The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Bishop MacEvily’ Commentary on Matt 11:2-11

Posted by Dim Bulb on December 6, 2010


In this chapter, we have an account of the embassy from John in prison, consisting of two of his disciples, to inquire of our Redeemer if He were the long-expected Messiah. Our Redeemer s reply, who knew well the spirit that dictated this on the part of John, who had in view to remove and cure all feelings of jealousy on the part of His followers (1-6). Our Redeemer s encomiums on John, after his disciples had left; He praises his unchanging firmness, which luxurious livingdid not enervate (7-8); his prophetical character, angelic life, long before the subject of prophecy (9-10); his singular worth and sanctity ; his success in preparing men for the Gospel ; his having discharged the office of Elias (11-14). By a familiar similitude, He reproaches the Scribes and Pharisees with their obstinate resistance to the preachers of God s kingdom, Himself and the Baptist, in whatever character they might appear, whether austere, or mild and condescending (16-19). He next upbraids the cities, specially favoured with His miracles and preaching, with neglect and obstinate resistance to God’s grace, and He points out the heavy punishments in store for them (20-24). He glorifies His Eternal Father for His wonderful dispensation in regard to the humble, to whom, in His mercy, He imparts Divine knowledge, and the proud and haughty, from whom, in His justice, He withholds it (25-26) . This wonderful economy was common to Himself and His Father, with whom He possesses perfect equality (27). He invites all, Jews and Gentiles, to approach Him, and thus receive rest and respite in their spiritual miseries and disquietude (28) . He invites them to take up His yoke and learn of Him to practise, in particular, the virtues of humility and meekness, the surest means of bearing the yoke patiently, or to approach and learn from their experience of Him, that He is not a repulsive tyrant, but a benign, affable, condescending Master. For, His yoke is sweet and His burden is light

Mat 11:2  Now when John had heard in prison the works of Christ: sending two of his disciples he said to him:

John had heard from his disciples (Luke vii. 18). From this, it would appear, that the embassy from John to Christ, is not recorded here in its proper place by St. Matthew, since it occurred before the mission of the twelve Apostles, as we learn from St. Luke, who narrates this embassy (ch. 7), and the mission of the Apostles, (ch. 10.)

In prison. John was cast into prison by Herod, for having, fearlessly, in vindication of the sanctity of God s law, upbraided him with the scandalous, adulterous state of incest, in which he lived with Herodias, the wife of his brother, Philip (Mark 6:16, 17). Imbued with that spirit oi intrepidity, which he carried from his mother s womb, which was strengthened and guarded by a life of austerity and self-denial, he feared not the countenance of the mighty; knowing no distinction between a royal sinner and his subjects, whom he upbraided with their vices, as, Brood of vipers when they came out in crowds to his preaching and baptism on the banks of the Jordan (Matt 3); reckless of the consequences, which he knew would cost him his head, he upbraided the kingly adulterer to his face, it is not lawful for thee to have, i.e., to live on terms of intimacy with your brother’s wife (Mark 6:18). The consequence was he was cast into prison.

The works of Christ; the many splendid miracles performed by Him (Luke 7).

