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Home > Fathers of the Church > Sermons on the New Testament (Augustine) > Sermon 3

Sermon 3 on the New Testament

[LIII. Ben.]

On the words of the Gospel, Matthew 5:3-8 , Blessed are the poor in spirit: etc., but especially on that, Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

1. By the return of the commemoration of a holy virgin, who gave her testimony to Christ, and was found worthy of a testimony from Christ, who was put to death openly, and crowned invisibly, I am reminded to speak to you, beloved, on that exhortation which the Lord has just now uttered out of the Gospel, assuring us that there are many sources of a blessed life, which there is not a man that does not wish for. There is not a man surely can be found, who does not wish to be blessed. But oh! If as men desire the reward, so they would not decline the work that leads to it! Who would not run with all alacrity, were it told him, You shall be blessed? Let him then also give a glad and ready ear when it is said, Blessed, if you shall do thus. Let not the contest be declined, if the reward be loved; and let the mind be enkindled to an eager execution of the work, by the setting forth of the reward. What we desire, and wish for, and seek, will be hereafter; but what we are ordered to do for the sake of that which will be hereafter, must be now. Begin now, then, to recall to mind the divine sayings, and the precepts and rewards of the Gospel. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven shall be yours hereafter; be poor in spirit now. Would you that the kingdom of heaven should be yours hereafter? Look well to yourself whose you are now. Be poor in spirit. You ask me, perhaps, What is to be poor in spirit? No one who is puffed up is poor in spirit; therefore he that is lowly is poor in spirit. The kingdom of heaven is exalted; but he who humbles himself shall be exalted.

2. Mark what follows: Blessed, says He, are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. You wish to possess the earth now; take heed lest you be possessed by it. If you be meek, you will possess it; if ungentle, you will be possessed by it. And when you hear of the proposed reward, do not, in order that you may possess the earth, unfold the lap of covetousness, whereby you would at present possess the earth, to the exclusion even of your neighbour by whatever means; let no such imagination deceive you. Then will you truly possess the earth, when you cleave to Him who made heaven and earth. For this is to be meek, not to resist your God, that in that you do well He may be well-pleasing to you, not you to yourself; and in that you suffer ill justly, He may not be unpleasing to you, but you to yourself. For no small matter is it that you shall be well-pleasing to Him, when you are displeased with yourself; whereas if you are well-pleased with your own self, you will be displeasing to Him.

3. Attend to the third lesson, Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. The work consists in mourning, the reward in consolation; for they who mourn in a carnal sort, what consolations have they? Miserable consolations, objects rather of fear. There the mourner is comforted by things which make him fear lest he have to mourn again. For instance, the death of a son causes the father sorrow, and the birth of a son joy. The one he has carried out to his burial, the other he has brought into the world; in the former is occasion of sadness, in the latter of fear: and so in neither is there consolation. That therefore will be the true consolation, wherein shall be given that which may not be lost, so that they may rejoice for their after consolation, who mourn that they are in exile now.

4. Let us come to the fourth work and its reward, Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. Do you desire to be filled? Whereby? If the flesh long for fullness, after digestion you will suffer hunger again. So He says, Whosoever drinks of this water shall thirst again. If the remedy which is applied to a wound heal it, there is no more pain; but that which is applied against hunger, food that is, is so applied as to give relief only for a little while. For when the fullness is past, hunger returns. This remedy of fullness is applied day by day, yet the wound of weakness is not healed. Let us therefore hunger and thirst after righteousness, that we may be filled with that righteousness after which we now hunger and thirst. For filled we shall be with that for which we hunger and thirst. Let our inner man then hunger and thirst, for it has its own proper meat and drink. I, says He, am the Bread which came down from heaven. Here is the bread of the hungry; long also for the drink of the thirsty, For with You is the well of life. )

5. Mark what comes next: Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Do this, and so shall it be done to you; deal so with others, that God may so deal with you. For you are at once in abundance and in want— in abundance of temporal things, in want of things eternal. The man whom you hear is a beggar, and you are yourself God's beggar. Petition is made to you, and you make your petition. As you have dealt with your petitioner, so shall God deal with His. You are at once full and empty; fill the empty with your fullness, that your emptiness may be filled with the fullness of God.

