Father MacEvilly’s Commentary on Matthew 10:16-23
Posted by Dim Bulb on July 6, 2013
Mat 10:16 Behold I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents and simple as doves.
He forewarns and guards them against the dangers that were awaiting them. “Behold,” arrests their attention. “I send you,” “I,” who am God, the Almighty, whom no power can resist; I, who heretofore commissioned the Prophets, Moses, Elias, Isaias, &c.; I, who am “the Lord of the harvest” (Luke 10:2); I send you—therefore, have courage, and display magnanimity—“as sheep in the midst of wolves,” shows their great peril. It is not the case of one wolf attacking a flock of sheep; but, a number of wolves, “in the midst of wolves,” surrounding them on all sides, so as render their escape, humanly speaking, impossible. But in their case, “the power (of God) is perfected in infirmity” (2 Cor. 12:9). “Sheep” are, of all animals, the most timid and harmless, most easily destroyed. This more clearly explains the sending of them without “staff,” &c., without any weapons, offensive or defensive. Their defenceless state is the more liable to danger, in consequence of being surrounded by “wolves.” He explains, next verse, who the “wolves” are, viz., men who give obstinate resistance to the Gospel, and use violence besides. Some interpreters maintain, that the following portion of this chapter was not spoken by our Redeemer on this occasion; and that St. Matthew records here, on account of the connexion of the subjects, things spoken by our Redeemer on several distinct occasions, which, according to those interpreters, is also true of the Sermon on the Mount, as given by St. Matthew. So that he gives a connected narrative of what was spoken in detached portions. For, Mark and Luke record them as spoken on separate occasions. They give, as a reason for this opinion, that the persecutions, on the part of Jews and Gentiles, could not apply to the first mission of the Apostles, which was confined to the Jews. From this, the seventy-two returned, far from suffering persecution, rejoicing rather in their success. However, we find the words of this verse (16), also given in St. Luke (10:3, &c.), in connexion with the mission of the Seventy-two; and it might be said, also, in reply to the foregoing, that some of the things addressed to the Apostles on the occasion of this first mission, had reference to what was in reserve for them, and what did actually befall them on their future mission among the Gentiles.
(Ninth Precept). “Be ye, therefore,” &c. “Therefore,” is a practical conclusion, derived from the foregoing account of the danger they were to undergo. “Wise as serpents,” in order to avoid the dangers they were exposed to. As the “wolves” are the natural enemies of the “sheep,” so, also, were those who opposed the Gospel, enemies of the Apostles, ready to devour them. Hence, the Apostles, in dealing with these, should imitate the caution of the serpent in avoiding men, by whom he is naturally hated. The Scriptures elsewhere refer us to the industrious ant (Prov. 6:6). St. Paul employed the “cunning of the serpent” (Acts 9:25), when he was let down in a basket from the walls at Damascus; when (Acts 23:6), he raised a dispute among the Jews, while professing himself a Pharisee; when (Acts 16:37), he proclaimed himself to be a Roman citizen. At the same time, his whole life exhibited the meekness, gentleness, and “simplicity of the dove.” They are not, however, to imitate the malice of the serpent, in transfusing his poison when attacked. With the serpent’s cunning, they should combine “the simplicity,” the candid, unoffending harmlessness “of doves.”
The Greek for “simple” (ακεραιοι), conveys an allusion to unhorned animals, destitute of the natural means of self-defence, so that, when attacked or injured, they should not retaliate or inflict injury. There are various reasons assigned for this allusion to the serpent. Some say, the example of the serpent is allusive to the serpent that tempted Eve; as, with the delusive promise that sue would become “like unto God,” he tempted the weaker sex, and watched his opportunity, so ought the Apostles adopt prudent means, and watch every befitting occasion to withdraw men from evil, and bring them to God by the promises and hopes of immortal glory. They should do in the interests of truth, what the old serpent did for the purposes of evil and deception (St. Hilary).
Others say, that there is reference made to the natural serpent, whose cunning is proposed as a model of imitation to the Apostles in their dealing with the world; and this, according to some commentators, in some particular points—1st. The serpent exposes his entire body for the protection of his head; the Apostles should likewise submit to every hardship, even to death itself, to guard their Head, who is Christ, and to keep His faith pure and incorrupt. (SS. Jerome, Chrysostom, Augustine, Hilary, &c.) 2ndly. We are told by naturalists (Aristotle, Lib. 8, Histor. Animal, c. 17; Pliny, Lib. 8, c. 27) that the serpent, in spring and autumn, lays aside his old and puts on a new skin; and some writers say, although Aristotle makes no allusion to it, that he does so by forcing himself through narrow chinks; so ought Apostolic men, by putting off the old man put on the new, by treading in the narrow way, which alone leads to life. Again, the serpent watches an opportunity for communicating his virus; so ought Apostolic men, on the other hand, watch every opportunity of imparting true doctrine. The chief scope, however, of our Redeemer is, that the prudence of the serpent should be imitated in the avoidance of injuries and snares on the part of men, and the simplicity of the dove, in not retaliating for injuries received. Also, that by “prudence,” they would seasonably avail themselves of every opportunity of gaining over others to the cause of truth; and by “simplicity,” they would avoid all fraud or deceit in so doing.
