Paul challenges the Christians to think the way that Jesus thought. In today’s second reading (The Letter to the Philippians 2:1-11), Paul tells the Philippians to have the “same attitude” that was in Christ Jesus.

There must have been friction among the early Christians at Philippi because Paul urges them not act out of selfishness or conceit. They should look at others’ interests rather than their own (Phil 2:3-4).

Paul reminds the Christians that Christ was in the “form of God” but He didn’t cling to His power but “emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant” (Phil 2:5-7).

What does “the form of God” mean? Is it an appearance or similarity? In his book, New Testament Christology, Frank Matera explains: “In Greek, morphē refers ‘to the specific form on which identity and status depend’ and the term might better be rendered as ‘nature’ or ‘status.’ Thus Paul’s initial point that Christ Jesus was in the form of God means that he possessed a divine status.”[1]

In his Commentary on the Letter to the Philippians, St. Thomas Aquinas likewise affirms that “to be in the form of God is to be in the nature of God” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians).

Thomas observes that the New Testament describes Jesus’ relationship to the Father, in a variety of ways, such as God’s Son, God’s Word and God’s Image.

The Gospel of John speaks of Jesus as the “only begotten Son” (Jn 1:18). The Son is not created as we are but comes from the very being of the Father. Thomas says “the Son is the one begotten, and the end of begetting is the form.” In other words, in coming forth from the Father, the Son shares the Father’s nature.

Jesus is also said to be the “Word” (Jn 1:1). Our “word” belongs to us. It comes from us. When we speak a word, it discloses us. In the same way, God’s “Word” comes from God and discloses God. Thomas reflects, “the Word of God is said to be in the form of God, because He has the entire nature of the Father.”

The Letter to the Colossians declares: “He is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). By knowing Jesus, we know what God is like. An image, for instance, a photo, is as good as it truly reflects the one whose image it is.

The Letter to the Hebrews states: ‘He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of His nature’ (Heb. 1:3) (Commentary on Philippians).

Paul tells us “He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being found in human form, He humbled Himself” (Phil 2:7-8).

Did Jesus set aside His divinity or make put it “on hold”? Thomas finds the best explanation in the traditional teaching of the early Church Fathers: “He remained what He was; and what He was not, He assumed… He also emptied Himself, not by putting off His divine nature, but by assuming a human nature.”

Thomas reflects: “How beautiful to say that He emptied Himself, for the empty is opposed to the full!” (Commentary on Philippians).

Although Jesus spoke of His unique relationship with the Father, He set aside any claim to special consideration. When He acted in divine ways, it was not for His own advantage but out of compassion actions for afflicted people.

Thomas affirms: “Paul touches on the conformity of Christ’s nature to ours when he says, ‘being born in the likeness of men,’ namely, according to species: “Therefore He had to be made like His brethren in every respect” (Heb. 2:17).

In what ways was Jesus like us? Thomas comments: “He assumed all the defects and properties associated with the human species, except sin; therefore, he says, and being found in human form, namely, in His external life, because He became hungry as a man and tired and so on: ‘One who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning” (Heb. 4:15) (Commentary on Philippians).

Jesus didn’t cease to be divine when He took our nature, as Thomas reflects: “And by this likeness the human nature in Christ is called a habit or ‘something had’; because it comes to the divine person without changing it, but the human nature itself was changed for the better, because it was filled with grace and truth: ‘We have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father’ (Jn. 1:14). He says, therefore, being born in the likeness of men, but in such a way that He is not changed, because in habit He was found as a man” (Commentary on Philippians).

Thomas’ explains the difference between a “person,” which is an individual and “nature” which is shared, as we human persons share human nature but our personhood is unique. An individual is a person who has human nature. He or she is not human nature. Jesus is a divine person who has a human nature.

Thomas affirms: “When he says, taking the form of a servant. …, the Son of God became man. Therefore, He took the nature to His own person, so that the Son of God and the Son of man would be the same in person” (Commentary on Philippians).

Paul describes the extent of Jesus’ humility: “He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on the cross” (Phil 2:8).

When Jesus showed His humility and obedience in laying down His life, He didn’t act like a mindless robot. He even struggled. In the Garden, before the soldiers came, Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will but as You will” (Mt. 26:39).

Thomas reflects: “The movement of the human will tends toward two things, namely, to life and to honor. But Christ did not refuse death.” Christ surrendered His life and His honour.

Thomas stresses the value of Christ’s obedience: “Obedience is one of the greatest of the virtues: for to offer something from one’s external things is great; to offer something from the body is greater; but the greatest is to offer something from your soul and will: and this is done by obedience: ‘To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams’ (1 Samuel 15:22) (Commentary on Philippians).

