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 5:43-48

Posted by Dim Bulb on June 11, 2011

Mat 5:43  You have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thy enemy.

Ye have heard, &c. It has been asked, where is it said, “Thou shalt hate thine enemy?” Maldonatus replies, in Deut 25:19, “Thou shalt blot out his name from under heaven.” God had commanded Joshua and the Hebrews utterly to destroy the impious Canaanites, and to seize their land. But the Law bade only the Canaanites to be slain, not other nations, and even them, not out of hatred: just as a judge might order a guilty person to be put to death, not because he hated him, but even one whom he loved.

I Maintain, therefore, that this saying was not in the Law, but was said by the Scribes who interpreted the Law. For they, because they found in Lev_29:18, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour,” or “thy friend,” as the Vulgate translates, inferred from thence that they should hate their enemies. Wherefore Christ here corrects this interpretation of theirs, and explains the Law, that by neighbour or friend every man is meant, even a foreigner, a Gentile, and an enemy. For all men are neighbours, through their first forefather, Adam, and brethren one of another. We are also brethren through our second Father, Christ, through whom we have been born again, and, as it were, created anew in the likeness of God, and called to the common inheritance of God, our Father in heaven. So S. Jerome, Augustine, Theophylact, and others.

Mat 5:44  But I say to you, Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you:

But I say to you, &c. Christ here bids us love our enemies in heart, in word, and in deed. In heart, when He says, “Love your enemies;” in word, “Bless them that curse you;” in deed, by adding, “Do good to them that hate you.”

Mat 5:45  That you may be the children of your Father who is in heaven, who maketh his sun to rise upon the good, and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust.

That you may be the children of your Father, &c. Christ bids that in loving our enemies we should imitate God, who does good to his impious enemies, giving them rain and sunshine, corn and fruits. For the mind of God is so lofty, that He regards no injury nor blasphemy of any one, however impious, as done against Himself. He perceives no diminution of His honour and glory. He is so impassible and so holy that no anger or revenge can affect Him, and so good and element that He showers His gifts upon His enemies, preventing them with His grace, and alluring and drawing them to reconciliation. Yea, He gave up His only Son to be crucified, that He might reconcile them and save them. Let us imitate these things as far as we can.

Mat 5:46  For if you love them that love you, what reward shall you have? do not even the publicans this?

For if ye love them, &c. The publicans were so called because they farmed and collected the public taxes. And they extorted from the poor with the utmost rigour more than they had a right to pay. For this reason they were accounted by the Jews iniquitous and infamous.

What reward shall you have? None: for if ye love your friends only, not your enemies, ye only do as the publicans do, and God will give you no reward in heaven. For such love is of nature, not of grace and charity, which latter love extends itself even to enemies. And ye do receive a reward from your friends, namely, reciprocal love. But if ye love your enemies as well as your friends, ye will deserve and obtain great grace and glory from God, since both kinds of love are the fruit of charity. Charity therefore bids us love both friends and enemies, corrupt nature our friends only.

Publius Sulla was wont to boast that he surpassed his friends in benefits, his enemies in injuries. Other heathen did the same. There were indeed a few among them who did love even their enemies. Such was Phocion, who being condemed to death, and at point of execution, being asked what message he would send to his son, made answer, “I wish him to forget this injury which the Athenians have done to me.”

Lycurgus, King of the Lacedæmonians, being deprived of an eye by a certain young man, the youth was presented to him by the people that he should punish him in any way he pleased. Lycurgus took the youth, and gave him excellent instruction; and when he had quite reformed his character, he brought him into the theatre, and presented him to the people, saying, “Lo! him whom I received from you violent and injurious I restore to you profitable and acceptable.” See Plutarch in Life of Lycurgus. If the Gentiles, led by nature and reason, did such things as these, for the sake of temporal glory, what ought not Christians to do, led by faith and grace for the reward of a blissful eternity?

Mat 5:47  And if you salute your brethren only, what do you more? do not also the heathens this?

