EN : Iacobus de Voragine, Quadragesimale 18 (RLS 213)

Translated by George Ferzoco


If you are faithful to my word, you will truly be my disciples and you will know the truth (Ioan. 8, 31).

The truth will set you free (=Ioan. 8, 31). As some Jews had been converted to the faith, the Lord, wanting to confirm them in the faith they had received, exhorts them to follow his word carefully, because only then would they be true disciples. In the words noted above, there are two points: first, the Lord exhorts them to observe his word, when he says: ‘if you are faithful to my word’; secondly, he indicates the three-fold efficacity of the word, when he says: ‘you will truly be my disciples’.

On the first point, it must be noted that it is most useful to observe the word of God. For, according to what Ambrose says concerning the Sermon on the Mount, the word of God has a triple power: it enflames, it illuminates, it purifies.

Firstly, it has the power to enflame: in effect, if a man is cold in his love of God, the word of God enflames him, for it is of fire. ‘Are not my words like fire?’ (Ier. 23, 29), says the Lord. ‘Your word of fire, vehement, and your servant has loved it (Psal. 118). ‘Every word of God is of fire’ (Prou. 18). They were thus enflamed, those who said: ‘Was not our heart burning within us when he spoke to us on the road (Luc. 24, 32)?’

Secondly, it has the power to illuminate: if indeed man is ignorant or doubtful in his faith, the word of God, as if it were light, illuminates him. ‘Your word is a lamp unto my feet’ (Psal. 118). God’s commandment is a lamp, and his law is light.

Thirdly, it has the power to purify. If a man is infected by vices, the word of God purifies him, as it is a water that has come from the sky. ‘I will pour on you a water that is pure, and will be purified of all your stains’ (Ezech. 36, 25). ‘From now on you are now pure, thanks to the word that I have pronounced to you’ (Ioan. 15,3).

But if the word of God must inflame, enlighten and purify, then why are not those who hear God’s words inflamed, enlightened and purified? To this, it must be said that even though God’s words are of fire, they cannot inflame many people who put a separation between them and the fire, and make their sin into a wall of iron. ‘Now the hand of the Lord has not been made small such that it cannot bring salvation, but it is your iniquities that have made a separation between you and your God; and your sins have hidden his face so completely that he does not hear you’ (Isai. 59, 1–2). ‘This iniquity will be for you like a breach that threatens ruin, making a hole through a high wall’ (Isai. 30, 13). There are many who, taking the word of God like a light to illuminate them, remain nonetheless unenlightened because they do not approach this light, but distance themselves too much. As it is said: ‘they that approach his feet, shall receive his teaching’ (Deut. 32). ‘Go unto him and be enlightened’ (Psal. 32). There are many who, although the words of God should purify them, since they are water from heaven, are not purified because their spirit is turned toward the ground. For, as Augustine declares, each and every person is the image of his love: if you love the ground, you are the ground; if you love God, you are God. Just as bricks are not washed with water, but rather are stained by it, the same goes for those who turn toward the ground. ‘They have become abominable, like those things that they loved’ (Osee 9, 10).

Secondly, there is indicated the efficacity of the word of God, which is threefold.

Firstly, this is because the words of God make man the disciple of Christ; this is why He adds: ‘You will truly be my disciples’. The sign that a man is a disciple of Christ is that he willingly hears His word: ‘He who is of God hears the word of God’ (Ioan. 8, 47). Another sign is that the disciple of Christ refuses all illicit love, and desires all divine love. Illicit love, in effect, is threefold: it is domestic, worldly and carnal. It is domestic when someone loves his family in evil. It is carnal when someone loves that which is animal and carnal within oneself. It is worldly, when someone loves the things of this world too much. The disciple of Christ must reject these three types of love. ‘If anyone comes to me, and hates not his father and his mother [this refers to domestic love], even his own life [and this refers to carnal love], and does not renounce all that he possesses, he cannot be my disciple [and this refers to worldly love]’ (Luc. 14, 26). However, disciples of Christ must have spiritual and divine love that consists in loving God and one’s neighbour. ‘By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another’ (Ioan. 13, 35).

The second efficacity of the word of God is that those who observe the words of God know the truth of God; this is why He declares: ‘And you will know the truth’ (Ioan. 8, 32). As Augustine says, truth is opposed to falsehood, duplicity and vanity, for that which is true is neither false nor two-faced nor vain. Thus the words of God make us know the truth about the world, in making us know everything that is false, two-faced and vain about it.

False because the world promises fulfilment and gives nothing than emptiness, as one sees with the rich man who comes to such a chasm that he cannot have even one drop of water. In other cases, it promises pleasure and delivers bitterness. ‘For a prostitute’s lips are like a honeycomb, but her end is as bitter as wormwood’ (Prou. 5, 3–4). In honours it promises the highest elevation but it provides a brutal fall. ‘They take the timbrel and the harp, and rejoice to the sound of the organ. They truly lead their days in good things, and in a moment they descend to Hell’ (Iob 21, 12–13). ‘You have raised me and, as if I were upon the wind, you have mightily dashed me’ (Iob 30, 22).

Secondly, these worldly things are twofold and mixed. Indeed, nothing in the world is pure, everything is mixed together. ‘Your wine is mixed with water’ (Isai. 1, 22). Joy is mixed with sorrow, wisdom is mixed with forgetfulness, health is mixed with illness, life is mixed with death. In this life, these things are all mixed together, while in the blessed life they will be pure, and in Hell, like muck. Indeed, God will separate sorrow from joy, forgetfulness from wisdom, illness from health; and all foulness, sorrow, forgetfulness, illness and death, he will throw into Hell, such that the saints will keep what is most pure for themselves: joy without sorrow, wisdom without forgetfulness, health without illness, life without death.

Thirdly, these worldly things are vain. They have vanity as their starting point, because they come from nothing; they have vanity in their very core, for they submit to all sorts of change; and they have vanity in their offspring, as these too come from nothing. ‘All things are subject to vanity [this refers to the vanity that is in the core of all things], they were made of earth [this refers to the vanity of their origin], and they return to earth [this refers to the vanity of their offspring] (Eccle. 3, 19–20).

The third efficacity of the word of God comes from what the words of God serve to make one arrive at complete freedom. This is why He adds: ‘And the truth shall set you free’. Those who do so have freedom of spirit, consisting in the reproach of, and abstinence from, sin. They effectively make reproaches of the vices of the powerful freely. ‘During his life he did not fear the prince and nobody defeated him through force’ (Eccli. 48, 13). This freedom of spirit was also possessed by the philosophers: Diogenes the philosopher, who would reproach Alexander, heard him rejoicing in the power he enjoyed. Diogenes then replied: ‘Your power and your glory are of either the past, present or future. I do not fear that of the past, because it no longer exists. I do not fear that of the future because it is doubtful and uncertain. As to that of the present, I do not think much of it, for it is temporary and can disappear in the blink of an eye.’ Such people also have liberty of spirit in abstaining from sin, for they disdain being servants of sin.

Augustine: ‘The sinner serves as many masters as there are vices.’ And thus, when Alexander had declared, in front of our philosopher, that he was the ruler of the world, there came the reply: ‘You are certainly not the master, you are rather the servant of my servants. For pride is my servant but it is your master. The concupiscence of the flesh is my servant but it is your master. I have these under my feet but they control you, this is why you are the servant of my servants.’ And whereas those close to Alexander wanted to attack the philosopher, Alexander said: ‘Make sure no harm comes to him, for he is the servant of God and he speaks the truth.’