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 20:17-28

Posted by Dim Bulb on March 23, 2011

Text in red, if any, are my additions to the commentary.

Mat 20:17  And Jesus going up to Jerusalem, took the twelve disciples apart and said to them:

And Jesus going up to Jerusalem. This was the last journey of Christ to Jerusalem. From S. John 11: 54., &c., it is clear that after raising Lazarus He had departed to the city of Ephraim, to escape the hatred of the Pharisees, and now from that city on the approach of that Passover, when He was put to death by the Jews, He went up to Jerusalem according to the law. And truly He went up that He might accept, and, as it were, eagerly seize the cross and death appointed for Him in Jerusalem, and prepared by the decree of the Father for the redemption of the world.

Mat 20:18  Behold we go up to Jerusalem, and the Son of man shall be betrayed to the chief priests and the scribes: and they shall condemn him to death.

We go up. That is, because Jerusalem, and especially the temple were on Mount Sion. Again, we go up, in order to submit to the Cross, according to that saying, “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, &c.” Again He says “we go up” to mark this stedfast purpose, as S. Chrysostom paraphrases, “Ye see how I go of My free will to death; when then ye shall see Me hung upon the Cross, think not that I am no more than man: for though to be able to die is human, yet to be willing to die is more than human.”

Lastly, we go up, as if to our triumph on the citadel of Jerusalem and Calvary; for on the cross Christ triumphed over death, sin, the devil and hell; as the Apostle teaches, Col 2:15.  The we go up also provides a contrast with and the Son of Man shall be betrayed, &c.  It is Jesus alone who will suffer at that time, but, as the Gospels make clear, the time will come for the disciples to suffer as well. Note that this Passion prediction, like the first one (Matt 16:21-26), is followed by a reference to the disciples future sufferings. Besides the various Passion predictions in the Gospels see also Matt 10:16-39; Mk 13:9-13 Lk 21:12-19; Jn 13:36-38.

The Son of Man shall be betrayed, &c. “For,” says Rabanus, “Judas betrayed the Lord to the Jews, and they delivered Him to the Gentiles, i.e., to Pilate and the Romans. To this end the Lord refused prosperity in this world, but chose rather to suffer affliction, that He might shew us who have fallen by delights through what bitterness we must needs return; whence it follows to be mocked and scourged and crucified(see next verse).  “The whole salvation of men,” says S. Chrysostom, “rests on the death of Christ; wherefore there is nothing for which we are more bound to render thanks to God than for His death. He imparted the mystery of His death to His Apostles in secret, because the more precious treasure is ever committed to the more worthy vessels.” And again, “when sorrow comes at a time we are looking for it, it is found lighter than it would have been had it come upon us suddenly.”

Mat 20:19  And shall deliver him to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified: and the third day he shall rise again.

To be mocked and scourged and crucified. These were the three principal parts of the passion of Christ.

And the third day he shall rise again. This is the honey of the resurrection in which is hidden the gall of the passion. Whence S. Augustine (De Civ. l. 18) says “In His passion He shews us how we ought to suffer for the truth; in His resurrection we ought to hope in the Trinity, whence He says ‘and on the third day He shall rise again. ‘” And S. Chrysostom “This was said, that when they should see the sufferings, they should look for the resurrection.” And S. Augustine adds the reason “For one death, that namely of the Saviour according to the body, was to us a salvation from two deaths, both of soul and body; and this one resurrection gained for us two resurrections.”

Morally, Christ often repeats the mention of His passion, that He might commend His love to them, and they might love Him in return, and repay love for love, blood for blood, death for death. For the Cross of Christ is the furnace and fire of love. Wherefore S. Bernard (De Quad. Deb.) says “Thou owest to Jesus Christ thy whole life, because He laid down His life for thine, and endured bitter torments that thou mightest not endure eternal torments;” and in conclusion he says, “When therefore I have given Him all that I am, and all that I can, is it not like only a drop compared to a river, or a grain of sand to a heap?” And again he says (Tract. de dilig. Deo) “If I owe my whole self in return for my creation, what can I add now for my re-creation, and for my re-creation in such a manner? For it was more easy to create me than to re-create me. For He who created me at once and with a word only, in re-creating me spoke many words, and performed wonderful acts, and endured afflictions, and not only afflictions, but indignities: in His first work He gave me to myself, in His second He gave Himself to me; and when He gave Himself He restored me to myself. For my creation and for my re-creation I owe myself for myself, and that doubly. What shall I give to God for Himself? for even if I could repay myself 2 thousand times over, what am I compared with God?”