Sending two of His disciples &c. There is a diversity of opinion as to the
purpose of this message from the Baptist. One thing is certain, that it did not proceed from any doubts which the Baptist himself this  more than a Prophet, who had no greater among the born of women entertained regarding our Lord’s Divinity. He proclaimed Him from His mother s womb (Luke 1:41). He witnessed the descent of the Holy Ghost, and heard the testimony of the heavenly Father proclaiming Him as His beloved Son, on the banks of the Jordan (Matt 3:17). He himself publicly bore testimony to His superiority, declaring himself unworthy to perform the most menial offices in His regard (Mark 1:7; Luke 3:16), before our Lord had performed any public miracles. The most probable and best founded reason for this embassy seems to have its origin in the jejilousy, which John knew to exist in the minds of his disciples towards our Lord and His disciples. Strangers to that spirit of generosity which animated St. Paul, who cared not who preached, provided Christ was preached (Phil 1:18), they complained that Jesus baptized, and their master was deserted (John 3:26); and St. Luke tells us (7:18). that, it was on the occasion of his disciples coming, and manifesting feelings of jealous envy of our Lord s wonderful works, John sent this message. It is likely also that, contrasting the ascetic and austere life of the Baptist and his disciples with the absence of all such austerity on the part of our Redeemer and His followers (Mat 9:14), and perhaps offended with the lowness of his station in life, to which our Redeemer probably alludes (v. 6), his disciples regarded John’s exalted testimony, concerning our Redeemer, as spoken out of humility; and that, therefore, they might have been disposed to prefer the Precursor to the Lord Himself. Hence, in order to cure this growing evil, John sends two of his disciples, in his own name, for the purpose of investing this embassy with greater solemnity, to question our Redeemer on the subject of his Divine mission. In order to cure their infirmity, he feigns their disease, quis infirmatur et ego non infirmor? (2 Cor 11:29) Knowing also that his days in this world were fast drawing to a close, it is most likely that the Baptist had in view to introduce his disciples to our Redeemer in person, to attach them to Him after his own death.

Mat 11:3  Art thou he that art to come, or look we for another?

Art thou He that is to come? &c., which is understood by St. Jerome to mean, art thou He, that is to come to Limbo, whither I am shortly to go? St. Jerome adopts this meaning, because, our Lord had already come into this world. But the most probable meaning is; art thou that distinguished Prophet, that Redeemer, whom the Jewish people, following the predictions and promises of the Prophets, are daily expecting as their Messiah? ο ερχομενος, ille venturus. The Greek does not refer to any future coming, art thou He who was to come.  He could not be expected to come in future and be present at the same time.

Mat 11:4  And Jesus making answer said to them: Go and relate to John what you have heard and seen.

Go-return-and relate to John, &c. Our Redeemer, who knew well the mind of John, in proposing this question, in His own name (for, John himself had no doubt whatever, verses 7, 8, &c.), employs the same heavenly prudence displayed by John, and wishes to have the disciples cured of their doubts and hesitancy, the more effectually through the master to whom they were so much attached, and to whose words and opinions they would naturally attach much weight. He answers them, as if they had merely represented the feelings of John, though He knew well this was not really the case. He also refers them to a testimony less questionable than any testimony conveyed by words, the testimony of works For, we are told by St. Luke (7:21), that He had, at the moment, wrought miracles in their presence.

What you have seen and heard, that is to say, the miracles you have seen, per formed by Me, in your presence, and the preaching of My doctrine, which you have heard; or, rather, the other miracles, of which you have heard an account from the people who saw them, but, which you did not witness, such as, the dead arise. This they did not see; but, only heard spoken of.

The Greek has, which you see and hear, in the present. This may be verified
of the miracles wrought in their presence (Luke 7:21), and the accounts of other miracles given at the moment, by the people; or, hearing, may be understood of our Redeemer’s preaching. You see may be also verified of the prophecy of Isaias, which they saw with their eyes to be fulfilled in Him.

Mat 11:5  The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead rise again, the poor have the gospel preached to them.

The blind see &c. The first part of this verse is allusive to Isaias (35:4, 5, 6). The second, the poor have the Gospel preached to them, to Isaias (61:1). This passage of Isaias regarding the preaching of the Gospel to the poor is applied by our Redeemer to Himself (Luke 4:18). His answer is, that John would clearly see that in Him were fully fulfilled the prophetic words of Isaias when describing beforehand the distinctive qualities and actions, that would characterize the future Messiah.

The poor have the Gospel, &c. In Isaias (61:1), for poor, it is to preach to the meek.  But the two words refer to the same class, the poor being generally meek and forbearing, in contrast with the rich, who are generally haughty and disdainful. There is but very little difference in. the corresponding  Hebrew words, ani (poor), and anau (meek). Hence, St. Luke (4:18), quoting Isaias, has, to preach the Gospel to the poor He hath sent me, the two words poor and meek being nearly the same in Hebrew.

