Father Maas’ Commentary on Matthew 5:17-37

This section (Mt 5:17-48) may be divided into the following paragraphs: 1. The general relation of the New Law to the Old, Mt 5:17–20; 2. its interpretation of the fifth commandment, Mt5:21–26; 3. its view of the sixth commandment, Mt 5:27–32; 4 its obligations springing from the second and the eighth commandment, Mt 5:33–37; 5. its opposition to the “lex talionis,” Mt 5:38–48.

17 Do not think that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.

1. General relation of the New Law to the Old. Jesus develops this general relation in four propositions: a. The New Law is the fulfilment of the Old (verse 17); b. the Old Law shall not pass till all be fulfilled (verse 18); c. the sanction of the fulfilment or the nonfulfilment of the Law is reward in, or exclusion from, the kingdom of heaven (verse 19); d. the Pharisaic observance of the Law is not sufficient in the New Law (verse 20).

α. The New Law is the fulfilment of the Old. a. The transition from the beatitudes and their application to the discussion on the law is explained in various ways: The beatitudes are the general outlines of Christianity; our Lord must therefore descend to particulars after laying down the general principles [cf. Knabenbauer]. Again, the Sadducees among the hearers of Jesus desired nothing more than an abolition of the law, the Pharisees feared nothing worse, and the disciples were left in doubt by what had been said; hence Jesus must from the start declare his position in this vital question [cf. Fillion, Schanz]. Schöttgen contends [Hor. Heb. et Talm. de Messia, ii. 611; Dresd. 1742] that about the third century the Rabbis expected a Messianic dispensation in which the Law would be wholly abolished; but Weber [Altsynagogale Theol. p. 360] shows that the passages cited by Schöttgen may be otherwise interpreted. While Jesus gains the good will of his Jewish audience by this implied eulogium of the law, he forestalls the future accusations brought against him as a destroyer of the law.

But how did our Lord fulfil the law and the prophets rather than destroy them? Mald, enumerates four ways of fulfilment: Jesus himself observed the law, he perfected it by his interpretation, he brought us the grace needed to observe it in its perfect interpretation, and finally, he fulfilled the promises contained in the types and prophecies of the law and the prophets [cf. Faber Stapulensis, Estius, Lapide, Calmet, Arnoldi, Schegg, Reischl, Coleridge, iii. pp. 66 f., Grimm, iii. p. 75, Schanz, Fillion, Meschler, i. p. 304].

As to the question whether Christians are bound by the decalogue on account of its promulgation by Moses, Bellarmine, Vasquez, Lorin. answer in the affirmative, Suarez in the negative [cf. Suar. de leg. L. ix. 11, 20, 22; L. x. 2, 15], though all are agreed that the matter of the Christian decalogue does not differ from that of the Jewish, and that Jesus has added a new binding force to these natural precepts.

Against the opinion of a few [cf. Keil] who maintain that Jesus speaks in the present passage only of the law and not of the Messianic prophecies, the common consent of interpreters asserts that “the law and the prophets” means the whole inspired canon of the Old Testament. Though our Lord did not appeal to any prophecies in the immediate context, he had recourse to their testimony repeatedly in his public life [Jn. 5:46; Lk. 4:21; 18:31; 24:27, 44; Mt. 22:40].

18 For amen I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot, or one tittle shall not pass of the law, till all be fulfilled.

b. The permanency of the Old Law. [1] The word “amen” means fidelity, faithfulness; faithful, firm; truly, surely [cf. Lk. 9:27]. The Jews employed the word to confirm their contracts and their oaths [Num. 5:22; Deut. 27:15; Neh 5:13], placing it either at the beginning or at the end of their words [cf. 28:6; Gesen. thes. i. 116]. At the end of the doxology it was repeated in Pss. 41:13; 72:19; 89:52; in the New Testament the word occurs as an asseverative particle only in the sayings of Jesus Christ, and in the fourth gospel it is repeated in this meaning [Jn. 1:32; 3:3; 5:19]. The apostles use the word in the doxology [Rom. 1:25; 9:5; Gal. 1:5; 1 Pet. 4:11]; from its use in the synagogues it has passed also into the church services as a responsory [1 Cor. 14:16].

