ills, add the deaths of others; for we kill all those whom everyday we, lukewarm and silent, see going to their death.

10.  When the text reads: But I will require his blood at your hand (Ezek. 3:18), if the word “blood,” in this place, signifies the death of the body, then our anxiety on account of our silence is much increased. For if, in the case of his flock, he who is the prelate [appointed] to oversee them is to be held so strictly to account for the death of the body, which is doomed to die in any case, then how great will be his guilt for the death of the soul, which could have lived forever if it had heard words of reproof? But the word “blood” can better be taken to mean sins. Therefore, the psalmist, when he lamented the sins of the flesh, said: Deliver me from blood, O God, Thou God of my salvation (Ps. 51:14l D. 50:16). The blood of the dying will be required at the hand of the spectator, because the sin of the dependent is counted up to his superior, if he has held his peace. Therefore, this is what he should do to clear himself from the death of his dependent. He should arise, he should be watchful, he should withstand wrongdoing, as the Scripture says: Hurry, make haste, arouse your friend, neither give slumber to your eyes, nor let your eyelids sleep (Prov. 6:3-4), Then this also is added: If, however, you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, nor from the way of his iniquity; he shall die in his wickedness, but you will have saved your soul (Ezek. 3:19).

11.  Thus your subordinate dies without involving you, if he ignores your opposition to the cause of his death; but you are implicated in his death if you do not oppose him. Also, we should note what things the onlooker ought to teach, surely faith and works. For our text says: But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn for his wickedness, and from his wicked way [he shall die. . . . The wickedness certainly refers to infidelity, and the wicked way to iniquitous action. And the endeavor of every onlooker ought to be, first, to exhort to the righteousness of faith; and then to the righteous way, that is, to good action.

12.  Since a sermon consists of exhortation, we ought briefly to observe what should be the method and the subject of the pastor’s 98 speaking. For the teacher ought to consider what he should say, and to whom, and when, and how, and how much. If even one of these considerations is lacking, he does not speak fitly. The Scripture reads: If you offer rightly, but do not apportion rightly, you have sinned (Gen. 4:7; cf. Sept.). We offer rightly when, with right good zeal, we do a good work; but we do not apportion rightly when we neglect to use discretion in good works. We ought, therefore, to consider what we should say according to the saying of Paul, Let our (D. your) speech be always in grace, seasoned with salt (Col. 4:6).

13.  Truly we ought to consider to whom we are speaking, because often the word of rebuke which one person will accept, another will not. And often one should deal differently with the same person, according to the deed. Thus, with a strong rebuke the prophet Nathan smote David after his adultery. When David spoke about the thief of the sheep, The man that hath done this is a child of death; Nathan forthwith replied, saying: Thou art the man (II Sam. 12:5, 7). But when he spoke about the kingdom of Solomon, (I Kings 1:23), because [in this case] there was no guilt, he fell down humbly in adoration of David. Because for one and the same person the situations were different, the words of the prophet were dissimilar.

14.  We must also consider when we ought to speak, because often, if the rebuke is postponed, it afterward is readily received. But sometimes it loses force, if one misses the time at which it should have been given. The wise wife of Nabal, seeing him drunken (I Sam. 25:36-37), did not berate him for his stubborn built, but when the wine was digested, the words of her rebuke struck home. But [on the other hand] the prophet proclaims that the [rebuke of] flatterers’ tongues should not be put off to a future time, when he says: The shameful are at once confounded, who say to me, Well done, well done (Ps. 70:2-3; D. 69:3-4). For flattery, if at the time it is unconcernedly accepted, augments itself, and, in a little while, it softens the spirit so as to weaken it from the rigor of its rectitude by sweet speech. Flattery, therefore, should immediately and without delay be struck down, so that it may not grow.

15.  We ought also to think in what manner we should speak. For often the words which recall one man to salvation wound another. Thus the Apostle Paul admonished Titus, saying: Rebuke with all authority (Titus 2:15), but exhorted Timothy, saying: Rebuke, entreat, 99 reprove in all patience and teaching (II Tim. 4:2). Why should he instruct one man to use authority, and the other to use patience, unless it happened that he realized one to be of a more lenient, and the other of a more fervent spirit? Upon the more moderate man, severity of speech had to be enjoined through the power of authority, but he who was ardent in spirit had to be tempered through patience, lest he should be overly impetuous, and, instead of leading the wounded back to salvation, should wound the sound.

16.  We ought to consider how much we should say, lest we prolong the word of exhortation or rebuke too far for the one who is not able to bear much, and thus bring our hearer to boredom. Thus the same excellent preacher speaks to the Hebrews, saying: I beseech you, brethren, to bear with my word of consolation, for I have written to you in a few words (13:22). This is especially appropriate for the weak, that they may hear a few things which they will be able to accept, but which will urge their minds to the sorrow of repentance. For if the sermon of exhortation is delivered to them in manifold form, [and all] at one time, since they cannot retain a great deal, they immediately lose everything. Thus, also, the physicians of the body who put plasters on the stomachs of the sick use a suitable medication, which they spread lightly, lest the plasters should be so full of medicament that they should not strengthen and relieve the sickness, but instead irritate and aggravate it.

17.  We should recognize, however, that even if the sermon is long-drawn-out and prolix, this is [in itself] no danger to the hearers. But if the way it is spoken and the audience to whom it is addressed are not watchfully considered, this is a great danger. For modest minds, if by chance they have committed faults, should be gently reproved; because, if they are more sternly rebuked, they are broken rather than instructed. But conversely the strong-minded and shameless, if they are moderately reproved, will be provoked to greater guilt by this very moderation.

