Mat 18:1 At that hour the disciples came to Jesus, saying: Who, thinkest thou, is the greater in the kingdom of heaven?
At that hour the disciples came, &c. There seems to be a discrepancy here with Mar_9:31, where it is said that the disciples disputed about this matter in the way, and that afterwards, when they were in the house, Christ prevented them, and asked them what they were doing in the way? S. Chrysostom answers that the Apostles had often disputed about this same matter, and at length Christ anticipated them with this question. When, therefore, they saw that their thoughts were known to Christ, they opened the matter to Him of their own accord, and asked him to resolve their question for them. Various things gave rise to these disputations, but the immediate cause was Christ having paid the didrachma for Peter only. Hence they envied him, as preferred to them, and then each began to be anxious that he might be promoted to the first rank. Hear S. Jerome, “Because they saw that the same piece of money had paid the tribute both for the Lord and Peter, from the equality of the payment, they thought Peter was preferred above the rest of the Apostles. Therefore they asked, Who, thinkest thou, is the greater in the kingdom of heaven? Jesus knowing their thoughts, and understanding the cause of their error, desired to heal their desire of glory by teaching them to contend in humility.” Again, they saw that Peter, James and John had been taken apart by Christ on Tabor, and they grieved that they too had not been taken. Lastly, they had heard that Christ was shortly to die, and rise again, and enter into His glorious kingdom, and they prematurely were occupying themselves about these things, and seeking how they might become chiefs.
The greatest, i.e., in the kingdom of Messiah, which the Apostles expected Christ would establish on the earth indeed, though a heavenly and Divine kingdom, that is, in the Church. For the Church Militant on earth is tending towards the Church Triumphant in Heaven, as to the kingdom promised it by Christ. Maldonatus understands the passage as follows: He who is less, i.e., more humble in the Church is greater in the Church, and therefore greater in the kingdom of Heaven. He proves this: 1, from the occasion of this question, because from Christ’s having paid the didrachma for Peter, the Apostles conjectured he was to be the future head of the church; 2, because Christ regarded the question as a mark of ambition: and it is ambition to seek the first place in the Church, but not in Heaven. Charity persuades us to seek the first places in Heaven. This explanation is probable; but we may understand the passage more simply, by taking the kingdom of Heaven to mean literally Heaven. The Apostles are charged by Christ with ambition, because they looked upon the kingdom of Heaven like an earthly kingdom, which is often compassed because of pride, and even seized by force of arms.
Mat 18:2 And Jesus, calling unto him a little child, set him in the midst of them.
And Jesus calling unto him a little child, &c. Mark adds that He took him in His arms. It is thought, says Jansen, that this little boy was S. Martial, who afterwards became a disciple of S. Peter, and was sent by him to preach the Gospel in Gaul, and converted the inhabitants of Limousin, of Toulouse, and Bourdeaux. But others say that S. Martial was one of the seventy-two disciples. He could not, therefore, have been a little child at this time.
Mat 18:3 And said: amen I say to you, unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Converted, i.e., from this emulation and ambition of yours, which is at least a venial sin, and therefore an impediment to entrance into the kingdom of Heaven.
As little children: for, speaking generally, they do not envy others, nor covet precedence, but are simple, humble, innocent, and candid. I say generally, for S. Augustine (Confess. l 1, c. 7) testifies that he had seen an infant at its mother’s breasts growing pale with envy, because he saw his twin brother sucking at the same breasts. But there is no little child who is ambitious of a kingdom, or of the first place in a kingdom, as the Apostles were.
Christ bids us become like little children. Briefly, and to the point, does S. Hilary sum up their characteristics which ought to be imitated by believers. “They,” he says, “follow their father; they love their mother: they wish no evil to their neighbour; they regard not the care of riches; they are not wont to be insolent, nor to hate, nor to tell lies. They believe what they are told; they regard as true what they hear. Let us return, therefore, to the simplicity of little children, for when we have that, we bear about with us a likeness of the Lord’s humility.”