Mat 10:17 But beware of men. For they will deliver you up in councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues.
(Tenth Precept). “But, beware of men.” “But,” is the same as “therefore.” In this verse is assigned a reason why they should have the cunning of serpents; and from it is also seen who are the “wolves” (v. 16), viz., wicked men, enemies of the Gospel. The Apostles should observe the utmost caution in regard to placing any trust or confidence in such men, who would not fail to have recourse to threats of punishment and persecution, or to blandishments, to turn them aside from the right path of Gospel truth. They should avoid such men, as far as the public discharge of the Apostolic ministry would permit.
“In councils”—(Greek), “INTO councils”—to be examined and tried.
“And they will scourge you in their synagogues.” By “councils,” some understand the tribunals of the Gentiles; “synagogues,” meetings of the Jews. (The Jews were wont to scourge in their synagogues the transgressors against their laws.) The word, “synagogue,” which strictly signifies, a congregation or gathering, might be understood of Gentile assemblies also.
Others understand both words in this verse, of Jewish meetings. The “councils” (συνεδρια) of the greater council among the Jews, that took cognizance of graver offences (see c. 5:23); for, in the next verse (18), there is question of Gentile tribunals. SS. Peter and John were brought before “the council” (Acts 4:5–7); and so were all the Apostles (Acts 5:27); St. Stephen (Acts 6:12); Christ our Lord (Luke 22:26). In all these places, in which there is clearly reference to Jewish tribunals, the term used is, συνεδριον. “Scourge you” (Acts 5:40; 2 Cor. 11:24).
Mat 10:18 And you shall be brought before governors, and before kings for my sake, for a testimony to them and to the Gentiles:
(Eleventh Precept). “Governors” of provinces, such as Pontius Pilate; Felix and Festus, before whom St. Paul was brought.
“Kings.” Witness Paul before Agrippa. (Acts 25)
“You shall be brought,” to be tried for your lives. Not content with the foregoing punishments, they shall also thirst for your lives.
“For my sake,” for having preached the Gospel of salvation. Hence, we find them afterwards rejoicing for being deemed worthy to suffer reproach in the name of Jesus (Acts 5:11).
“For a testimony to them,” the Jews, of whom He spoke (v. 17); “and to the Gentiles” (v. 18), of the truth of the Gospel. The preaching of the Gospel, under circumstances of such pressure, will furnish them with an opportunity of giving the strongest proof of the doctrine they preach, at the peril of their lives. Hence, the word, martyr, signifies a witness, who suffers for the faith; or, it may mean, a testimony of condemnation, rendered public on the day of judgment, to Jews and Gentiles, against the persecutors of the Apostles, for having rejected the truth confirmed by so many self-sacrificing evidences of meek suffering. The Apostles, at this first mission, were not to be brought before Gentile governors; but, our Lord here describes what was to occur on future occasions.
Mat 10:19 But when they shall deliver you up, take no thought how or what to speak: for it shall be given you in that hour what to speak:
Poor, illiterate fishermen would naturally feel anxious and embarrassed what to say, when questioned in presence of the great ones of the earth. In these verses three things are expressed—1. The prohibition of all anxious thoughts and reliance on mere human erudition. 2. The promise of Divine assistance, “it shall be given to you.” 3. The reason, “For, it is not you that speak,” &c.
Our Lord does not here encourage sloth, nor does He dispense with all preparation, study, or ordinary diligence. He only wishes them to divest themselves of all excessive anxiety, all timorous, excessive, corroding solicitude (which the Greek word, μεριμνησητε, means (see c. 6:25) beforehand, as to the result. When they shall be actually in the hands of their enemies, they must confidently rely on God’s providence, to give them, then, the necessary strength and power (Mark 13:4; Luke 21:14).
“For, it shall he given to you,” by the whole blessed Trinity, to speak, in such circumstances, in a befitting manner. Here, it is said, “the Spirit of your Father.” In St. Luke (21:15), it is said, “I will give a mouth,” i.e., eloquence, “and wisdom,” &c., in regard to what and how you shall speak. “In that hour,” i.e., in the hour of need and actual danger, on account of God’s truth.
Mat 10:20 For it is not you that speak, but the spirit of your Father that speaketh in you.
“For, it is not you that speak,” &c. This is comparative. It is not so much you that shall speak, as “the Spirit of your Father.” Elsewhere (Luke 21:15), He says, He Himself will supply them with eloquence. He is the chief agent; they, the subordinate instruments—His mere organs.
Not but they too will speak. He, however, shall be the principal agent. Thus, we find it said, “neque currentis, neque volentis; sed Dei miserentis” (Rom. 9:16), referring to God as principal, although not the only cause. The cause or the defence is not theirs, so much as the Holy Ghost’s. While, therefore, they do their part, and employ due diligence, they should leave the rest to the Holy Ghost, who shall Himself speak, by suggesting to them what they are to say, and how to say it, as it is His own interests chiefly that are in question. He will do for them what He did for the Prophets of old. He will speak in them, as the Angel spoke through the dumb beast (Num. 22:28), and as the Holy Ghost spoke through Peter and the Apostles in presence of the Jewish pontiffs. (Acts 4:29, &c.)
