The Divine Lamp

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Aquinas’ Catena Aurea on Matthew 5:38-42

Posted by Dim Bulb on June 11, 2011

Ver 38. “Ye have heard that it hath been said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:’39. But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.40. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.41. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.42. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.”

Gloss. non occ.: The Lord having taught that we are not to offer injury to our neighbour, or irreverence to the Lord, now proceeds to shew how the Christian should demean himself to those that injure him.

Aug., cont. Faust., xix, 25: This law, “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” was enacted to repress the flames of mutual hate, and to be a check on their undisciplined spirits. For who when he would take revenge, was ever content to return just so much harm as he had received? Do we not see men who have suffered some trifling hurt, straightway plot murder, thirst for blood, and hardly find evil enough that they can do to their enemies for the satisfying their rage?

To this immeasured and cruel fury the Law puts bounds when it enacts a “lex talionis;” that is, that whatever wrong or hurt any man has done to another, he should suffer just the same in return. This is not to encourage but to check rage; for it does not rekindle what was extinguished, but hinders the flames already kindled from further spread. It enacts a just retaliation, properly due to him who has suffered the wrong.

But that mercy forgives any debt, does not make it unjust that payment had been sought. Since then he sins who seeks an unmeasured vengeance, but he does not sin who desires only a just one; he is therefore further from sin who seeks no retribution at all.

I might state it yet thus; It was said to them of old time, Thou shalt not take unequal retaliation; But I say unto you, Ye shall not retaliate; this is a completion of the Law, if in these words something is added to the Law which was wanting to it; yea, rather that which the Law sought to do, namely, to put an end to unequal revenge, is more safely secured when there is no revenge at all.

Pseudo-Chrys.: For without this command, the commands of the Law could not stand. For if according to the Law we begin all of us to render evil for evil, we shall all become evil, since they that do hurt abound. But if according to Christ we resist not evil, though they that are evil be not amended, yet they that are good remain good.

Jerome: Thus our Lord by doing away all retaliation, cuts off the beginnings of sin. So the Law corrects faults, the Gospel removes their occasions.

Gloss, non occ.: Or it may be said that the Lord said this, adding somewhat to the righteousness of the old Law.

Aug., Serm. in Mont., i, 19: For the righteousness of the Pharisees is a less righteousness, not to transgress the measure of equal retribution; and this is the beginning of peace; but perfect peace is to refuse all such retribution. Between that first manner than, which was not according to the Law, to wit, that a greater evil should be returned for a less, and this which the Lord enjoins to make His disciples perfect, to wit, that no evil should be returned for evil, a middle place is held by this, that an equal evil should be returned, which was thus the passage from extremest discord to extremest peace.

Whoso then first does evil to another departs furthest from righteousness; and who does not first do any wrong, but when wronged repays with a heavier wrong, has departed somewhat from the extreme injustice; he who repays only what he has received, gives up yet something more, for it were but strict right that he who is the first aggressor should receive a greater hurt than he inflicted.

This righteousness thus partly begun, He perfects, who is come to fulfil the Law. The two steps that intervene He leaves to be understood; for there is who does not repay so much, but less; and there is yet above him, he who repays not at all; yet this seems too little to the Lord, if you be not also ready to suffer wrong.

Therefore He says not, “Render not evil for evil,” but, “Resist not against evil,” not only repay not what is offered to you, but do not resist that it should not be done to you. For thus accordingly He explains that saying, “If any man smite thee on thy right cheek, offer to him the left also.” Which as being a high part of mercy, is known to those who serve such as they love much; from whom, being morose, or insane, they endure many things, and if it be for their health they offer themselves to endure more.

The Lord then, the Physician of souls, teaches His disciples to endure with patience the sicknesses of those for whose spiritual health they should provide. For all wickedness comes of a sickness of the mind; nothing is more innocent than he who is sound and of perfect health in virtue.

Aug., de Mendac., 15: The things which are done by the Saints in the New Testament profit for examples of understanding those Scriptures which are modelled into the form of precepts. Thus we read in Luke; “Whoso smiteth thee on the one cheek, turn to him the other also.” [Luk_6:29] Now there is no example of patience more perfect than that of the Lord; yet He, when He was smitten, said not, ‘Behold the other cheek,’ but, “If I have spoken amiss, accuse me wherein it is amiss; but if well, why smitest thou me? [Joh_18:23] hereby shewing us that turning of the other cheek should be in the heart.

Aug., Serm. in Mont., i, 19: For the Lord was ready not only to be smitten on the other cheek for the salvation of men, but to be crucified with His whole body. It may be asked, What does the right cheek expressly signify? As the face is that whereby any man is known, to be smitten of the face is according to the Apostle to be contemned and despised. But as we cannot say ‘right face,’ and ‘left face,’ and yet we have a name twofold, one before God, and one before the world, it is distributed as it were into the right cheek, and left cheek, that whoever of Christ’s disciples is despised for that he is a Christian, may be ready to be yet more despised for any of this world’s honours that he may have.

