What brings happiness? We might come up with many answers. In today’s Gospel, (Matthew 5:1-12), Jesus proposes eight possibilities that we may have overlooked. They are His “beatitudes.” Each of the Beatitudes begins with the Greek word, makárioi, which can be translated as “blessed” or “happy.”
St. Augustine asserts that the whole perfection of our lives may be found in the Sermon on the Mount because, in the beatitudes, Jesus promises happiness. “God is the reward of those who serve him: ‘The Lord is my portion, therefore, will I hope in him’" (Lam 3:24).
The ultimate fullness of happiness is in heaven, but Thomas Aquinas agrees with Augustine that happiness begins in this life. Blessed are the poor in spirit, “not in hope only, but also in reality, ‘The kingdom of heaven is within you’” (Lk 17:21) (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 3).
Luke brings out God’s special concern for the poor when he reports Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the poor” (Lk 6:20).
Matthew brings out another aspect, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Of course, poverty in itself doesn’t bring happiness. Thomas understands the poor to be “the humble, who regard themselves as poor; for they are truly humble who regard themselves as poor not only in externals, but also in internal things: as the psalm says, ‘I am poor and needy’ (Ps 40:17)… those who have little of the spirit of pride” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 3).
Thomas recognizes that “Some have riches, but they do not have them in their heart”: as the psalm says, ‘If riches increase, set not your heart on them’ (Ps 62:10). Yet Thomas thinks that Jesus means those who are recognizably poor:
Some neither have riches nor desire them, and that is more secure, because the mind is drawn from spiritual things by riches. And these are properly called poor in spirit, because the acts of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are above the human way of acting, belong to the happy man. And that a man rejects all riches, so that he does not seek them at all is also above the human way of acting. To those is promised the kingdom of heaven, which is marked not only by the loftiness of honor but by abundance of wealth: ‘Has not God chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith?’ (Jas 2:5)” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 3).
Biblical scholars do not think that when Jesus says “in spirit,” He means the Holy Spirit. It is surely, our spirits. However, St. Thomas thinks there is a way we can understand it as the Holy Spirit, “… hence blessed are the poor in spirit, who are humble through the Holy Spirit.” Why?
People are consoled, when in place of temporal things they receive spiritual and eternal things, which is to receive the Holy Spirit; hence He is called Paraclete (Jn 15:26). For in virtue of the Holy Spirit, who is divine love, people rejoice: ‘Your sorrow will be turned into joy’ (Jn 16:20) (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 4).
According to Thomas, humility is related to the Holy Spirit:
He says, poor in spirit, because humility brings the Holy Spirit: ‘This is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word’ (Is 66:2). To those poor a kingdom is promised, in which is understood supreme excellence. And although it is the reward for every virtue, it is given in a special way to humility; because ‘everyone who humbles himself shall be exalted’ (Mt 23:12) (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 3).
Those who are “poor in spirit” can also be meek. “For one is meek who is not irritated. But this could be done by a virtue, so that one does not become angry without just cause; however, even if you have a just cause and are not disturbed, it is strictly beyond human power. Therefore He says, Blessed are the meek (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 5).
Jesus says, Blessed are those who mourn. Thomas reflects: “For mourning over sins one is granted forgiveness, as David sought, ‘Restore to me the joy of my salvation’ Ps 51:12). To mourning corresponds the consolation of divine love; for when one weeps over the loss of a treasured object, he is consoled, if he acquires something more valuable” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 4).
Jesus announces Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for holiness for they shall be filled: Thomas reflects: “So it is in matters of the spirit: when men are in sin, they do not feel spiritual hunger; but when their sins are forgiven, they experience that hunger.
Jesus declares: Blessed are the merciful. Thomas comments: “Justice without mercy is cruelty, while mercy without justice is the mother of destruction. Therefore, it is necessary for the two to be joined, as it says in Proverbs (3:3): ‘Let not mercy and truth forsake you’; ‘Mercy and truth will meet’ (Ps 85:10) (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 6).
Thomas describes mercy:
To be merciful is to have a compassionate heart for the wretchedness of others; but we have mercy toward the wretchedness of others when we regard it as our own. We grieve over our own wretchedness and strive to remove it. Therefore, you are truly merciful, when you work to relieve the wretchedness of others (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 7).