And if you salute your brethren only, &c. Brethren, i.e., relations, kinsfolk, friends. Salute. Gr. α̉σπάσησθε, salute with a kiss and embrace, which was the customary method of salutation among the Greeks and Romans, and indeed amongst the first Christians, according to those words of S. Paul, “Salute one another with an holy kiss.” (2Co_13:12.)

Mat 5:48  Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.

Be you therefore perfect, &c. The emphasis here is upon the word you. Because ye are separated from the heathen, and chosen of God that ye should be His faithful ones, His friends, His sons and heirs, therefore imitate the holiness and perfection of your Heavenly Father.

The word therefore refers partly to what immediately precedes concerning love of our enemies. “Do ye therefore, 0 faithful, who are the friends of God, and who ought therefore to be better than the heathen, do you love all men, enemies as well as friends, even as your Father wholly extends His love to all.” But the therefore also partly refers to all that has gone before. For this maxim is the end and completion of all the sayings of this chapter, as though Christ said, “Thus far I have unfolded the commandments of God, which are the sanction of the perfection of all virtue. Be ye therefore perfect in meekness, in purity of heart, in patience, in chastity, in charity, and in every virtue which the Law of God enjoins.”

You will ask whether this perfection be of counsel or of precept? I reply, partly of counsel, partly of precept. First, it is of precept that every believer in Christianity should endeavour to be perfect, in such wise that he should perfectly love his enemies as well as his friends, and keep perfectly all the other commandments of God. For Christ is here speaking to all the faithful, as is plain from what precedes. Hence we learn from this passage that all Christians are under obligation to be advancing towards perfection according to their state and condition. For this is required that they should be the children of their Heavenly Father, as Christ says. Whosoever therefore desires to be the child and heir of this Father ought to imitate Him in perfection because, as S. Cyprian says (Serm. de bono Patient.), “The children of such and so great a Parent ought not to be degenerate.”

Moreover, S. James (chap. 1), addressing not religious, but all believers, says: “That ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.” For if soldiers in battle wish to be most brave, disciples in a school most learned, workmen, each in their own craft, most exact, servants in obeying their own masters most diligent, why should not Christians, who are called by Christ to holiness and perfection, wish to be most holy and most perfect?

Blessed Theresa was wont to say that God has an especial love for those who are perfect, and makes them, as it were, captains and generals of others, that they should convert, save, and perfect many. Wherefore she herself made a vow that in every work she would do that which should be more perfect, and for the greater glory of God. See S. Chrysostom (lib. 3. de Vitupererat. vitæ Monast.), where he teaches that the precepts of Christ bind seculars as well as religious, and that therefore both ought to aim at perfection, each in his own state and rank, according to that which God said to Israel, “Thou shalt be perfect and without spot before the Lord thy God.” (Deut 18:13.)
2. This perfection is of counsel so far as it extends itself to the observance, not only of commands, but of evangelical counsels, such as voluntary poverty, chastity, and religious obedience; such, I mean, as when Christ said, “If thou wilt be perfect, sell that thou hast and give to the poor.” (Matt 19:21.)

Moreover, this perfection mainly consists in charity and love, especially of our enemies. For this is the perfection of life, since the perfection of the country consists in the vision and fruition of God. Christ here tacitly intimates that the way of attaining perfection and eminent sanctity is for any one to exercise himself in love of his enemies, both because this is the highest and most difficult act of charity, as because it is the greatest victory over ourselves. For he who does this generously vanquishes anger, revenge, and the other passions of the soul; and God, requites his charity with far more abundant gifts of grace. So that holy virgin mentioned by D. Tauler, when asked how she had attained to so great sanctity, replied, “I have ever loved with a special love any who have been troublesome to me; and to any one who has injured me, I have always endeavoured to show some special mark of kindness.”

As also your heavenly Father, &c., For He with a perfect love loves all men. Upon all He sheds the beams of His beneficence, as it were a perennial sun of kindness, Who expects not to derive any advantage from any one, but out of pure love desires to communicate His benefits to others, that thus He may contend with the wickedness and ingratitude of man; for few indeed are they who love Him, their Benefactor, in return as they should do. The word as signifies likeness, not equality; for we cannot come up to the perfection of God, for that infinitely transcends all our perfection; but we ought to imitate it as far as we are able.