For the sake of Christ therefore we should not refuse to endure reproaches, crosses and flames; for to Him belongs our life and all that we are, for He Himself bought and redeemed us not with gold, but with the Divine price of His own blood.  S. Leo (Serm. 8, de Pass.) says, “Thy cross, 0 Christ, is the fountain of all blessings, by which is given to them that believe strength out of weakness, glory out of reproach, life out of death.”

Mat 20:20  Then came to him the mother of the sons of Zebedee with her sons, adoring and asking something of him.

Then came to Him the mother, &c. Then, when they had heard from Christ that His death was at hand, and after death His Resurrection, after which they expected the glorious kingdom of Christ; wherefore they lose no time in making a request that they may themselves obtain the chief place in it above the other Apostles.

The mother of the sons of Zebedee. By name Salome. See S. Mark 15:40., S. Matt 27:56.  S. Mark says that the petition came not from the mother but from the sons. The petition of the mother proceeded from the petition of the sons, so that the sons spoke by the mouth of their mother.

Asking something of him; saying, as S. Mark has it, we would that Thou shouldst do for us whatsoever we shall desire, for they feared that if they expressed their desire for the first place Christ would at once refuse it. They wish therefore to bind Christ by a general petition, which if He granted He would be unable to refuse the particular petition. This is the manner of women. In the same way Bathsheba introduced her petition to Solomon to give Abishag to Adonijah in marriage, 1 Kings 2:21, Solomon consented; but afterwards when she made her request known he refused, saying, Ask for him the kingdom.

Mat 20:21  Who said to her: What wilt thou? She saith to him: say that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left, in thy kingdom.

Who said to her, &c. Christ wisely refuses the general petition, and would have her express it particularly, lest she should be asking for something foolish and unworthy, which He foresaw she would do, in order that He might teach us to do like He did.

She saith to him, &c. S. Chrysostom says, “They wished, since they had heard that the disciples should sit upon twelve thrones, to obtain the primacy of that seat, and they knew that they would be preferred before the rest with the exception of Peter; but fearing that Peter was preferred before them, they dared to say, ‘Grant that one of us may sit on Thy right hand and the other on Thy left.'” We may learn from this how bold and blind and insatiable ambition is to which she incited these two Apostles, because they had seen that in the Transfiguration which was the beginning of Christ’s kingdom they were preferred by Christ to the other Apostles.

But the mother is to be excused because she makes her request of Christ, her kinsman according to the flesh, for her sons whom she loved, even more than herself. So S. Jerome says, “The mother asks this from womanly error, and affectionate piety, not knowing what she was asking.”

In the same way or manner S. Chrysostom excuses her sons. “Let not any one,” he says, “be disturbed at our saying that the Apostles were so imperfect, for the mystery of the Cross had not yet been consummated; the grace of the Spirit had not yet been infused into their hearts. Wherefore if you wish to learn what their virtues were, consider what they were after the Spirit had been given, and you will see that all restlessness of mind was removed from them. For this reason only their imperfection is made known that you may perceive clearly what they were suddenly made by grace.”

Mat 20:22  And Jesus answering, said: You know not what you ask. Can you drink the chalice that I shall drink? They say to him: We can.

You know not what you ask. Because ye know not, in the first place, of what sort My kingdom is—namely, a spiritual and heavenly one, not a carnal and an earthly one. Secondly, because ye are asking for the triumph before the victory; “for the kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” Thirdly, because you suppose that this kingdom is given by right of blood to those who seek it, whereas it is given only to those who deserve and strive. Let bishops and princes, then, follow this example of Christ, and make answer to their friends, their sons, and to importunate women, when they ask them for prebends, dignities, and appointments for which they are unfitted, “Ye know not what ye ask.” My prebends and appointments are not mine to give as I please, and because I so choose, to my relations and servants; I am a steward, not an owner; God will require an exact account of my stewardship. For great is the injury to Christ and His Church, and it is the cause of many evils, if appointments and benefices are given on account of relationship and friendship, to unworthy persons.