6. Mark what comes next: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. This is the end of our love; an end whereby we are perfected, and not consumed. For there is an end of food, and an end of a garment; of food when it is consumed by the eating; of a garment when it is perfected in the weaving. Both the one and the other have an end; but the one is an end of consumption, the other of perfection. Whatsoever we now do, whatsoever we now do well, whatsoever we now strive for, or are in laudable sort eager for, or blamelessly desire, when we come to the vision of God, we shall require no more. For what need he seek for, with whom God is present? Or what shall suffice him, whom God suffices not? We wish to see God, we seek, we kindle with desire to see Him. Who does not? But mark what is said: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Provide yourself then with that whereby you may see Him. For (to speak after the flesh) how with weak eyes do you desire the rising of the sun? Let the eye be sound, and that light will be a rejoicing, if it be not sound, it will be but a torment. For it is not permitted with a heart impure to see that which is seen only by the pure heart. You will be repelled, driven back from it, and will not see it. For blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. How often already has he enumerated the blessed, and the causes of their blessedness, and their works and recompenses, their merits and rewards! But nowhere has it been said, They shall see God. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, they shall obtain mercy. In none of these has it been said, They shall see God. When we come to the pure in heart, there is the vision of God promised. And not without good cause; for there, in the heart, are the eyes, by which God is seen. Speaking of these eyes, the Apostle Paul says, The eyes of your heart being enlightened. At present then these eyes are enlightened, as is suitable to their infirmity, by faith; hereafter as shall be suited to their strength, they shall be enlightened by sight. For as long as we are in the body we are absent from the Lord; For we walk by faith, not by sight. Now as long as we are in this state of faith, what is said of us? We see now through a glass darkly; but then face to face.

7. Let no thought be entertained here of a bodily face. For if enkindled by the desire of seeing God, you have made ready your bodily face to see Him, you will be looking also for such a face in God. But if now your conceptions of God are at least so spiritual as not to imagine Him to be corporeal (of which subject I treated yesterday at considerable length, if yet it was not in vain), if I have succeeded in breaking down in your heart, as in God's temple, that image of human form; if the words in which the Apostle expresses his detestation of those, who, professing themselves to be wise became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man, have entered deep into your minds, and taken possession of your inmost heart; if you do now detest and abhor such impiety, if you keep clean for the Creator His own temple, if you would that He should come and make His abode with you, Think of the Lord with a good heart, and in simplicity of heart seek for Him. Mark well who it is to whom you say, if so be ye do say it, and say it in sincerity, My heart said to You, I will seek Your face. Let your heart also say, and add, Your face, Lord, will I seek. For so will you seek it well, because you seek with your heart. Scripture speaks of the face of God, the arm of God, the hands of God, the feet of God, the seat of God, and His footstool; but think not in all this of human members. If you would be a temple of truth, break down the idol of falsehood. The hand of God is His power. The face of God is the knowledge of God. The feet of God are His presence. The seat of God, if you are so minded, is your own self. But perhaps you will venture to deny that Christ is God! Not so, you say. Do you grant this too, that Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God? I grant it, you say. Hear then, The soul of the righteous is the seat of wisdom. Yes. For where has God His seat, but where He dwells? And where does He dwell, but in His temple? For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are. Take heed therefore how you receive God. God is a Spirit, and must be worshipped in spirit and in truth. Let the ark of testimony enter now into your heart, if you are so minded, and let Dagon fall. Now therefore give ear at once, and learn to long for God; learn to make ready that whereby you may see God. Blessed, says He, are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Why do you make ready the eyes of the body? If He should be seen by them, that which should be so seen would be contained in space. But He who is wholly everywhere is not contained in space. Cleanse that whereby He may be seen.

