Note: Text in red are my additions.
Mat 5:1 And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain, and when he was set down, his disciples came unto him.
Went up into a mountain. Let us inquire what mountain this was? “Some simple brethren,” says S. Jerome, “think that Christ taught the Beatitudes, and the things which follow, on the mount of Olives. But that was not so.” For from what precedes and follows in the Gospel the place must have been in Galilee; in our opinion Tabor, or a similarly lofty mountain. Geographies of the Holy Land, such as Brochard’s Itinerary, say that this mountain is called “Mons Christi,” because Christ was wont to pray and preach upon it. It lies westward of Capernaum, three miles distant; it is not far from the Sea of Galilee, and is close to the city of Bethsaida. Its height is so great that from it may be seen the land of Zebulon and Naphthali, Trachonitis, Ituræa, Shenir, Hermon, and Libanus. It is carpeted with grass and flowers. Here Christ spent whole nights in prayer. Here He called to Him His disciples, and chose twelve of their number whom He ordained and called apostles. Here He taught that compendium of the new law which is called the Sermon on the Mount. Adrichomius says the stone on which Christ sat to preach may still be seen.
Mountain. It seems likely that the mountain is meant to remind us of Mount Sinai and the giving of the Law to Moses. Matthew is very interested in drawing comparisons between our Blessed Lord and Moses. For Matthew, Jesus is like-but greater than-Moses (see Matthew: His Mind and Message by Peter F. Ellis).
He sat down. Sitting while teaching was a sign of authority, see our Lord’s reference to “the chair of Moses” in Matt 23:2. Jesus will also sit to teach his parable discourse (Matt 13:2) and his eschatological [end time] discourse (Matt 24:3).
Mat 5:2 And opening his mouth he taught them, saying:
To open the mouth is the Hebrew idiom for to speak. But there is an emphasis in the expression in this place. It means that Christ opened out sublime things—things great and wonderful, and Divine mysteries—concerning which He had hitherto kept silence. So S. Hilary. S. Bernard says, “He opened now His mouth, who afore had opened the mouths of the prophets. Truly was His mouth opened, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
The phrase “he opened his mouth” is used in the context of solemn public discourses (Job 3:1-2; Ps 78:2; Judges 11:35-36).
Mat 5:3 Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. Christ commences His discourse with a Beatitude which all seek and covet, though but few find; as David also begins his Book of Psalms, “Blessed is the man,” &c.
Blessed, I say, are the poor in spirit, in hope, not as yet of right; blessed are they in the blessedness of the way, not of the country; blessed in the beginning of peace, of virtue, not in the consummation of the crown of glory. Beatitude, says Nyssen, is the special endowment of God; when therefore Christ makes blessed the poor in spirit, He makes them partakers of divinity.
Our Lord alludes here to the words of Moses (Deut 33:29), “Blessed art thou, 0 Israel, what people is like unto thee, who art saved by the Lord?” For the poor in spirit are Israel, the elect people who place their hope, their riches, their salvation and happiness in the Lord. For because they despise the riches of earth, and are lords over them, therefore are they Israel, lords with God and in heaven. Moreover, Isidore (lib. 10, Orig. Litera B.) says, “Blessed means increased. He is said to be blessed who has what he desires, and does not suffer what he would not. He then is truly blessed who has all good things for which he wishes, and who does not wish for anything which is evil.” So also Varro (lib. 4, de ling. Lat.), “He is said to be blessed who possesses many good things, as dives, ‘rich,’ comes from divus, ‘a god,’ as one who, like God, wants for nothing.” And what are the real goods Christ here shows—poverty of spirit, meekness, holy grief, &c.; for they who have these things are blessed, and therefore they always rejoice. Whence Aristotle derives the Greek word μακάριος, happy, or blessed, from χαίρειν, to rejoice, because he who is blessed is always rejoicing.
These eight Beatitudes are, as it were, the eight paradoxes of the world. For the world and philosophers place blessedness in wealth, not in poverty, in loftiness, not in humility, &c. Whence S. Ambrose says, “According to the Divine judgment blessedness begins where man deems misery to begin.” Says S. Bernard, “The Truth speaks, which can neither deceive nor be deceived. It is the Truth which says, blessed are the poor in spirit. Are ye so senseless, 0 ye sons of Adam, as so greatly to seek for riches and desire riches, when the Beatitude of the poor has been commended and preached to the world by the mouth of God? Let the heathen, who live without God, seek for riches; let the Jews, who believe in earthly promises, seek them; but with what face can a Christian seek them, after Christ has preached, Blessed are the poor?” Gregory Nazianzen too says, “The riches of monks are in their poverty, their possessions in pilgrimage, their glory in contempt, their strength in weakness, their fruitfulness in celibacy; who have nothing in the world, and who live above the world; who, in the flesh, live out of the flesh; who have the Lord for their portion; who, on account of the kingdom, labour in poverty, and, on account of poverty, are kings.” When Simeon Stylites was a keeper of sheep, he heard these Beatitudes of Christ read in church, and straightway he left his sheep and entered a monastery. By-and-by he ascended a pillar, and stood upon it, day and night, eating little, and becoming a wonder to the world, that he might attain to these Beatitudes. The same Simeon was wont to preach twice a day to the crowds who flocked to his pillar, saying only these words—”Despise earthly things; love and desire only heavenly things, which alone will make you blessed.” So Theodoret, an eye and ear-witness, testifies in his Life of S. Simeon.
Blessed are the poor. Not all poor; not those who are poor by a pitiable necessity against their will (see my note below); not they who are poor from vain glory, or from a desire to be at liberty for the pursuit of philosophy, like Diogenes, or that Crates of Thebes, who, as S. Jerome says, threw a vast weight of gold into the sea, saying, “Begone, wicked pleasures, I sink you, that I may not be made to sink by you.” But it is the poor in spirit who are blessed, who have a will inspired by the Holy Ghost, tending to spiritual goods. It is poverty voluntarily undertaken for the sake of God and the kingdom of heaven.
The Greek πτωχός (ptōchos) is used in this verse and its a word which generally refers to one who is destitute, reduced to begging. It is somewhat different from πένης (penēs) which designates someone who is poor but still self-sufficient, a daily laborer.
The term (πτωχός = ptōchos) is used about 100 times in the LXX and usually designates the economically destitute who were the object of God’s special care and, as a consequence, had to be the object of special care by God’s people (Ex 22:24-26; 23:11; Lev 19:9-10; Deut 15:7-11). However, it came to have a much broader range of meaning. Sometimes the word is used to designate anyone who needs God’s help, especially those afflicted by others, be they individuals or peoples or nations (Ps 22:25; 35:10; 70:6; 86:1; Isa 26:5-6). In the present context I believe the poor in spirit are those who suffer for the sake of the Gospel.