You know not what you ask. First, because ye think that My kingdom is an earthly one, and one of outward show, like that of David and Solomon; whereas it is spiritual and heavenly. So S. Chrysostom says: “He says this to show that they were seeking nothing spiritual.” Secondly, because they were asking for what had already been promised—namely, to sit with Christ, and with Him to judge the twelve tribes of Israel. So S. Hilary: “They know not what they ask, because there was no doubt about the glory of the Apostles, for His former discourse had made it clear to them that they should judge the world.” But among these thrones they seemed to have asked for the first, and the next to Christ, though they had not yet been specially promised by Christ to them. Thirdly, because they were asking for what exceeded the measure of their gifts and merits. Bede says: “They know not what they ask when they ask for a throne of glory which they had not yet merited.” For the first thrones in Heaven belong to those who are of greater—yea, of the greatest-merit. Fourthly, because they were asking at an unsuitable time, when the Passion of Christ was at hand. As S. Chrysostom says: “Ye speak of honour, but I speak of labours and toil; for this is no time for rewards, but rather for slaughter, battles, and perils.” Fifthly, because they were asking for what was contrary to their vocation; for they were called to follow Christ in His poverty and cross, not to strive after honours. Sixthly, because they ought to have sought for the labours of the cross, by which they might merit honours. Seventhly, because they asked to sit on the left hand as well as on the right. For those condemned in the judgment will stand on Christ’s left hand; which is, says S. Chrysostom, as it were to say, “I have called you to My right hand, and you wilfully are hastening from My right hand to My left.” But this is a mystical meaning; the most suitable meanings are the first, the third, and the sixth.

Can you drink, &c. Through the Cross and Passion the way lies for Me to My kingdom, therefore the same way might be trodden by you if you desire it.  S. Bernard says, that “Christ like a good and wise physician first drank the draught Himself which He was preparing for His own, i.e., He underwent His Passion and Death, and so He became immortal and impassible; thus teaching His own how they might confidently drink the draught which produces soundness and life.”  S. Chrysostom and Theophylact say that Christ called His Passion a cup, because He so willingly endured, and, as it were, drained it, as a thirsty man would a cup of wine. In Scripture, and among profane writers, the cup signifies the lot, whether good or evil, which God appoints, and as it were administers to each man.

S. Cyprian, understanding martyrdom by the cup, says, “A fiercer conflict is now at hand (for God had revealed to him that the Valerian persecution was coming), for which the soldiers of Christ ought to prepare themselves with firm courage, considering that for that very reason they daily drink the cup of the blood of Christ, so that they may also themselves be able to shed their blood for the sake of Christ.” For at that time they used to communicate daily, and that under both kinds, bread and wine.  S. Chrysostom remarks how “Christ encourages and draws them on by the way in which He puts the question. For He did not say, can ye shed your blood, but can ye drink the cup? Then, drawing them on, He says, which I shall drink of, so that by sharing with Him in His labours they may be rendered more ready to undergo the same.”

Christ also calls His Passion a baptism, because in it He was wholly immersed and plunged, i.e., He died.

They say to him: we can. John and James seem to have understood the meaning of the cup; and yet as they had shown their ambition in asking for the primacy, so they rashly answer, that they can drink the cup, whereas, in truth, they could not yet do so; but afterwards they were able, through the grace of Christ given by the Holy Ghost on the Day of Pentecost.

Mat 20:23  He saith to them: My chalice indeed you shall drink; but to sit on my right or left hand is not mine to give to you, but to them for whom it is prepared by my Father.

He saith to them, &c. Christ here foretells the martyrdom of James and John. For S. James, preaching Christ more fervently than the other Apostles, first suffered martyrdom for Him, being slain by Herod with the sword.  S. John also drank of this cup when he was plunged by Domitian, at Rome, before the Latin Gate, into a cauldron of boiling oil, and came forth renewed in strength; so that by a new miracle he was a martyr by living rather by dying.

Again, not only Prochorus, S. John’s disciple, in his Life of S. John (the truth of which is rightly suspected by Baronius), but also S. Isidore declares that S. John really drank the cup of poison, but that he also drank it without harm; whence also he is generally represented in pictures holding a cup. And, lastly, we may say that the whole life of S. John was a continual martyrdom, for he lived a very long time after all the Apostles, to the year of our Lord 101; and this long absence from Christ, his beloved—after Whom he was continually longing—was a lengthened martyrdom to him, as it was also to the Blessed Virgin, to whom he had been given as a son by Christ on the Cross.

Again, S. John underwent a special martyrdom while he stood with the Blessed Virgin by the Cross on Mount Calvary, and beheld Christ—his Life, Whom he loved more than his own life—suffering the bitter pains of the Cross for three hours.

But to sit on my right or my left hand is not mine to give, &c. The Arians thought that it is here said that it was not in the power of Christ to give this, but of the Father, and consequently, that Christ was not equal (Greek, όμοούσιος) to the Father; but they are in error. For Christ is here putting an antithesis, not between Himself and the Father, but between James and John (who were ambitiously seeking the first place in His kingdom) and those to whom it of right belonged. The point of the argument lies in the word you, which is read in the Vulgate, though not in the Greek and other versions. Whence Remigius says: “It is not Mine to give to you—i.e., to proud men, such as you are, but to the humble.” Again: It is not Mine to give to you as My kinsmen according to the flesh; for it is given not to the person, but to the life (as S. Jerome says), not from favour, but according to merit.

