The Beatitudes: a selection of Patristic Comments

Christ calling Peter and Andrew. Duccio 14th Century

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

St. Hilary of Arles: The Lord taught by way of example that the glory of human ambition must be left behind when he said, “The Lord your God shall you adore and him only shall you serve.” And when he announced through the prophets that he would choose a people humble and in awe of his words, he introduced the perfect Beatitude as humility of spirit. Therefore he defines those who are inspired as people aware that they are in possession of the heavenly kingdom. Nothing belongs to anyone as being properly one’s own, but all have the same things by the gift of a single parent. They have been given the first things needed to come into life and have been supplied with the means to use them.

St. Jerome: Do not imagine that poverty is bred by necessity. For he added “in spirit” so you would understand blessedness to be humility and not poverty. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” who on account of the Holy Spirit are poor by willing freely to be so.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

St. John Chrysostom: The sorrow [of those who mourn] is of a special kind. Jesus did not designate them simply as sad but as intensely grieving. Therefore he did not say “they that sorrow” but “they that mourn.” This Beatitude is designed to draw believers toward a Christian disposition. Those who grieve for someone else their child or wife or any other lost relation have no fondness for gain or pleasure during the period of their sorrow. They do not aim at glory. They are not provoked by insults nor led captive by envy nor beset by any other passion. Their grief alone occupies the whole of their attention.

St. Chromatius: The blessed of whom [Jesus] speaks are not those bereaving the death of a spouse or the loss of cherished servants. Rather, he is speaking of those blessed persons who do not cease to mourn over the iniquity of the world or the offenses of sinners with a pious, duty-bound sentiment. To those who mourn righteously, therefore, they will receive, and not undeservedly, the consolation of eternal rejoicing promised by the Lord.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

St. Chromatius: The meek are those who are gentle, humble and unassuming, simple in faith and patient in the face of every affront. Imbued with the precepts of the gospel, they imitate the meekness of the Lord, who says, “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.”

St. John Chrysostom: What kind of earth is referred to here? Some say a figurative earth, but this is not what he is talking about. For nowhere in Scripture do we find any mention of an earth that is merely figurative. But what can this Beatitude mean? Jesus holds out a prize perceptible to the senses, even as Paul also does. For even when Moses had said, “Honor your father and your mother,” he added, “For so shall you live long upon the earth.” And Jesus himself says again to the thief, “Today you shall be with me in paradise.” Today! In this way he does not speak only of future blessings but also of present ones.

St. Augustine: “Inherit the earth” … means the land promised in the psalm: “You are my hope, my portion in the land of the living.” It signifies the solidity and stability of a perpetual inheritance. The soul because of its good disposition is at rest as though in its own place, like a body on the earth, and is fed with its own food there, like a body from the earth. This is the peaceful life of the saints. The meek are those who submit to wickedness and do not resist evil but overcome evil with good. Let the haughty therefore quarrel and contend for earthly and temporal things. But “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land.” This is the land from which they cannot be expelled.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Origen of Alexandria: If I must utilize a bold explanation indeed, I think that perhaps it was through the word that is measured by virtue and justice that the Lord presents himself to the desire of the hearers. He was born as wisdom from God for us, and as justice and sanctification and redemption. He is “the bread that comes down from heaven” and “living water,” for which the great David himself thirsted. He said in one of his psalms, “My soul has thirsted for you, even for the living God; when shall I come and appear before the face of God?” “I shall behold your face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied in beholding your glory.” This then, in my estimation, is the true virtue, the good unmingled with any lesser good, that is, God, the virtue that covers the heavens… (Fragment 83)

St. John Chrysostom: Note how drastically he expresses it. For Jesus does not say, “Blessed are those who cling to righteousness,” but “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness” not in a superficial way but pursuing it with their entire desire. By contrast, the most characteristic feature of covetousness is a strong desire with which we are not so hungry for food and drink as for more and more things. Jesus urged us to transfer this desire to a new object, freedom from covetousness. … Those who extort are those who lose all, while one who is in love with righteousness possesses all other goods in safety.” If those who do not covet enjoy such great abundance, how much more will they be ready to offer to others what they have.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

St. Chromatius: By a great number of witnesses indeed, just as many in the Old Testament as the New, we are called by the Lord to show compassion. But as a shortcut to faith we deem enough and more than enough what the Lord himself in the passage at hand expresses with his own voice, saying, “Blessed are the compassionate, for God will have compassion for them.” The Lord of compassion says that the compassionate are blessed. No one can obtain God’s compassion unless that one is also compassionate. In another passage Jesus said, “Be compassionate, just as your Father who is in the heavens is compassionate.”

