Father Juan de Maldonado’s Commentary on Matthew 5:38-48

Mat 5:38  You have heard that it hath been said: An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.

These are the words of the Law (Ex 21:24; Lev 24:20; Dent 19:21). Christ does not say more than the first words, the rest being well known. It was the lex talionis, a law, according to the philosophers and the opinion of all nations, very just and natural. It means that every man should receive according to his actions. In the twelve tables, which are, as it were, a natural code of laws, there was one very similar to this. Aristotle writes on it in the fifth book of the Ethics and Aulus Gellius in his twentieth book gives a lengthy and subtle disputation on the subject between a philosopher and jurisconsult.

This law was given, as a rule, not to private persons, but to magistrates, lest they should either exceed or fall short of the due degree of justice. To private individuals, on the contrary, it was said, “Seek not revenge” (Lev 19:18). What then did Christ do concerning this law? This firstly: He did away the lex talionis, which restrained a man from violence only from fear of the consequences, as SS. Hilary and Chrysostom (Hom, xviii.). The Author, Euthymius, and Theophylact have observed; for He would have us act not from fear as slaves, but from love as sons (Rom 8:15). “For the Law worketh wrath” (Rom 4:15); the Gospel, grace (S. John 1:27). In addition, He taught us not only not to seek revenge, but to endure injuries with patience; and not only endure them, but even to wish for them—to glory in them. Lastly, to one who strikes us on one cheek He bids us offer the other; and to him who takes our coat to give our cloak also (as Rom 5:3). S. Hilary says that whilst the Law only cut off the branches, Christ destroyed the root itself “In the Law,” says S. Jerome, “is retribution; in the Gospel is grace.” In the one, faults are corrected; in the other, the first principles of sin are rooted out.

Mat 5:39  But I say to you not to resist evil: but if one strike thee on thy right cheek, turn to him also the other:

Not to resist evil.  SS. Chrysostom (Hom, xviii.), Theophylact, and Euthymius understand the devil. I suppose because he is called του πονηρου, as before with the article (i.e., “the evil one” in verse 37). Does Christ then teach us not to resist the devil, whom S. John 4:7 and 1 S. Peter 5:9 command us to resist manfully in the faith? We must resist him, indeed, but not in this manner—not by seeking revenge. For this is not to resist, but to hold out the hand to him. Fire is not extinguished by fire, but increased. Others understand the words of one who has done a wrong. Others, again, not of an evil person, but thing: others take evil (malo) for the ablative case, as if he said. Give not evil for evil—return not evil by evil— but overcome evil by good (Rom 12:17; 16:21; 1 Peter 3:29).

Others consider it the dative, which seems to me more probable. For Christ calls the wrong done to us “evil”; and He commands us not to resist, but rather to show ourselves prepared for it, and when we have received a blow upon one cheek to offer the other.

S. Augustin (ii., De Semi. Doni.) asserts that neither Christ, nor the Apostles however perfect, observed this precept. For even Christ turned not His cheek to the man who smote Him before the judge, but He resisted, if not by hand, by word (S. John 18:23) ; and when S. Paul was struck by order of the judge, he not only did not offer his other cheek, but, as far as he could he resisted, and even uttered some harsh words in return (Acts 23:3) ; and when beaten and cast into prison, he followed up his rights with threats (Acts 16:37).

From these examples we learn either that what Christ here teaches is not a precept, or that it is not to be understood as the words seem to imply. For if it were a precept, or were to be understood literally, both Christ and S. Paul would have kept it so. It is partly a precept, therefore, and partly a counsel. The following are the parts of the precept: First, not to seek for revenge. Secondly, to turn the other cheek; that is, to receive an injury rather than seek to revenge one already received. Thirdly, to be ready to yield up somewhat of our right whenever charity and the love of God seem to require it. It is a counsel that, though neither charity nor the love of God absolutely require it of us, yet that we should do all, literally, for our own mortification. Not, indeed, provoking our enemy to do us wrong, but being ready to receive it. Thus, S. Lawrence is reported to have said: ” It is cooked, come, sit down and eat “.

