Poor in Spirit

From On Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount (393-397)

If anyone will piously and soberly consider the sermon which our Lord Jesus Christ spoke on the mount, as we read it in the Gospel according to Matthew, I think that he will find in it, so far as regards the highest morals, a perfect standard of the Christian life: and this we do not rashly venture to promise, but gather it from the very words of the Lord himself. For the sermon itself is brought to a close in such a way that it is clear there are in it all the precepts which go to mold the life.

For thus Christ speaks, “Therefore, whosoever hears these words of mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on a rock. And the rain descended and the floods came and the winds blew and beat upon that house. But it did not fall. For it was founded upon a rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine, and does not do them, I will liken to a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain descended and the floods came and the winds blew and beat upon that house. And it fell and great was the fall of it.” Since, therefore, Christ has not simply said, “Whoever hears my words,” but has made an addition, saying, “Whoever hears these words of mine,” he has sufficiently indicated, as I think, that these sayings which he uttered on the mount so perfectly guide the life of those who may be willing to live according to them, that they may justly be compared to one building upon a rock. I have said this merely that it may be clear that the sermon before us is perfect in all the precepts by which the Christian life is molded…

The beginning, then, of this sermon is introduced as follows: “And when Christ saw the great multitudes, he went up to a mountain. And when he was set, his disciples came to him, and he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying.” If it is asked what the “mountain” means… this may well mean that the one master alone fit to teach matters of so great importance teaches on a mountain. Then he teaches sitting, as behooves the dignity of the instructor’s office. And his disciples come to him in order that they might be nearer in body for hearing his words, as they also approached in spirit to fulfil his precepts. “And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying.” The circumlocution before us, which runs, “And he opened his mouth,” perhaps gracefully intimates by the mere pause that the sermon will be somewhat longer than usual, unless, perchance, it should not be without meaning, that now he is said to have opened his own mouth, whereas under the old law he was accustomed to open the mouths of the prophets.

What, then, does Christ say? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” We read in Scripture concerning the striving after temporal things, “all is vanity and presumption of spirit;” but presumption of spirit means audacity and pride. Usually also the proud are said to have great spirits, and rightly, inasmuch as the wind also is called spirit. And hence it is written, “Fire, hail, snow, ice, spirit of tempest.” But, indeed, who does not know that the proud are spoken of as puffed up as if swelled out with wind? And hence also that expression of Paul, “Knowledge puffs up, but charity edifies.”

And “the poor in spirit” are rightly understood here, as meaning the humble and God-fearing, that is, those who have not the spirit which puffs up. Nor ought blessedness to begin at any other point whatever, if indeed it is to attain unto the highest wisdom, “but the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;” for, on the other hand also, “pride” is entitled “the beginning of all sin.” Let the proud, therefore, seek after and love the kingdoms of the earth; but “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

St. Augustine (354-430) was a theologian and philosopher who served as Bishop of Hippo Regius in North Africa. He was a voluminous author, whose writings about God’s grace, the Sacraments, and the Church have been profoundly influential in the development of Western Christianity. His treatise On Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount is based on a series of exegetical sermons he preached in his early ministry. His feast day is August 26.

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