St. John Chrysostom: Jesus speaks here not only of those who show mercy by giving worldly goods but also of those who demonstrate mercy in their actions. There are many ways to show mercy. The commandment is broad in its implications. What reward can people expect if they obey the commandment? “They obtain mercy.” The reward at first glance appears to be an equal reimbursement, but actually the reward from God is much greater than human acts of goodness. For whereas we ourselves are showing mercy as human beings, we are obtaining mercy from the God of all. Human mercy and God’s mercy are not the same thing. As wide as the interval is between corrupted and perfect goodness, so far is human mercy distinguished from divine mercy.

St. Augustine: You may overflow with temporal things but remain in need of eternal life. You hear the voice of a beggar, but before God you are yourself a beggar. Someone is begging from you, while you yourself are begging. As you treat your beggar, so will God treat his. You who are empty are being filled. Out of your fullness fill an empty person in need, so that your own emptiness may be again filled by the fullness of God.

Anonymous: The kind of compassion referred to here is not simply giving alms to the poor or orphan or widow. This kind of compassion is often found even among those who hardly know God. But that person is truly compassionate who shows compassion even to his own enemy and treats the enemy well. For it is written, “Love your enemies, and treat well those who hate you.” (Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 9)

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

St. John Chrysostom: In the same vein Paul wrote, “Pursue peace with everyone and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” He is here speaking of such sight as it is possible for one to have. For there are many who show mercy, who refuse to rob others and who are not covetous but who still may remain entangled in sins like fornication and licentiousness. Jesus adds these words to indicate that the former virtues do not suffice in and of themselves. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, bore witness concerning the Macedonians, who were rich not only in almsgiving but also in the rest of the virtues. For having spoken of the generous spirit they demonstrated toward their own possessions, Paul says, “They gave themselves to the Lord and to us.”

St. Augustine: To behold God is the end and purpose of all our loving activity… Whatever we do, whatever good deeds we perform, whatever we strive to accomplish, whatever we laudably yearn for, whatever we blamelessly desire, we shall no longer be seeking any of those things when we reach the vision of God. Indeed, what would one search for when one has God before one’s eyes? Or what would satisfy one who would not be satisfied with God? Yes, we wish to see God. Who does not have this desire? We strive to see God. We are on fire with the desire of seeing God.

But pay attention to the saying, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” Provide yourself with this means of seeing God. Let me speak concretely: Why would you, while your eyes are bleary, desire to see a sunrise? Let the eyes be sound, and that light will be full of joy. If your eyes are blind, that light itself will be a torment. Unless your heart is pure, you will not be permitted to see what cannot be seen unless the heart be pure.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.

St. Chromatius: The peacemakers are those who, standing apart from the stumbling block of disagreement and discord, guard the affection of fraternal love and the peace of the church under the unity of the universal faith. And the Lord in the Gospel particularly urges his disciples to guard this peace, saying, “I give you my peace; I leave you my peace.”

Anonymous: Peace is the only begotten God, of whom the apostle says, “For he himself is our peace.” So people who cherish peace are children of peace. But some may be thought to be peacemakers who make peace with their enemies but remain heedless of evils within. They are never reconciled in heart with their own internal enemies, yet they are willing to make peace with others. They are parodies of peace rather than lovers of peace. For that peace is blessed which is set in the heart, not that which is set in words. Do you want to know who is truly a peacemaker? Hear the prophet, who says, “Keep your tongue from evil, and let your lips not speak deceit. Do not let your tongue utter an evil expression.” (Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 9)

St. John Chrysostom: Here he not only responds that they [who follow Jesus] should not feud and become hateful to one another, but he is also looking for something more, that we bring together others who are feuding. And again he promises a spiritual reward. What kind of reward is it? “That they themselves shall be called children of God.” For in fact this was the crucial work of the Only Begotten: to bring together things divided and to reconcile the alienated.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.

St. Chromatius: The martyrs above all are the epitome of those who for the righteousness of faith and the name of Christ endure persecution in this world. To them a great hope is promised, namely, the possession of the kingdom of heaven. The apostles were chief examples of this blessedness, and with them all the just people who for the sake of righteousness were afflicted with various persecutions. Due to their faith they have come into the heavenly realms.

St. John Chrysostom: Don’t be discouraged if you don’t hear the kingdom of heaven granted with every single Beatitude. For even if Jesus names the rewards differently, he still puts all of them in the kingdom of heaven. For in fact he says, “Those who mourn will be comforted, and those who show mercy will receive mercy, and those pure in heart will see God, and the peacemakers will be called sons of God.” In all these things the blessed One does nothing but hint at the kingdom of heaven. For people who enjoy these things will certainly reach the kingdom of heaven. So do not suppose that the reward of the kingdom of heaven belongs only to the poor in spirit. It also belongs to those who hunger for justice, and to the meek and to all these blessed others without exception. For he set his blessing upon all these things to keep you from expecting something belonging to this material world. For if one wore a prize or garland for things that are to be dissolved together with the present life, things that flit away faster than a shadow, would that one be blessed?