[2] Heaven and earth cannot properly be said to pass away, though they will be changed [Mt. 24:35; 2 Pet. 3:10; 1 Jn. 2:17; 1 Cor. 7:31]. The expression seems to be equivalent to our “never,” as we infer from Pss. 72:5, 7; 89:4; 33:20, 21; etc. In this meaning the expression may be compared to the Rabbinic formulas: “Everything has its end, heaven and earth have their end, except one thing which has no end, and this is the law” [Bereschith R. x. 1]; and “[The law] will remain always, for ever and ever” [Midrasch Cohel. f. 71, 4; etc.].

[3] One jot refers to the smallest Hebrew letter called “yodh.” The “tittle,” according to the Greek text κεραία, means in the language of the Greek grammarians the accents and diacritic signs; but in the language of St. Matthew it seems to refer to the small distinctive characteristic by which ה differs from ח and ב from כ. Hence even the most unimportant points of the law shall have their place in the Messianic dispensation.

[4] “Till all be fulfilled” is not subordinate to what precedes [cf. Meyer, Keil], but coördinate with it; hence we must not interpret, “as long as the world stands shall no precept of the law, however imperfect and easy, pass away till all its injunctions are put into practice,” but rather thus: “till heaven and earth pass, the law shall not pass; till all be fulfilled, the law shall not pass.” The first member, therefore, asserts the mere fact of the permanency of the law, while the second adds the reason for its perpetuity, drawing it from the will of God.

19 He therefore that shall break one of these least commandments, and shall so teach men shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven. But he that shall do and teach, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

c. The sanction. Explanations. [1] Hilgenfeld [Historisch-kritische Einleitung in d. N. T. p. 469] is of opinion that this verse and the following are not in keeping with the general meekness and love of Jesus Christ and must therefore be regarded as interpolated by the opponents of St. Paul. But, on the one hand, the opposition in the early Church between the Pauline and the Petriue Christians is wholly hypothetical; on the other, St. Paul himself is quite emphatic in enforcing the observance of the law [cf. Rom. 3:31 f.; 4:23; 15:4; 1 Cor. 9:9; 10:6; Col. 2:17; Heb. 9:1–9; etc.].

[2] The opinion of interpreters differs considerably concerning the true meaning of the word “to break”: it means “to transgress” or “to violate” according to Chrysostom, Opus Imperfectum, Alb. Dionysius, Cajetan, Estius, Jansenius, Maldonado, Barradas, Sylveira, Arnoldi, Coleridge; “to explain falsely” according to Br. Pasch. Ans. laud.; “to mutilate” according to Chromatius; “to abrogate,” Schegg, Bisping, Schanz, Weiss; “to destroy” Jer.=ome, Zach. Chrysostom, Salmeron; both “to destroy” and “to transgress” according to Lapide, Keil. Since the meaning of the word is determined by the preceding verses, there is no good reason for changing it in this verse.

[3] “These least commandments” are those which Jesus is going to develop in the following discourse, and which he calls “least” through modesty [Chryspstom]; or they are called “least,” because not to kill and not to commit adultery is the least that can be expected of us [Augustine, Bede, Rabanus, Dionysius, Salmeron], or because they are least in the opinion of the Pharisees, or because they are the least of their own kind of mortal sins, as e.g. the sin of impure desire [Maldondado, Estius, Sylveira]; but here again it is preferable to understand by the least commandments those of which Jesus has been speaking in the preceding verse, where there is question of the jot and tittle of the law [Hilary, Jerome, St Bruno, Paschasius, Cajetan, Sa, Arnoldi, Reischl, Schegg, Schanz, Fillion]. St. Paul has diverse illustrations of the importance of even insignificant incidents in the Old Testament [cf. 1 Cor. 9:9; Gal. 4:29, 30].

