Home  »  English Prose  »  John Wycliffe (c. 1324–1384)

Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century

Extracts from Sermons

John Wycliffe (c. 1324–1384)


Cum turbæ innerunt ad Jesum.—LUC. v. 1.

THE STORY of this gospel telleth good lore, how prelates should teach folk under them. The story is plain, how Christ stood by the river of Gennesaret, and fishers come down to wash therein their nets; and Christ went up into a boat that was Simon’s, and prayed him to move it a little from the land, and He sate and taught the people out of the boat. And when Christ ceased to speak, He said to Simon, Lead the boat into the high sea, and let out your nets to taking of fish. And Simon answering said to Him, Commander, all the night travailing took we nought; but in Thy word shall I loose the net. And when they had done this they took a plenteous multitude of fish, and their net was broken. But they beckoned to their fellows that were in the other boat to come and help them; and they came and filled both boats of fish, so that well nigh were they both dreynt. And when Peter had seen this wonder, he fell down to Jesus’ knee, and said, Lord, go from me for I am a sinful man. For Peter held him not worthy to be with Christ, nor dwell in His company; for wonder came to them all in taking of these fishes. And so wondered James and John, Zebedee’s sons, that were Simon’s fellows. And Jesus said to Simon, From this time shalt thou be taking men. And they set their boats to the land, and forsook all that they had, and sued Christ.

Before we go to spiritual understanding of this gospel we shall wit that the same Christ’s disciple that was first cleped Simon, was cleped Peter after of Christ, for sadness of belief that he took of Christ, which Christ is a corner stone, and groundeth all truth. Over this we shall understand that the apostles were cleped of Christ in many degrees; first they were cleped and accepted to be Christ’s disciples; and yet they turned again, as Christ Himself ordained, to live in the world. After they were cleped to see Christ’s miracles, and to be more homely with Him than they were before; but yet they turned again to the world by times, and lived worldly life, to profit of folk that they dwelt with. And in this wise Peter, James, and John went now to fish. But the third cleping and the most was this,—that the apostles forsook wholly the world and worldly things, and turned not again to worldly life, as after this miracle Peter and his fellows sued Christ continually. It is no need to dip us in this story more than the gospel telleth, as it is no need to busy us what hight Tobies’ hound. Hold we us appeased in the measure that God hath given us, and dream we not about new points that the gospel leaveth, for this is a sin of curiosity that harmeth more than profiteth. The story of this gospel telleth us ghostly wit, both of life of the church and medeful works, and this should we understand, for it is more precious. Two fishings that Peter fished betokeneth two takings of men unto Christ’s religion, and from the fiend to God. In this first fishing was the net broken, to token that many men be converted, and after break Christ’s religion; but at the second fishing, after the resurrection, when the net was full of many great fishes, was not the net broken, as the gospel saith; for that betokeneth saints that God chooseth to Heaven. And so these nets that fishers fish with betokeneth God’s law, in which virtues and truths be knitted; and other properties of nets tell properties of God’s law; and void places between knots betokeneth life of kind, that men have beside virtues. And four cardinal virtues be figured by knitting of the net. The net is broad in the beginning, and after strait in end, to teach that men, when they be turned first, live a broad worldly life; but afterward, when they be dipped in God’s law, they keep them straitlier from sins. These fishers of God should wash their nets in his river, for Christ’s preachers should chevely tell God’s law, and not meddle with man’s law, that is troubled water; for man’s law containeth sharp stones and trees, by which the net of God is broken and fishes wend out to the world. And this betokeneth Gennesaret, that is, a wonderful birth, for the birth by which a man is born of water and of the Holy Ghost is much more wonderful than man’s kindly birth. Some nets be rotten, some have holes, and some be unclean for default of washing; and thus on three manners faileth the word of preaching. And matter of this net and breaking thereof give men great matter to speak God’s word, for virtues and vices and truths of the gospel be matter enough to preach to the people.


Simile est regnum cœlorum homini.—MATT. xviii. 23.

THIS gospel telleth by a parable how by right judgment of God men should be merciful.—“The kingdom of Heaven, saith Christ, is like to an earthly king that would reckon with his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was offered unto him that owed him ten thousand besants, and when he had not to pay of, the lord bade he should be sold, his wife and his children and all that he had, and that that he ought the lord should be allgates paid. This servant fell down and prayed the lord and said, Have patience in me, and I shall quit thee all. The lord had mercy on him, and forgave him all his debt. This servant went out and found one of his debtors, that ought him an hundred pence; and took him and strangled him, and bade him pay his debt. And his servant fell down and prayed him of patience, and he should by time yield him all that he ought him. But this man would not, and went out and put him in prison, till he had paid the debt that he ought him. And other servants of this man, when they saw this deed, mourned full much, and told all this to the lord. And the lord cleped him, and said unto him, Wicked servant, all thy debt I forgave thee, for thou prayedst me; behoved it not thee to have mercy on thy servant, as I had mercy on thee? And the lord was wroth, and gave him to tormentors, till he had paid all the debt that he ought him. On this manner, said Christ, shall My Father of heaven do to you, but if you forgive, each one to his brother, of your free heart, the trespass that he hath done him.”

