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

Father Maas’ Commentary on Matthew 5:20-26

Posted by Dim Bulb on February 18, 2015

Mat 5:20  For I tell you, that unless your justice abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

d. Insufficiency of Pharisaic justice. In the preceding verse Jesus has spoken about those that shall be great in the kingdom of heaven, and about the least in the same; now he mentions those that shall not enter at all, drawing from this class another proof for the statement that he did not come to destroy the law but to perfect it. He has proved this first from the perpetuity of the law in itself; secondly, from the sanction of the law in the New Testament; now he proves the same from the superiority of the law in the Messianic dispensation. The “for” may therefore be explained as connecting this verse with v. 17 [Schegg, de Wette, Hilgenfeld]; but there is a closer connection with vv. 18, 19, in which our Lord alludes to great and small precepts, to the letter and the spirit; hence he rejects in the present verse the Pharisaic distinction between great and small precepts [cf. Mt. 22:35–40; 23:23], and declares their obedience to the letter as insufficient. “Justice” has here the meaning it had in v. 6; the Fathers of the Church are therefore right in defending, on the one hand, the holiness of the Old Testament against the Manicheans and other heretics, and, on the other, in extolling the superiority of the New. For the Christian dispensation is no correction of the Jewish [Socinians], nor is it a mere explanation of the same [many Protestant theologians], but it is its fulfilment and perfection.

Mat 5:21  You have heard that it was said to them of old: Thou shalt not kill. And whosoever shall kill, shall be in danger of the judgment.

The fifth commandment. This section contains first the Christian statement of the fifth commandment [vv. 21, 22], and then it gives two special additions well calculated to enforce the exact observance of the Christian law [vv. 23, 24; 25, 26]. a. Christ’s statement of the fifth commandment. [1] “You have heard that it was said to them of old” recalls to the mind of our Lord’s hearers what they had heard in the synagogues. Similar expression we find in Jn. 12:34; Acts 15:21; Rom. 2:13. But then it is asked: who are they “of old”? All agree that they are the Israelites of former times; but their relation to what was said is viewed in different ways:—

[a] Many render the passage, “said by them of old”; though this rendering is grammatically possible, it is in the present case inadmissible. In the New Testament ἐῤῥέθη with the dative of person signifies the person addressed [cf. Rom. 9:12; Rev6:11; 9:4; Gal. 3:16], while the speaker is indicated by ὑπό or διά with the genitive [cf. Mt. 1:22; 4:14; 13:35; etc.]. Moreover, the contrast between “it was said to them of old” and “but I say to you” requires that “they of old” should be the hearers and not the speakers, as “you” is the dative of the persons addressed. Again, this rendering is more in accordance with the traditional teaching of the Fathers [cf. Schanz].

[b] Others contend that “said to them of old” may refer to what had been said to the Israelites by their religious teachers from the time of Moses downward [cf. Holtzman]. But this interpretation is not probable, because Jesus quotes the words of the law [Ex. 20:13; Deut. 5:17; Lev. 24:17; Ex. 21:12], and therefore not the exposition of the scribes.

[c] We infer, therefore, that “said to them of old” refers both to the promulgation of the law on Sinai and to its repetition to the people by its religious teachers. What follows is therefore opposed not only to the law of the Old Testament, nor only to the teaching of the Pharisees and scribes, but to both. a. That the following teaching was not opposed to the law alone is clear from the passages quoted as said to the ancients, that are not contained in the law. Where does the law say, e.g. that we should “hate our enemies” [v. 43]? There are many passages, on the contrary, in which the law of universal charity is at least implicitly inculcated: cf. Lev. 19:17, 18, 33, 34; Ex. 33:4, 9; Prov. 24:17; 25:21; Rom. 12:20. We grant that the hatred of God’s enemies as such was enjoined in the Old Law, but we deny that hatred of strangers, of men, of brethren, as such was not forbidden. This distinction gives the clue to the divine command of destroying the seven nations [Ex. 23:24; Deut. 7:2; 23:6; 25:19] who on account of their idolatry and their inveterate hostility to the Jews were extremely dangerous to the people.) β. That Jesus does not wish to oppose only the false interpretations of the scribes and Pharisees in the sermon on the mount is plain from those passages in which he opposes his precepts to the Mosaic law itself: cf. vv. 31, 38; again, from those precepts in which he gives counsels of Christian perfection rather than commands: v. 39; finally, from the fact that our Lord was to fufil and perfect the law, so that his doctrine differs from that of the law as the perfect differs from the imperfect [cf. Knabenbauer, Schanz, Fillion, Lapide, Maldonado, Paschasius Radbertus, Jansenius Barradus]. Such an imperfect law is not unworthy of God; the rudeness of the Hebrew people was not yet trained to bear a more perfect moral code, so that its state would have been rather deteriorated than improved by demanding a high moral perfection of it.

