February 5, 2017

Saint Augustine on the Sermon on the Mount

Sermon on the Mount
Sermon on the Mount, Basilica of Sant' Apollinare, Ravenna, Italy.

Saint Augustine once observed that “anyone who piously and earnestly ponders the Sermon on the Mount — as we read in the Gospel according to Mathew — I believe he will find therein ... the perfect standard of the Christian Life.” Indeed, Christ’s words are the very embodiment of Catholic moral theology. The following is excerpted from Book One on the Lord's Sermon on the Mount by St. Augustine.

"If it be asked what is signified by the mountain, the same may well be understood to indicate the higher and greater commandments of righteousness, since those that were given to the Jews are the lesser.  In an excellent order of dispensations, the one and same God gave, by his servants the holy Prophets, his lesser commandments unto the people that still had need to be bound by fear; but by his Son he gave the greater to the people whom it was expedient now to set free by love.  But whether it be the lesser to the lesser, or the greater to the greater, all are alike the gift of him who alone knoweth what is in each epoch the seasonable medicine for mankind.

Need we then be surprised that the greater commandments were given for the kingdom of heaven, and the lesser for a commonwealth on earth?  For both are gifts of that one God who is the Maker alike of heaven and of earth.  The higher and greater righteousness is that whereof the Psalmist saith: Thy righteousness standeth like the strong mountains.  And this may be taken mystically to mean that the teaching given from the mountain is from the Master who alone can give teaching of such strength.  In this connection note how the Gospel saith: And when he was set, (which posture indicateth the majesty of his instruction,) his disciples came unto him.  That is, they came nearer in the flesh, to hear those precepts by the fulfilment of which they should be nearer in spirit.  Then saith the Gospel: He opened his mouth, and taught them.  These words: He opened his mouth: appear to be redundant.  It may be that this more extended instruction is adopted on account of the exceptional length of the discourse to follow.  But it may also be that these words are not really redundant, but the pointed declaration that he now opened his own mouth, who under the old Law, had been used to open the mouths of the Prophets.

And then what saith he?  Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  We read in Scripture, concerning lusting after temporal things: The wandering of the desire is vanity and vexation of spirit.  For the wandering desires which bestir the spirit into vexation do but result in rashness and pride.  We are used to say of proud people that they are men of high spirit.  And we say well, since one of the words for Wind in Latin is Spirit [that is, Spiritus, which is the word for Breathing or Blowing].  It is so used, for instance, by the Psalmist: Fire and hail, snow and vapours, Wind and storm: [where the word in Latin is Spiritus].  Who hath not heard the proud spoken of as puffed up, as if they were blown out with wind?  Hence also the Apostle saith: Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.  By the poor in spirit, who are here called blessed, are rightly to be understood such as are lowly and fear God, that is, have not minds puffed up with windy vanity."

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