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St. Hilary of Arles (+449) came from a notable family of Northern Gaul, but, at the urging of St. Honoratus of Arles, abandoned honors and riches and embraced the ascetic life. After the death of St. Honoratus, the people of Arles drafted Hilary as their new archbishop. He assisted at church councils held at Riez, Orange, Vaison, and Arles. His writings on the Beatitudes are in “On Matthew.”

St. Jerome, born in Stridon about 340-2, went to Rome about 360, where he was baptized. He next went to Trier to begin his theological studies. About 373 he traveled to the East, first settling in Antioch, where he heard Apollinaris of Laodicea, one of the first exegetes of that time. From 374-9 Jerome led an ascetic life in the desert southwest of Antioch. Ordained priest at Antioch, he went to Constantinople (380-81), where a friendship sprang up between him and St. Gregory of Nazianzus. From 382 to 385 he made another sojourn in Rome, then returned to the East, reaching Bethlehem in 386, where he led a life of asceticism, study, correspondence, writing and translation. He is best known for his translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. He died in Bethlehem in 420. See his “Commentary on Matthew” for his treatment of the Beatitudes.

St. John Chrysostom, born in Antioch in 347, was famous for eloquence in public speaking and his denunciations of abuse of authority in the Church and in government. He was nicknamed chrysostomos, Greek for “golden mouthed.” Baptized in 370 and tonsured a reader, he was ordained deacon in 381 and priest in 386. In 398 he was called, against his will, to be the bishop in Constantinople. Concerned with the spiritual and temporal needs of the poor, in his sermons he emphasized almsgiving and living modestly. He often spoke out against the abuse of wealth and refused to host lavish entertainments. An irritant both to the imperial court as well as to worldly prelates, he died in exile in 407. His final words were “Glory be to God for all things!” He is regarded as one of the Three Holy Hierarchs, together with Saints Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian. For his writings on the Beatitudes, see especially “The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 15.”

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was one of the pivotal figures in the development of Christianity in the West. Born in North Africa, he went to Carthage at age 17 to continue his education and later taught in the same city. In 383 he moved to Rome, and the following year to Milan to teach in the imperial court. The influence of St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, plus the impact of reading a life of St. Anthony, brought him to baptism in 387. He abandoned his career in rhetoric, quit his teaching position in Milan, and devoted himself to serving God. In 388 he returned to Africa, sold his patrimony and gave the money to the poor, keeping only enough to convert his family house into a monastery. In 396 he became bishop of Hippo. His sermons and other writings had. and still have, immense influence. For his insights on the Beatitudes, see his “Sermon on the Mount” and Sermon 53.

St. Chromatius of Aquileia (+406-407), one of the most celebrated prelates of his time, was in active correspondence with his illustrious contemporaries, St. Ambrose and St. Jerome. Himself a scholarly theologian, he urged his friends to the composition of learned works, St. Ambrose to write exegetical works and St. Jerome to undertake translations and commentaries. In the bitter quarrel between Jerome and Rufinus, Chromatius sought to make peace between the disputants. Chromatius opposed the Arian heresy with great zeal and gave loyal support to St. John Chrysostom when he was suffering oppression from the imperial court. His comments on the Beatitudes are in his “Tractate on Matthew.”

Origen (185-254) grew up in a Christian family in Alexandria. He was 17 when his father died a martyr’s death. When their property confiscated by the imperial authorities, Origen worked to support his family by teaching. Taking the place of Clement of Alexandria, who had gone to Palestine, Origen assumed direction of the city’s catechetical school while also devoting himself to studying Plato and the Stoics. He learned Hebrew, and often consulted Jewish scholars who helped him with translation questions. In his late 40s, by now a renowned Christian scholar and writer, he settled in Caesarea, Palestine, where he founded a school. During the persecution of Maximinus (235-37), he spent an extended period with his friend, St. Firmilian, bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia. Origen was over 60 when he wrote his “Contra Celsum” (his defense of Christian refusal to serve in the army) and his “Commentary on St. Matthew.” The persecution of Decius in 250 brought about Origen’s imprisonment. He died in 254, never having recovered from the torture he had endured. For centuries his tomb, behind the altar of the cathedral of Tyr, was visited by pilgrims, but today nothing remains.

Anonymous: Not all the names of the authors of ancient New Testament commentaries have survived. However, recognizing the value of their writings, surviving fragments have been preserved in collections of the writings of the Greek and Latin Fathers.

Note: All the commentaries used here are taken from the volume Matthew 1-13, edited by Manlio Simonetti, in the series The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. ❖

Spring 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53

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