8.  This is abundantly apparent in the case of that same eminent preacher, who, when he learned that the Corinthians were divided into factions by attachment to [various] persons, considered their modesty of mind and began his speech to them with thanksgiving and praise, saying: I thank my God continually on your account for the grace of God, which was given to you in Christ Jesus, that in everything 100 you are enriched by him, in all utterance and in all knowledge, as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you (I Cor. 1:4-6). Then he added: So that you may lack nothing in any grace, awaiting the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . (vs. 7). I ask you, Paul, if nothing is lacking, why do you trouble them by writing? Why do you speak from far away? For let us consider, dearest brethren, how great is his praise. He says that the grace of God has been given to them; he says they have been enriched in everything, in all assertion and in all knowledge; he claims that the testimony of Christ, that is, of his death and resurrection, has been confirmed in their life; and he bears witness that nothing is lacking to them in any grace. Who, I ask, could believe that a little while afterward he would rebuke those whom thus he praises? For afterward he adds, Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and there be no divisions among you (vs. 10). Now what division could steal upon such perfect and praiseworthy people? For it has been told me, my brethren, by those who [come from] Chloe, that there are contentions among you. For this I mean, that each one of you contends: I am of Paul, I of Apollon, I of Cephas, I of Christ (vss. 11:12). See how these, whom he had praised in all utterance and all knowledge, and who, he had said, lacked nothing in any grace, he now in short space begins to rebuke, reproving their divisions. Now he uncovers the wounds whose soundness he has just described. Thus the skilled physician examining a wound which must be lanced, but seeing that the sick man is timid, for some time strokes gently; and then suddenly makes an incision. First he uses the gentle hand of praise, and then the steel of reproof. For unless the modest of mind are reproved by gentle strokes, so that they hear other things which they take to their comfort, they are straightway thrown into desperation by the rebuke.

19.  But does Paul speak falsely, when first he says that they lack nothing in any grace, and afterwards says that unity is lacking? Heaven forbid! Who would be so foolish as to believe such things of him? But because there were certain ones among the Corinthians who were filled with every race, and others divided into parties by their loyalty to individuals, he began with the praises of the perfect, so that through moderate speech he might come to the reproof of the weak. In this, also, the usage of physical healing applies to the healing 101 of the heart. For when the physician examines a wound which must be incised, first he presses the healthy parts around the wound, and afterward comes to the spot which is wounded. When, therefore, Paul praised those of the Corinthians who were perfect, he was touching upon the healthy parts around the wound; and when he rebuked the unhealthy ones of the division, he struck the wound in the body.

20.  Let us see, however, how this same Apostle, who conducted himself with such moderation and mildness in the correction of the Corinthians, dealt with the Galatians, who had departed from the faith. Foregoing any moderate patience or sweet speech, he confuted those whom he knew to have deserted the faith, by an assault at the very beginning of his letter. After his salutation, he began: I marvel that thus quickly you are turned away from him who called you in the grace of Christ (Gal. 1:6). And thereafter he added, in undisguised rebuke: O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you (3:1)? For unfeeling minds, unless they are smitten with an open castigation, by no means understand the evil they have done. And often those who are shameless realize the extent of their sins in proportion to the vehemence with which they are censured, so that they consider the guilt less which receives a lesser reprimand, and that which they see sternly berated, they think to be greater. Therefore, the sermon of the preacher to his hearers must always be composed with regard to their condition, lest the modest should be severely rebuked and the shameless leniently. What wonder then if the steward of the word of God expends it in the same way as a farmer who plants his crop? A good farmer first has an eye to the quality of the soil and the seed for which it is suitable; and after he has considered these things, he sows his seed. But because we have dealt at length with the quality of the teaching of doctrine, it is now fitting that we return to that text which we began to expound.

But if a righteous man turns from his righteousness and does iniquity, I put a stumbling block before him; . . . he shall die in his sin, and the righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; but I shall require his blood at your hand (Ezek. 3:20).

21.  Because the preacher held his peace with regard to the just man when he fell into sin, he is held guilty of his blood. And he who does not study to be zealous in preaching is made a partner in damnation. But when we read: He shall die in his sin, and the righteousness he 102 has done shall not be remembered, we must especially take thought that when we commit wrong, we revoke without [good] reason the memory of the good works we have done, because, in the perpetration of evil, there can be no reliance on previous good. Nevertheless, it is possible to ask whether the righteous man should be warned before or after he falls. The preacher should be watchful that he should not come to fall, and without doubt [he should warn him] before he falls. For the passage continues:

If, however, you admonish the righteous man that the righteous should not sin, and he does not sin, he shall live, because you have warned him; and you have delivered your soul (Ezek. 3:21).

22.  If then the preacher has thus saved his soul because he has remonstrated with the just man that he should not sin; when a righteous man falls into sin while the preacher keeps silence, the preacher is held guilty for his silence. But who of us, I ask, is man enough for this, that not only should he zealously chide sinners, but also watch over the righteous, lest they fall? For we, conscious of our infirmity, do not presume when we behold just men to admonish them to hold to the way of justice, which [already] we see them follow. Yet, nevertheless, it is the obligation of the preacher thus to admonish the just. Therefore, the noble preacher said: I am a debtor both to the wise and the unwise (Rom. 1:14).

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