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Commentary on Wisdom 7:7-12; Ps 118; Matt 5:17-19
The Gospel reading comes from the first part of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has presented the Beatitudes which are a new and far-reaching challenge to a way of life which really goes well beyond what is required in the Ten Commandments. Immediately after the Beatitudes he speaks to his disciples of the need for them not only to follow Jesus in his teaching but also to live out that teaching in such a way that others are invited to follow it too. They are to be the “salt of the earth… the light of the world… a city on a hill…” They are to behave in such a way that people, seeing the good things they do, will be led to the praise and glory of God.
Now, in today’s passage, Jesus speaks of the place of the Jewish Law. We must remember that Matthew’s gospel is written by a Jew (or Jews) for Christian communities consisting of converted Jews. It is a reassurance that Jesus has not come to do away with the Law of Moses and he condemns anyone who would try to do such a thing.
On the contrary, Jesus says, “until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the Law, until all these things have taken place”. What does ‘heaven and earth passing away’ mean? It is believed that this does not refer to the end of time, the end of the world but rather to the end of the age which preceded the coming of the New World which Jesus, as Messiah and Incarnate Son of God, would inaugurate. The time when the Old Covenant would be replaced by the New Covenant.
After that, the Old Law would still not be replaced but it would be surpassed. We see this spelt out in the six examples which Jesus proceeds to give in the following passages. In these six examples Jesus shows how the more literal and external understanding of certain laws has to be pushed much further on a deeper, more spiritual level.
This, one could say, was the work of Robert Bellarmine, namely, through his teaching and writing to penetrate the true meaning of the Word of God especially against those who were distorting that meaning. He was a man whose personal life also went way beyond the written texts and showed itself in a life of prayer and simple living and concern for the poor, in spite of holding positions of high rank in the Church.
This is also expressed in the beautiful First Reading from the Book of Wisdom. It is from a prayer for wisdom made by King Solomon, renowned for the extent of his wealth. He says that he pleaded for the spirit of Wisdom which he put before kingly power. For him, riches were nothing in comparison with Wisdom. In the view of true Wisdom, “all gold is a little sand and, before Her, silver is to be accounted mire”. In the company of Wisdom, all good things will come and riches of a very different kind.
For Robert and for us that Wisdom comes, of course, from the words and the life of Jesus, who is the Word and the Wisdom of God. To know, assimilate and live that Word is to be truly wise. It is something that even the simplest of people can do.
St Robert Bellarmine, Bishop and Doctor, SJ (Memorial – for Jesuits)
Robert Bellarmine was born on 4 October 1542 at Montepulciano in Tuscany, Italy, to a noble but impoverished family and was a nephew of Pope Marcellus II. As a boy he knew Virgil by heart and became adept at writing Latin verse. One of his hymns, on Mary Magdalen, is in the Breviary. He could play the violin and was good at debating. In 1560, at the age of 18, he entered the Jesuits and made his studies in Rome, Padua and Louvain. During his time of formation he also taught Latin and Green in Florence and Piedmont for a number of years. He was ordained priest at Ghent in 1570.
He then went to Louvain and began a long career in the teaching of theology. He lectured on the Summa Theologica of St Thomas Aquinas, while attacking the opinions of Baius on grace and free will. He also authored a Hebrew grammar. After seven years there his health deteriorated under the pressure of his studies and his ascetical life. He returned to his native Italy to restore it. He was kept in Rome by Pope Gregory XIII to lecture on polemical theology, dealing with the controversial issues of the day, in the newly opened and Jesuit-run Roman College. These lectures would become the basis of his Disputationes de controversiis christianae fidei (Disputation on the Controversies of Christian Faith). This was a comprehensive presentation of Catholic teaching. It showed such erudition in Scripture, on the Fathers and Protestant theology that it was believed to be the work of several scholars. It met with immediate acclaim but was banned in England by the government.
Robert was also involved in a revision of the Vulgate (the Latin translation of the Bible), the production of a famous catechism which would still be in use 300 years later. Following the death of Henry III of France, Pope Sixtus V sent a legate to Paris to negotiate with the League, and chose Bellarmine as his theologian. Bellarmine was in the city during its siege by Henry of Navarre who would become king.
In the latter part of his life, one appointment followed another. In 1592 he was made Rector of the Jesuits’ Roman College. Two years later he became the Provincial of the Jesuit Province of Naples.
In 1597 Pope Clement VIII made him his theological adviser and two years later named him to the College of Cardinals (as a Cardinal-Priest). These honours did nothing to change his austere lifestyle. He lived on a diet of bread and garlic and was known to have used the curtains of his apartment to clothe the poor.
In 1602 he was made Archbishop of Capua and immediately was deeply involved in pastoral and welfare work. But he resigned his see after only three years when he was called back to Rome in 1605 by Pope Paul V to become Prefect of the Vatican Library as well as being active in several Vatican Congregations.
