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 6:1-6, 16-18

Posted by Dim Bulb on February 10, 2018

Practices of the New Kingdom, 6:1–7:12

After describing the character of the citizens of the Messianic Kingdom and their influence on others, after stating the perfection of the Christian law both in general and in particular obligations, our Lord proceeds to develop the practice of the New Testament virtues. This practice concerns first our acts of devotion [6:1–18], secondly, our private life [6:19–34], and thirdly, our relation to our neighbor [7:1–12].

1 Take heed that you do not your justice before men, to be seen by them: otherwise you shall not have a reward of your Father who is in heaven.

Take heed that you do not do your justice.] 1. Acts of devotion, 6:1–18. This section considers first, alms-deeds, 1–4; secondly, prayer, 5–15; thirdly, fasting, 16–18. That these works were considered in the Old Testament as belonging to the substance of perfection is plain from Tob. 12:8, 9; besides, there is a number of passages in which the three works are recommended singly: the giving of alms is spoken of Deut. 15:7; Pss. 40:2; 111:5; Prov. 11:25; 19:17; Is. 58:7, 8; prayer was practiced both publicly and privately, Gen. 18:23; 20:17; 1 Sam 1:10; 2:1; 8:6; Deut. 26:3 14; 1 Kings 8:56 ff.; Ps. 54:18; fasting, too, was well known, and at certain times even prescribed, Jud. 20:26; 1 Sam 7:6; 2 Sam 12:16; 1 Kings 21:27; Est. 4:1; Ps. 34:13; Dan. 9:3; Joel 2:13; Lev. 16:29; 23:27; Zach. 7:3, 5; 8:19. It is also to be kept in mind that at the time of the exile, prayer was often recurred to instead of the legal sacrifices; but no certain posture of the body was determined as obligatory. Our Lord therefore does not introduce new practices of devotion in the following discourse, but teaches the proper method of performing the customary ones. He comprises them under the name of “justice” and warns in general that they are not to be performed through vainglory. It is true that Maldonado, etc. regard “justice” as synonymous with the following “alms-deed,” but Tob. 4:10 and Prov. 10:2; 11:4 show that it had also the wider meaning. It is not the mere publicity of the good works that robs them of their merit, but the intention of the doer to gain human praise thereby. Whatever may have been the views of the Jews concerning future retribution, our Lord here speaks of the “reward of your Father who is in heaven.”

2 Therefore when thou dost an alms-deed, sound not a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be honoured by men. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.

 Therefore, when thou dost an alms-deed.] a. Alms-deeds. Here Jesus teaches first, what to avoid, then, how to give alms, and thirdly, he adds the motive. a. We must avoid the way of the hypocrites in the synagogues and the streets. In classical language “hypocrites” were those that acted the part of another person, the beginning of their performance being announced by the sound of a trumpet. Owing to this custom, gl. ord. Bruno of Segni, Tostatus, Cajetan, Jansenius [cf. Euthymius, Maldonado Lapide] contend that our Lord warns here literally against having one’s alms-deeds announced by trumpet-sound in streets and synagogues, thus merely acting the part of a friend to the poor. But Lightfoot, Schöttgen, etc. maintain that there is no vestige of any such custom among the ancient Hebrews. Since our Lord must have alluded to an evil that was then well known, Edersheim [i. pp. 196, 539] believes that he borrows his language from the trumpet-shaped collection boxes in which the alms were received in both temple and synagogues; but Thomas Aquinas, Faber Stapulensis, Barradas, Sylveira, Calmet, Arnoldi, Schegg, Schanz, Fillion Knabenbauer, etc. rightly see in the language of our Lord a merely figurative expression, in which he warns against ostentation and external show in our works of mercy [cf. Cicero, ep. ad divers, vi. 21]. The use of trumpets in the temple service was sufficiently well known to render our Lord’s words fully intelligible [cf. Joel 2:15].

3 But when thou dost alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doth.
4 That thy alms may be in secret, and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee.

But when thou dost alms.] β. How to give alms. We need not notice the view of Paulus and de Wette who think that Jesus warns against first counting the money, or the alms we give, in the left hand; Chrysostom and Augustine, have rejected the explanation that the “left hand” means the wicked and the unbelieving; Augustine qualifies the view that the “left hand” signifies the wife, as absurd and ridiculous, because our Lord cannot be supposed to allude to the parsimoniousness of the wife, and the domestic struggles that would follow, if the wife were to know the generous acts of mercy done by the husband; nor can it be maintained that the “left hand” signifies either pleasure or our lower appetite, because this interpretation does not fit into the context; the view of Maldonado, who considers the language of Jesus as a rhetorical exaggeration, deserves more commendation than any of the foregoing, though the “left hand” may also signify those most closely connected with us [cf. Mt. 5:29, 30]. At any rate, our alms-deeds must be done with as little ostentation as possible.