Mark, that Christ does not grant what these two ask for, that the rest of the Apostles may not be provoked through being excluded; nor does He refuse it, so as to make these two sad. So S. Jerome. “He said not, ‘Ye shall not sit there,’ that He might not discourage the two brethren; neither did He say, ‘Ye shall sit there,’ that He might not stir the others to anger;” but by holding up the prize before all, He might encourage all to strive for Him. So a just king, presiding over a contest instituted by him, if his kinsmen and friends should come to him and say, “Give us the prize,” justly makes answer—” It is not mine to give the prize to you, but to those for whom it is prepared and decreed, namely, to those who strive in the contest and gain the mastery.”

Again it is clear from S. Luke 22:29-30, that this kingdom is Christ’s to bestow. I appoint unto you a kingdom as My Father hath appointed unto Me, that ye may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the Twelve tribes of Israel. Christ, however, says here that it belongs rather to the Father, both because as man He was always subject to the Father, and also that by giving them a proper reason He might send them away from Himself and refer them to the Father, so that they might humble themselves before Him; and be prevented by shame from asking for it; and also lastly because as wisdom and works of wisdom are proper to the Son and works of goodness to the Holy Spirit, so works of power and providence, to which it belongs to predestinate men to the kingdom, are proper to the Father.

But to them for whom it is prepared by My Father. The interpretation of Euthymius is narrow, who explains those as being Peter and Paul. Narrower still is the interpretation of Hilary who says that Moses and Elias are meant; for he thinks that the Transfiguration is alluded to in which Moses and Elias saw the glory of Christ in His kingdom and shared in it. Narrowest of all is the interpretation of S. Chrysostom, who says that the place on the right hand and on the left will be given to none; because no one, he says, can be exalted to the right hand of Christ, since He alone sits at the right hand of the Father. But these interpretations are too narrow, for Christ speaks generally of all the elect. Wherefore the highest places in the kingdom of Heaven are prepared by God for those who after striving most earnestly gain the victory. Wherefore by the right and left hand are to be understood pre-eminence in the kingdom, which will be granted to those who are first in humility, charity, patience, and zeal in preaching the Gospel. The Abbot Athanasius, we read, was caught up into Heaven and heard the choirs of the blessed singing the praises of God, and when he would join their company he heard a voice which said to him “no one enters here who has lived carelessly, go thy way, strive diligently, and despise the vanities of the world.” It is also related of the holy Furseus (Bede, Hist. Ang. lib. 3, cap. 19) that he was caught up to Heaven and heard the angels and saints singing: “They shall go from strength to strength: unto the God of gods shall they appear in Sion.” Let us advance therefore from strength to strength, and we shall ascend from glory to glory, from angels to Cherubim and Seraphim, from the lowest to the highest throne in Heaven.

Mat 20:24  And the ten, hearing it, were moved with indignation against the two brethren.

And the ten, hearing it, &c. You will ask how it was that the other Apostles heard the request of the two brethren. The most probable opinion is that of Francis Lucas, who says that Salome and her sons spoke privately with Christ, but that He answered so that the rest should hear what He said and understand from His answer what the two had asked for. For He knew that they were all suffering from the same disease of ambition, and He wished to heal them all. Also since they were infected with the same desire, they detected the desire of the others: for every one measures others by himself, and imagines that they have the same desires and ambition as himself.

The ten were not so much displeased at the ambition of James and John as troubled with the fear that they would be placed after them; for they too desired the first place; so dogs, though at other times friendly, are angry and snarl at each other when they are gnawing the same bone.

Ambition indeed begets envy, and envy begets anger in him who desires the same honour lest it be taken from him by another.  S. Basil, in his homily against envy, mentions an effectual remedy against this vice, “not to set a high value on anything belonging to this world, such as wealth or glory; for he who has succeeded in subjecting all worldly things to his reason, and has devoted himself to the pursuit of the true beauty and honour, will be very far from esteeming any one happy, or to be envied on account of any worldly advantages; and he who is of such a spirit as never to admire anything belonging to this life will never be under the dominion of envy.”

Mat 20:25  But Jesus called them to him and said: You know that the princes of the Gentiles lord it over them; and that they that are the greater, exercise power upon them.