[4] The clause “shall so teach men” has been understood to mean, whoever transgresses the law himself, but exacts its observance from others; or, whoever teaches men so as I do [Jer. Est. Coleridge]; but most probably the “so” refers to the preceding clause, whoever destroys one jot or tittle of the law, and teaches men according to his view of the law.

[5] The “least in the kingdom of heaven” is not there at all [Thomas Aquinas], or is unworthy of it Glossa Ordinaria, Paschasius], or is condemned to eternal punishment [Chrysostom, Theophylact, Euthymius, Cajetan, Maldonado, Lapide, Calmet], so that he “shall be called the least” by those “in the kingdom of heaven” [Anselm of Laon, Tostatus]. But Estius well remarks that according to this explanation Satan might be called the least in the kingdom of heaven; and according to Mt. 11:11 our Lord says, “he that is the lesser in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” [John the Baptist]. It appears, then, more probable that “the least in the kingdom” is he that occupies the least place in the same, and is therefore far removed from the dignity of doctor whose office he exteriorly fulfils. The case of such a teacher appears to be considered by St. Paul, 1 Cor. 3:11, 15.

[6] Far different is the condition of him “that shall do and teach” even the smaller precepts of the law; for he shall occupy the high place prepared for the doctors in the kingdom of heaven.

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].

Mat 5:27  You have heard that it was said to them of old: Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Mat 5:28  But I say to you, that whosoever shall look on a woman to lust after her, hath already committed adultery with her in his heart.

The sixth commandment. Here our Lord explains first the perfection of the law forbidding adultery, then shows its urgency, and in the third place states the law forbidding divorce,

a. The law against adultery, vv. 27, 28. The law is quoted from Ex. 20:14; cf. Deut. 5:18. Jesus prohibits even to “look on a woman to lust after her.” “Woman” is to be taken generally, so that it means virgin, married woman, or widow [Euthymius, Cajetan, Jansenius etc.]. The looks prohibited are first those that spring from evil desire or are connected with it; then those that excite evil desire; and lastly the looks “cum morosa delectatione,” because they at least dispose men for the evil desire [Euthymius Cyril, Basil, Augustine, Dionysius, Opus Imperfectum, Thomas etc.]. “To lust after her” (28) or the evil desire, is forbidden not merely because it disposes men to commit the sin actually, but because the desire in itself is intrinsically bad; because he “hath already committed adultery with her in his heart.” This reason advanced by our Lord himself shows also that there is no question of the manifestation of the bad wish, which would be rather seduction than a sin committed in one’s heart.

The Greek verb “to commit adultery” signifies properly to have intercourse with the wife of another; according to this view it is only the rights of the husband that can be violated, not those of the wife [Deut. 5:18; Lev. 20:10; Plato’s Republic ii. 360 B; Lucus Brugensis de mar. xii. 1], But “a pari” the Christian law forbids the husband to desire or to have intercourse with any one, married or unmarried, except his wife; and if the Greek word be taken in its wider sense, the present law prohibits any desire after or lustful look at a woman with whom intercourse is forbidden. It is true that even the Old Testament forbade such unchaste desires after the wife of the neighbor [Ex. 20:17]; but this prohibition regarded more the social order of the family, while our Lord’s prohibition, “thou shalt not lust,” starts from the principle that by a sinful desire one commits the same kind of wrong as by a sinful act.