8. Hear and understand, if haply through His help I shall be able to explain it; and may He help us to the understanding of all the above-named works and rewards, how suitable rewards are apportioned to their corresponding duties. For where is there anything said of a reward which does not suit, and harmonize with its work? Because the lowly seem as it were aliens from a kingdom, He says, Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Because meek men are easily despoiled of their land, He says, Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land. Now the rest are plain at once; they are understood of themselves, and require no one to treat of them at length; they need only one to mention them. Blessed are they that mourn. Now what mourner does not desire consolation? They, says He, shall be comforted. Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness. What hungry and thirsty man does not seek to be filled? And they, says He, shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful. What merciful man but wishes that a return should be rendered him by God of His own work, that it may be so done to him, as he does to the poor? Blessed, says He, are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. How in each case has every duty its appropriate reward: and nothing is introduced in the reward which does not suit the precept! For the precept is, that you be poor in spirit; the reward, that you shall have the kingdom of heaven. The precept is, that you be meek; the reward, that you shall possess the earth. The percept is, that you mourn; the reward, that you shall be comforted. The precept is, that you hunger and thirst after righteousness; the reward, that you shall be filled. The precept is, that you be merciful; the reward, that you shall obtain mercy. And so the precept is, that you cleanse the heart; the reward, that you shall see God.

9. But do not so conceive of these precepts and rewards, as to think when you hear, Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God, that the poor in spirit, or the meek, or they that mourn, or they who hunger and thirst after righteousness, or the merciful, will not see Him. Think not of those that are pure in heart, that they only will see Him, while the others will be excluded from the sight of Him. For all these several characters are the self-same persons. They shall all see; but they shall not see in that they are poor in spirit, or meek, or in that they mourn, and hunger and thirst after righteousness, or are merciful, but in that they are pure in heart. Just as if bodily works were duly assigned to the several members of the body, and one were to say for example, Blessed are they who have feet, for they shall walk; blessed are they that have hands, for they shall work; blessed are they that have a voice, for they shall cry aloud; blessed are they who have a mouth and tongue, for they shall speak; blessed are they that have eyes, for they shall see. Even so our Lord arranging in their order the members as it were of the soul, has taught what is proper to each. Humility qualifies for the possession of the kingdom of heaven; meekness qualifies for possessing the earth; mourning for consolation; hunger and thirst after righteousness for being filled; mercy for the obtaining mercy; a pure heart for seeing God.

10. If then we desire to see God, whereby shall our eye be purified? For who would not care for, and diligently seek the means of purifying that eye whereby he may see Him whom he longs after with an entire affection? The Divine record has expressly mentioned this when it says, purifying their hearts by faith. The faith of God then purifies the heart, the pure heart sees God. But because this faith is sometimes so defined by men who deceive themselves, as though it were enough only to believe (for some promise themselves even the sight of God and the kingdom of heaven, who believe and live evilly); against these, the Apostle James, incensed and indignant as it were with a holy charity, says in his Epistle, You believe there is one God. Thou applaudest yourself for your faith, for you mark how that many ungodly men think there are gods many, and you rejoice in yourself because you believe that there is but one God; You do well: the devils also believe, and tremble. Shall they also see God? They shall see Him who are pure in heart. But who can say that unclean spirits are pure in heart? And yet they also believe and tremble.