You know that the princes of the Gentiles lord it over them, &c. Christ here does not find fault with the civil or ecclesiastical power which is exercised by princes and bishops, as the Anabaptists maintain; for this is needful in every commonwealth for good government. A tyrant does not care for the interests of those under him, but consults only his own advantage and honour. Whereas true princes seek the good of their subjects, and are the servants rather than the lords of the commonwealth, as Aristotle says.

And they that are greater, &c. That is, they rule imperiously, and exercise an irresponsible power over those subject to them.

Mat 20:26  It shall not be so among you: but whosoever is the greater among you, let him be your minister.
Mat 20:27  And he that will be first among you shall be your servant.

It shall not be so among you, &c. The Vulgate reads in verse 27, will be your servant, and with it agree the Syriac, Egyptian, and Æthiopic versions. In these words Christ teaches not so much the way and means by which a man may obtain the primacy in the Church as how one who is a primate ought to behave himself in the Church, namely as the least of all; and by setting before them this rule of humility He deters the Apostles from ambitiously seeking the chief place. It is plain that this is the meaning because this verse is in antithesis with the preceding: for He contrasts His own gentle, benignant and wholesome rule with the imperious and tyrannical authority that is exercised over the Gentiles.  S. Gregory (Pastor. part 2, c. 6), teaches how a prelate ought to unite authority with gentleness, and act with authority against the refractory and with gentleness towards the obedient, “Let a ruler,” he says, “be a companion in humility to those who do well, but let him be firmly opposed with a righteous zeal against the faults of delinquents.”

At the same time Christ shows in these words by what way we ought to advance towards the highest place in Heaven, namely, by the way of humility. And for this reason the Pope prefers this title, Servant of the servants of Christ. This is what S. Peter, the Vicar of Christ taught the pastors of the Church, “Feed the flock of God, which is among you, &c. (1 Epist. v. 2.)

Likewise on account of this saying of Christ, S. Francis wished the prelates of his Order to be called ministers and brothers minor (minorite friars), both that he might employ the very words of the Gospel, which he had promised to observe, and that his disciples might learn by their very name that they had come to the school of Christ to learn humility. For Christ, the Teacher of humility, that He might give His disciples a perfect rule of humility said, “Whosoever will be chief among you let him be your minister, &c.”

Even as the Son of Man, &c. S. Francis Xavier furnished a rare example of this humility of Christ, and recalled it to this age when it had, as it were, gone out of fashion. For when he was appointed by the Pope Apostolic Legate of India, he would have no servant, although the Viceroy of the King of Portugal offered him several, and urged him to accept them; but he ministered to all, both in bodily and spiritual services. He used himself to hear the confessions of the sick, and comfort the sorrowful; he used to administer medicines to the sick, and cleanse their bodies and wash their bandages, and catechise the ignorant and children; and besides he used to attend to and feed the horses of his companions. and when some one said that these things were unworthy of an Apostolic Legate, he answered that there was nothing more worthy than Christian charity and humility which became all things to all men that it may gain all: which Christ through His whole life continually enjoined by word and deed. So that by this conduct he did not lose, but increased his authority. Moreover Christ himself while on earth had not even one servant, but made himself the servant of all.  S Chrysostom (Hom. 40, the Epis. to the Cors.) says, “Listen to Paul; these hands, he says, have ministered to my necessities and to them that were with me. That teacher of the world, and man worthy of heaven, scrupled not to serve innumerable mortals; while you think it a disgrace unless you have your herds of servants in your train: not seeing that this is a great disgrace to you. God gave us hands and feet that we might do without servants. What is the use of crowds of servants?”

Mat 20:28  Even as the Son of man is not come to be ministered unto, but to minister and to give his life a redemption for many.

A redemption for many. Not as if Christ died only for the predestinated, as the heretics formerly called Predestinarians, and Calvin, in recent times, maintained: for that Christ suffered and died for all men S. Paul clearly teaches (2 Cor 5:14. and  S. John 1 Jn2:2). The words for most are put for all, Euthymius says, because these all were not few but many. So many is taken for all in this chapter (Matt 20:16), and Matt 26:28, and Rom 5:19, and elsewhere. Or for many; because although Christ died for all, and obtained for all and bestowed upon all means sufficient for salvation, yet the fruit of His death, and salvation in its completeness falls to the share of the just only and those who persevere until death in righteousness. So S. Jerome, Maldonatus and others

6 Responses to “Cornelius a Lapide’s Commentary on Matthew 20:17-28”

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  3. […] Cornelius a Lapide’s Commentary on Today’s Gospel (Matt 20:20-28). Previously posted, this commentary actually begins with verse 17. […]

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  6. […] Aquinas’ Catena Aurea on Today’s Gospel (Matthew 20:20-28). On verses 17-28. […]

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