Mat 5:29  And if thy right eye scandalize thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee. For it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, rather than thy whole body be cast into hell.
Mat 5:30  And if thy right hand scandalize thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole body go into hell.

b. Urgency of the foregoing prohibition. The obligation of the preceding prohibition is so great that it cannot be transgressed even in case its observance demands the greatest sacrifices from us, and it binds under pain of eternal perdition. Our Lord mentions the “right” eye and the “right” hand, because according to popular opinion the “right” members are preferable to the left [Ex. 29:20; 1 Kings 11:2; Zach. 11:17; Passow s. v.]. Here it is asked whether “eye” and “hand” must be taken figuratively or in their proper meaning:

[1] Maldonado, Arnoldi contend that our Lord speaks of these members in their proper meaning, so that his words bid us to sacrifice even our right eye and our right hand, if it be necessary, in order to secure our eternal beatitude. The reasons for this view are: [a] the force and beauty of language; [b] the context in which there is question of “looking” on a woman; [c] the following words in which the loss of the whole “body” is mentioned.

[2] Hilary, Athanasius, Cyril, Chrysostom Theophylact, Euthymius, Jerome, Opus Imperfectum, Augustine, Brune, Thomas, Cajetan, Barradas, Sylveira, Lapide, Schegg, Schanz, Fillion, Knabenbauer. etc. understand “eye” and “hand” in a figurative sense, so that our Lord bids us to sacrifice anything, even though it be as dear to us as our right eye, rather than suffer the loss of our soul. It is true that some of the foregoing writers apply this especially to the satisfaction of mind and will, others to the pleasures of the body, others again to friends and relatives, others to earthly advantages; but they all admit the figurative meaning of “eye” and “hand.” The reasons for this view are the following: [a] If there be question of the literal removing of “hand” and “eye” in order to avoid sin, there is no more reason why we should remove the “right” eye or the “right” hand rather than the left, since the one may be as much an occasion of sin as the other. [b] It is never necessary to remove any member of the body in order to avoid sin, because the will is the sole cause of the sinfulness of our outward actions, [c] The word “body” in the subsequent clauses signifies the whole person, so that it, too, has rather a figurative than its proper meaning, [d] By removing either eye or hand, we do not obtain the end proposed to us by our Lord, since the will always remains. Adding the external evidence for the figurative meaning, it is clear that we must explain the words of Jesus in their figurative sense, i. e. as bidding us to sacrifice for the preservation of our spiritual life any good even though it be as necessary for our bodily life as is the hand or the eye. The verb “to scandalize” has no equivalent in the classical Greek; it corresponds to the Hebrew verb meaning “to stumble,” i. e. to take scandal. In the lxx. it occurs first Sirach 9:5; 23:8; 35:15; the Greek word from which the term has been borrowed signifies properly the piece of the trap on which the bait is fastened.

Mat 5:31  And it hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a bill of divorce.

c. Divorce. [1] The Jewish law. The law here referred to is that of Deut. 24:1 f., where the Jews sending away their wives “for some uncleanness” are commanded to give them a bill of divorce. This document served the dismissed wife as a proof that she was free to marry again; but after her second husband had dismissed her, or was separated from her by death, she could not again become the wife of her first husband. Though the “uncleanness” sufficient to divorce the wife is rather vague, and was understood by the Jewish Rabbis of the school of Hillel in a very wide sense, the law of Moses was really a restriction of the custom that had been prevalent among the Hebrews. Both the writing of the document and the impossibility of future reconciliation were calculated to make the husband more circumspect in his proceeding against his wife. The Mosaic law, therefore, did not command divorce under any circumstances, but implicitly permitted it; it directly commanded that in case of divorce a bill of divorce must be written. The implicit permission of divorce has been explained as the permission of something less good [Thomas], or as the permission of something bad that had ceased to be sinful on account of dispensation [Maldonado], or as the permission of something sinful that was not punishable under the law. In any case, the reason for the permission was the hardheartedness of the Jews on account of which untold sufferings and perhaps the violent death of the wife might have followed, if marriage had been indissoluble.