11. Our faith then must be different from the faith of devils. For our faith purifies the heart; but their faith makes them guilty. For they do wickedly, and therefore say they to the Lord, What have we to do with You? When you hear the devils say this, do you think that they do not acknowledge Him? We know, they say, who You are: You are the Son of God. This Peter says, and is commended; the devil says it, and is condemned. Whence comes this, but that though the words be the same, the heart is different? Let us then make a distinction in our faith, and not be content to believe. This is no such faith as purifies the heart. Purifying their hearts, it is said, by faith. But by what, and what kind of faith, save that which the Apostle Paul defines when he says, Faith which works by love. That faith distinguishes us from the faith of devils, and from the infamous and abandoned conduct of men. Faith, he says. What faith? That which works by love, and which hopes for what God does promise. Nothing is more exact or perfect than this definition. There are then in faith these three things. He in whom that faith is which works by love, must necessarily hope for that which God does promise. Hope therefore is the associate of faith. For hope is necessary as long as we see not what we believe, lest perhaps through not seeing, and by despairing to see, we fail. That we see not, does make us sad; but that we hope we shall see, comforts us. Hope then is here, and she is the associate of faith. And then charity also, by which we long, and strive to attain, and glow with desire, and hunger and thirst. This then is taken in also; and so there will be faith, hope, and charity. For how shall there not be charity there, since charity is nothing else but love? And this faith is itself defined as that which works by love. Take away faith, and all you believe perishes; take away charity, and all that you do perishes. For it is the province of faith to believe, of charity to do. For if you believe without love, you do not apply yourself to good works; or if you do, it is as a servant, not as a son, through fear of punishment, not through love of righteousness. Therefore I say, that faith purifies the heart, which works by love.

12. And what does this faith effect at present? What does it by so many testimonies of Scripture, by its manifold lessons, its various and plentiful exhortations, but make us see now through a glass darkly, and hereafter face to face. But return not now in thought again to this your bodily face. Think only of the face of the heart. Force, compel, press your heart to think of things divine. Whatsoever occurs to your mind that is like to a body, throw it off from you. If you can not yet say, It is this, yet at least say, It is not this. For when will you be able to say, This is God? Not even then, when you shall see Him; for what you shall then see is ineffable. Thus the Apostle says, that he was caught up into the third heaven, and heard ineffable words. If the words are ineffable, what is He whose words they are? Therefore as you think of God, perchance there is presented to you the idea of some human figure of marvellous and exceeding greatness, and you have set it before the eyesof your mind as something very great, and grand, and of vast extension. Still somewhere you have set bounds to it. If you have, it is not God. But if you have not set bounds to it, where can the face be? You are fancying to yourself some huge body, and in order to distinguish the members in it, you must needs set bounds to it. For in no other way but by setting bounds to this large body, can you distinguish the members. But what are you about, O foolish and carnal imagination! You have made a large bulky body, and so much the larger, as you have thought the more to honour God. Another adds one cubit to it, and makes it greater than before.

13. But I have read, you will say. What have you read, who hast understood nothing? Yet tell me, what have you read? Let us not thrust back the babe in understanding with his play. Tell me, what have you read? Heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool. I hear you; I have read it also: but it may be that you think yourself to have the advantage, in that you have both read and believed. But I also believe what you have just said. Let us then believe it together. What do I say? Let us search it out together. Lo! Hold fast what you have so read and believed; Heaven is My throne (that is, my seat, for throne, in Greek, is seat, in Latin), and the earth is My footstool. But have you not read these words as well, Who has meted out the heaven with the palm of His hand? I conclude that you have read them; you acknowledge them, and confess that you believe them; for in that book we read both the one and the other, and believe both. But now think a while, and teach me. I make you my teacher, and myself the little one. Teach me, I pray you, Who is He that sits on the palm of His hand?