γ. The motive. The secret charity we thus exercise becomes more precious [cf. Sirach. 29:15], and our reward will be not that of this earth, but that of heaven [cf. Phil. 2:16; 2 Tim. 1:12, 18; 4:8]. But even in this life, we thus spare the feelings of the poor, and have God “who seeth in secret” for the witness of our charity. The foregoing doctrine is of precept, in so far as it teaches that our intention in doing good must always be pure; it is of counsel, in so far as it warns us to avoid all occasion of vanity in which our corrupt human nature might be conquered [Jansenius, Knabenbauer].

5 And when ye pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, that love to stand and pray in the synagogues and corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men: Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.
6 But thou when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret, and thy father who seeth in secret will repay thee.

And when you pray.] b. Prayer. In this section our Lord first warns against the vice of the Pharisees [5, 6], then against the misconception of the heathens [7, 8], and finally he gives a formula of a perfect prayer [9–15]. a. The Old Testament passages referring to prayer have been given above [v. 1]. It may be supposed that public prayer was not only joined with the two daily sacrifices [cf. Ps. 72:20; 136], but also that it took place about the third, the sixth, and the ninth hour [cf. Ps. 54:18]. Acts 3:1; 10:9 seems to confirm the latter supposition. Though a kneeling and prostrate posture was not unknown among the Jews [1 Kings 8:54; 19:18; Dan. 6:10; Lk. 22:41; Acts 9:40; 20:36; 21:5], they commonly stood erect during prayer [1 Kings 1:26; Dan. 9:20; Mk. 11:25; Lk. 18:11, 13; Philo, Vit. contempl. opp. ii. 481; Light. f.], so that “to stand” was almost synonymous with “to pray.” At the stated times of prayer there was naturally a greater concourse on the streets leading to the temple, and especially at the corners where two or three streets crossed each other. The warning of our Lord against standing and praying in the synagogues or at the corners of the streets is therefore a warning against ostentation in our prayer. The retirement in which we ought to pray is described by the chamber and the shut doors [Mt. 24:26; Lk. 12:3; Tob. 7:15]; Jesus does not necessarily speak of the upper chamber, though the prayer was often performed in it [Dan. 6:11; Judith 8:5; Tob. 3:12; Acts 1:13]. Whether the passage be explained literally as a rhetorical exaggeration, or metaphorically, the spiritual lesson contained in it is the same. The manner in which Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Opus Imperfectum, apply the passage to spiritual recollection during time of prayer is rather pious than accurate. That public and common prayer was not prohibited by these words of Jesus is seen from Acts 1:24; 3:1; 4:24; 6:6; 12:12; 1 Tim. 2:8. The precept contained in these words may be complied with in public, and may be transgressed in secret, since it is only the intention, and not the outward circumstances, that Jesus regulates. The counsel contained in the words is again calculated to remove us from all occasion of vainglory.

16 And when you fast, be not as the hypocrites, sad. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.
17 But thou, when thou fastest anoint thy head, and wash thy face;
18 That thou appear not to men to fast, but to thy Father who is in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret, will repay thee.

And when you fast.] c. Fasting. The law ordained only one yearly fast-day, the Day of Atonement [Lev. 16:29; 23:27]. Zach. 7:3, 5; 8:19 knows of four national fast-days. About the time of the exile private fasts became quite numerous, so that many fasted every Friday, and the Pharisees every Monday and Thursday. The Essenes and the Therapeutæ especially distinguished themselves by their rigorous fasts [cf. Josephus, Jewish Wars. II. viii. 2–14; Philo, De vit. cont. ii. 471 f.]. The one-day’s fast consisted in the total abstinence from food and drink; its penitential character was emphasized by additional austerities, by rending of the garments, wearing of haircloth, or sprinkling of ashes. Our Lord tells his hearers first, how not to fast, secondly, how to fast.

α. How not to fast. Jesus here returns to the principal theme of this part of his discourse, warning us against all vain ostentation in the performance of our good works. We are not to fast like the hypocrites, who merely act, as it were, the part of devout men; we must not neglect our hair or our face, or put on other signs of mourning, thus betraying our practice of fasting; if we do this, we have received our reward.

β. How to fast. The positive precept of our Lord concerning the manner of fasting tends to make us avoid the notice and praise of men. The anointing of the head may be regarded as a hyperbolical expression based on Oriental manners [cf. Ruth 3:3; 2 Kings 12:20; etc.]; it signifies that when we fast, we must appear outwardly the same as usual. Augustine, Chrysostom, Opus Imperfectum, refer the anointing of the head and the washing of the face to the inner man, so that our Lord, according to these writers, recommended a special care of purity of soul during the days of fasting. If Keil were right in inferring a prohibition of fasting itself from the words of our Lord, one might also infer a general prohibition of alms-deeds and prayer from the warning of Jesus not to perform these actions through vainglory.

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