Mat 5:32  But I say to you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, excepting the cause of fornication, maketh her to commit adultery: and he that shall marry her that is put away, committeth adultery

The Christian law. a. The fact that Jesus contrasts his law with that of the Old Testament, which contained only the permission of divorce, renders it antecedently probable that in the Christian dispensation this permission will be withdrawn. The wording of our Lord’s law confirms this probability; for he that marries her that is put away committeth adultery; and whosoever shall put away his wife maketh her to commit adultery, either forcing her to contract a second marriage or placing her in the danger of incontinency. In any case, the marriage is not annulled by the preceding divorce, and the permission of divorce is therefore withdrawn. It may be noticed in passing, that adultery is throughout represented as the violation of the rights of the husband.

But the simple clearness of this law is seriously obscured by a clause which presents at first the semblance of a possible exception to the general law. For Jesus says “excepting the cause of fornication.” The Greek Church has been led by these words to abandon the absolute insolubility of marriage; many Protestants also base on them their allowance of divorce; even among Catholic writers living before the Council of Trent straggling expressions of doubt are found, though rarely, and not in the works of great theologians. The Council of Trent [sess. xxiv. can. 7] teaches expressly that according to the doctrine of the gospels and the apostles the bond of matrimony cannot be dissolved through the adultery of either husband or wife. In point of fact, the parallel passages of Holy Scripture are unanimous in maintaining the doctrine enounced by the Council: Mk. 10:2 ff.; Lk. 16:18; 1 Cor. 7:3, 4, 10, 11, 39; Rom. 7:2, 3. The same must be said of the patristic doctrine on this point down to the earliest ages of the church: Hermas, Past. 1. ii. mand. 4; Justin. Apol. i. 15; Athenagoras Legat. pro christ. 33; Theophylact  Ad Autolic. iii. 13; Origen in Matt. t. xiv. n. 23, 24; Chrysostom in loc.; Basil, Moralia reg. 73 c. 1; Augustine De serm. Dni. in monte, i. 16, 43; etc. [cf. Binterim, Denkwüdigkeiten, t. vi. pp. 100–138; Palmieri, De matrim. pp. 141–167; Perrone, De mat. pp. 243–364].

It cannot be replied that the foregoing passages of the Scriptures and of the Fathers state the general rule, while Mt. 5:32 and 19:3 ff. gives the exception to the rule. For most of the Fathers directly refer to the last passages of Matthew, so that they would have to acknowledge the exception, if the evangelist’s words contained any. One of the foregoing passages of Scripture expressly gives the case in which matrimony contracted between infidels may be dissolved, viz. if either of the married parties be converted to Christianity and thereby incur the actual odium of the other partner [cf. 1 Cor. 7:12]; the apostle would therefore have also stated the exception in which Christian marriages might be dissolved, if there were any. This the more, because he distinctly considers the case of divorce “a mensa et thoro,” and knows no alternative except either reconciliation or perpetual continency. Moreover, it is probable that both St. Mark and St. Luke, and it is certain that St. Paul, wrote after St. Matthew; at best, therefore, the first gospel contains an exceptional case that was wholly abrogated by a later universal legislation. Since it is therefore certain that Christ’s law does not permit divorce “a vinculo” even in the case of adultery, how are we to understand the exception stated in the first gospel?

Solutions [a] A number of writers explain the term “fornication” not of carnal intercourse, but of idolatry and of vice in general [cf. Augustine ad loc.; Retract. I. xix. 6]. Though Bruno, Dionysius, Bede, Glossa Ordinari Zach. chrysostom, Anselm of Laon, favor this meaning of “fornication,” and though in the Old Testament idolatry is often represented as fornication, this view rather augments than solves the difficulty; for it tends to give us as many exceptions as there are mortal sins.

[b] Gratz and Döllinger contend that “fornication” in the text refers to carnal intercourse before marriage, which according to these authors rendered matrimony invalid, if it had not been manifested to the other party. But the whole context supposes that there is question of true marriage, and of what happens in the married state; besides, the Greek word meaning properly “fornication” has also the specific meaning “adultery,” as is evident even from its figurative meaning of “idolatry” in which the sinful person or nation was conceived as an unfaithful spouse of God.