14. See, you have drawn the figure and lineaments of the members of God from a human body. And perhaps it has occurred to you to think, that it is according to the body that we were made after the Image of God. I will admit this idea for a time to be considered, and canvassed, and examined, and by disputation to be thoroughly sifted. Now then, if it please you, hear me; for I heard you in what you were pleased to say. God sits in heaven, and metes out the heaven with His palm. What! Does the same heaven become broad when it is God's seat, and narrow, when He metes it out? Or is God when sitting, limited to the measure of His palm? If this be so, God did not make us after His likeness, for the palm of our hand is much narrower than that part of the body whereon we sit. But if He be as broad in His palm as in His sitting, He has made our members quite unlike His. There is no resemblance here. Let the Christian then blush to set up such an idol in his heart as this. Wherefore take heaven for all saints. For the earth also is spoken of all who are in the earth, Let all the earth worship You. If we may properly say with regard to those who dwell on the earth, Let all the earth worship You, we may with the same propriety say also as to those who dwell in heaven, Let all the heaven bear You. For even the Saints who dwell on earth, though in their body they tread the earth, in heart dwell in heaven. For it is not in vain that they are reminded to lift up their hearts, and when they are so reminded, they answer, that they lift them up: nor in vain is it said, If you then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sits on the right hand of God. Set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth. In so far therefore as they have their conversation there, they do bear God, and they are heaven; because they are the seat of God; and when they declare the words of God, The heavens declare the glory of God.

15. Return then with me to the face of the heart, and make it ready. That to which God speaks is within. The ears, and eyes, and all the rest of the visible members, are either the dwelling place or the instrument of some thing within. It is the inner man where Christ does dwell, now by faith, and hereafter He will dwell in it, by the presence of His Divinity, when we shall have known what is the length, and breadth, and depth, and height; when we shall have known also the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that we may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now then if you would enter into the meaning of these words, summon all your powers to comprehend the breadth, and length, and height, and depth. Wander not in the imagination of the thoughts through the spaces of the world, and the yet comprehensible extent of this so vast a body. Look for what I am speaking of in your own self. The breadth is in good works; the length is in long-suffering and perseverance in well-doing; the height is in the expectation of rewards above, for which height's sake you are bidden to lift up your heart. Do well, and persevere in well-doing, because of God's reward. Esteem earthly things as nothing, lest, when this earth shall be smitten with any scourge of that wise One, you say that you have worshipped God in vain, hast done good works in vain, hast persevered in good works in vain. For by doing good works you had as it were the breadth, by persevering in them you had as it were the length; but by seeking earthly things you have not had the height. Now observe the depth; it is the grace of God in the secret dispensation of His will. For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counsellor? and, Your judgments are as a great depth.

16. This conversation of well-doing, of perseverance in well-doing, of hoping for rewards above, of the secret dispensation of the grace of God, in wisdom not in foolishness, nor yet in finding fault, because one man is after this manner and another after that; for there is no iniquity with God; apply this, I say, if you think good, also to the Cross of your Lord. For it was not without a meaning that He chose this kind of death, in whose power it was even either to die or not. Now if it was in His power to die or not, why was it not in His power also to die in this or the other manner! Not without a meaning then did He select the Cross, whereby to crucify you to this world. For the breadth is the transverse beam in the cross where the hands are fastened, to signify good works. The length is in that part of the wood which reaches from this transverse beam to the ground. For there the body is crucified and in a manner stands, and this standing signifies perseverance. Now the height is in that part, which from the same transverse beam projects upward to the head, and hereby is signified the expectation of things above. And where is the depth but in that part which is fixed in the ground? For so is the dispensation of grace, hidden and in secret. It is not seen itself, but from thence is projected all that is seen. After this, when you shall have comprehended all these things, not in the mere understanding but in action also (for a good understanding have all they that do hereafter), then if you can, stretch out yourself to attain to the knowledge of the love of Christ which passes knowledge. When you have attained to it, you will be filled with all the fullness of God. Then will be fulfilled the face to face. Now you will be filled with all the fullness of God, not as if God should be full of you, but so that you shall be full of God. Seek there, if you can, for any bodily face. Away with such trifles from the eye of the mind. Let the child cast away his playthings, and learn to handle more serious matters. And in many things we are but children; and when we were more so than we are, we were borne with by our betters. Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see God. For by this is the heart purified; for that in it is that faith which works by love. Hence, Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

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Source. Translated by R.G. MacMullen. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/160303.htm>.

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