—Thou shalt not kill. The Old Law. Our Lord quotes first the Old Law according to Ex. 20:13, and to this he adds the sanction, which is neither a mere Rabbinio gloss [cf. Meyer], nor foreign to the Old Testament legislation, but has its equivalents in Ex. 21:12; Lev. 24:17; Numb. 35:16; cf. Gen. 9:6 [Paschasius, Jansenius, Barradus, Lapide,. Bruno, Schanz, Knabenbauer etc.]. It was customary at the time of our Lord to add in Scripture explanations the sanction to the law, or at least to add the positive to the negative precepts. “Judgment” stands here instead of the “punishment” inflicted by the judgment. Our Lord appears to refer to the local court which had power to inflict penalties up to the simple capital punishment [cf. Deut. 16:18; 2 Par. 19:5]. The more complicated and difficult cases were decided by an upper court which had its seat in the sanctuary [Deut. 17:8; 19:16 ff.]. According to Josephus [Antiq. IV. viii. 14; B. J. II. xx. 5] the local court consisted of seven members, but Sanhr. i. 6 shows that in the larger towns there were courts consisting of 23 members. We need not mention the opinion of Lightfoot and Schöttgen, who contend that the “judgment” refers to the divine judgment, since capital cases had become so frequent that the Sanhedrin did not dare to condemn all the murderers.

Mat 5:22  But I say to you, that whosoever is angry with his brother, shall be in danger of the judgment. And whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council. And whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

But I say to you. Christ’s statement of the law. Jesus distinctly forbids three violations of fraternal charity not included in the Old Law: [a] Though the Old Testament contains warnings against the sin of anger [Ps. 37:7-88; Sirach 27:33; 28:1–5], and though its spirit may be said to forbid anger, still its letter nowhere expressly prohibits this passion. The clause “without cause” following “angry” in Syr. It. Irenaues, Chrysostom, Augustine, Opus Imperfectum, is probably a late addition in order to remove the impression that all anger is sinful; the same addition is found in 1 Jn. 3:15, but probably for the same reason. Ephes. 4:26 shows that there is a justifiable anger [cf. Rom. 13:4; Col. 2:18; Ps. 4:5]. Though anger may under circumstances be laudable, and though even inordinate anger may be only a venial sin, Jesus supposes in the present passage that inordinate anger is “genere suo” mortal [cf. Thom. 2a, 2ae, 158, 2, 3]. This we infer from his sanction of the law. “Brother” properly means one having the same father as one’s self, hence tribes-man, or, among the early Christians, fellow believer [cf. v. 47]; but it is not necessarily coextensive with neighbor [cf. Lk. 10:29; Ignatius Epistle to the Trallians, viii. 2]. The perfection of the Christian law consists, therefore, in prohibiting under the same penalty the inordinate impulse leading to murder, under which the Old Testament forbids murder itself.

[b] The second member prohibits the manifestation of inordinate anger by means of offensive words. The word “Raca” means “vain,” “empty” [Lightfoot, Buxtorf, Wünsche.], and employed as an opprobrious term it signifies “empty of head,” i. e. a man that is stupid, or has no common sense [a dunce, dullard]; cf. James 2:20; Sibyll. iii. p. 418; Jerome, Opus Imperfectum, Bede, Hilary, etc.

[c] The third member prohibits the manifestation of inordinate anger by means of highly insulting terms. “Fool” must probably be understood in the sense it has in Ps 14:1; Ps 53:2 [heb.]; Deut 32:6; 2 Sam 13:13; Is. 32:6; Ezek 13:3. In all these cases the folly consists rather in a perversity of will than in a defect of intellect, so that the “fool” is wanting in moral rectitude and uprightness.

[d] Jesus threatens a triple punishment for the triple sin, and expresses the same respectively by “judgment,” “council,” and “hell-fire.” Though Chrysostom believes that the judgment and the council signify temporal courts, it is commonly admitted that they denote spiritual punishments. Aug. distinguishes the three courts by their relation to the punishment: In the judgment there is still room for self-defence, so that the sentence may be a favorable one; in the council the guilt is certain, but the greatness of the punishment is deliberated upon; in “hell-fire” both sentence and punishment are irrevocably determined. Though this gradation is clear and ingenious, we cannot infer from it that the present passage distinguishes between venial and mortal sin [cf. Bellarmine de amission. grat. 1. i. c. 9; t. 4 de controv. fidei; Grimm, iii. p. 85]. Since “judgment” denotes the court before which, according to the Old Law, murder was tried, we cannot admit that in the New Testament venial sin should be “guilty of the judgment.” We believe, therefore, with most commentators, that in each of three cases there is question of mortal sin [Dionysius, Maldonado, Barradas]. “Judgment,” “council,” and “hell-fire” express, therefore, three different degrees of eternal punishment, the third of which exceeds the first two so far that it cannot he represented by any earthly evil. Schanz sees in the three degrees an allusion to the three ways in which the Jews inflicted capital punishment: simple execution, execution by means of stoning or hanging, and execution with a surrender of the sinner to hell. “Hell-fire” has parallel expressions in Is. 66:24; Mk. 9:43, 48; Lk. 16:24; it is, therefore, not a mere allusion to the “valley of Hinnom” [gehenna] with its perpetual fire consuming the carcasses of dead animals and the offal of the city, which Josias [2 Kings 23:10; 7:32] had ordered to be thrown there in order to abolish the existing idolatry of Moloch, and its cruel sacrifices of innocent children in the fire of the idol [1 Kings 11:7, 33; 2 Kings 17:17; 2 Chron 28:3; etc.].