The reason for this is because of how the beatitudes end: 10 Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 Blessed are ye when they shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for my sake: 12 Be glad and rejoice for your reward is very great in heaven. For so they persecuted the prophets that were before you. The eighth beatitude has the same promise as the first and, unlike the others, that promise is in the present tense: “For theirs IS the kingdom of God.” The first and eighth beatitude form an inclusio, encompassing the other six which falls between them. The ninth beatitude is an expansion for emphasis. In other words, I see the poor, meek, mourners, etc., as referring to those who are such as a result of their commitment to the Lord and his Gospel. The beatitudes cannot be used as a political program. On the other hand, just because the economically poor in general are not referred to here is not an excuse for ignoring them
Note, there are three sorts of poor. 1. Those who are so actually, as beggars. 2. In spirit, but not actually, as Abraham, who was rich in fact, poor in spirit. 3. Both in fact and in spirit, as the religious, who vow poverty from love and affection for it, and who divest themselves of all their worldly goods. “Do you wish to know,” says Nyssen (lib. de Beatitud.), “who is poor in spirit? It is he who exchanges corporeal opulence for the riches of the soul, who is poor for the sake of the spirit, who has thrown off earthly riches like a heavy load, and who would be borne aloft through the air to be with God. If, then, it behoves us to advance to the things above, we must needs be poor and needy in the things which drag us down, that we may become conversant with things supernal.”
I do not think that voluntary poverty for the sake of the Gospel can be ruled out; but it is certainly not a primary meaning. What Lapide is expressing in his comments would perhaps better fit a passage such as Matt 19:21.
The word spirit signifies three things:—1. It is opposed to the flesh, and signifies that the subject of this poverty is not the body, but the spirit—that is to say, the will. In this sense spirit is often used in Scripture. As S. Paul (Rom. i. 9), “God is my witness, whom I serve in the spirit.” And Christ says (S. John iv.), “God is a Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth”—meaning, that God must be worshipped, not with outward ceremonies, but with the inward spirit, and with devotion of the mind, according to the saying of Cato—
“If God be Mind, as poets tell,
Then with the mind we worship well.”
So also S. Bernard says, “The poor in spirit—i.e., with the will of the spirit, with spiritual intention and spiritual desire, for the alone sake of pleasing God, and the salvation of souls. And Christ uses this expression, in spirit, because of those who are poor by a miserable necessity, not by a laudable will.”
2. It is what S. Augustine says, “A rich man, who is able to despise in himself whatsoever there is in him by which pride can be puffed up, is God’s poor man.” And S. Jerome says, “The poor in spirit are they who are voluntarily poor because of the Holy Spirit.”
3. In spirit signifies the end of this poverty—namely, that the contempt of wealth be referred to the spirit, that, being freed from earthly things, we may the better reach forward to heavenly things.
The root and foundation of blessedness and evangelical perfection are voluntary poverty and humility, just as the root of all sin is pride and covetousness.
Admirably says S. Cyprian (Tract. de Nativ. Christi), “The poor are elected, the proud neglected. Neither haughtiness nor any such thing obtains a place of discipleship near to Christ. Christ, the poor man, despises rich disciples. A poor mother, a poor son, a poor hospice, give plain evidence to those who are exercised in the school of Christ’s Church.”
Lastly, S. Bernard (Serm. 1 de Omn. Sanc.): “Consider how prudently Wisdom hath ordained, appointing the first remedy against the first sin, as though she said plainly, ‘Wilt thou obtain heaven which the proud angel lost, he who trusted in his strength and in the multitude of his riches? embrace the lowliness of poverty, and it shall be thine.'”
Anagogically. Francis of Sales, lately Bishop of Geneva, a man equally wise, pious, and holy, says (lib. 12 Theot., c. 2), “The poor, or beggars in spirit are those who beg—i.e., who have an insatiable hunger and thirst for the Spirit—that is, for increase of love and zeal for God, that He may ever grow and burn in them with constant increase.”
Hence I have heard the passage expounded thus: Blessed are the poor in spirit—i.e., blessed are they who are towards God as beggars to the rich, namely those who with as great humility of spirit confess their poverty, and with as much earnestness beg for grace from God, as beggars ask an alms from the rich. Whence S. Chrysostom says, beggars teach us how to pray and ask help of God. By showing their wounds and afflicted limbs they excite compassion.
With sound sense does our Lewis (de ponte, part 3, Medit. 2), give these three degrees of poverty of spirit, that is, of humility. The first is to put off and purify the mind from every blast and breath of vanity, and from all vain and inflated presumption, despising all the pomps of the world. The second, that I should divest myself of all desire to call things my own, by entirely unclothing myself of my own opinions, my own will and other desires. The third and last act of poverty is so to empty myself, make myself so poor that I have nothing at all of my own, but only what God freely gives me. For I have not even so much as to be, my own, but it is of God, without whom I am not. Of myself, therefore, I have nothing else than the nothingness of nature—i.e., not to be, and the negation of grace—i.e., sin.
1. You will inquire whether this poverty of spirit be a precept, or an evangelical counsel? And, 2. How many degrees and kinds of it there are? I answer, it has various degrees, some of counsel, some of precept. The first and highest is to forsake all riches, all transitory things for the sake of the love and imitation of Christ, with inward purpose as well as outward deed, like the Apostles and religious. This degree is of counsel, not of precept. The second is to bear patiently the confiscation of goods for the sake of Christ and the orthodox faith, which is a kind of martyrdom; for he who takes away the means necessary for the support of life, takes away life itself. This is what many rich and nobly born Catholics are suffering this day in England, who would prefer death to the spoiling of their goods. For it is a hard thing indeed to deprive not only yourself but your children and all your posterity of their hereditary possessions, and the rank and position of their ancestors, and reduce all to poverty and obscurity. But all the more honour to them who do it for Christ’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Such, too, were the Hebrew Christians whom the Apostle praises, “Ye took joyfully the spoiling of your goods, knowing that ye have a better and an enduring substance.” (Heb 10:34.)
This degree is of precept, for we are bound for the sake of Christ and the Faith, not only to lose our goods, but to shed our blood.
The third grade of poverty is to bear patiently the spoiling of our goods, or any injustice done to us by those who are powerful, and tyrants, as when any one loses a just suit on behalf of an estate, or other things, because of the power or tyranny of his opponents.
