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

Cornelius a Lapide’s Commentary on Matthew 23:1-12

Posted by Dim Bulb on March 22, 2011

Mat 23:1  Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to his disciples,

Then Jesus spoke, &c. Then, that is to say, when, by His most wise answers and reasonings, He had confounded the errors of the Scribes and Pharisees, and had proved that He was the Messiah,—then, I say, He put to rebuke their persistent effrontery by this powerful and pathetic speech, by which He uncovered their feigned appearance of sanctity, and showed their lurking dishonesty, so that the people might avoid it.

Mat 23:2  Saying: The scribes and the Pharisees have sitten on the chair of Moses.

Saying, &c. By seat we here understand the honour, dignity, and authority of teaching and commanding, which Moses had with the Jews, and to which the Scribes had succeeded. We gather from S. Luk_4:16, that the Scribes not only sat, but sometimes stood when they taught. In like manner, the chair of S. Peter is used to signify the power and authority of teaching and ruling all the faithful throughout the world, in which the Roman Pontiffs succeed S. Peter. For otherwise no Pontiff ever sits now in that actual wooden chair in which S. Peter sat, but it is religiously preserved in his basilica, and is shown to the people every year on the Feast of S. Peter’s Chair, to be venerated. Hence S. Jerome said to Damasus, “I am united in communion to your blessedness, that is, to the chair of Peter.” For although as a private man the Pontiff may err, yet when he defines anything ex cathedra, that is, by his Pontifical authority concerning the faith, he cannot err, because he is assisted by the Holy Ghost.

Observe, many of the Scribes and Pharisees were priests or Levites, whose duty it was to teach the people (Mal 2:7). But Christ did not wish to name the Priests, because He would not derogate from the sacerdotal honour.

Mat 23:3  All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do: but according to their works do ye not. For they say, and do not.

All things therefore whatsoever, &c. He means, of course, all things not contrary to Moses and the Law. For the doctrine of the Scribes, when they taught men to say corban to their parents, was contrary to the Law, as Christ showed (15:4). In like manner, it was contrary to the Law of Moses to teach, as the Scribes did, that Jesus was not the Messiah, or the Christ. For Jesus showed those very signs and miracles which Moses and the Prophets had foretold Messiah would perform. In such things, therefore, the people must not follow the doctrine of the Scribes, nor be obedient to them; but in other things, in which their teaching was generally conformable to the Law of Moses, it was their duty to obey them. Christ therefore here teaches that all the other dogmas of the Scribes, which were not repugnant to the law, even though they were vain and foolish, and therefore not binding (for that a law should be obligatory, it must command something honest and useful, as Civilians and Theologians teach in their treatises upon laws, also D. Thomas, 1. 2 quæst. 95, art. 3), such as were the frequent washings of the hands and other parts of the body, might yet serve for the merit of blind and simple obedience, and for reverence of the sacerdotal order. So Jansen, Franc. Lucas, and others. But Maldonatus restricts the word all to such commands alone as are contained in the Law of Moses. Certainly these were what Christ chiefly referred to.

For they say. i.e., command, and do not. They teach and order well, but they live ill. They both break the law, and scandalise their subjects by their evil example, and thus incite them likewise to break the law. For as one hath said, “The whole world comports itself according to the king’s example,” we may add, of the Teacher’s likewise. For men give wore credit to deeds than they do to words. Christians ought to bear in mind these words of Christ when they see certain Bishops, Pastors, and Magistrates not living in accordance with the law of Christ.

Mat 23:4  For they bind heavy and insupportable burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders: but with a finger of their own they will not move them.

For they bind . . . on men’s shoulders; Arab. upon their necks; Gr. δεσμεύουσι, i.e., they bind and, as it were, gather them together in heaps. This signifies both the multitude and the heavy weight of the precepts with which they burden the people.

Insupportable; Vulg. Gr. δυβάστακτα, as English version, difficult to be borne, rather than impossible. Such were the numerous precepts, beyond what the Law required, concerning oblations, tithes, first-fruits, &c. Consider only the vigorous observance of the Sabbath, which they enjoined, so that they would not allow Christ to heal the sick on that day, nor suffer His disciples to satisfy their hunger by plucking ears of corn.