But if one strike thee on the right. The words right cheek, rather than the left, are used as a form of speech—not with reference to the blow, for a buffet is apt to fall on the left side before the right, as the left is opposite the right hand of the striker, and it is apt to light upon the left cheek, as S. Augustin says. S. Luke says simply, “On the right cheek”. It is a forcible Christian antithesis, for to the Lex talionis, an eye for an eye, Christ opposes, if we may so speak, the talio of patience—that for one wrong received we should accept another. The Ethnics of old did not understand this when they said that this Law of Christ would destroy the state, for it gave impunity to crimes (Marcellus to S. Augustin, Ep. iv.); as if states did not stand more firmly by patience than by force: by virtue than by law. Christ, too, does not bind the hands of the judge, nor prevent him from judging murderers and other criminals; nor so abrogate the law that the judge cannot enforce it. He only discountenances compulsion. For Christian judges require eye for eye and tooth for tooth when they condemn a man to death for murder. But He puts, as it were, fetters on individual persons, lest, whilst they endeavour to correct their wrongs by their own hand, they double it. Christ does not take away the power of punishment, but He removes the occasion of sin.

Mat 5:40  And if a man will contend with thee in judgment, and take away thy coat, let go thy cloak also unto him.
Mat 5:41  And whosoever will force thee one mile, go with him other two.

And whosoever will force (angariaverit) thee one mile. Angariaverit, αγγαρευσε . This is not a Greek or Latin word originally, but one in use among the Persians, by whom public messengers were called angarii. They had power to compel men to carry burthens, and they might take any man’s horses or ships. Hence the Greeks and Latins use the word to signify those who are compelled for money to carry burthens or act as guides, as Simon the Cyrenian was “angariated” to bear the Cross (Matt 27:32). Christ therefore justly numbers this either among the benefits we do to others, if done by our free will, or among the benefits we receive from them, if by compulsion.

Go with him other two. The word “other” is perhaps an addition to the Latin version. It would apparently be better away, as it involves three miles, and Christ spoke only of the receipt of two injuries, as in the instance of the right and left cheeks.

Mat 5:42  Give to him that asketh of thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not away.

Give to him that asketh of thee. That is, whoever asks of thee, give to him, as we see in S. Luke 6:30. We are not commanded here to have no respect of persons. They are to be aided first who are first in need. Nor are we to give recklessly to all who ask; nor to take no account of our property; nor to treat our friends as we should our enemies, our kindred as strangers. Charity demands that we should assist our parents before strangers; our friends rather than those of whom we have no knowledge. This rule Christ assuredly desired to confirm, not to destroy. So entirely is that respect of persons which is opposed to justice, not charity, forbidden. My father and another meet me. Each is in need. I cannot give to both. I give to my father, and pass the other by. For charity requires this of me.

We must have regard, as the Doctors of Church teach, to persons. When we do alms we must consider the quality of the person. He may be a person wholly unfit for charity; as if I give to a man because he is rich, or because he can give to me again; or he has no proper claim, as if I give to one because he is a Greek or a Latin by birth. Alms are to be given for poverty, not to one of this nation or that.

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

Thou shalt love thy neighbor.  In the Hebrew of Lev 19:18, ריע “your friend,” for that is the meaning of the Hebrew word. That is, one who is near to you in blood or friendship. The meaning is found in the Law: ” Thou shalt love thy friend as thyself” (Lev 19:18, proximum). That is, thy friend, as is shown by the force of the word “love” and the antithesis which Christ uses. For he was called a “friend” in the Law who not only was but ought to be such. A Jew ought to be such. What some say, therefore, and especially heretics, that even the Jews had this command in the Law (as in Ex 23:4) is wholly foreign to the subject. For the very person who is here called an enemy (inimicus) was a friend as being a Jew: an enemy as entertaining a personal hatred to the other. The same person is therefore called a brother (Deut 22:). This is the more difficult, because Christ, in S. Luke 10:29, seems to teach us who is our neighbour otherwise; but His explanation is not of the Law but of the Gospel. Christ willed by it to destroy the difference of nations, the wall having been broken down, and there being in Him neither Jew nor Greek, but a new creature; so that the Jews were no longer a peculiar people to Him, but there was to be one fold and one shepherd.