The fourth is when wealth is given to any one by God, not to care for it, to give it up in intention, to be prepared to forsake it if that should be for the greater glory of God. In this grade was Abraham, rich in respect of actual possessions, but poor in spirit.
5. To prefer to be contented with a little in a station where you have greater opportunities of serving God, than one where you can have more wealth but less godliness.
6. To have wealth, but to spend it upon the poor, and pious objects, even to depriving yourself of necessaries.
7. To prefer to be poor rather than acquire riches by means of injustice, irreligion, or any other wickedness. Such was Tobit, who, when he was dying, left this testimony to his son: “Fear not, my son; we are poor it is true, but we shall have great riches if we fear God.” Of these grades of poverty, the second and seventh are of precept; the first, the fourth, and the fifth of counsel; the third and the sixth of counsel, or of precept, according to circumstances.
You will ask, secondly, why Christ assigns to poverty of spirit the first place among the evangelical Beatitudes? I answer, the first reason is à priori, because this poverty overturns and destroys covetousness, which is the root and well-spring of all evil. (1Ti_6:10.) Wherefore this poverty restores man, as it were, to the state of innocence, in which nothing was his own, but all things were common to all. For the whole world was Adam’s and his children’s, that from it they might acknowledge, love, and praise God, there being no assertion of property, which is the root of cupidity, quarrels and law-suits. “With the poor, therefore,” says S. Gregory, “what the superfluity of very slight pravity defiles, the furnace of poverty purifies.”
The second reason is, because this poverty releases men from a thousand distractions and anxious cares which riches, and the desire of riches, bring with them. Wherefore, “poverty is a tranquil harbour,” says S. Chrysostom; “it is the training ground, the gymnasium of wisdom.” Here comes in that reason of S. Gregory’s (Hom. 32 in Evang.) that “naked with the naked (demons) we must wrestle; for if one who is clothed wrestle with one who is naked, he will soon be cast down to the ground, because he has that by which he may be laid hold of. For what are all earthly things but bodily habiliments, as it were? Let him, therefore, who is about to contend with the devil cast off his garments lest he be worsted. Let him possess nothing in this world by desire; let him require no delectations of fleeting things, lest, where his desires keep him, there he be held until he fall.”
Third. Because this poverty causes a man to withdraw himself from all created things, and makes him rest entirely with all his hopes in God his Creator. In the full and perfect love of God, the summit of virtue and the true blessedness of this life consist.
Wherefore, S. Bonaventura writes, in his Life of S. Francis, that when he was often asked by his brethren which was the virtue which especially commends us to Christ our Lord, and makes us pleasing to Him, he was wont to reply with more than his usual energy, “Poverty, for it is the way of salvation, the incentive to humility, the root of perfection; and from it there spring many fruits, though they be hidden and known to but few.”
These are the causes why Christ taught us this poverty of spirit both by word and example. Thus did the Blessed Virgin, the Apostles, the Essenes, yea all the first Christians, of whom it was said (Act_4:32), “Neither said any of them that ought which he possessed was his own, but they had all things common.” Indeed, they vowed this; wherefore Ananias and Sapphira, who broke this vow, were punished by the Apostle Peter with sudden death.
There followed in holy poverty apostolic men and prelates, SS. Anthony, Augustine, Basil, Chrysostom, Jerome, and S. Alexius, who, by an example uncommon in the world, relinquished ample riches, a bride, and poor and a stranger followed Christ, a poor man, to Syria—as it were, a pilgrim upon earth and a citizen of heaven; and at last lived and died unrecognized in his father’s house, being made a laughing-stock to the world, or rather sporting with the world, and making it a laughing-stock. In a later age S. Benedict, S. Bernard, but above all S. Francis, embraced poverty, and taught their disciples to embrace it. S. Francis made it the foundation of his Order. In all his discourses he spoke of it now as his mother, now as his wife, his lady; often, too, he called it his queen, because it had shone with such glorious refulgence in Christ the King of kings, and in His Mother. Hear what he solemnly enjoins upon his friars in his Rule, c. 6: “Let the brothers appropriate nothing to themselves, neither house, nor place, nor anything; but as pilgrims and strangers in this world, serving the Lord in poverty and humility, let them ask boldly for alms. Neither need they be ashamed, for the Lord made Himself poor for us in this world. This is that sublimity of the deepest poverty which constitutes you, my dearest brethren, heirs and kings of the kingdom of heaven. Let this be your portion, which leads you to the land of the living. And, my dearly beloved brethren, cleaving wholly to this, wish, for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to have nothing else for ever under heaven.”
The same S. Francis, exulting in destitution, prayed for it with such fervour that fire seemed to shine from his face. “For this,” said he, “is the virtue flowing into us from heaven, which so orders and informs us that we gladly trample upon all earthly things, and which removes every obstacle so that the mind of man may be most freely and speedily united to the Lord God. It is poverty which makes a man’s soul, while it is yet upon earth, hold converse with the angels in heaven. It is this which has fellowship with Christ on His Gross, which is buried with Him in His tomb, which with Him rises again and ascends into heaven. It is this which grants to the souls which love it the power, even in this life, of flying above the heavens, and bestows pinions of humility and charity. Let us go forward, then, to ask the holy Apostles that they will obtain this grace for us from the Lord Jesus Christ, that He, the chief cultivator of poverty, would deign to bestow it upon us.”
And as S. Francis lived, so he died, for, divesting himself of his outer garments, he lay upon the earth, saying, “I have done with what is mine, what is yours; may Christ instruct you.” Then a brother, who stood by, foreseeing by a divine instinct his death and zeal for poverty, offered him his cord with femorals, and said, “These I lend thee, as a beggar, and do thou receive them by the mandate of holy obedience.” With joy did the holy man take them, and, lifting up his hands to heaven, gave thanks to Christ, because, having put off every burden, he was going free to Him, and because, as in life, so in death, he was conformed to Christ crucified, who hung naked upon the Cross.
For theirs, &c.—It is just and congruous that those who for the love of Christ despise the riches of the earthly kingdom should be recompensed with the wealth of the heavenly kingdom, yea indeed, of an earthly kingdom, which by despising they possess and rule, according to the saying of S. Paul, “Having nothing, and yet possessing all things.” Wherefore Climacus (Gradu 17) does not hesitate to affirm that a poor monk is the lord of the world, and through faith possesses all nations as his servants. And he adds that a poor servant of God loves nothing wrongly, for all things which he has, or can have, he reckons as though they were not, and if it chance that they depart, he counts them as dung. Hear S. Bernard (Serm. 21 in Cant.): “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Let not men suppose that they possess only heavenly things, because they hear them only named in the promise. They possess earthly things likewise, and indeed as though having nothing and yet possessing all things, the less they desire the more are they masters.