The way, therefore, to Heaven is humility; and the entrance and the door of Heaven is humility, because, save through it, there is no access to Heaven. S. Antony saw in spirit the whole world full of gins, and souls who desired to fly to Heaven caught in them, and being thus ensnared by the demons, thrust into hell. He cried out with groans, “0 Lord, who shall escape all these snares?” And he heard the answer, “Humility shall escape them all.” Christ, that He may cure the ambition of His disciples by a zeal for humility, makes use of three reasons to persuade them. The first is in this verse, in which he declares that none who are devoid of it shall enter Heaven. The second is in the following verse; that humility exalts, and that if you wish to be great in the kingdom of Heaven you must be small and humble on earth. The third is in the fifth verse; that humility is conformity to Christ, Who humbled Himself below the Apostles and all men, Who humbled Himself even unto death. Therefore, whoso receiveth him that is humble receiveth Christ.
Mat 18:4 Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, he is the greater in the kingdom of heaven.
Whosoever therefore shall humble himself, &c., i.e., shall be as humble through virtue as this little child is by nature: or who shall be lowly in mind as he is little in body. Christ then bids us become like little ones, not in want of wisdom but in simplicity and innocence, and directly in humility. Thus the Apostles (1Cor 14:20). “Brethren be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be ye men.” Origen gives the reason, “A little child has no overweening ideas of himself, and does not boast of rank or riches. We see that infants until their third or fourth year, even if they belong to the nobility, put themselves on an equality with boys of lowly birth, and are as ready to love poor children as rich ones.”
Moraliter: learn here the paradox of Christian wisdom. If you wish to be great in heaven, desire to be unknown on earth, and to be little among men, to be despised and made of no account. If you wish to be raised to the chief thrones in the empyrean, place thyself even below the feet of Judas, as S. Francis Borgia did. For it has been fixed and sanctioned by the eternal law of God, that “whoso exalteth himself shall be abased, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” There once was seen a lofty and glorious throne among the Seraphim, and a voice was heard which said, “This seat is kept for the lowly Francis.” So Bonaventura in his life.
Humility is grateful and honourable with God, with angels and with men. Even if you would act upon mere policy, you must embrace humility, because it is in favour with all men. Hence courtiers, be they as ambitious as they may, yet marvellously humble themselves both in word and deed; but because they labour under the secret arrogance of the mind, it is difficult for them not to betray their hauteur from breaking out by some indication in their countenance. S. Jerome, or rather S. Paulinus (Epist. ad Celant. 14), says, “You can have nothing more excellent, or more loveable than humility. She is the chief preserver, and as it were the guardian of all virtues. And there is nothing which can make us so pleasing to God and men, as that when we are deservedly great by reason of our life, we should be the lowest by reason of humility.” As the Scripture says, “The greater thou art, humble thyself in all things, and thou shalt find favour before God.” Moreover S. Jerome says (Epis. 45, ad Anton.), “Our Lord as a teacher of humility to His disciples, when they were disputing about dignity, took a little child and said, whosoever of you shall not be converted to be like an infant, cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven. But that He might appear not only to teach, but also to do, He fulfilled this by His example, when, whilst washing His disciples’ feet, He kissed His betrayer; when He conversed with the Samaritan woman; when He talked with Mary sitting at His feet about the kingdom of heaven; when, rising from the dead, He appeared first to the women. But Satan fell from the state of an archangel for no other cause than pride, which is the vice contrary to humility.” Humility, therefore, makes man to become an angel, even as pride made an angel become a devil. The first gift which is given to a man from beholding the Divine light is self-knowledge, says S. Denys (Epist. 7, ad Titum), and this is humility. For humility is a virtue by which a man thinketh vilely of himself through self-knowledge, and reckons himself inferior to all; either because he esteems himself viler, weaker, or more wretched than all, or because he piously thinks others are endowed with greater grace and other gifts of God than he is. That is a golden saying of blessed Nilus: “Blessed is he whose life is lofty, his spirit lowly.” Hear, too, the words of Cæsarius (Hom. 30): “As from an earthly fountain, or a terrestrial river, no one can drink unless he be willing to stoop, so also no one can draw living water from Christ, the Fountain of Life, and from the river of the Holy Ghost, unless he shall humble himself, according to that which is written—’God resisteth the proud.'” Lastly, S. Jerome gives a mirror of humility in S. Paula, of whom he writes thus in her epitaph: “She shines, amongst a multitude of gems, as the most precious of all, and, as a ray of the sun, obscures the little sparkles of the stars. Thus she surpassed the virtues of all by the power of her humility. She was the least of all, that she might become greater than all; and the more she cast herself down, the more she was lifted up by Christ. She was obscure, and yet she could not lie hid. By flying from glory, she merited renown, which follows virtue like its shadow, and—deserting those who hunger after it—seeks those who despise it.”