But with a finger of their own they will not move them. Vulg. Syr. and English Version, touch them. As S. Chrysostom says, “He shows that theirs was a double wickedness, both because they wish the multitude to live in the strictest possible manner, without the least indulgence, and because, indulging themselves inordinately, they assume great licence. Which things are the very opposite of what is required in a good prince. For such a one permits himself no indulgence, but is mild towards his subjects, and ready to bestow pardon.”

Mat 23:5  And all their works they do for to be seen of men. For they make their phylacteries broad and enlarge their fringes.

And all their works they do for to be seen by men. Gr. θεαθη̃ναι, i.e., be a spectacle. He notes their vain ostentation of sanctity in praying in the public streets, &c Christ here touches upon the root of the incredulity of the Scribes, that they would not believe in Him, because they sought after vainglory and the applause of men. “For it is impossible,” says S. Chrysostom, “that he who covets the earthly glory of men should believe in Christ preaching heavenly things.”

And enlarge their fringes. Vulg. They prolong the fringes of their cloaks; Syr. They, the Jews, interpreted too literally the words of Deut 6:8, “Thou shalt bind them, i.e., the precepts of God, for a sign upon thine hands, and they shall be moved (Vulg.) before thine eyes.” They bore certain pieces of parchment about their arms and foreheads. Whence they were called armlets and frontiers. They did this that they might strike against their eyes and foreheads, and admonish them to meditate upon and keep the Divine Law. The words inscribed upon the pieces of parchment were, “Hear, 0 Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord.” “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength.” They were called phylacteries, from φυλάττω, to guard, to keep, because they put them in constant remembrance of observing the law.

For a similar reason, in Num 15:38 and Deut 22:12, the Lord commanded the Jews to wear fringes, threads depending from the lowest skirt of their garments, and that they should be of a light blue or dark blue colour, as men who professed and lived the heavenly life by keeping the law. S. Jerome adds that the more devout Jews were wont to insert very sharp thorns in these fringes, that being pricked by them as they walked, they might be always reminded of the Divine Law. All these things the Pharisees wore larger and broader than other people, that they might appear to all to be stricter observers of the law, although they made but little of it in their minds. “Not understanding,” says S. Jerome, “that these things should be carried in the heart, not in the body, for bookcases and chests have books, but have not therefore the knowledge of God.” Moreover, S. Chrysostom, by philacteries, understands amulets worn to preserve health, for such the Scribes esteemed the pieces of parchment described above. In the same way, some Christians wear the Gospel of S. John about their necks as a kind of charm to preserve health.

Mat 23:6  And they love the first places at feasts and the first chairs in the synagogues,
Mat 23:7  And salutations in the market place, and to be called by men, Rabbi.

And salutations in the market place; Vulg. in the forum. S. Chrysostom says, “They love the first salutations, not only as regards time, that we should salute them first, but also as regards the voice, that we should cry out, ‘Hail, Rabbi;’ and as regards the body, that we should bow the head to them; and as regards place, that we should salute them in public.” Wisely saith R. Matthies in Pirke Avoth, “Always be the first to salute every one. Be the tall of lions, and not the head of foxes; that is, be the lowest among good and honourable men, not the chief among deceitful, proud, and impious ones.”

Rabbi, from רב, i.e., much or great, because a great man, such as a Rabbi, or Doctor of the Law, was equivalent to many persons, as excelling others in learning and authority. Well saith R. Benzoma in Pirke Avoth, “Who is a wise man? He who willingly learns of all, according to the words, ‘I had more understanding than the aged, because I sought Thy commandments.’ Who is the mighty man? He who rules over anger, and his own spirit, according to the saying, ‘Better is the patient man than the strong, and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city’ (Prov 16:32). Who is the rich? He that is contented with his own, as it is said (Ps 128:2), ‘Thou shalt eat the labour of thine hands; 0 well is thee, and happy shalt thou be.’ Who is honoured? He that honoureth others, as it is written, ‘Him that honoureth Me I will honour, and they that despise Me shall be lightly esteemed. ‘”

Mat 23:8  But be not you called Rabbi. For one is your master: and all you are brethren.

But be not you called Rabbi, &c. He forbids the ambition of the Scribes and Pharisees, who desired to be honoured and called Rabbi above Christ, yea, even to the exclusion of Christ. But it is lawful to desire a doctor’s degree, as a testimony of learning, that by it we may obtain authority, and preach, and have influence with the people, and by this means gain the greater fruit. Wherefore the Council of Trent (sess. 24 c. 12) orders that all dignities, and at least the half of canonries in cathedral and collegiate churches, should be conferred only upon masters and doctors, or at least licentiates in theology or canon law. Christ does not say, do not be, but do not be called, Rabbi.