Lastly, to a believer there is a whole world of riches. A whole world, indeed, because both prosperous and adverse things are equally his servants, and work together for his good. And so, a covetous man hungers after earthly things like a beggar, the believer despises them as a master. The one by possessing loses, the other by despising keeps. S. Chrysostom gives the reason (Hom. 57, ad pop.): “God is the poor man’s steward.” And S. Francis lays it down in his Rule thus: —”This evangelical poverty is the foundation of our Order. On this the whole superstruction of our Order primarily rests, that by its abiding firm, the Order may be firm; and if it be overturned the Order will be entirely overthrown. In so far therefore as the friars shall decline from poverty, the world shall decline from them. If they embrace my Lady Poverty, the world will feed them, because they are sent for the salvation of the world. There is a bargain between the world and the friars. They owe the world a good example: the world owes them necessary provision. And when becoming false to their trust, they fail to set a good example, the world, as a just censure, will draw back its hand.” And indeed it is as good as a great and perpetual miracle to see so many religious men and women of the Order of S. Francis—for in the whole world they number quite a million—who have made profession of poverty, who live honestly and suitably on the alms of the faithful. Truly in this does the Providence of God over His own poor shine gloriously. Here is fulfilled that saying of the Psalmist which S. Francis gave to his brothers as their viaticum in daily life—”Cast thy care upon the Lord, and He will nourish thou.” And “They that be rich, want and are hungry, but they that seek the Lord shall not be lacking in any good.”
Observe, Christ does not say the kingdom of heaven shall be given them, or shall be theirs, but theirs is the kingdom of heaven, in this present time. That is to say, “By my promise and God’s decree the kingdom of heaven pertains to them, they have a complete right to it, and so they are sure of entering into it, as sure as though they held it in their hands, and were already reigning in it as kings.” For so firm is the hope of the promises of God, that by it the faithful as it were hold in their hands the thing promised, according to Heb. xi. 1, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for,” faith, that is, which makes the celestial goods, for which he hopes, subsist in the mind of a believer. For in this way he realizes them to himself, as it were, substantially shows them to himself.
The kingdom of heaven. The celestial blessedness is so called, where the blessed reign with God in all felicity and glory, through all eternity. The word kingdom here signifies, 1. The abundance of all good things in heaven. 2. The high dignity wherewith the blessed are honoured by the Holy Trinity and all angels. 3. Their regal dignity. For the blessed are kings, who reign not over one Spain, or one Asia, or even over all the earth, but over the whole universe; that is, over all the elements of the sky, over the plants and animals. This empire they have won by their poverty of spirit, wherewith they put under them all earthly goods and desires, where, wearing their golden crowns, they sing joyfully for ever to Christ. “Thou hast made us to our God a kingdom and priests, and we shall reign upon the earth.” (Rev 5:10, Vulg.) The kingdom of heaven then is the kingdom of God, for the blessed possess the same kingdom which God himself possesses, and in it most happily and most gloriously reign with him eternally.
Mat 5:4 Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land.
Blessed are the meek. This is the second Beatitude in the Latin Vulgate followed by SS. Jerome and Augustine, and the rest of the Latin Fathers. But in the Greek Codices, in the Syriac and Arabic versions, followed by S. Chrysostom and the other Greek Fathers it is the third Beatitude, the second with them being, Blessed are they that mourn.
Congruously to the poor in spirit the meek are joined because the poor and lowly are wont to be meek, as vice versâ the rich are proud and often impatient and quarrelsome. Poverty and meekness are neighbours, and related virtues. Whence the Hebrew words עני ani, “poor,” ענ anan, “meek,” are kindred words. Chromatius adds, “A man cannot be meek unless he be first poor in spirit.” He gives the reason, “There cannot be a calm sea unless the winds are stilled. A fire is not put out unless you withdraw the materials by which it burns. So too the mind will not be meek and quiet unless the things which excite and inflame it be put away.” The meek are they who are gentle, humble, modest, simple in faith, patient under all injury, who set themselves to follow the precepts of the gospel and the example of the saints. Christ here alludes to Ps 47:11, “The meek-spirited shall possess the earth, and shall be refreshed with the multitude of peace.” Meekness, therefore, 1. Makes us pleasing to God and men. 2. Like Christ, who says, “Learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart.” 3. Apt for wisdom and gaining celestial goods. For these the meek heart is fitted to receive, according to what the Psalm says, “Them that are meek shall he guide in judgment, and such as are gentle them shall he learn his way.”
The grades of meekness and the Beatitude consequent upon it are these: 1. To converse with all with a meek heart and lips. 2. To break the anger of others by a meek reply. 3. To bear with gentleness all injuries and wrongs. 4. To rejoice in such things. 5. By our meekness and kindness to overcome the malevolence of our enemies and those who are angry with us, and win them to be our friends.
For they shall possess, &c. Gr. κληρονομήσουσι, i.e., shall possess by inheritance. S. Augustine and the Arabic have shall inherit. The Syriac, shall possess the earth by the right of inheritance. Appositely does Christ promise the earth to the meek, because the meek are often despoiled by the quarrelsome of the goods of the earth. This injury therefore Christ makes up to them by this Beatitude. But what earth does He mean?
1. S. Chrysostom, Euthymius, Theophylact, and S. Augustine, say that the present earth is here promised to the meek, in this way. The world calls blessed those who are strong and who avenge themselves; but I say, Blessed are the meek, and they who bear with patience the good things of this world being torn from them, because although such persons are often oppressed by the world, yet they do often also, by the gift of God, possess their own, firmly and quietly. Or if not, yet the whole world is the meek man’s country. There is an allusion to Moses who was the meekest of men, and who by his meekness obtained for the Hebrews from God the possession of the promised land. This sense is true, but neither full nor adequate. It often fails. We often see the meek deprived of their possessions by the quarrelsome. We may add that Moses promised earthly goods to the Jews, but Christ promised heavenly things to Christians.
Better and fuller with S. Jerome (in loc.), Nyssen. (lib. De Beat., Orat. 2), S. Basil (on Psalm xiv.), Cyril (in cap. 58. Isaiah), by earth in this place, understand heaven, which is the land of the living, as this our earth is the land of the dying, as it is said in Psalm xxvii. “I believed verily to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” And Psalm cxlii., “Thou art my hope and my portion in the land of the living.”