All things wherein we suffer any wrong are divided into two kinds, of which one is what cannot be restored, the other what may be restored. In that kind which cannot be restored, we are wont to seek the solace of revenge. For what does it boot if when smitten you smite again, is the hurt done to your body thereby repaid to you? But the mind swollen with rage seeks such assuagements.

Pseudo-Chrys.: Or has your return blow at all restrained him from striking you again? It has rather roused him to another blow. For anger is not checked by meeting anger, but is only more irritated.

Aug., Serm. in Mont., i, 20: Whence the Lord judges that others’ weakness should rather be borne with compassion, than that our own should be soothed by others’ pain. For that retribution which tends to correction is not here forbidden, for such is indeed a part of mercy; nor does such intention hinder that he, who seeks to correct another, is not at the same time ready himself to take more at his hands.

But it is required that he should inflict the punishment to whom the power is given by the course of things, and with such a mind as the father has to a child in correcting him whom it is impossible he should hate. And holy men have punished some sins with death, in order that a wholesome fear might be struck into the living, and so that not his death, but the likelihood of increase of his sin had he lived, was the hurt of the criminal.

Thus Elias punished many with death, and when the disciples would take example from him they were rebuked by the Lord, who did not censure this example of the Prophet, but their ignorant use of it, seeing them to desire the punishment not for correction’s sake, but from angry hate.

But after He had inculcated love of their neighbour, and had given them the Holy Spirit, there wanted not instances of such vengeance; as Ananias and his wife who fell down dead at the words of Peter, and the Apostle Paul delivered some to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. Yet do some, with a kind of blind opposition, rage against the temporal punishments of the Old Testament, not knowing with what mind they were inflicted.

Aug., Epist. 185, 5: But who that is of sober mind would say to kings, It is nothing of your concern who will live religiously, or who profanely? It cannot even be said to them, that it is not their concern who will live chastely, or who unchastely. It is indeed better that men should be led to serve God by right teaching than by penalties; yet has it benefitted many, as experience has approved to us, to be first coerced by pain and fear, that they might be taught after, or to be made to conform in deed to what they had learned in words. The better men indeed are led of love, but the more part of men are wrought by fear. Let them learn in the case of the Apostle Paul, how Christ first constrained, and after taught him.

Aug., Serm. in Mont., i, 20: Therefore in this kind of injuries which are wont to rouse vengeance Christians will observe such a mean, that hate shall not be caused by the injuries they may receive, and yet wholesome correction be not foregone by Him who has right of either counsel or power.

Jerome: Mystically interpreted; When we are smitten on the right cheek, He said not, offer to him thy left, but “the other;” for the righteous has not a left. That is, if a heretic has smitten us in disputation, and would wound us in a right hand doctrine, let him be met with another testimony from Scripture.

Aug.: The other kind of injuries are those in which full restitution can be made, of which there are two kinds; one relates to money, the other to work; of the first of these it is He speaks when He continues, “Whoso will sue thee for thy coat, let him have thy cloak likewise.” As by the cheek are denoted such injuries of the wicked as admit of no restitution but revenge, so by this similitude of the garments is denoted such injury as admits restitution. And this, as the former, is rightly taken of preparation of the heart, not of the show of the outward action.

And what is commanded respecting our garments, is to be observed in al things that by any right we call our own in worldly property. For if the command be expressed in these necessary articles of life, how much more does it hold in the case of superfluities and luxuries? And when He says, “He who will sue thee,” He clearly intends to include every thing for which it is possible that we should be sued.

It may be made a question whether it is to be understood of slaves, for a Christian ought not to possess his slave on the same footing as his horse; though it might be that the horse was worth the more money. And if your slave have a milder master in you than he would have in him who seeks to take him from you, I do not know that he ought to be given up as lightly as your coat.

Pseudo-Chrys.: For it were an unworthy thing that a believer should stand in his cause before an unbelieving judge. Or if one who is a believer, though (as he must be) a worldly man, though he should have reverenced you for the worthiness of the faith, sues you because the cause is a necessary one, you will lose the worthiness of Christ for the business of the world. Further, every lawsuit irritates the heart and excites bad thoughts; for when you see dishonesty or bribery employed against you, you hasten to support your own cause by like means, though originally you might have intended nothing of the sort.

Aug., Enchir., 78: The Lord here forbids his disciples to have lawsuits with others for worldly property. Yet as the Apostle allows such kind of causes to be decided between brethren, and before arbiters who are brethren, but utterly disallows them without the Church, it is manifest what is conceded to infirmity as pardonable.