Mat 10:21 The brother also shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the son; and the children shall rise up against their parents, and shall put them to death.
Our Redeemer forewarns; and thus, forearms His followers, against a most painful description of persecution, viz., domestic persecution. Those to whom they should naturally look for consolation in their sufferings and trials, will only help to aggravate their afflictions, and add to them. The nearest relatives, fathers and brothers, divesting themselves of all natural affection, shall persecute unto death their sons and brethren; and children, on the other hand, fogetting all ties of natural affection, shall treat their parents in a similar manner; for, as St. Jerome observes, “natural affection is lost in those who are of a different faith”—“nec ullus inter eos fidus affectus, quorum diversa est fides.” (St. Jerome, in chap. 6 Matth.)
Mat 10:22 And you shall be hated by all men for my name’s sake: but he that shall persevere unto the end, he shall be saved.
By all men,” i.e., “by all (wicked) men;” or, by many; or by every description of men, relatives and strangers, rich and poor, noble and lowly, Jew and Gentile.
“Shall be hated,” although injuring no one, but doing good to all.
“For My name’s sake.” Not through any fault of your own (1 Peter 4:15), but, solely on account of your professing My faith and worship.
“Shall persevere,” &c. He now encourages them, with the prospect of the reward which shall be given them. “Persevere,” the Greek (ὑπομεινας), endure, bear up, in suffering and in faith to the end. St. Mark (13:13) has, “endure.”
“Shall be saved.” This is the reward of merit, which is, however, founded on grace. Our Redeemer conveys two things here—1st. That we must suffer, as is clearly expressed elsewhere—“per multas tribulationes oportet nos intrare in regnum Dei;” 2ndly. That we must persevere in suffering; otherwise, it shall be of no avail to us. We must persevere in patient suffering “to the end,” to the final term of our existence in this life. Salvation is the crown of perseverance.
Mat 10:23 And when they shall persecute you in this city, flee into another. Amen I say to you, you shall not finish all the cities of Israel, till the Son of man come.
(Twelfth Precept). It might be said, or rather, objected, if we are hated by all men, and sought after to be persecuted, how, then, can we preach the Gospel? Our Redeemer, anticipating this objection, tells them, that when men will obstinately resist their preaching in one place, and seek their death, let them “flee,” thus exhibiting the prescribed cunning of the serpent, by avoiding the snares of men. They, however, are not merely to flee into solitudes or deserts, to remain inactive; they should “flee into another city,” and thus make their persecution, and the consequent flight, the occasion of extending the kingdom of Christ. For, it is not simply flight, to be made the occasion of indolence; but flight, to be made the occasion of the wider propagation of the faith, that is here enjoined. Hence, against Tertullian (Lib. de fuga, &c.), it is sometimes lawful to fly from persecution, when charity or justice do not require the contrary, as is sanctioned by the example of our Redeemer Himself flying into Egypt (c. 2:14), and when His enemies sought His life (Luke 4:30), “for His hour had not yet come;” and of St. Paul (Acts 9:25; 2 Cor. 11:33). It is sometimes a duty to fly, when the glory of God and the utility of the Church demand it, and when it is necessary for the cause of God, that a public, distinguished character, should not be prematurely cut off, and when no injury would result to others from such flight. It is sometimes permitted, and a matter of counsel; and sometimes unlawful, whenever either charity or justice may prevent it; as, for instance, in the case of a man charged with the care of others, and when it is not the pastor, but the flock, that is primarily and principally assailed, whose faith and morals would be seriously exposed and injured, owing to the absence of their pastor, who, moreover, would be deprived of the sacraments. To fly from his post in such circumstances, would be to act the part of a hireling. (John 10) Some commentators confine this to the first mission, on account of what follows.
“Amen, I say to you, you shall not finish all the cities,” &c. Others, more probably, say, that, although these words were uttered on the occasion of the first mission, when the evils referred to did not occur; still, they had reference to the entire course of the Apostolic mission, and serve as a rule for the pastors of the Church, and all Apostolic men till the end of time.
“You shall not finish” You shall always have places for flying to, and for extending the Gospel ministry. The words may mean: You shall not have overrun, in preaching, all the cities of Israel, in this your first mission, until the Son of man shall return to you in a glorious state, after His resurrection, when He shall give you another commission, and assign the world as the theatre of your labours. The coming of the “Son of man” is, however, more generally understood of His glorious coming to judgment. Hence, others understand it: You shall not have fully converted the Jewish people until the final coming of Jesus Christ to judgment; thus, taxing the incredulity of the Jews, whose total conversion is reserved till after the Gentile world is converted, or, till the final end of all things (Rom. 11:25). Others, by “Israel,” understand, spiritual Israel, consisting of converted Jews and Gentiles, the duodecim millia signati, of the several tribes of the entire earth, to whom the Apostles, whose second mission also is included here, shall have ample room to flee at all periods of the world. For, the fulness of the Gentiles shall not have entered the Church till the Day of Judgment (Rom. 11:25).