For in heaven, indeed, is a land not dense, opaque, and earthy, but pure and lustrous. There is the Paradise of roses and lilies, of gems and all delights which refresh the senses of the blessed, for were it not so, the bodies and senses of the blessed, which in this life suffered such dire and awful martyrdoms, would go without their own deserts of pleasure, and only their minds and souls be blessed, which is absurd. Whence S. John beheld, (in Rev. xxi. and xxii.) a heavenly city which was foursquare, whose foundations were laid with jasper and every precious stone. Hence also the Pythagoreans, as Clement of Alexandria tells us (lib. 5 Stromat.), speak of heaven as α̉ντίχθονα, i.e., the land over against, or opposed to our earth. I say nothing of those philosophers who think that the moon and the stars are inhabited, that there are in the moon populous cities and vast regions inhabited by men called Lunares, from Luna, as Macrobius says, lib. 1 in Somn. Scipionis. See also what Plato says, in Convivio.
By every one of the Beatitudes the kingdom of heaven is promised, but under various names and titles.
And yet again, by earth in this place we may understand the new earth, which is spoken of (Isa 55:17; Rev 12:1, Rev 12:2; and 2 Pet 3:13) as that globe of the world which is to be subjected to Christ after the general judgment, as His inheritance, and therefore to the meek as His fellow heirs. For after the judgment, the whole universe—that is, both the heavens and the earth-will be renewed and glorified, and made the possession of Christ and His saints.
A certain holy man, says Salmeron, once said, pleasantly, “Heaven is given to the humble, and earth to the meek; what remains to the proud and the cruel except the misery of hell?”
Anagogically, Hilary says, “To the meek is promised the inheritance of the earth—i.e., of that body which the Lord assumed as his habitation, because through the meekness of our minds Christ dwelleth in us, and we also, when we are glorified, shall be clothed with the glory of His body.” And S. Leo (Serm. in Fest. Omn. Sanct.) says, “The land promised to the meek, and to be given in possession to the gentle, is the flesh of the saints, which, as the desert of their humility, shall be changed at the blessed Resurrection, and endowed with the grace of immortality. For the meek shall possess that land in perfect peace, and nothing shall ever be diminished of their rights, when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality.”
Finally, the way of attaining to meekness is (1), often to meditate upon its dignity and profit, and upon the unworthiness and unprofitableness of anger. Whence Clement of Alexandria says, that Athenodorus gave this advice to the Emperor Augustus, that if he were angry he should never do or say anything until he had said over to himself the twenty-four letters of the alphabet. “If,” said he, “thou art of a lofty mind, a prince is superior to all injuries.” Augustus despised the tales of detractors, “For,” said be, “in a free State the tongue should be free.”
A better way is, to consider the example of those who are meek, and to follow them, but especially the example of Christ crucified, of whom Isaiah foretold (chap. 53), “He shall be led as a sheep to the slaughter, and like a lamb before its shearers, he shall make himself dumb.”
Mat 5:5 Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are they that mourn. Arabic, the sad, who mourn, not in flesh but in spirit. For the words, in spirit, are to be understood and repeated in all these Beatitudes. Blessed are they that mourn, not for the loss of wealth, or parents, or friends, but of spiritual things. Grief here is taken as belonging to the saints. It is opposed to those who laugh and overflow with joy on account of mundane prosperity, those whom the world applauds as blessed. To them Christ threatens woe. “Woe to you which laugh now, for ye shall mourn and weep.” There is an allusion to Isa 55:14, “Behold, my servants shall eat, but ye shall be hungry; behold, my servants shall drink, but ye shall be thirsty; behold, my servants shall rejoice, but ye shall be ashamed,” &c
This grief too has its own degrees, like the rest of the Beatitudes. They are here called blessed mourners, who bear with patience the troubles and sorrows sent, or permitted to come upon them by God. So Nyssen, de Beatitud. But more blessed are they who mourn and weep on account of their own or others’ sins. And most blessed are they who through grief at the perpetual struggle which they carry on with the flesh and concupiscence, and through desire of the celestial country, and especially through love of God and Christ, lament their exile in this earthly land. Thus Paul mourned, “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” In this grief S. Ephraim excelled, who mourns in all his writings, and inspires his readers with holy grief and compunction. S. Macarius, as his Life records, was wont to say to his brethren, “Let us weep, brothers, let our eyes run down with tears before we go where our tears shall burn our flesh.” And they all wept. For tears wash us in this world but burn us after death.
For they shall be comforted. Often in this life, but always in the life to come. As in Isa 35:10, “Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Truly does compunction itself wonderfully solace and refresh the mind of him who is pricked with compunction. And if there be unadulterated joy in the world, it is in the contrite mind. Taste, and thou shalt see, for as the heart knoweth his own bitterness, so there is a joy with which a stranger intermeddleth not. So S. Jerome describing the departure of S. Paula, exclaims, “0 blessed exchange! She wept to laugh always: she beheld pools of contrition that she might find the Lord her fountain: she was clothed in sackcloth that now she might wear white robes, and say, ‘Thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness.’ She ate ashes as it were bread, and mingled her drink with weeping, saying, ‘My tears have been my meat day and night,’ that now she might feed for ever on angels’ bread, and sing, ‘O taste and see how sweet the Lord is.'”
Mat 5:6 Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill.
Blessed are they that hunger, &c. The meaning both here and in S. Luke, who omits a after righteousness, is the same. Blessed are they who hunger after food and drink, in a spiritual sense, i.e., not from any bodily necessity, but with a spiritual end and intention. They hunger and thirst after righteousness, because they wish by such hunger to increase righteousness in themselves and their neighbours. Maldonatus explains righteousness or justice (justitiam) to mean, on account of justice. Hence S. Luke (Luke 6:5) opposes these hungry ones to such that are full, sc. with wine and delicacies. Woe to you that are full, for ye shall hunger. The world calls blessed those that are full, but I, says Christ, call those who are hungry and thirsty with maceration of the flesh, so long as it is on account of their eagerness to obtain and augment righteousness, happy. So S. Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, Hilary, Nyssen, Euthymius, Theophilus, and others. Thus hunger, or famine, is to be understood not in a corporeal, but a spiritual sense (Amos 8:11): “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will send a famine upon the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the word of the Lord.” Also Sirach 24:29: “They that eat me (wisdom) shall yet be hungry, and they that drink me shall yet be thirsty.” To these words Christ here alludes.
The 1st degree of this Beatitude is to bear patiently hunger or thirst arising from public or private scarcity of food. The 2nd, to hunger and thirst in voluntary fasting, that by your fasting, you may make satisfaction for your sins, and gain the grace of God for yourselves and your neighbours. The 3rd is, for the faith of Christ to endure prisons, and in them hunger and thirst, even unto death, as befell some of the martyrs. The 4th, to hunger and thirst after righteousness, and the increase of all virtue. Whence S. Leo says, “To love God is nothing else than to love righteousness.”