Paul tells us of Christ’s exaltation: “Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every other name” (Phil 2:9). The Father exalted Jesus in the Resurrection: “Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom. 6:9).

According to Thomas, when Paul declares that God “bestowed” on Him the “name,” Paul means that Jesus’ name “was made manifest to the world … in the resurrection, because prior to that the divinity of Christ was not that well known…”

Although this passage is one of the most beautiful descriptions of Jesus’ generosity, it wasn’t meant just to recall Jesus. Paul’s intention is to encourage the Philippians to imitate Jesus’ generosity. He asks them to find encouragement in Christ.

Thomas Aquinas notes that, in a similar way, the importance of virtues that build up community is also encouraged in the Letter to the Galatians: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace” (Gal 5:22). In the Old Testament, Psalm 133 praised unity within community, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity” (Ps 133:1).

When Thomas writes about Paul’s appeal, we have to remember that Thomas lived in a Dominican community. He knew very well the need for virtues that promote unity.

When Thomas recalls the “special fellowship” when people share various things, he offers the example of soldiers who are together in their battles. Thomas knew about this from his own background, since his father and brothers were soldiers.

Thomas notices the personal way that Paul frames his appeal for mutual love, “I have afforded you much consolation; therefore, if you are my companions, afford the same to me.” Paul wants to be consoled by their love for each other. We might think how disturbing friction in a family is to parents.

Other passages of Scripture refer to the necessity of mutual care: “Be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”. (Eph. 4:3); “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness” (Col. 3:12).

According to Thomas, love consists first “in the affections,” “possessing the one love.” Thomas recalls the words of the First Letter of John, “Let us not love in word or speech but in deeds and in truth” (1 Jn. 3:18).

Thomas points out that Paul urges the Philippians to “be of the same mind,” which Thomas understands to mean first of all a shared faith: “As if to say: ‘have the same mind in regard to the things of faith.’”

Thomas affirms that being one in faith entails being one in charity: “This depends on having the same charity.” Paul states: “being of the same mind, having the same love” (Phil 2:2). The Letter to the Colossians reaffirms this: “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14). Their unanimity puts this attitude into action.

In the Letter to the Romans, Paul prays: “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:5).

Paul asserts that pride and rivalry undermine mutual love. Thomas recalls the words of James: “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (Jas. 3:16).

Paul makes a similar remark in his Letter to the Galatians: “Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another” (Gal. 5:26). Jesus did not seek glory, “I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it and He will be the judge” (Jn 8:50).

Paul declares: “Let all think humbly of others as superior to themselves.” Thomas reflects that “the humble yield to one another.” Thomas wonders whether a person can think better of others.

Thomas’ commentary on today’s Gospel (Mt 21:28-32), indicates that Thomas suspects that religious leaders may be especially susceptible to thinking themselves better than others.

In the Gospel, the first son initially accepted the father’s request to work in the vineyard but then did not work. Thomas thinks that some of the clergy might fit into this description. He compares the second son, who initially refused the father’s request but then went to the vineyard with the laity.

How can a person think better of others? Thomas observes, “No one is so good that there is no defect in him, or so evil that he has no good.” Even when one is aware of defects of another, Thomas suggests: “… he can say in his mind: ‘Perhaps there is some defect in me that is not in this other person.’

Thomas proposes that we deliberately consider our own defects, even ones of which we may not be aware. Then we try to see the virtues of the other person.

Thomas recalls Augustine’s advice to virgins to consider married women as better than herself on the ground that the married may be more fervent. Thomas encourages us to make an effort to see the virtues of others.

Thomas counsels that even if a person seems evil in every aspect, we can still find the image of God in the person, “you and he bear a double person, namely, yours and Christ’s. Therefore, if you cannot prefer him to yourself by reason of his person, you can do so by reason of the divine image: ‘Outdo one another in showing honor’” (Rom. 12:10). In other words, we respect the image of God within a person, even if we can see no other sign.

Paul urges the Philippians to mutual care, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Thomas recalls two similar texts: “That the members may have the same care for one another” (1 Cor. 12:25); “Love does not insist on its own way” (1 Cor. 13:5).

This attitude of self-giving is rooted in having “the mind of Christ.” Thomas affirms that we can “acquire by experience the mind which you have in Christ Jesus.

Since Thomas proposes to us that we should "think in our mind" the virtues of others that, in his daily situation, he himself made efforts to see virtues in other persons and he also sought to put on the “mind of Christ.”

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.

Quotations from Thomas Aquinas are taken from Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Saint Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, trans. Fr. Fabian.R. Larcher, O.P., found on dhspriory.org/thomas

 

[1] Frank J. Matera, New Testament Christology (Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 128.