Mat 18:5 And he that shall receive one such little child in my name, receiveth me.
And he that shall receive, &c. That is in hospitality, to his table, by favour, or by assisting in any other way. By receive is here meant any kind of benefit or charity, or benevolence. Observe, Luke has this little child. From this it appears that Christ speaks: 1. Of a child who is truly a little one: 2. Of a mystical child, viz., of a person who is lowly and humble. He rises from one to the other, playing upon the expression little one (parvulus). It is as though Christ said, So pleasing is humility to Me, that I delight in children, because they bear humility about with them, in appearance, in their stature, their age, their innocence: and I would have all My disciples become little children, and imitate little children, and so deserve to be received by all men. For men will think that in them they receive Me, because they receive them for My sake. For of Me Isaiah prophesied “Unto us a child (pavulus) is born, to us a son is given.” Like unto this is the voice of Christ in the following chapter, verse 14. S. Jerome observes that a little one is here spoken of, “because he who is offended is a little one; for those who are older do not take offence.” Mark and Luke add, He that receiver Me, receiveth Him that sent Me. Luke gives the reason, He that is least among you all, i.e., who is the most humble of you all, he is the greatest, that is to say, with Me and My Father which is in Heaven. “He is lowly,” says S. Augustine, “who chooses rather to be an abject in the house of the Lord than to dwell in the tabernacles of sinners.” (Vulg.) This saying of Christ, S. Elizabeth, the daughter of the King of Hungary, stamped upon her very inmost heart. She fed and served daily nine hundred poor people, sick, full of scabs and ulcers. The lepers she washed with her own hands, wiped and kissed their ulcers. In such offices she delighted, and was wont to say, “How good and kind the Lord is to me, in that He suffers me to wash and wipe these people.”
Mat 18:6 But he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea.
But he that shall scandalize, &c. Syriac, shall be for a stumbling block to. That means, as Theophylact says, shall injure, as S. Chrysostom says, shall despise. It is opposed to the word, shall receive, in verse 5. So Maldonatus. But it is better to take, as Jansen does, the word offence in its proper meaning. For this is plain from what follows. So there is an antithesis between it and receive. As thus, he who shall receive a little child in My name, i.e., shall cherish and advance him in My faith and love and worship, receives Me. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones, that is, shall by wicked word or example turn him from My love and worship, it would be better for him that he were drowned in the sea.
It were better for him, i.e., as Luke has it (17:2), It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and be cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones. It were better to be sunk in the sea than to scandalize little ones upon earth, because drowning is the death of the body, but causing a scandal is the death of the soul, both your own and the the souls of those whom you cause to stumble, and lead into sin. S. Matthew leaves out the second part of the antithesis, which Luke expresses in the words, than that he should offend one of these little ones. S. Jerome gives a different turn. “It is better for him,” he says, “to receive a short punishment for a fault, than to be reserved for eternal torments: for the Lord will not punish twice for the same offence.”
You will ask how this verse is connected with what precedes, and how this offence applies to the Apostles? S. Jerome replies, “Although this sentence may be taken as generally applicable against all who cause any one to stumble, nevertheless according to the sequence of the words, it can even be understood as spoken against the Apostles, who by asking which was the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven, seemed to contend among themselves about pre-eminence. And if they remained in this fault, they might destroy those whom they were inviting to the faith, by giving them cause of offence, when they saw the Apostles fighting among themselves about dignity. And when He says, it were better for him that a very heavy millstone were hung about his neck, He is speaking according to the custom of the country: for this was a method of punishing very great criminals amongst the ancient Jews, that a heavy stone should be tied to them, and that they should be sunk in a deep place.”