Righteousness. 1. Righteousness or justice may here be taken for that special virtue which gives to every one their right. As if it were said, “Blessed are they who hunger for justice, who eagerly desire that justice which once fled from the world, according to that verse of Ovid,
“Last, the lands, all wet with slaughter,
Left Astræa, Heaven’s own daughter,”
that she may return again to earth, and rule over the whole world, and defend the right. Such are they who, oppressed by tyrants, or unjust men, desire that their rights may be restored. Such are they who see widows and orphans oppressed, and have an ardent longing to see them rescued from injustice, and their oppressors punished. For as Aristotle (Ethics) says, “Neither the evening star, nor the sun shines as brightly as justice.” And as Cicero says (lib. 2 de Offic.), “So great is the force of justice, that not even those who feed on evil-doing and wickedness can live in them without some particle of justice.”
2. And more fully, take righteousness here to mean a generic term for virtue, yea, the circle of all virtues, because, for it we ought not only to wish, but vehemently to hunger after and covet it, that we may fill our soul with virtues.
Hear what S. Bernard says (Epist. 253 ad Garinum), explaining the insatiable desire of profiting in the righteous. “The just man never deems that he has apprehended, never says it is enough, but is always hungering and thirsting after righteousness; so that if he lived always, he would be always striving, as far as in him lies, to be more just, always endeavouring with all his might to go on from good to better, not merely for a year or some set time, like a hireling, but for ever he would surrender himself to the Divine service. Therefore unwearied zeal in making progress, and constant striving after perfection, is counted perfection.” And then he concludes with a reference to Jacob’s ladder.
“Jacob beheld a ladder, and on the ladder angels, but none of them resting or standing still; but all were either ascending or else descending; whereby is given plainly to understand that in the state of this mortal life there can no middle course be found between going forward and going back. For just as our body is perpetually either increasing or decreasing, so also must the soul be either making progress or else going backward.
Well says S. Augustine, “The whole life of a good Christian is holy desire.”
For they shall have their fill. “God will give here a constant increase of His grace to those who hunger after it.” “And in heaven,” says S. Bernard, “eternal hunger shall be recompensed with eternal refection.”
Mat 5:7 Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the merciful. Mercy is joined to justice because every work of virtue is either of debt, which is justice, or else of free gift, which is mercy, and because mercy tempers and sweetens justice. Worldlings count those blessed who give little and receive much: but Christ pronounces a paradox, which yet is most true, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), where I have gone fully into the reasons of this Beatitude, especially this one, “for they shall obtain mercy.”
The same celestial Beatitude which Christ promised to the poor in spirit, under the name of the kingdom of heaven, He here promises to the merciful by the name of mercy, because, as the Apostle says (Rom_6:23), “life eternal is of grace,” both because God promises it freely to those who do well and give alms, as because grace is the beginning of good works and merit. For grace prevents and stirs us up to good works, and gives them a divine worthiness and power of meriting. “Life eternal,” says S. Augustine (de Corrept. et Gratiâ, c. 13), “is grace for grace—that is, grace for the merits which grace has conferred,” according to that in Ps. ciii., “Who crowneth thee with mercy and compassions” (Vulg.). Whence the Syriac renders, Blessed are the merciful, for mercies shall be upon them. As though He said, To the merciful shall be recompensed, not one but many mercies. God, therefore, bestows upon the merciful life and everlasting glory, which is the highest grace, and is here signified by the name of mercy; for, as S. Augustine says (Epist. 105), “When God crowns our merits, He does nothing else than crown His own gifts.”
The degrees of mercy are: 1. To sympathize with the wretched. 2. To alleviate corporeal misery by alms. 3. To bring succour to the ignorance of the mind, or to those who are burdened with sin. 4. To seek out the wretched, that we may help them. 5. To deprive yourself of advantages in order to succour them. 6. To spend all you are and all you have, even life itself, for them, as Christ, S. Paul, and S. Paulinus did.
Symbolically. Mercy—i.e., the vision and possession of God, and God Himself, is promised. For the nature of God is nothing else than mercy, according to the words of the fifty-ninth Psalm, “My God my mercy.” (Vulg.) Give therefore to the poor, and you receive God. For alms is not so much mercy as a vast interest and usury with God. Whence the saying: “If you wish to be a usurer lend to God.” As it is in Proverbs, “He that giveth unto the poor lendeth unto the Lord, and what he layeth out it shall be paid him again.” As S. Chrysologus says (Serm. 42), “God eateth the bread in heaven which the poor man hath received on earth. Give, then, your bread, give your drink, if you would have God for your debtor instead of your judge.” Powerfully writes S. Augustine (on Ps. 37), “Consider what the usurer does: he wishes to give little and gain much. Do thou the same. Give small things, receive great. Behold how wonderfully your interest grows. Give temporal things, receive eternal. Give earth, receive heaven.” Lastly, S. Chrysostom (Hom. 32 in Epist. ad Heb.) says, “Almsgiving is a virgin who hath golden wings, and is seen of all. She hath a beautiful girdle. Her face is gentle and comely. Her carriage is graceful, and she always stands before the throne of the King. When we are judged, straightway she comes to our aid, and delivers us from punishment, overshadowing us with her wings. God Himself loves her better than innumerable sacrifices.”
Mat 5:8 Blessed are the clean of heart: they shall see God.
Blessed are the clean of heart. 1. A clean or pure heart means a chaste mind, free from all lust and carnal concupiscence. As though He said, Blessed, not those who have a clear intellect, as philosophers, nor yet those who have clean and fashionable clothes, which many cannot have, but who have a pure and chaste mind which all can have. So. S. Chrysostom.
2. And more fully: Blessed are those who have a pure conscience—those, namely, who have cleansed it from every stain of sin, from evil thoughts and desires, from passions and perturbations, from all evil intention, and especially from all duplicity and hypocrisy. Thus if a fountain be pure and unmuddy, so will the waters which flow from it be pure and unmuddy likewise; and if the heart be pure, the actions which spring from it will be pure and clean. So S. Jerome.
3. And most fully: They are in the highest grade of purity of heart, who have cleansed their hearts from all creature love, that their hearts may be like that of an angel—a pure mirror—and shrine of the Deity.