Mat 5:23  If therefore thou offer thy gift at the altar, and there thou remember that thy brother hath anything against thee;
Mat 5:24  Leave there thy offering before the altar, and go first to be reconciled to thy brother, and then coming thou shalt offer thy gift.

Practical conclusion. The guilt of sinful anger is so great that one polluted by it cannot perform even an act otherwise most pleasing to God. Theophylact, Euthymius, Faber,Schegg, etc. contend that our Lord’s precept extends to any case of discord, whether it be culpable on the part of the offerer or not. But the words of the text imply that the discord is occasioned by the fault of the offerer; otherwise, the latter would be wholly at the mercy of his brother’s imagination. This is also the common interpretation of the Fathers: Augustine, Jerome, Opus Imperfectum, Bede, Glossa Ordinaria,  Cajetan, Salmeron Barradas, Sylveira, Maldonado, Lapide, Arnoldi, Grimm, Schanz, etc. Chrysostom appears, at first, to favor the opposite view; but on comparing the context he is found to agree with the majority of the commentators. “Offer thy gift at the altar” alludes to Lev. 2:1; that the priests alone could lay the sacrifice on the altar follows from Lev. 1:3; 4:4; 17:1–6. The Greek word expressing gift in the passage is so general in meaning that it embraces any kind of offering [Mt. 8:4; 15:5; 23:18; Heb. 5:1; 8:3]; the lxx. use the word in all meanings. The illustration is taken from the Hebrew sacrifice in order to render it intelligible to the hearers. As the precept cannot be restricted to the Hebrew ceremonial, which was not to last, so it cannot be limited to sacrifice in the strict meaning of the word, but applies to all good actions, especially to prayer. It may not be possible to go in body in order to effect the reconciliation, but it is always possible to do so in spirit, by an act of contrition and a thorough change of heart. This is the opinion of Augustine, Glossa Ordinaria, and Paschasius Radbertus, while Chrysostom sees in the words a special reference to the Eucharist.

25 Be at agreement with thy adversary betimes, whilst thou art in the way with him: lest perhaps the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.
26 Amen I say to thee, thou shalt not go out from thence till thou repay the last farthing.

Second conclusion. Chrysostom, Euthymius, Theophylact refer the passage to this life; but such teaching of worldly prudence is wholly out of keeping with the context of the discourse. Weiss’ explanation as an “argumentum ad hominem” weakens the meaning of the words. Nearly all the other commentators understand the passage as referring to the reconciliation with our brother who will otherwise accuse us before the judgment-seat of God. The illustration is taken either from the Jewish law [Deut. 21:18 f.; 15:1] according to which the accuser and the accused had to appear together before the judge, or from the Roman code which allowed the accuser to bring the accused by physical force to the judge. When once the judicial proceedings were begun, there was no reconciliation possible; all compromises had to take place on the way. The “way” signifies our time of life; the prison symbolizes either eternal and temporal punishment, to be inflicted according to the condition of the subject [Alb. Faber Stapulensis, Cajetan, Sylveira, Lapide, Tir. Salmeron, Reischl, Coleridge, Grimm, etc.], or always eternal punishment [most Latin Fathers and commentators: Chromatius, Opus Imperfectum, Paschasius, Bede, Rabanus, Zach. Chrysostom, St Bruno, Dionysius, Maldonado, Jansenius, Barradas, Arnoldi, Schegg, Schanz, Augustine etc]. The words of the passage do not imply a possible release from the prison, but merely state that freedom cannot be obtained till all has been paid [cf. Lk. 12:58 f.]. It follows that we cannot base a solid argument for the existence of purgatory on this passage [Jansenius]. The adversary in question is the person we offend [Cajetan], or the law and word of God [St Bruno], or the Holy Spirit [Chromatius], or God himself [Augustine], or the devil and the flesh [cf. Jerome], or several of the foregoing together [Coleridge, Knabenbauer]. The “officer” is the angel of torments [Chromatius], or the angel who gathers the cockle [Glossa Ordinaria; cf. Mt. 13:41, 42], or the angels that are to come with Jesus to judgment [Augustine, Pasch. Arnoldi, Schanz], or the bad angel [Zach. chrys. Maldonado].

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