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Sermon for St. Peter’s Day
Of brotherly rebuke and admonition, how far it is advisable and seemly or not, and especially how prelates and governors ought to demean themselves toward their subjects.
2 Tim. iv. 2.—“Reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all long-suffering and doctrine.”
THIS is the lesson which St. Paul gives to his beloved disciple Timothy, whom he set to rule over men, and it equally behoves all pastors of souls and magistrates, to possess these two things,—long-suffering and doctrine.
First, it is their office to rebuke all open sinners, whom they may possibly bring to a better way, and especially those over whom they are set in authority, that they may reveal the truth unto them, for this is needful, and in many places Scripture doth tell us how we ought to teach, rebuke, and exhort those who are committed to our charge, each according to the office which he holds, as St. Gregory has sufficiently shown and set forth in his Pastoral, wherefore we will refrain for the present from saying more on that point.
But we will rather turn to the second point, which 411is more spiritual, teaching a man to look within and judge himself, seeing that he who desires to become a spiritual man must not be ever taking note of others, and above all of their sins, lest he fall into wrath and bitterness, and a judging spirit towards his neighbours. O children, this works such great mischief in a man’s soul, as it is miserable to think of; wherefore, as you love God, shun this evil temper, and turn your eyes full upon yourselves, and see if you cannot discover the same fault in yourselves, either in times past or now-a-days. And if you find it, remember how that it is God’s appointing that you should now behold this sin in another in order that you may be brought to acknowledge and repent of it; and amend your ways and pray for your brother that God may grant him repentance and amendment, according to His Divine will. Thus a good heart draws amendment from the sins of others, and is guarded from all harsh judgment and wrath, and preserves an even temper, while an evil heart puts the worst interpretation on all that it sees and turns it to its own hurt. Thus is a good man able to maintain inviolate a due love and loyalty towards his fellow-man. Further, this generous love makes him hold others innocent in his heart: even when he sees infirmity or fault in his neighbour, he reflects that very likely all is not as it seems on the outside, but the act may have been done with a good intention; or else he thinks that God may have permitted it to take place for an admonition and lesson to himself; or again, as an opportunity for him to exercise self-control and to learn to die unto himself, by the patient endurance of and forbearance towards the faults of his neighbours, even as God has often 412borne many wrongs from him, and had patience with his sins. And this would often tend more to his neighbour’s improvement than all the efforts he could make for it in the way of reproofs or chastisements, even if they were done in love (though indeed we often imagine that our reproofs are given in love when it is in truth far otherwise). For I tell thee, dear child, if thou couldst conquer thyself by long-suffering and gentleness and the pureness of thy heart, thou wouldst have vanquished all thine enemies. It would be better for thee than if thou hadst won the hearts of all the world by thy writings and wisdom, and hadst miserably destroyed thine own soul bypassing judgment on thy neighbours; for the Lord says: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considereth not the beam that is in thine own eye?”
In thus speaking, I except those who are bound by their office in the holy Christian Church to rebuke others. Let them wisely beware how they reprove, and for what causes, so that they rebuke none with an irritable demeanour, or with harsh and angry words, from which much trouble and toil do spring, for that they have no right to do, but it is permitted to them to reprove those who are under them for their own amendment. But alas! it happens for the most part now-a-days that those who occupy the highest places do often and greatly forget themselves in these respects, and hence their rebukes do not produce any amendment, but only anger and alienation of heart. For if they were to instruct those who are under their care in the fear of God, in such wise that the people could mark and be sure that it was done solely for the saving of their souls, 413they would be much the more ready to set themselves to amend, and would be content,—but now, alas! they see that their superiors are only seeking their own glory and profit, and taking upon themselves wrongfully to keep them down and defraud them of their just rights, and therefore reproof only makes them the more refractory and indignant. And there are many in authority who do really believe that they rebuke those under them from a reverence for righteousness, and yet are doing it from a wrathful, domineering, and arrogant spirit; and what they think they are doing from hatred to sin, they are doing from hatred to men.
But I beseech you examine yourselves, whether you do in truth love those whom you are punishing so bitterly out of reverence and zeal for righteousness as you suppose. For when we see men punishing and oppressing with such vehemence those who are under them, or treating them so harshly with sharp words and sour looks, it is to be feared that there is more reproof given out of crabbed impatience, than for the sake of righteousness from the true ground of charity and kindness, especially by those who have not yet experienced the inward joy of hearty sweetness and godly love: for the soul that has not yet experienced inward love and divine sweetness does not know how to hold a discreet mien and just language in rebuking; but genuine love teaches us how we ought to treat those who are worthy of punishment.
Now let him who has to punish in virtue of his office first take account of God’s dishonour and the injury done to the souls of his flock, and then rebuke with sweet, loving words and patient demeanour and 414gestures, so that the weak shall be able to mark that he is seeking and purposing their welfare alone and nothing else. And if in the dispensations of God’s Providence it should happen that those who are subject should at times rise up and offend by license and presumptuous irreverence against their superiors, the latter ought not in any wise to regard or revenge it, so far as that may be, without scandal to the rest of their subjects; for if they revenge themselves they fall under suspicion of selfish motives, and it is likely that God will not be able to work any fruit through them; but they must rather treat such offenders with more patience, kinder words and acts, than they do others. For this is commonly the greatest temptation which befalls those in authority, by which they for the most either win or lose the greatest reward of their labours; wherefore they should ever be on their guard, for gentleness and a readiness to forgive injuries is the best virtue that a ruler can possess.
They shall show no partiality in their affections, neither for their own glory nor yet towards particular persons, but they shall embrace all their flock in the arms of a common love, as a mother does her children. To the weak they should ever show the greatest love and care, and without ceasing lift up their hearts unto God in prayer, earnestly beseeching Him to guard and defend the people committed to their charge, and not indulging in any self-glorification. Likewise, so far as it rests with them, let them be the first to do such works as they would wish to see their people do: for so it stands, that, with the help of God, all may be accomplished to a good end, when those in authority are inclined to virtue, for 415then their subjects must needs follow as they lead, even though they may have been beforehand inclined to all evil and vice, and hostile to their superiors.
But for those who have received no commission to govern other men, but stand in a private character without office, it is needful that they secretly judge themselves inwardly, and beware of judging all things without, for in such judgments we do commonly err, and the true position of things is generally very far otherwise from that which it appears to us, as we often come to discover afterwards. On this point remember the proverb: “He is a wise man who can turn all things to the best.”
May God help us so to do! Amen.
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