Cassian (lib. 6 de Instit. Renunc., c. 10) gives it as a mark of perfect purity of heart when any one has no impure dreams, but all his visions are pure and holy. Moreover, Cassian and Sulpitius, (lib. 4 Vit. Pat., c. 31) describe the ladder by which we may mount by degrees to this purity. “The beginning of our salvation is the fear of the Lord. Of the fear of the Lord is born wholesome compunction. From compunction proceedeth contempt of possessions, and divesting ourselves of them. From this divesting proceeds humility. Of humility is generated mortification of the will. By mortification of the will all vices are rooted out. When vices are expelled, virtues fructify and increase. By the growth of virtues purity of heart is gained. By purity of heart the perfection of apostolic charity is possessed.”
Wherefore S. Anthony, according to S. Athanasius, teaches that purity of heart is the way to prophecy. “If any one would be in a position,” he says, “to know future events, let him have a clean heart, for I believe that the soul which serves God, if it shall persevere in that wholeness in which it has been born again, is able to know more than the demons. Such was the soul of Eliseus, who was wont to perform miracles unknown to others.”
They shall see God—i.e., face to face, and shall be blessed with the vision of God. “Cleanness of heart, and purity of conscience,” says Chromatius, “will suffer no cloud to obscure the vision of God.” Hear S. Leo (Serm. in Fest. Omn. Sanct.): “Let all the mists of earthly vanities pass away, and let the interior eyes be cleansed from all squalor of iniquity, that the purified sight may feed only upon the vision of God.” Hence it is plain, as S. Augustine says, that God is seen by the blessed, not with the eyes, but with the heart—i.e., with the mind.
Lastly, this vision of God may be understood to mean the pure and affectionate knowledge which He often imparts in greater degree in this life to the pure in heart than to others. Let, then, every one say, with Herminius, “I had rather die than be defiled in heart.”
Mat 5:9 Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are the peacemakers. As though Christ said, The world calls blessed those who bravely wage war, and subdue their enemies, but I pronounce those to be blessed who reconcile those who quarrel and fight, and recall them to peace and union among themselves and with God. This, indeed, is a work arduous and difficult, but one most pleasing to God. So S. Chrysostom, &c. (See S. Gregory, 3 p. Pastor. Admonit. 24.)
The degrees of this Beatitude are—1. To have or procure inward peace of soul with God. 2. To cultivate peace with neighbours and friends. 3. To recall those who disagree to the concord of charity. The 4th grade is to make others like ourselves, by instilling into them a zeal for peace, that they too may study to make peace between those who disagree.
There might be a religious order or congregation instituted to promote this object, with great profit to the Church, in the same way that congregations have been instituted for the promotion of the other works of mercy—such as nursing the sick, showing hospitality to strangers, burying the dead, &c. Similarly, there might be founded a congregation of peacemakers, whose office it would be to quell all lawsuits in a city, and to bring back all who quarrelled to concord and charity. For this is an exemplary work of charity, in which one Father (Gaspar Barzaus, of Goa) so excelled, that the lawyers said they should die of hunger, in consequence of his putting an end to all the litigations by which they gained a living. (See his Life, written by Father Trigantius.) In fact, in some cities, such congregations of peacemakers have been founded, by which much harm arising from discords, strifes, hatreds, has been warded from the commonwealth.
For they shall be called the children of God, &c., i.e., they shall be children of God. For God very greatly loveth peace, and for its sake He sent His Son into the world. For He Himself is in His essence peace and union: for God Himself unites and joins in closest union the Three Divine Persons in one and the same undivided Essence and Godhead. Hence God is called the God of peace (Philip. iv.); as, on the contrary, the devil is a god of contention, and they who sow it are sons of the devil.
2. Peacemakers are called the sons of God, because they share in the name and office of Christ the Son of God, whose office it is to reconcile men to God and one another, and to bring to the world that peace which the world cannot give. Whence His name is the Prince of Peace. (Isa 9:6.)
3. Most properly and most fully, the peacemakers shall be called and shall be sons of God and heirs of God in celestial glory, which they shall inherit as the reward of their efforts to make peace. For in heaven all the Saints are, through the beatific glory, sons and heirs of God. “These are the peacemakers,” says S. Leo (Serm. in Fest. Omn Sanc); “these who are of one mind, who shall be called by an everlasting title sons of God, and co-heirs with Christ, for this shall be the reward which love of God and our neighbour shall win, that it shall feel no adversity, fear no scandal, but, all the contest of temptation being finished, it shall rest in the most tranquil peace of God.”
Mat 5:10 Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that suffer persecution, &c. This is the eighth and chief Beatitude, subsisting in suffering and patience, whereas the others were placed in action. Whence S. Ambrose says, “He leads thee to the end. He brings you up to martyrdom, and there He fixes the palm of the Beatitudes.” For it is more difficult to suffer hard things than to do difficult things, according to the saying, “To act bravely is the part of a Roman, to suffer bravely is the part of a Christian.”
Acutely and subtilly does Nyssen (on the Beatitudes) trace out the etymology of persecution, which is a word used of those who run and follow, and strive to surpass those who are before them in a race. And so Nyssen meditates thus, that a holy man and tribulation, or persecution, as it were, are running together, but that when he does not give in to persecution, he, as the victor, runs in front, but persecution follows behind his back, and for that reason is called persecution; because, saith he, their enemies follow the righteous, but do not overtake them, for they are overcome by the patience and constancy of the righteous.
For justice’ sake. Because they are just, because they are Christians, because they follow after justice, because they keep the law of God, or the statutes of their Order, or defend the property and rights of the Church, and stand up for the rights of orphans, or because they are zealous for the reformation of the clergy or their monastery. For righteousness here has a wide signification, and embraces every kind of virtue, says S. Chrysostom.
Although, indeed, some philosophers seem to have suffered and been killed for the sake of righteousness, as Socrates was put to death because he said, “Many gods ought not to be worshiped but one God only;” yet where there is not true faith nor charity, there neither is true and perfect righteousness, says S Augustine.
1. Blessed, then, are they who suffer for righteousness’ sake, because persecution separates us from the world, and unites us to God. 2. Because we suffer it for the sake of God. 3. Because by this we become like Christ, who all His life long, unto the death of the Cross, was persecuted by the Jews. “Let us therefore go forth without the camp, bearing his reproach.” (Heb 13) The Church has always increased in time of persecution, decreased in prosperity. So too with all the religious orders.
For this cause God sends, i.e., permits, persecution to come upon the faithful, clergy or religious, to cut down the vices which, like tares, spring up in a time of peace, and revive the primitive vigour of virtue. In this way, under the two Philips, Christian Emperors of Rome, the virtue of the faithful languished in peace, and Christians gave themselves up to gluttony, avarice, and pride. Then God sent the Emperors Decius and Valerian, who sharpened the virtue of believers by persecution. This was revealed to S. Cyprian, as he himself declares (lib. 4, Epist. 4), “Ye may know that this reproof was given by a vision, that we were sleeping in our prayers. This persecution is the trial and examination of our sins.” And (Serm. de Laps.), “A long peace had corrupted the discipline delivered unto us: heavenly correction has raised up prostrate and all but slumbering faith: there was no devoted religion among the clergy, no inward faith in their ministrations, no mercy in works, no discipline in morals,” &c. Eusebius gives the same reason for the persecution under Diocletian. (Hist. lib. 8, c. 1.)