Millstone (Vulg. mola asinaria; Gr. μύλος ο̉νικὸς) This is a millstone which in Palestine, say SS. Hilary and Ambrose, is turned by asses. Whence the Syriac translates, the millstone of an ass. It means a large and heavy millstone, which could not be turned by a man, but which would require a horse or an ass to turn it. Or it may mean the nether millstone upon which the upper millstone revolves. This nether millstone is called in Greek όνος, an ass, because it sustains the weight and burden of the upper millstone. Thus, too, the Hebrews call the upper stone רככ recheb, a horseman, because it rides, as it were, upon the nether stone.
Let the clergy and religious, who contend for pre-eminence among themselves, take note of this passage. For such contention causes seculars to stumble, and is a great disgrace and cause of reproach to religion. And it were better for them that they should be sunk with a millstone in the depths of the sea than that they should give cause of scandal to Christian people.
Mat 18:7 Woe to the world because of scandals. For it must needs be that scandals come: but nevertheless woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh.
Woe to the world, &c.; that is, great and dreadful evils, both present and future, impend over men of the world, on account of God’s wrath because of scandals, active as well as Passive. For they who cause others to stumble by their ambition, or by the example of their evil life, are guilty of the punishment of hell. And they who are scandalized, and follow the evil examples of others, are condemned as their followers and associates, and both alike perish. The world is full of scandals, because it is full of wicked men, libertines, spend-thrifts, and avaricious people. In order that they may satisfy their lusts, they cause all to stumble. Wherefore the larger part of mankind is damned because of scandals. Wherefore it follows, it must needs be, &c. Moreover, scandals, or offences—of which Christ is here speaking—are persecutions, derision, injuries of the righteous; also evil examples, false doctrines, things done or said unseasonably; for there are many things which are good and lawful in themselves, but by reason of inopportuneness of time, or place, when they are done before the uninstructed, become an occasion of scandal.
It must needs be, &c. Not absolutely, nor per se, but by supposition. For the various dispositions and corruptions of so many men being foreseen and presupposed; together with their levity, ambition, cupidity, forasmuch as they are free to be wicked, it is not possible but that sometimes by some, yea frequently by many, there should be (at least indeterminately, and in the gross) scandals, i.e., crimes, and other things which cause the little ones to stumble. So S. Paul says (1 Cor. 11:38): There must be heresies. Thus it is necessary in genere, and in the gross, that a just man should commit venial sin sometimes; although the particular acts of each individual are free, not absolutely determined. Therefore, any individual may avoid venial sins, considered one by one, but not all venial sins altogether. For let us grant that in individual cases a man may give such care and attention as not to sin, yet it is impossible that—taking all contingent events in the lump—a man should not sometimes be remiss, and fail, or slip. For this is the infirmity of the mind of man since the Fall. In the same way it is necessary that the most skilful archer, who to a certainty hits the mark as often as he chooses to do so, should sometimes miss it, if he is perpetually shooting at it. For this is a condition and result of human weakness—that mind, hand, or eye cannot long keep up the strain of their attention, that a man should hit the mark a hundred times running. He must miss sometimes.
But nevertheless woe to that man, &c. Because he determinately, and of free will, in this or that wicked or indiscreet action gives an offence to the little ones, and so sins mortally. SS. Jerome and Bede apply these words to Judas, who gave the greatest scandal to the whole world, when he betrayed Christ. But the words are of general application, and threaten the woe of eternal damnation to all who are a cause of offence. Christ here teaches three things concerning scandals: 1. How grave they are in themselves and in their consequences. 2. How numerous they are, and that they must needs come; speaking generally. 3. How carefully they are to be avoided. Wherefore He subjoins,
Mat 18:8 And if thy hand, or thy foot, scandalize thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee. It is better for thee to go into life maimed or lame, than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into everlasting fire.