The Gospel preached to them. The Jews held that the Messiah was to found a kingdom. It was a wonderful thing, that this kingdom should be proposed to the poor; that beggars should, in a spiritual sense, become kings, was a wonderful thing, a wonderful feature of the Christian religion. It was different with those Jews and Pagans who courted the rich and despised the poor. While the rich are not excluded, the poor are specially referred to in the prophecy; and the rich must become poor in spirit to become fit subjects for receiving the Gospel, and partaking of its rich spiritual blessings.

Mat 11:6  And blessed is he that shall not be scandalized in me.

And blessed is he, that is, he who does not depart from Me. who am the Saviour of mankind, and author of life, is so far blessed, and in the way of salvation; while he that does is, so far, unfortunate.

That shall not be scandalized in me.  The word, scandal in its literal signification, denotes an obstacle or impediment in the way, which may cause us to fall. Transferred to a spiritual signification, it denotes whatever may cause our fall, or that of our neighbour; or turn us aside from the path of Christian faith or morals, be it word, deed, or omission. Hence, scandal is described by divines, after St. Thomas to be, a word, deed, or emission, which is the occasion of the spiritual ruin of our neighbor,  either because such things are sinful; or, has the appearance of being so. That things only apparently sinful may be a subject of scandal is clear from Romans (ch. 7). Our Redeemer was to the wicked and incredulous a stone of offence and a rock of scaudal, and set for the fall, as well for the resurrection of many (Luke  2:34), through their own fault and malice.

These words are spoken in allusion to the incredulity and jealousy of the disciples of John, who probably were offended at our Redeemer not living apart from the crowd, and His not leading the same austere, ascetical life as their master led, as if He said, blessed is he, to whom My doctrines, My life, My Cross shall not prove a stumbling block, or rock of offence, as we are assured by the Apostle, they were to the unbelieving Jews (1 Cor 1); and, as a melancholy experience teaches us, they are, practically at least, to a great number of those who profess themselves Christians.

Here also we see the wonderful benignity and prudent forbearance of our Divine Redeemer in displaying to the disciples of John His Divine power of searching into their hearts, and knowing their thoughts, without disclosing their latent feelings to the multitude by any personal allusion, or particular address. He thus leaves them to their own conscience, so that, from this occult reproach, they might see His Divinity and benignity, and be thus induced, after the Baptist s death, to adhere to Him.

Mat 11:7  And when they went their way, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John: What went you out into the desert to see? a reed shaken with the wind?

After the disciples of John had gone away, and no sooner, lest any praise of John in the presence of his followers might savour of adulation.

Jesus began to say to the multitudes &c. Having cured the disciples of John of their incredulity, our Redeemer now prudently takes care to cure the multitude of any false notions this embassy from John might engender in their minds regarding John’s constancy, and the unhesitating firmness of his belief in our Lord’s Divinity, as if this message proceeded from any change of opinion on the part of John.

What went you out into the desert to see? He appeals to their own opinion of John, when leaving their homes, the towns and cities, they flocked into the desert, and to the banks of the Jordan, to hear this wonderful man, and be baptized by him, (ch. 3)

A reed shaken, &c. A man of a fickle inconstant character, blown to this side and that by every blast of human opinion; now holding this; and again that; now proclaiming Christ to be the Messiah the eternal Son of God; again, doubting it, as the embassy and words of his disciples would seem to imply. The well-known sanctity of the Baptist precluded any such suspicions so disparaging to his character. They regarded him rather as a man of unshaken firmness immovable as the sturdy pak who, at the cost of his head, would not fail fearlessly to proclaim the truth, for which he was now suffering in chains. Some take the word reed, in its natural sense; did they come out to the banks of the Jordan, to enjoy its scenery and the numerous reeds growing on its banks? However, it is clear from the context, that the metaphorical meaning, as above, is the one intended.

Mat 11:8  But what went you out to see? a man clothed in soft garments? Behold they that are clothed in soft garments, are in the houses of kings.