Wherefore B. Francis Borgia, the third General of the Jesuits, was wont to say, there are three things which preserve the Society of Jesus: 1. The study of prayer. 2. The union of the members among themselves. 3. Persecution. And he gives the reasons. Prayer binds us closely to God; concord unites the brethren with one another; persecution separates us from the world, and compels us to act with prudence, that our persecutors may have no handle against us.
For theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven, &c. He begins the Beatitudes with the kingdom of heaven, and He ends them there. He assigns it to the first and last Beatitudes, that we may understand that it is implied in the intervening six. S. Ambrose, indeed, thinks that the heavenly kingdom is a promise to the poor in spirit quoad the soul, which presently migrates from death to heaven; but to those who suffer persecution, quoad the body, which shall be endowed with eternal glory in heaven after the Resurrection. Beautifully and accurately does S. Augustine (Ps. 94) make God speak thus, “I have something for sale.” “What, 0 Lord?” “The kingdom of heaven.” “How is it to be purchased?” “The kingdom by poverty, joy by sorrow, rest by labour, glory by vileness, life by death.”
Note, 1. That these eight Beatitudes are all connected among themselves. Nor, indeed, is any one blessed who has the first, unless he has the other seven likewise. That I may say all in a word, it is, Blessed are they who despise the good things of this world through poverty of spirit, and its honours through meekness, and its pleasures through mourning, who moreover follow hard after justice and mercy, and come to purity of heart; those also who labour to make others have peace with God and among themselves, and finally who, because of these and other works of righteousness, suffer persecution, for this is the apex of Christian perfection and blessedness.
Again, the first Beatitude disposes to and becomes a step to the second, the second to the third, and so on, as S. Ambrose, Leo, and others teach. For poverty of spirit or humility disposes to meekness, for the humble are meek; meekness disposes to mourning, for the meek soon perceive their own and others’ afflictions. Grief or compunction disposes to hungering and thirsting after righteousness. Thirsting after righteousness disposes to mercy, for he who desires to increase in righteousness and holiness does works of mercy. Mercy disposes to purity of heart, because almsdeeds quench sin as water does fire, and increase the charity which loves God alone with a pure heart. Purity of heart disposes us both to be at peace with ourselves, and to promote peace among others, since strifes and wars arise from a heart which is impure and full of covetousness. Lastly, those who promote peace and the other virtues spoken of, fall under the hatred of many who are depraved and covetous, and are persecuted by them, which persecution they nobly endure, and so perfect the crown of these eight Beatitudes, and crown themselves with it.
Observe, lastly, how S. Augustine (lib. 1 de Serm. Dom. in Mont.) beautifully compares the seven Beatitudes to the seven gifts of the Spirit. The fear of God is consonant to the humble, piety to the meek, wisdom to mourners, strength to the hungry and thirsty, counsel to the merciful, understanding to the pure in heart, wisdom to the peacemaker.
Mat 5:11 Blessed are ye when they shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for my sake:
Blessed are ye when they shall revile (Gr. ο̉νειδίσωσι) you, &c. Because, i.e., ye follow My faith, My morals, My life. Untruly (Syr. in a lie), because, forsooth, they falsely accuse you as disturbers of the public, innovators, superstitious for making a God of a crucified man and worshipping Him. This, therefore, is the summit of beatitude, to suffer patiently and generously—yea, joyfully—all wrongs and injuries for the sake of Christ, for piety and virtue’s sake.
Mat 5:12 Be glad and rejoice for your reward is very great in heaven. For so they persecuted the prophets that were before you.
Be glad and rejoice, &c. Rejoice in calumnies, in false accusations, in persecutions, for, 1. By them ye are blessed. 2. Because there awaits you an ample reward in heaven. 3. Because ye are like the prophets, such as Isaiah, who, on account of his prophecies, was sawn asunder by Manasseh with a saw; Jeremiah, who was stoned by the Jews to death; and the rest of the prophets, who were almost all put to death in one way or another. He animates His own disciples by the example of the prophets, because by sharing their lot in suffering persecution they were about to become sharers in their society and glory. By this Christ tacitly intimates that they succeeded to the place of the prophets, yea, were superior to them, because they were called to loftier things, to preach, not the Law, but the Gospel, not only to the Jews, but to the whole world. Wherefore He subjoins, Ye are the salt of the earth, &c.
Observe here, as against modern heretics, the word reward (Gr. μισθὸς, hire, wages, Lat. merces) from whence we collect the merit of good works. For the merit is merit of reward, and the reward is the reward of merit.
According to Catholic understanding, good works, made possible by grace and the working of the Holy Spirit, contribute to growth in grace, so that the righteousness that comes from God is preserved and communion with Christ is deepened. When Catholics affirm the “meritorious” character of good works, they wish to say that, according to the biblical witness, a reward in heaven is promised to these works. Their intention is to emphasize the responsibility of persons for their actions, not to contest the character of those works as gifts, or far less to deny that justification always remains the unmerited gift of grace.(source). And see this article from Catholic Answers.
Listen to S. Cyprian (lib. 4, Epist. 6): “The Lord hath willed us to rejoice and exult in persecution, because when the persecutions are accomplished, then are given the crowns of faith, then the soldiers of God are approved, then the heavens are opened to the martyrs.”
Thus did S. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, exult, when sent to Rome. Bravely and with alacrity he entered the amphitheatre, and looking round upon the vast multitude of at least a hundred thousand people, he saluted them in a friendly manner, and said, “Do not think, 0 ye Romans, that I am here condemned to the wild beasts on account of any evil deed, for I have committed none, but because I desire to be united to Christ, for whom I insatiably thirst.” And when he heard the lions roaring he said, “I am the corn of Christ, let me be ground by the teeth of the beasts, that I may be found pure bread.” Read his Epistle to the Romans, in which he begs, and as it were conjures, them, not to hinder his martyrdom nor take away his crown from him. “I wish to enjoy the beasts which are prepared for me. If they will not come to me I will use force. Now I begin to be a disciple of Christ.”
This is the thought which S. James proposes to be as it were the theme of his Epistle: “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations;” where I have said a good deal upon this subject.