His reservations about the temporal power of the Papacy are said to have put him out of favour with Pope Sixtus V and even to have delayed his canonisation. He was, however, vindicated by later theologians. In the famous controversy on the relationship of the sun to the earth, Bellarmine showed himself sympathetic to Galileo’s case but had urged the scientist to proceed more cautiously and to distinguish hypothesis from truth.
In his old age he was allowed to return to his old home, Montepulciano, as its bishop for four years, after which he retired to the Jesuit college of St. Andrew in Rome. He received some votes in the conclaves which elected Popes Leo XI, Paul V, and Gregory XV, but only in the second case had he any prospect of election. During his retirement, he wrote several short books intended to help ordinary people in their spiritual life: The Mind’s Ascent to God (1614), The Art of Dying Well (1619), and The Seven Words on the Cross.
He died in Rome on 17 September 1621 at the age of 79. Though physically a small man, he was a giant in intellectual ability and personal warmth. He prayed every day for the Protestant theologians with whom he disagreed and never (as was often the case on both sides) made abusive attacks on them.
He was canonised in 1930 and named a Doctor of the Church in 1931.
Considered the outstanding theologian of his age, he is remembered for his dedication to the truth, charity in disputation, and austerity of life. (As one person commented: “The man wore only one Cardinal’s outfit. Despite his friends’ best efforts to get him some new clothes, his patches had patches.”)
Commentary on Luke 7:31-35
Today’s passage follows immediately after the scene (not in our Mass readings) where Jesus answers the query from John the Baptist languishing in prison about whether Jesus is truly the Messiah. Jesus uses the occasion to speak words of high praise for John, “Of all the children born of women, there is no one greater than John”.
Jesus now criticises the cynicism and self-contradictory attitudes of those who reject both him and John. They have simply closed their ears and want to hear nothing and learn nothing. He compares them to children in a city square calling to their playmates. “When we played lively music for you, you would not dance; when we played funereal music, you would not mourn.”
This comparison Jesus applies to John the Baptist and himself. John led an austere life in the desert eating, as we are told elsewhere, only locusts and wild honey. They said he was mad and rejected him. Jesus came leading a highly convivial life, mixing with all kinds of people. They called him a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and other sinful people. He even invited a tax collector to be one of his twelve Apostles!
It was a no-win situation. When people are like that there is really nothing that can be done. Jesus concludes with the enigmatic statement, “Wisdom has been proved right by all her children.” Both John and Jesus could both be described as children of Wisdom, whose origin is God himself. Those who can see the hand of God in the lives of John and Jesus are also children of Wisdom. Those who adamantly refuse to see God are not.
It is important for us not to fall into such a trap. God speaks to us in so many ways and through so many people and situations. It is very easy to find ourselves excluding a priori the people or situations by which God is trying to reach us.
We cannot expect God to speak to us in ways which we find congenial. He may speak to us through a saint or a sinner. Through a conservative or a liberal. Through a man or a woman – or a young child. Through an old person or a young person. Through an educated or an illiterate person… Through a local person or a foreigner. Through a straight or gay person… Through a saint or a sinner. We have at all times to be ready to listen with an unprejudiced mind and heart.
Commentary on 1 Cor 12:31 – 13:13
A hymn to agape-love.
We have here probably one of the most quoted passages from Paul, if not from the whole Bible.
We have seen Paul speaking to the Corinthian Christians about the various gifts of the Spirit with which different people are endowed so that they can better serve the needs of the community in many different ways. He had been criticising them for laying too much emphasis on and even ambitioning the having of certain more “prestigious” gifts.
Using the analogy of the human body he had said that the overall unity of the community was more important than any one gift just as the unity of the body depended on its having a full complement of limbs and organs for it to function properly.
Today, however, he goes further and says that, above and beyond any gifts or ‘charisms’, there is “a more excellent way”. That way is the over-riding element of love. Love is not on the same level as the other gifts. Rather, it is one of the most evident signs of the presence of the Spirit of Christ in the community and its members.
‘Love’ here as in many parts of the New Testament translates the Greek word agape, a word with a very specific meaning. The word ‘love’ can mean many things and C S Lewis has written a book called The Four Loves, each one of which can be found in the scriptures. Let us just briefly describe three of these: eros, philia, and agape.
Eros describes physical, sensual love, the love of lovers sharing physical intimacies with each other. At its best, it is a genuine and very beautiful form of love which involves the total giving of two people to each through their bodies. Paul is not talking about this.
Philia is really the highest form of love. It is the love of friendship, where friendship implies a total mutuality and sharing between two people in a mutual self-giving to each other. It is the love of lovers at its best, the love of the happily married couple, and of friends who are deeply committed to each other. Sex may or may not be part of it. It implies an enduring relationship which may not be present in an eros situation. Again, Paul is not talking about this here.