It might be proved that the Pharisees did not err in their interpretation of the precept, but that they only who are friends and deserve well of us are to be called our neighbours. For that lawyer, or scribe, or Pharisee, or certain person learned in the Law, is said to have judged rightly, that neither the priest nor the Levite, but the Samaritan, who performed the part of a friend to the man who fell among the thieves, was his neighbour. But we know that Christ meant otherwise. We merely wish to show that it cannot be proved, from the above passage, that every man, without distinction, is called our neighbour in that precept of the Law.

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:

Love your enemies. This, as all the Ancients say, and as has been proved on verses 21, 43, is a peculiar precept of the Gospel. In this, as in all else that Christ added, part is of precept, part of counsel. It is a precept that we are not to cherish hatred, not to return evil for evil, not to wish evil to others, but to hold them in love, and not to exclude them from the common prayers, alms, and benefits which we perform for others. It is a counsel that we be charitable even to such as are not in extreme need: salute them by name: hold familiar converse with them. The words, “Bless them that curse you,” which are found in the Greek, our version omits. They are not necessary to the sense, but they agree with the context, and the more because S. Paul seems possibly to allude to them (1 Cor 4:12).

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. Most authors explain this: That you may be; that is, that you may declare yourselves to be sons. This may be allowed, but it seems better to say that it is a Hebraism, by which one who resembles another is styled his son; and it seems more appropriate, because it is mere tautology to call sons the sons of their fathers, but to say that they resemble their fathers is a common expression. This also states how they will be the sons of the Father—that is, will resemble Him—if they do good to all; for “God maketh His sun to rise upon the good and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust” (verse 45); and it is said in verse 48: “Be you therefore perfect, as also your Heavenly Father is perfect,” where it is shown how we may, not indeed be, but be like, the sons of God. It is not to be denied that there is a power to be made the sons of God given to those who believe in the name of Christ, who are born, “not of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God “. The meaning of the passage is what has to be explained.

Mat 5:46  For if you love them that love you, what reward shall you have? do not even the publicans this?
Mat 5:47  And if you salute your brethren only, what do you more? do not also the heathens this?

What reward shall you have? Christ does not deny that they who love their friends shall have their reward, for it is of charity to do so. But He says that they will have none if they only love them like the publicans, that is, not for the sake of God, but either from a natural attraction to them, or because of the advantages they hope to gain from them. Whoever does not love his enemies shows plainly that he does not love his friends for the sake of God (propter Deum), but for his own sake. For if he loved them propter Deum, he would love his enemies also, who, not less than his friends, are the image of God. He, therefore, who loves his friend’s but not his enemies, because he does not love them propter Deum, but to gain some good to himself from his friendship, has no reward of love from God. But he who loves not only his friends but his enemies also, will have the reward, not only of his love of his enemies, but of his friends also, for God rewards not nature but grace.

Do not even the publicans this? They were called publicans because they collected the revenues for the ruler. They were a covetous class, and were held in general detestation, especially when Christ said this; when the Jews were compelled to pay tribute, not to a ruler of their own nation, but to the Roman emperor. Hence the question whether it were lawful to give tribute to Caesar (S. Mark 12:14; S. Luke 20:2).

Publicans were held as public and abandoned sinners (S. Matt 9:10-11; 11:19; 18:17; 21:31, 32; S. Luke 3:12-13). Christ spoke in accordance with this opinion. S. Matthew was at one time a publican, and sat at receipt of custom (Matt 9:9); but from a publican the grace of God made him an Apostle and Evangelist.

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

The word ” as ” contains the meaning, not of equality (æqualitatem), but of quality (qualitatem) and resemblance, that similitude which can exist between God and man, not that between man and man. Christ prays “that they all may be one” (S. John 17:21), as He was one with the Father. Not that we can attain to that natural oneness, which is between the Father and the Son, but we can imitate it. Christ proposes a mark to us for our perfection to which He knows that we cannot attain, that we may come as near to it as we can. He does not will us to advance so far, but that we should not stand still. He would have us in all things to be as like the Father as possible, especially in that which is His own chief property— mercy. When therefore S. Matthew says, “Be you perfect,” S. Luke says, ” Be you therefore merciful” (Lk 6:36).

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One Response to Father Juan de Maldonado’s Commentary on Matthew 5:38-48

  1. Pingback: Commentaries for the Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A | stjoeofoblog

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