[c] “Fornication” is explained as meaning concubinage; according to this view the exception stated by our Lord is the case in which there is no real marriage on account of some invalidating impediment, such as consanguinity, etc. [Patrizi Schegg, Aberle]. It may be true that in 1 Cor. 5:1 “fornication,” or its Greek equivalent, signifies “incest,” and in Acts 15:20; 15:29; 21:15 simple fornication; but it does not follow that the word therefore means regularly “concubinage.” This is not even the case in the instance of the Noachic commandment, and the prohibitions of the apostles recorded in the foregoing passages of Acts cannot be placed on a level with the so-called Noachic prohibition. The weakness of the new converts to Christianity rendered such legislation necessary, on account of the widespread sins of the flesh among the pagans. Besides, if Jesus were considering the case of mere concubinage, he would rather strictly command the dismissal of the woman, than pass it over by way of tacit permission. Deut. 24:1 does not support this opinion, because the “uncleanness” there mentioned does not signify an “impedimentum dirimens.”

[d] The expression “excepting the cause of fornication” cannot signify “setting aside the case of adultery, though I know that license exists which I am not going to confirm.” It is true that Aug. Bellarm. Dreher adhere to this explanation; but the view implies difficulties which it would be hard to answer. It supposes that the whole discourse is directed against the Pharisaic traditions, and simply ignores the Deuteronomic legislation; besides, it does not well agree with Mt. 19:9; it does not strictly adhere to the proper meaning of the Greek word rendered “cause” [λόγος means properly “reason,” but considered as a Hebraism it may signify “thing,” “matter,” “cause”], and finally it does not throw much light on the true position Jesus took with regard to the case in question.

[e] Bleek, Keim, Weiss, etc. assume that the clause which causes the present difficulty is a late addition. But this supposition is against the evidence of all Greek codd., of the verss., and the Fathers. Besides, it impresses one as if the sacred text were tampered with for dogmatic purposes.

[f] The Greek word “fornication” [πορνεία] means real adultery [cf. Jn. 8:41; Ecclus. 26:12; Amos 7:17; Os. 3:3; Chrysostom, Euthymius, Hilary, Augustine, etc.]. The evangelist does not express that crime by the same word as in the preceding verses, because in v. 28 he considers adultery in thought, while here he treats of adultery in deed [Weiss], the sinfulness of which he wishes to emphasize. Supposing this, Hug, Grimm, etc. are of opinion that our Lord grants to the Jews or the new converts to Christianity a temporary dispensation from the indissolubility of marriage in case of adultery. The reasons advanced for this view are the following: [a] This is the obvious meaning of the texts Mt. 5:31; 19:9; [β] this explains why Matthew alone records the exception found neither in Mk. 10:11, nor in Lk. 16:18, nor again in 1 Cor. 7:10; [γ] it is also remarkable that the first evangelist alone represents Jesus as speaking to the Jews and the Pharisees, while according to the second gospel he speaks to the disciples alone, adding the wholly unknown equality of rights between husband and wife, and in the third gospel the words of our Lord are not set in any definite frame of circumstances; [δ] this permission fully agrees with Jewish thought and practice, because the Hebrews regarded it as a matter of conscience to expel an adulterous wife [Prov. 18:22; Mt. 1:19], guilty as she was of a capital offence; [ε] though this stage of the law does not attain to Christian perfection, it surely surpasses the Jewish standard with its wide margin for the practice of divorce [Deut. 24:1 ff.]; [ζ] it cannot be said that this view places an adulteress in a better condition than an innocent wife, since the former was always liable to be punished with death; [η] admitting this interpretation, it remains true that according to the doctrine of the gospel marriage cannot be dissolved in case of divorce, since St. Matthew [Mt. 5:32 and 19:9] says nothing expressly on this point, and since his implied statement [if there be any], is done away with by the law of the second and the third gospel, the principle of doctrinal development holding even in the apostolic times; [θ] this explanation admits more easily the existence of causes for imperfect divorce besides adultery; [ι] though the Fathers may be made to harmonize with this view, it must be confessed that they generally deduce the indissolubility of Christian marriage not merely from the second and the third gospel and 1 Cor. 7:10, but they commonly quote also the first gospel for this dogma.