Mat 18:9 And if thy eye scandalize thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee. It is better for thee having one eye to enter into life, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.
And if thy hand, &c. (verses 8 and 9), as I have expounded on chapter 5:30.
Mat 18:10 See that you despise not one of these little ones: for I say to you, that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.
See that you despise not one of these little ones, &c., viz., those who are lowly, whom the world despises as poor and miserable. For although they may be weak, yet have they guardian angels who are strong, who may accuse you to God the Father, whom they always behold, and by His command may severely avenge and punish all offences and wrongs done to those who have been committed to their charge.
For I say to you, &c. From this passage, and from Gen_48:16, and Act_12:15, and from the general tradition of the Fathers, doctors teach that all Christians, yea indeed all men, have an angel who is appointed by God to be their guardian from birth unto death. Hear S. Jerome “Great is the dignity of souls, that each has from his birth an angel appointed to watch over him.” And again, “The angels offer daily, through Christ, the prayers of those who are to bc saved. It is therefore a perilous thing to despise one whose desires are carried to the eternal and invisible God by the ministry of angels.” All the rest of the Ancients, and even the Protestant doctors, teach the same thing. Suarez cites them (lib. 6 de Angelis, c. 17, n. 8). He shews in opposition to Calvin and the Centuriators that it is an error to deny that a guardian angel is given by God to all men, not only to believers and the righteous, as Origen seems to have supposed, but even to unbelievers and the reprobate. Wherefore Antichrist will have his guardian angel, as S. Thomas teaches (1 part. quæst. 113, art. 4, ad. 3). Suarez teaches the same, and that guardian angels are ordinarily of the ninth, or lowest order of the angelic hierarchy, who are designated by the common appellation of angels. But to some special individuals of surpassing excellence or dignity, as Apostles, Prophets, Patriarchs, Bishops, Kings, guardians have been assigned of the eighth order, who are called archangels. Hence Gabriel was the guardian of the Blessed Virgin, and he is thought by many to belong to the order of the Seraphim. In saying that all men have a guardian angel, I except Christ, for He needed not an angel, whose Divinity was a sufficient guardian of His humanity. Nevertheless Christ had many angels, always at hand to minister to His wants. On this subject we must read Origen with caution, who pretends that guardian angels sometimes sin through negligence in their guardianship, and therefore are deprived for a time of the vision of God. But this is an error, for all the angels are blessed, and therefore immutable and impeccable.
The offices of the guardian angels are as follows:—1. To avert dangers both of the body and the soul. 2. To illuminate and instruct those committed to their charge, and to urge them to good works. 3. To restrain the demon, that he may not suggest wicked thoughts, or furnish occasions of sin. 4. To offer to God the prayers of him whom he guards. 5. To pray for him. 6. To correct him if he sin. 7. To stand by him at the hour of death, to comfort and assist him in his last struggle. 8. After death to convey the soul to Heaven, or if it need purgatory, to accompany it thither, and when there to console it from time to time, until purgatory being over, he carries it to Heaven.
You will ask why the expression their angels connotes not only the little ones who believe in Christ, which is the direct antecedent, but all other men? S. Chrysostom replies that angels denote not any angels, but those of surpassing dignity, as though the care of the little ones were committed to the highest angels. S. Thomas interprets the highest angels to mean not the chief of the highest order the Seraphim, but the chief of the ninth order of angels, so that the highest angels in that order are the guardians of men; those in the middle ranks, of animals; and the lowest, the guardians of trees and plants. To this we may add the opinion of Maldonatus, who thinks that the guardians of little ones are higher in rank than those of other men. And by little ones he understands not children, but the humble and the righteous, for whom God has greater care than for other men, as the whole of Scripture testifies. He proves that the angels of the little ones are greater and more honourable for this reason, that they always behold the face of God. Not that the other angels do not see It, but because by this expression the Hebrews signify one who is near to God, and His friend. It is a metaphor taken from courts, where the most honourable are those who are nearest to the king, and therefore most frequently see His face. Thus the Queen of Sheba says of the servants of Solomon, “Blessed are these thy servants, who stand before thee, and hear thy wisdom.”