Perhaps, luxurious living, a spirit of accommodation to the whims and caprices of the great, with whose livery he was clad, at whose tables he was the welcome and accepted minister; perhaps, the badges of courtly ignominy in which he was clad–the price of his criminal connivance at the domestic and public villanies of the great–so wrought on him as to make him changeable in his opinions, and now, to gratify their caprices, not only make him a dumb dog, unable to bark, but also cause him to revoke the testimony he before rendered to the Divinity of Jesus. His place of abode from childhood–the desert–his coarse dress, the prison where he just now was, preclude any such supposition; neither luxurious effeminacy, nor ambitious, or self-interested motives could cause any change of opinion in him. They that are clothedin soft garments do not make the desert their place of abode; nor are they, for the bold announcement of unpalatable truths, cast into chains. They are to be found in the houses of kings, the obsequious instruments of their capricious whims and tyrannical behests. John was firm and constant, and had all the qualities necessary to witness to the Divinity of our Lord.

According to Calmet, John only meant to enquire, if the man who wrought the wonders, of which he heard so much, was the Messiah, the same of whom he himself had before borne testimony. So that, according to him, John’s object merely was to ascertain the identity of our Saviour’s person.

Mat 11:9  But what went you out to see? A prophet? Yea I tell you, and more than a prophet.

Having shown what John was not, our Redeemer now shows, what he was.

A Prophet! All held John an a Prophet. (21:26). This was the popular opinion regarding him, and this opinion our Redeemer confirms, Yea; I tell you. For John knew our Lord by Divine instinct, and pointed Him out as Son of God, and so, he was a Prophet. But did not John himself deny this (John 1:21)? Yes; out of humility, and he might say so, with all truth in one sense, looking to the primary and ordinary signification of the word, Prophet viz., one who predicts future events to be fulfilled after a long interval. But, John pointed Him out as present, and called on the people to prepare His ways by works of penance, who was the term of all the prophecies, and so he was more than a Prophet. He was also more than a Prophet, for other reasons, grounded on the circumstances of his miraculous birth, and angelic life. Moreover, he was himself the subject of prophecy, in which he is placed on a level with the celestial spirits, an Angel,  who was immediately to precede his Lord, to be His Precursor and Paranymph. It is this latter reason our Redeemer specially has in view when He says he was more than a ProphetAn Angel in virtue of his office, not by nature.

Mat 11:10  For this is he of whom it is written: Behold I send my angel before my face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.

Behold . . . before Thy face, &c. (Mal 3:1)  In Malachy it is, MY face. The Evangelists have, THY face. But, the sense is no way affected by this difference or change of person ; St. Jerome remarks (in Isaias, Lib. 3, c. 7), “that, in their quotations from the Books of the Old Testament, the Apostles and Evangelists attended more to the sense, than to the precise order of the words.”  Here, our Redeemer clearly represents the Heavenly Father, as speaking of His Son, before THY face, in Malachy. St. Jerome understands the words of Malachy to refer to Christ, speaking of Himself ; and then, His Divinity is clearly demonstrated. For, in Mal 3:6, He says, I am the Lord, and am not changed. If the words of Malachy be understood of God the Father, the consequence is just the same, as showing the identity of nature in Christ and in His Father. For, it was Christ that John preceded as Precursor; and speaking of Him whom John preceded, the Lord says, MY face, therefore, implying that, He was in the Father and the Father in Him, both having the same nature. In truth, Christ or the Messiah was the Lord, whom the Jews expected to come to His temple in Jerusalem; for whom John was to prepare the way. It is the same that speaks of Himself in the first person, I send MY Angel and in the third, and presently shall come to His temple the Lord whom you seek (see Mal 3:1). If we suppose that it is God the Father that speaks in Malachy (3); then, the change of person, I send, the Lord shall come, &c., is intended to convey, that although identical in nature with the Son; still it was not the person of God the Father that came to save us. The same is conveyed in the change of person given by the Evangelists, before
THY facebefore THEE.

My Angel, by office, but not by nature; as some hold, which is clearly refuted in the Gospel there was A MAN sent by God, &c. (John 1.) The angelic life led by the Baptist would entitle him to be called an Angel.