The perfection then which Christ here requires of a Christian is not merely human but Divine perfection, and similar to God’s perfection. For he is our Father not only by nature, but by grace, for by it “we are partakers of the Divine nature,” as S. Peter says. Therefore we are made to be really sons of God, and as it were gods upon earth. And so S. Peter proposes the words in Lev 11:44 as a kind of mirror for Christians saying, “Ye shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Pet 1:16.) And S. Paul says, “Be ye imitators of God as dear children.” (Eph 5:1.) Beautifully says S. Cyprian, “If it be a pleasure and glory to men to have children like themselves, how much more is there gladness with God our Father, when any one is so born spiritually, that the Divine nobility is manifest in his actions?”

1. The perfection of God consists in the most ample love of all men, bad as well as good. And it is to this Christ has special reference in this passage.

2. It consists in the highest forbearance, kindness, and tranquillity, and the impossibility of being affected by injury, wrath, or revenge, so that He is imperturbable and without passions. So in like manner must we, if we would be perfect, be meek and tranquil, and to that end must mortify anger and all other mental passions. Whence S. Ambrose says (lib. de Jacob et vita beata), “It is the part of a perfect man to sustain like a brave soldier the onset of the most terrible misfortunes, and like a wise pilot to manage his ship in a storm, and as he runs through the surging billows, to avoid shipwreck rather by facing the waves than by shrinking from them.”

Hence we shall find it a singularly efficacious means of attaining perfection for every one to search carefully into the state of his own soul, and find out his chief vice, from which, like branches from a root, all his other faults spring, and to strive against this with all his might until he root it out. For example, the radical and dominating vice in Peter is pride, in Paul gluttony, in James luxury, in John acerbity, in Philip anger, in Andrew sadness, in Matthew pusillanimity. Let every man know his own vice, and when it is known, let him fight against it with suitable weapons and mortify it.

3. God looks down from on high upon all earthly things as mean and poor, and gloriously presides over heaven and heavenly things. So in like manner, ought the man who is aiming at perfection to despise earthly honours and pleasures as worthless matters, pertaining to flies and gnats and fleas, and ought to look up to and covet the heavenly things, which are God’s.

4. The mind and will of God are most just, holy, and perfect. With this mind, then, ought we to be clothed, that we may be like God—yea, one with God. Hear what S. Bernard says about this: “The unity of a man’s spirit with God is his having his heart lifted up towards God, and entirely directed to Him; when he only wills what God wills; when there is not only affection, but perfect affection for God, so that he cannot will anything save and except what God wills. For to will what God wills is to be already like God. But not to be able to will except what God wills, this is to be what God is, to whom to will and to be are the same thing.

5. God is of a great and lofty mind, which transcends all things, and which ever abides and is established in His own blessed and tranquil eternity, and so converts and draws all things to Himself. Hear, again, S. Bernard (ad Fratres de Monte Dei): “Thou shalt, amid the adverse and prosperous changes and chances of the world, hold fast as it were an image of eternity; I mean an inviolable and unshaken constancy of mind, blessing God at all times, and vindicating for thyself, even in the uncertain events of this changeful world, and in its certain troubles, to some extent at least, a condition of abiding unchangeableness, so shalt thou begin to be changed and formed anew into the image and likeness of the eternal God, with whom is no changeableness, neither shadow of turning; for as He is, so also shalt thou be in this world, neither fearful in adversity nor dissolute in prosperity.”

Lastly, all perfection in this life is begun only, and is imperfect. For concupiscence, like a Jebusite, dwelleth in our members, and can be kept under, but not entirely extirpated; but in heaven, perfection shall be full and complete, where this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and this mortal shall put on a blessed immortality, where death and concupiscence shall be swallowed up of glory, and God shall be all in all. There shall be no covetousness, where love shall fill all things. Whence the Apostle says of himself (Philip 3:12):—”Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press towards the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.

3 Responses to “Cornelius a Lapide’s Commentary on Matthew 5:43-48”

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