2. Their angels, denotes that the angels of little ones have special care of them, more than the angels of those who are grown up. Of little ones, I say, both those who are so in age and faith, as well as in their lot and condition. For these, since they are weak in judgment and prudence, have the greater need of the care and guardianship of angels. It is a saying of the common people, that infants and idiots are the chief objects of angels’ care, for truly, unless angels had special care of infants, they would continually fall into the fire or water, and would be injured by pigs and beasts, and run over by horses and carriages.
3. Their angels, means that they are the peculiar friends of the little ones. For the angels marvellously love little children and the humble, because they, as it were, belong to them, and are most like them. For the angels are very humble, and by their humility they overcame Lucifer, saying, with S. Michael, their captain, mi ca el, i.e., who is as God? (See Philo Berlemont, in the Paradise for Children).
Moraliter: Learn from hence, first, how great is the dignity of souls, that they have angels for their guardians. In the next place how great is the condescension of God, that he assigns to us such guides. For these are they of whom it is said in Psalm 104, “Who maketh His angels spirits, His ministers a flaming fire.” In the last place, how great is the humility and love of the angels, who do not disdain these offices, but delight in them, because they see their Lord and God made man, as S. Bernard says. Wherefore the same S. Bernard says, on the words of the Psalm, He shall give His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways, “What reverence ought these words to instil into thee, what devotion, what confidence. Reverence for the angel’s presence, devotion for his kindness, confidence for his guardianship. Walk warily, even as one to whom angels are present, in all thy ways. Whithersoever thou turnest aside, in whatever corner thou art, reverence thy angel. Do not dare to do in his presence what thou wouldst not dare to do if I saw thee.”
Again, since the angels make it their business to purify, illuminate and perfect us, it is right that we should obey them by striving with all our might to attain to great sanctity and perfection, that we should emulate the life and habits of the angels, as those who are to be by and bye their companions in Heaven, for as the Apostle says, “Ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God.” And, “Ye are come unto the city of the living God, to an innumerable company of angels.” Wherefore let us put away far from us all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, and especially all pride and contention. Nothing so provokes the angels to indignation as quarrels and scandals, as Christ here teaches, for they are the very angels of peace and edification.
In fine, let us often converse with our angels in spirit, as St. Bernard says, “Have the angels, my brethren, for your friends, and often go to them in earnest thought and devout adoration, for they are always present to guard and comfort you.”
That their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father, &c., that is, the shining essence of God. The angels always see clearly without a veil, as it were face to face. The angels, says S. Augustine (lib. 9. de Civit. c. 22.), enjoy the immutable and ineffable beauty of God, with the holy love of Whom they burn. they despise all lower things, and themselves among them, that they may enjoy wholly, because they are good, that Good, by which they are good. The face of God then is the beauty and the brightness of the Divinity, clearly manifesting Itself to the angels, and making them blessed; for otherwise, strictly speaking, God has not a face, even as he has not a body.
Who is in Heaven: S. Gregory (2 Moral. c. 2.), and S. Bernard (Serm. 5, de dedicat. Eccles.) observe that the angels, even when they go forth from Heaven, always behold the face of God. For they are blessed wheresoever they are; therefore, wheresoever they are, they are said to be in Heaven. For where there is the vision and glory of God, there is Paradise and Heaven. Hence S. Gregory says, “They both stand before God, and are sent; because through this, that they have been circumscribed, they go forth; and through this, that they are also present within, they never go away. And therefore they always see the face of the Father, and yet come to us, because they go forth abroad to us in spiritual presence, and yet they keep themselves there by interior contemplation.” And a little before, “What can they be ignorant of in things that can be known, who know Him who knoweth all things?” They are not therefore called away from the guardianship of the humble through desire of returning to God, because they never depart from God, but wheresoever they are, they have Him present. They do all things, and guard the little ones in God, and for the sake of God.