Agape is reaching out to another person with a deep desire for that person’s total well-being and wholeness. It is the love of compassion and caring. It differs from philia in that it does not expect a return (though that may be given); it is a totally unconditional form of loving. It is the love that God reaches out to all creatures whether they return that love or not. In the First Letter of John we are told that God IS agape. It is a constituent of his very being. Agape is a form of love which desires the good of the other quite independently of that person’s lovableness. It is the love that God extends equally to every single person, irrespective of who they are or how they respond. So it is a love that can be extended even to enemies, criminals and those who want to destroy us. It is the love that Jesus showed for those who were nailing him to the cross. It is the love that Paul is speaking about here. It is a love which desires the good of the other and hence is then especially offered to those who lack it most.
(However, we might also add that a person cannot survive only on agape, the giving form of love. No one can remain permanently in a totally altruistic mode. At bottom whatever we do must ultimately be for our own good and wellbeing. What we really need for our wholeness is a true philia relationship. It is interesting that when Jesus asked Peter his three questions after the resurrection, “Simon, do you love me more than these?”, he used the verbs for both agape and philia. In fact, it may not be possible to show a great deal of agape unless we have a philia experience as part of our lives. We can live without eros but, when joined with philia, eros adds what we might call an incarnated dimension to our lives – although it is also the form of love most abused.
Paul speaks of the supremacy of agape over everything else we do or achieve. If our actions are not motivated by an agape love, then they are of no real value as far as our Christian life is concerned.
Using hyperbolic language, he gives four exaggerated examples of some of the gifts to be found in the community:
- the gift of eloquence, even to the point of being able to speak not only every earthly language but the language of angels;
– the gift of prophecy (in the sense we described it yesterday), the ability to understand all mysteries and “knowing everything” that can be known;
– a faith strong enough to move mountains (as Jesus said true faith could do);
– a generosity which would give away everything one has, even to offering one’s body in martyrdom.
To have any of these gifts in the highest degree could make one a prominent and highly respected person in the community. But if, at bottom, these things are not motivated by genuine love (agape), they are rated as nothing.
Speaking both positively and negatively, Paul now lists some of the qualities of this kind of agape love:
- It is patient and kind (Virtues apparently not very conspicuous in the Corinthian community.)
– It is never jealous. (Jealousy seems to be present in those Corinthians who ambition certain charisms rather than be satisfied with what they have.)
– It is never boastful or conceited. (Paul accuses the Corinthians of a certain arrogance which their overall moral behaviour in no way justifies.)
– It is never rude or selfish. (Paul mentions the divisive factions and also the selfish behaviour of some when celebrating the Lord’s Supper.)
– It does not take offence and is not resentful. (True agape is totally focused on the needs of the other and is not upset by hostility or rejection. Such inner resentment is a sign of an insecurity in oneself. The truly agape-love person cannot be offended because he or she is a person who totally accepts himself as he/she is.)
– It takes no pleasure in other’s sins but delights in the truth. (The reaction to the weaknesses of others is not delight nor judgement but compassion. True love also is never afraid of the truth but always wants to see it come to the surface. At the same time, the truly loving person will always speak the truth in love, being sensitive to the weaknesses of those for whom the truth can be very painful. We can speak the truth in a very unloving way.)
– It is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes. (True love always wants to find the good in everyone. It is biased towards believing that people act in good faith. In spite of outward circumstances, it never loses the certain hope that the truth and the good must ultimately prevail. It is ready in the worst of times to hang in there and to believe in the ultimate goodness of people.)
Love alone, says Paul, outlasts everything else. Because love is part of God’s very nature; God is love. Loving is not just something God practises – it is a part of his very essence.
On the other hand, many of the church’s most highly prized gifts will eventually pass away. Paul mentions prophecy. There will come a time when it is no longer needed. The gift of speaking languages will not be part of the life to come. Knowledge, however wide, will eventually be shown to be so inadequate when we come face to face with the Infinite Source of all knowledge and wisdom. For “once perfection comes, all imperfect things will disappear”.
‘Perfection’ is a translation of the Greek word pleroma which means ‘fulfilment’, ‘completeness’, ‘maturity’. That ‘perfection’ will be realised when Christ comes at the end to bring all creation to himself to share in his glory.
Right now, says Paul, we are like children, talking like children, acting and arguing like children. We think we are adults but it is not really the case. We are like a man looking at his reflection in one of those polished metal mirrors of those days. The image can be seen but is somewhat blurred. But then, when the Lord comes, we will have the extraordinary experience of seeing God clearly face to face.
What I know now is so imperfect. But then “I shall know as I am known”. That is, I will know the Lord to the fullest extent possible for a human creature analogous to the unlimited way in which God knows me.
And so, Paul sums up by saying that in the end only three things will perdure: faith, hope and love (agape). We will not need faith when we are face to face with our infinite Creator. We will not need hope because every possible desire of our being will be fulfilled forever. But agape will remain. Face to face with God, we will be eternally bathed in that agape which pours from him and fills us with the happiness for which we were created.