The kingdom of heaven is holy Church of men that now travail here; and this Church by his head is like to a man king, for Christ, head of this Church, is both God and man. This king would reckon with his servants, for Christ hath will without end to reckon with men at three times. First, Christ reckoneth with men when He teacheth them by reason how much they have had of Him, and how much they owe Him; the second time Christ reckoneth with men, when in the hour of man’s death He telleth them at what point these men shall ever justly stand; the third reckoning is general, that shall be at the day of doom, when this judgment generally shall be openly done in deed. As anent the first reckoning, Christ reckoneth with rich men of this world, and showeth them how much they owe Him, and showeth by righteousness of His law how they and theirs should be sold, and so make amends by pain of things that they performed not in deed. But many such men for a time have compunction in heart, and pray God of His grace to have patience in them, and they shall in this life serve to Christ truly. And so Christ forgiveth them upon this condition. But they wend out, and sue not Christ their Lord in mercy, but oppress their servants that owe them but a little debt, and put them in prison, and think not on God’s mercy; and other servants of God both in this life and in the other tell to God this fellness, and pray Him of vengeance. No doubt, God is wroth at this, and at two reckonings with man He reasoneth this cruel man, and judgeth him justly to pain.

And therefore, Christ biddeth, by Luke, all men to be merciful, for their Father of Heaven that shall judge them is merciful. But we should understand by this, that this mercy that Christ axeth is nothing again reason, and so by this just mercy men should some time forgive, and some time should they punish, but ever by reason of mercy. The reason of mercy standeth in this; that (which) men might do cruelly they (may) do justly for God’s sake, to amendment of men; and men may mercifully reprove men, and punish them, and take of them their just debts for bettering of these debtors. On this manner doth God that is full of mercy, and saith that He reproveth and chastiseth His wanton children that He loveth; and thus Christ reproved Pharisees, and punished priests with other people, and punisheth mercifully all damned men in hell, for it standeth not with His right that He punish but mercifully. God giveth goods of kind by grace to these men that He damneth, and if He punished them more, yet He meddleth mercy. But here men should be ware that all the goods that they have be goods of their God, and they naked servants of God; and thus should they warily flee to take their own vengeance, but venge injury of God, and intend amendment. Thus Christ, meekest of all, suffered His own injury in two temptations of the fiend, but in the third He said, Go, Satan, and reproved him sharply by authority of God. Thus Moses, mildest man of all, killed many thousand of his folk, for they worshipped a calf as they should worship God. And thus in our works of mercy lieth much discretion, for oft times our mercy axeth to venge and to punish men, and else justices of man’s law should never punish men to the death, but oft times they do amiss, and they wit not when they do well, and so religion of priests should leave such judgments.


Nisi granum frumenti.—JOHN xii. 24.

IN this short Gospel be doubts, both of conscience and of other. First philosophers doubt, whether (the) seed loseth his form when it is made a new thing, as the Gospel speaketh here; and some men think nay, for sith the same quantity or quality or virtue that was first in seed, liveth after in the fruit, as a child is often like to his father or to his mother, or else to his eld father, after that the virtue lasteth,—and sith all these be accidents, that may not dwell without subject,—it seemeth that the same body is first seed and after fruit, and thus it may oft change from seed to fruit and again. Here many cleped philosophers glaver diversely; but in this matter God’s law speaketh thus, as did eld clerks, that the substance of a body is before that it be seed, and now fruit and now seed, and now quick and now dead. And thus many forms must be together in one thing, and specially when the parts of that thing be meddled together; and thus the substance of a body is now of one kind and now of another. And so both these accidents, quality and quantity, must dwell in the same substance, all if it be changed in kinds, and thus this same thing that is now a wheat corn shall be dead and turn to grass, and after to many corns. But variance in words in this matter falleth to clerks, and showing of equivocation, the which is more ready in Latin; but it is enough to us to put, that the same substance is now quick and now dead, and now seed and now fruit; and so that substance that is now a wheat corn must needs die before that it is made grass, and sith be made an whole ear. And thus speaketh holy writ and no man can disprove it. Error of freres in this matter is not here to rehearse, for it is enough to tell how they err in belief.


Homo quidam habuit duos.—LUKE xv. 11.

LUKE saith that Christ told how a man had two sons; and the younger of them said unto his father, Father, give me a portion of the substance that falleth me. And the father de-parted him his goods. And soon after this young son gathered all that fell to him, and went forth in pilgrimage into a far country; and there he wasted his goods, living in lechery. And after that he had ended all his goods, there fell a great hunger in that land, and he began to be needy. And he went out and cleaved to one of the citizens of that country, and this citizen sent him into his town to keep swine. And this son coveted to fill his belly with these holes that the hogs eat, and no man gave him. And he, turning again, said, How many hinds in my father’s house be full of loaves, and I perish here for hunger. I shall rise, and go to my father, and say to him, Father, I have sinned in Heaven and before thee; now I am not worthy to be cleped thy son, make me as one of thy hinds. And he rose and came to his father. And yet when he was far, his father saw him, and was moved by mercy, and running against his son, fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, Father, I have sinned in Heaven and before thee; now I am not worthy to be cleped thy son. And the father said to his servants anon, Bring ye forth the first stole, and clothe ye him, and give ye a ring in his hand, and shoon upon his feet. And bring ye a fat calf, and slay him, and eat we, and feed us; for this son of mine was dead, and is quickened again, and he was perished, and is found. And they began to feed him. And his elder son was in the field; and when he came and was nigh the house, he heard a symphony and other noise of minstrelsy. And this elder son cleped one of the servants, and asked what were these things. And he said to him, Thy brother is come, and thy father hath slain a fat calf, for he hath received him safe. But this elder son had disdain and would not come in; therefore, his father went out, and began to pray him. And he answered, and said to his father, Lo, so many years I serve to thee, I passed never thy mandement; and thou gavest me never a kid, for to feed me with my friends. But after that he, this thy son hath murthered his goods with hooris is come, thou hast killed to him a fat calf. And the father said to him, Son, thou art ever more with me, and all my goods be thine. But it was need to eat and to make merry, for he this thy brother was dead, and liveth again; he was perished, and is found.