Thomas observes that there are two types of mercy for others. The first regards material needs: “The first is in temporal matters, and in regard to that wretchedness we should have a compassionate heart: ‘If anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?’ (1 Jn 3:17).”
The second wretchedness is because of sin. Just as happiness comes through the virtues, "Sin makes a people wretched" (Pr 14:34). “
Therefore, when we admonish the fallen to return, we are merciful: ‘Seeing the crowds he had compassion on them’ (Mt 9:36). Therefore, the merciful are blessed. How? Because they shall obtain mercy” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 7).
Thomas asserts: “Here it should be noted that God's gifts always outweigh our merits: ‘The Lord is the one who repays, and He will repay you sevenfold’ (Sir 35:11). Consequently, the mercy God bestows on us is much greater than that we bestow on others” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 7).
God begins by giving us mercy in the forgiveness of our sins. Thomas affirms: “For it is a greater thing to obtain mercy than to be filled, because being full depends on one's capacity; but mercy is superabundant” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 9).
Jesus announces: Blessed are the clean of heart: Thomas comments: “For by faith is the heart purified: ‘He cleansed their hearts by faith’ (Acts 15:9). And because vision succeeds faith, it is said, for they shall see God, i.e., those who have a general cleanliness from alien thoughts. By such cleanliness their heart is a holy temple of God, in which they see God to be contemplated, for temple seems to be named from contemplation” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 8).
Thomas affirms that the “pure in heart” are those who are pure in their bodies: “Nothing so impedes contemplation as bodily impurity: ‘Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord’" (Heb 12:14).”
Thomas reflects that some say that “the moral virtues contribute to the contemplative life, and especially chastity.”
Thomas thinks that the saints, already in this life, have “their hearts full of righteousness.” This enables them to see more clearly than others: “The saints who have justice, charity and effects of that sort, which are most similar to God, know more than others: ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good’ (Ps 34:8) (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 8). In other words, the saints, because of their purity of heart, can recognize God in natural things.
According to Thomas, peace with others disposes us to love of God:
And just as purity in heart disposes toward the vision of God, so peace disposes toward the love of God, by which we are called and are sons of God. Thus it disposes to the love of neighbor, because it says in 1 John (4:20): ‘He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen’ (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 9).
Peace with others set our soul in proper order, which is found only in holy people: "Great peace have they who love Your name" (Ps 119:165). Evil people do not have inner peace: "There is no peace for the wicked" (Is 48:22), "They live in great strife due to ignorance, and they call such great evils peace" (Wis 14:22).
Jesus teaches: Blessed are the peace makers, for they shall be called the sons of God. Thomas affirms that virtues dispose us “to the vision of God and to love.” “Purity in heart disposes toward the vision of God, so peace disposes toward the love of God, by which we are called and are sons of God” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 9).
Peace disposes us to the love of neighbor: "He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 John 4:20).
The reward of happiness is given to the peacemakers but also to those who are persecuted for justice’ sake. Jesus declared that the world cannot give lasting peace:
"Not as the world gives, do I give to you" (Jn 14:27).
Thomas acknowledges that peace cannot be perfect in this life: “No one can have his animal inclinations completely subject: ‘I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members’ (Rom 7:23). In heaven, we have ‘The peace of God that surpasses all understanding’ (Phil 4:7).”
Jesus brings peace: “
- For the Son is said to have come into the world to assemble those who are scattered:
- "For he is our peace" (Eph 2:14);
- "Reconciling to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven" (Col 1:20)…
- Through peace with charity one reaches the eternal kingdom:
- ‘Eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Eph 4:3)…
- By peace, a person becomes like God” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 9).
Jesus helps us understand His teaching: “When he was in the loftiness of divine majesty, his doctrine could not be grasped; but men began to grasp it when He humbled himself”
Jesus speaks of those who are persecuted for justice sake. Thomas affirms that our desire for justice cannot be satisfied in this life: “The Lord wishes that his people be and be called lovers of justice. And the Lord wishes that we so yearn for that justice, that we are never, as it were, satiated in this life” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 6).
To act justly entails the “gift of courage.”
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
The quotations from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew were done by R.F. Larcher, O.P. The full text may be found on the web site of the Dominican House of Studies, Washington, D.C.: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/