[g] Considering, however, that the tenor of the law is the same in the first gospel as in the second and the third; and that our Lord had no sufficient motive for being harder in his dealings with Gentiles than he was with the Jews; and moreover, that St. Matthew would have signified the fact in some way, if he had recorded a law that was to be of only temporary value: the preceding view loses some of its probability. The ancient and common explanation, which agrees with the foregoing in admitting the proper, though wider, sense of the word πορνεία. and also the exceptive value of the clause “excepting the cause of fornication,” but which explains the dismissal as meaning divorce “a thoro et habitatione” and not “a vinculo,” is therefore more satisfactory than any of the other solutions. The following are additional reasons in favor of this latter view: [α] It explains the context “and he that shall marry her that is put away, committeth adultery”; [the omission of the Greek article before ἀπολελυμένην shows that the law is general, and not restricted to the unjust dismissal]; [β] It explains why the text itself [v. 32] implies that carnal intercourse of the divorced wife with another man is adultery in any case, and that the husband is accountable for the sin if he has sent his partner away without sufficient cause [Basil]; [γ] it agrees with the context of Mt. 19:3 ff. [Mk. 10:3 ff.], where Jesus reëstablishes the primitive indissolubility of marriage which admitted no exception and to which our Lord added no exception [this latter addition should have been made to the law, and not afterward, when another question had come up for discussion]; [δ] if Jesus had permitted perfect divorce in case of adultery, he would have rather relaxed than perfected the former law according to which a bill of divorce had to be given—in other words, the license abolished by Moses would have been legally reestablished; [ε] while the absence of the article before ἀπολελυμένην in Mt. 5:32 demands this explanation, the text of Mt. 19:9 at least admits it. Jerome, Bellarmine, Jansenius, Franz Lucas, Palm, explain the passage as meaning “whosoever shall put away his wife [which is wholly illicit except it be for fornication], and shall marry another, committeth adultery”; while Mald, resolves the sentence into “whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, committeth adultery” [cf. Mt. 5:32] and “whosoever shall marry another [the former being dismissed for whatever cause], committeth adultery”; [ζ] the Latin and the Greek Fathers, of the fourth century at least, commonly teach that divorce “a vinculo” is impossible, while divorce “a thoro et habitatione” is allowable in case of adultery, and most theologians teach that the Fathers derived this doctrine from the first gospel; [η] if it be said that the Jews could not have understood the words of Jesus in this way, because imperfect divorce was wholly unknown to them, this manner of reasoning destroys most of the Christian mysteries contained in the words of Christ, because they were unknown to the Jews before our Lord revealed them; [θ] though one or more exceptions may be advanced against the foregoing considerations taken singly, they hardly avail against the collective force of the arguments stated.

Mat 5:33  Again you have heard that it was said to them of old, thou shalt not forswear thyself: but thou shalt perform thy oaths to the Lord.

The second and the eighth commandment. It would lead us too far to investigate here the nature of the connection between the preceding and the following parts of our Lord’s discourse: Chrysostom is of opinion that the observance of the seventh commandment is implied in the perfect observance of the eighth; Thomas makes our Lord pass from the precepts concerning the irascible faculties to those concerning concupiscence, and from these again to the rules of the rational faculties; Maldonado sees no special order in the successive points touched upon by our Lord. At any rate, in what follows Jesus first states the precepts of the Old Testament [v. 33], secondly, he formulates the negative precepts of the New Testament [vv. 34–36], and finally he expresses the positive law of the Christian dispensation [v. 37].