Who shall prepare Thy way, &c., is allusive to the custom of preparing the ways, and removing every obstacle at the coming of kings into any part of their dominions. John, by his preaching and baptism, removed every obstacle to the proper reception of Christ; by his austere and heavenly life, by his preaching of the penance which he practised, he prepared the people for the doctrine of our Redeemer.

Mat 11:11  Amen I say to you, there hath not risen among them that are born of women a greater than John the Baptist: yet he that is the lesser in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

He proves, that John was greater than a Prophet. There hath not risen, that is, appeared, among them that are born of women, a greater,  &c. Risen is a term peculiar to prophets. St. Luke (7:28) says, there is not a greater Prophet than John the Baptist;  hence, the comparison is not between John and all other men, but between him andthe Prophets of old. This, however, will make but very little  Difference, and the sense is fully given by St. Matthew; for, among men, the Prophets were deemed the most holy, and the word Prophet was, in a general and more tended sense, applied to holy men. The words, then, taken in a positive, affirmative sense–for this is necessary in order to show that John is more than a Prophet–mean, that John the Baptist was the most holy and exalted of all the men that appeared before him, whether we consider the exalted prerogatives bestowed on him– his miraculous birth, the loosing of his father’s tongue, his angelic life, his sanctification in his mother’s womb, his being predicted by other Prophets, called an Angel, &c.; or, whether we regard the more abundant gifts of the Holy Spirit bestowed on him. Other Prophets became such in course of life; he, from his birth, was such. He leaped with joy in his mother s womb, at the presence cf his Blessed Saviour (Luke 1:41). Although there arose no other Prophet in Israel (Dent 34:10, &c.), which has reference merely to his seeing God, and working wonderful prodigies; still, John was greater in the several prerogatives already referred to.

It is between the ancient Prophets only and John this comparison is instituted, neither the Blessed Virgin, nor the Apostles are included, who, on account of their Apostolic dignity, and immediate association with Christ, are greater than John. Our Redeemer Himself can, by no means, be included, even supposing the comparison to be between John and all others, because He was not born of woman, the sense here referred to, in the natural way; nor can the Blessed Virgin, either; for, it is between men the comparison is instituted.

Yet, he that is lesser, &c., according to some, means, the least saint reigning in glory is greater than John; because, the former possesses the crown of glory, the battling for it (St. Jerome); and, in this interpretation, our Redeemer’s object would be, to stimulate men to labour earnestly for the kingdom of heaven by enterring the Church which is the gate to it. Others say the words mean, the least in the Church, the leastof those who embrace the Gospel, is greater than John–ratione status noræ legis–considering his state, is greater than anyone outside the Church, greater than John who was nearest to it–the connecting link between the Old Law and the New. It tells against this interpretation, that the comparison would not be between John and others, but between the New Law and other dispensations. Nor can it be seen what our Redeemer’s object, in using the words, according to this interpretation, would be, unless, possibly, to stimulate men to enter the Church, and embrace the Gospel.

Others maintain, that our Redeemer, in this, was referring to Himself, thus: do not imagine that, in bestowing these magnificent eulogiums on John, I include Myself in the comparison, or prefer him to Myself. Out of modesty, He would speak of Himself in the third person.

In the kingdom of heaven, may be joined with lesser thus: He who is lesser in the Church of the just, in point of age and in the opinion of men; or lesser later in preaching the kingdom of God, is greater than he. Or, they may be joined to the following words, greater than he, in the kingdom of heaven, greater than he in spiritual gifts, which appertain to heaven; or, reputed greater in heaven by God and His holy angels, who know how infinitely our Lord is placed above John, as the Creator above the creature.

2 Responses to “Bishop MacEvily’ Commentary on Matt 11:2-11”

  1. […] Bishop MacEvily’s Commentary on the Gospel (Matt 11:2-10). See previous note. […]

  2. […] Bishop MacEvily’s Commentary on the Gospel (Matt 11:2-10). See previous note. […]

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