Greg., Mor., xxxi, 13: There are, who are so far to be endured, as they rob us of our worldly goods; but there are whom we ought to hinder, and that without breaking the law of charity, not only that we may not be robbed of what is ours, but lest they by robbing others destroy themselves. We ought to fear much more for the men who rob us, than to be eager to save the inanimate things they take from us. When peace with our neighbour is banished the heart on the matter of worldly possession, it is plain that our estate is more loved than our neighbour.

Aug., Serm. in Mont., i, 19: The third kind of wrongs, which is in the matter of labour, consists of both such as admit restitution, and such as do not – or with or without revenge – for he who forcibly presses a man’s service, and makes him give him aid against his will, can either be punished for his crime, or return the labour. In this kind of wrongs then, the Lord teaches that the Christian mind is most patient, and prepared to endure yet more than is offered; “If a man constrain thee to go with him a mile, go with him yet other two.” This likewise is meant not so much of actual service with your feet, as of readiness of mind.

Chrys., Hom. xviii: The word here used signifies to drag unjustly, without cause, and with insult.

Aug.: Let us suppose it therefore said, “Go with him other two,” that the number three might be completed; by which number perfection is signified; that whoever does this might remember that he is fulfilling perfect righteousness. For which reason he conveys this precept under three examples, and in this third example, he adds a twofold measure to the one single measure, that the threefold number may be complete.

Or we may so consider as though in enforcing this duty, He had begun with what was easiest to bear, and had advanced gradually. For first He commanded that when the right cheek was smitten we should turn the other also; therein shewing ourselves ready to endure another wrong less than that you have already received. Secondly, to him that would take your coat, he bids you part with your cloak, (or “garment,” as some copies read,) which is either just as great a loss, or perhaps a little greater. In the third He doubles the additional wrong which He would have us ready to endure. And seeing it is a small thing not to hurt unless you further shew kindness, He adds, “To him that asketh of thee, give.”

Pseudo-Chrys.: Because wealth is not ours but God’s; God would have us stewards of His wealth, and not lords.

Jerome: If we understand this only of alms, it cannot stand with the estate of the most part of men who are poor; even the rich if they have been always giving, will not be able to continue always to give.

Aug.: Therefore, He says not, ‘Give all things to him that asks;’ but, “Give to every one that asketh;” that you should only give what you can give honestly and rightly. For what if one ask for money to employ in oppressing the innocent man? What if he ask your consent to unclean sin? We must give then only what will hurt neither ourselves or others, as far as man can judge; and when you have refused an inadmissible request, that you may not send away empty him that asked, shew the righteousness of your refusal; and such correction of the unlawful petitioner will often be a better gift than the granting his suit.

Aug., Epist., 93, 2: For with more benefit is food taken from the hungry, if certainty of provision causes him to neglect righteousness, than that food should be supplied to him that he may consent to a deed of violence and wrong.

Jerome: But it may be understood of the wealth of doctrine: wealth which never fails but the more of it is given away, the more it abounds.

Aug., Serm. in Mont., i, 20: That He commands, “And from him that would borrow of thee, turn not away,” must be referred to the mind; for “God loveth a cheerful giver.” [2Co_9:7] And every one that receives, indeed borrows, though it is not he that shall pay, but God, who restores to the merciful many fold.

Or, if you like to understand by borrowing, only taking with promise to repay, we must understand the Lord’s command as embracing both these kinds of affording aid; whether we give outright, or lend to receive again. And of this last kind of shewing mercy it is well said, “Turn not away,” that is, do not be therefore backward to lend, as though, because man shall repay you, therefore God shall not; for what you do by God’s command cannot be without fruit.

Pseudo-Chrys.: Christ bids us lend but not on usury; for he who gives on such terms does not bestow his own, but takes of another; he looses from one chain to bind with many, and gives not for God’s righteousness sake, but for his own gain. For money taken on usury is like the bite of an asp; as the asp’s poison secretly consumes the limbs, so usury turns all our possessions into debt.

Aug., Epist., 138, 2: Some object that this command of Christ is altogether inconsistent with civil life in Commonwealths; Who, say they, would suffer, when he could hinder it, the pillage of his estate by an enemy; or would not repay the evil suffered by a plundered province of Rome on the plunderers according to the rights of war? But these precepts of patience are to be observed in readiness of the heart, and that mercy, not to return evil for evil, must be always fulfilled by the will.

Yet must we often use a merciful sharpness in dealing with the headstrong. And in this way, if the earthly commonwealth will keep the Christian commandments, even war will not be waged without good charities, to the establishing among the vanquished peaceful harmony of godliness and righteousness. For that victory is beneficial to him from whom it snatches license to sin; since nothing is more unfortunate for sinners, than the good fortune of their sins, which nourishes an impunity that brings punishment after it, and an evil will is strengthened, as it were some internal enemy.

One Response to “Aquinas’ Catena Aurea on Matthew 5:38-42”

  1. […] St Thomas Aquinas’ Catena Aurea on Today’s Gospel (Matt 5:38-42). […]

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