Law of the Old Testament. In the first part our Lord quotes the sense of Ex. 20:7 [cf. Deut. 5:11], but adheres almost to the words of Lev. 19:12; in the second part he gives the sense of Num. 30:3 [cf. Deut. 23:21; Ps. 23:4]. The sum of the law thus quoted appears to be contained in the two statements: “it is not allowed to swear falsely” and “only oaths by God himself are binding as such.” This is confirmed by Mt. 23:18.

Mat 5:34  But I say to you not to swear at all, neither by heaven for it is the throne of God:
Mat 5:35  Nor by the earth, for it is his footstool: nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king:
Mat 5:36  Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.

The Christian law. Jesus opposes two statements to the foregoing two: “it is not allowed to swear at all” and “oaths sworn by God’s creatures are binding as such.” Owing to the Greek conjunction employed in the second part of the Christian law [μὴ-μήτε, not μηδὲ], Jerome, Tholuck, Ewald, etc. believe that “not to swear at all” is a mere summary of the four particular forms expressly indicated, i. e. of the oaths by heaven, by the earth, by Jerusalem, and by one’s head, so that Jesus did not forbid an oath by God himself. But the partitive value of the Greek conjunction seems to have passed out of sight in the New Testament language [cf. Rev 9:21; Winer, Grammatik des neutest. Sprachidioms, 55, 6], and the opposition between Christ’s law and that of the Old Testament demands that “not to swear at all” embraces also oaths by God himself. Nor do we think that the Salmant. [Curs. theol. de iuram. c. 11, punct. 4] are justified in interpreting the words of Jesus in this passage as a mere counsel; if they contained only a counsel, there would be no real comparison between law and law. On the other hand, it cannot be maintained that our Lord forbids all swearing absolutely [cf. Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Chrysostom, Hilary, Jerome]; for we have instances in Sacred Scripture in which God himself, or our Lord, or the apostle Paul confirmed a statement by oath [cf. Gen. 22:16; 26:3; Num. 14:23; Is. 45:23; Lk. 1:73; Acts 7:17; Heb. 6:13; Mt. 26:63 f.; Rom. 1:9; 2 Cor. 1:23; 11:31; Gal. 1:20; Phil. 1:8; etc.]. Scripture itself shows, therefore, that the prohibition “not to swear at all” must be understood like the prohibition “not to kill”; both killing and swearing divested of their qualifying circumstances are morally bad, and as such fall under a negative precept [Cajetan, Dionysius, Jansenius, Barradas Knabenbauer etc.]. The special forms declared by our Lord to contain real oaths are partially alluded to even in the Old Testament: cf. Gen. 42:15; 1 Sam 1:26; 1 Sam 20:3; 2 Sam11:11; 2 Kings 2:2; etc. Christ’s language is peculiar in this instance, because he gives a reason for his commandments; the general argument supposes that to swear by a creature manifesting an attribute of God is to swear implicitly by God himself.

Mat 5:37  But let your speech be yea, yea: no, no: and that which is over and above these, is of evil.

The positive Christian law. The positive perfection of the Christian dispensation consists in the fact that a simple affirmation or denial has the value of an oath: “that which is over and above these “is not pronounced to be “evil,” but “of evil.” The word “evil” may, according to the original text, be either masculine or neuter; according to the former supposition, the expression signifies “the evil one” or “the devil,” the father of lies and author of the necessity of the oath [Chromatus, Chrysostom, Euthymius, Theophylact, Bruno, Maldonado Arnoldi]. Though this view agrees well enough with the meaning of the passage, it is not sufficiently reverential on account of the foregoing instances in which God himself employed the solemn oath; hence it is preferable to regard “evil” as neuter, signifying the evil disposition of man that renders the oath necessary either on account of the fallaciousness of the speaker or the incredulity of the hearer [Augustine, Schanz, Knabenbauer etc.]; James 5:12 agrees with this doctrine of our Lord.

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One Response to Father Maas’ Commentary on Matthew 5:17-37

  1. Pingback: Commentaries for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A | stjoeofoblog

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