Christ does not forbid the doctor’s degree, but the proud ambition of the name, that by it a man should please himself and despise others, as though he had his knowledge and learning from himself, and not from Christ, which was what the Scribes did. Therefore He adds the reason, for one is your Master. He means, there is one chief Rabbi over all, of whom all others are the disciples, and all are brethren, equal one to another. Therefore let none of them proudly lift himself above the rest, and wish to be called Rabbi, as though he were of himself a doctor and master of others, for this is a wrong done to Christ, who alone has all wisdom in Himself, and is the only supreme Doctor of all, who indeed makes them doctors. And in this lower sense Paul himself, as S. Jerome says, with modesty calls himself the doctor of the Gentiles.

Mat 23:9  And call none your father upon earth; for one is your father, who is in heaven.

And call none your father upon earth, &c. He means in the sense of the prime author of life and the preserver of all things, as though ye entirely depended upon any but God. This was what the Gentiles and Atheists did, and others who trusted in men rather than in God. That this is the meaning, is plain from the reason which He subjoins, for one is your Father, &c. “Of whom the whole family in Heaven and earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God therefore is the only real Father of all, forasmuch as He only gives soul and life, creates, and preserves. In comparison of Him, says S. Jerome, earthly fathers are only so in a figurative sense, and ought not therefore insolently to command their children, but ought to submit themselves together with their children to God, the chief Father of all.

Mat 23:10  Neither be ye called masters: for one is your master, Christ.

Neither be ye called, i.e., be not ambitious of being called masters; Vulg. magistri; Gr. καθηγηταί, or governors, moderators; Syr. rulers; for One is the Ruler and Orderer, Gr. καθηγηής, of your life, that is, Christ. He Himself, in the first place, by Himself teaches us, and leads us by the way of virtue to heavenly glory. All others teach as they have been first taught by Him. Secondly, all others only teach in words that sound in the outward ears, like a tinkling cymbal; but Christ makes known their meaning inwardly to the mind. For, as S. Chrysostom says, “it is not man who gives man understanding by teaching, but exercises by means of admonition what has been ordained by God.” Thirdly, all others only show what the law commands and what God requires; but Christ gives grace to the will, that we, when we hear the things which ought to be done, may indeed constantly fulfil the same.

Mat 23:11  He that is the greatest among you shall be your servant.
Mat 23:12  And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled: and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.

He that is the greatest among you, &c. “He teaches,” says S. Chrysostom, “that the disease of vainglory must be got rid of by humility.” And Origen says, “If any one ministers the divine words, knowing that it is Christ who produces fruit by His means, he by no means holds himself forth as a master, but a minister.” Whence it follows, He that is the greatest, &c., because even Christ Himself, who is the true Master, hath professed Himself to be a minister, in that He saith, I am among you as he that ministereth; and well does He add after the whole saying, He that exalteth himself shall be abased; but he that humblest himself shall be exalted. These words are true as applied both to God and men, says Remigius. For both God and men exalt the humble and depress the proud. “Glory follows them that flee from it, and flees from those who pursue it. God will bring down insolent pride from its lofty height, and will raise up humility to glory,” says S. Hilary.

Blessed Peter Damian gives a memorable example (Epist. 15). There was, he says, a certain bold and warlike clergyman, who became great by means of his pride and his arms. And he had in consequence a quarrel about certain estates with another powerful man, which he determined to decide by the fortune of war, and the troops of both were drawn up in battle array. The clergyman before the battle went into a church and heard Mass. It chanced that the words of the Gospel were read, All that exalteth himself shall be abased. When he heard them he said insolently, or rather blasphemously, “These words are falsified in me, for if I had humbled myself I should never have become as great as I am.” By and by, in the heat of battle, his horse being very thirsty, ran, contrary to his wish, to some water that was near. He struck his horse with his shield, in order to cause it to return into the battle, when, behold, an enemy’s sword transfixed that blaspheming mouth of his like a thunderbolt, and slew him, humbling his pride and casting him down to the ground, showing that the words of Christ are indeed true.

6 Responses to “Cornelius a Lapide’s Commentary on Matthew 23:1-12”

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