Father MacEvilly’s Commentary on Matthew 5:17-37

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

Our Redeemer now guards against the imputation, to which the promulgation of loftier precepts than those to be met with in the old Dispensation might expose Him, viz., that He meant utterly to abolish the Old Law—by showing that, far from that, He came to accomplish and fulfil it. Others (Maldonatus, &c.), connect this with the preceding verse, thus: He wishes to impress upon those who “were the light of the world” HOW “their light should shine before men,” both in their conduct and teaching, viz., by a more careful and perfect observance of the law, following His own example, and by not imagining, that, as members of His household, they were released from strict observance.

“To destroy,” by violating the precepts and abolishing the teachings of the law By “the law,” which sometimes comprises the entire Old Testament, are meant here the five books of Moses, and by “the Prophets,” the rest of the books of the Old Testament. The books containing the law are put for the law itself. Our Redeemer fulfils the moral law, the chief portion of the law, which, as comprising the natural law, was unchangeable, by a more clear exposition of its precepts, and by incorporating it with His own law; by observing it Himself, and teaching others to do so; by giving grace, whereby it might be fully observed; by superadding counsels of perfection so useful to ensure its full observance. He fulfilled the ceremonial law, by substituting the reality for the figure; by bringing about the realities, which in their mystical signification these ceremonial precepts typified; (by executing a promise one rather fulfils than destroys it). He also fulfilled the ceremonial law, by inculcating the spiritual obligations it signified. Even when abolishing the ceremonial precepts in their literal acceptation, He fulfilled them; since it was predicted of them that they were to be abolished after a time. He fulfilled the Prophets, since He fully verified and accomplished the ancient prophecies. He fulfilled the judicial law, by commuting temporal sanction into threats and promises of a spiritual and eternal character.

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.

Far from coming to destroy and utterly abrogate the law; on the contrary, I solemnly assert, “Amen, I say to you,” that until the end of the world, when “heaven and earth,” that now are, shall pass away in their present corrupt form, and be changed into a “new heaven and a new earth” (Apoc. 21:1), the slightest point of what the law contains (and the same is true of the Prophets), shall not be left without its due fulfilment. The ceremonial law shall be fulfilled in the realities which it typified; the judicial, in the rewards of a higher and more exalted kind which it shall administer, the moral, in the unchangeableness of its preceptive binding moral force, at all times, under pain of sin, and in the sanction which its observance or violation, in the smallest degree, shall entail; although, indeed it is to the completion and exhibition of the promises of the law He here refers; He also refers to the addition of precepts completing and perfecting the law. “Amen,” if prefixed to a sentence, is assertive; if after it, it is confirmatory. Our Redeemer, in employing it, as He does frequently, conveys that peculiar significance should be attached to the subject which it precedes. In the Old Testament, it is never found at the beginning of a sentence; sometimes, however, it is found at the end of a sentence. In the New, it generally commences, but seldom ends a sentence. “Heaven and earth pass away,” i.e., till the end of the world, when the present heaven and earth shall change their form, and there shall be “a new heaven and a new earth.” Others interpret the words: Sooner shall heaven and earth pass away, and cease to be (a thing utterly impossible), than any part of the law be unaccomplished; just like the phrase, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle,” a thing utterly impossible.

“One jot,” (ιωτα ἓν), iota unum. The iota is supposed to have been placed here for the Hebrew jod, the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet. “One” “tittle” (κεραία), the very point of the smallest letter, the smallest mark distinguishing one letter from another, v.g., G from C (St. Jerome); κεραία, “tittle,” is the little top or distinguishing mark of a letter, which indicates the most trivial precepts or ordinances of the law. “Till all is fulfilled” (see above).

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.

As, therefore, I am come to perfect and fulfil the law, whosoever shall violate even what may be regarded as one of the least of these commandments, which I am about to propose, either from the law, or superadded for perfection’ sake by myself. He calls them “least,” not in themselves; but as they may be regarded by men, and by the Pharisees, who regarded the external act, v.g., of homicide as sinful; but not the deliberate intention of perpetrating it.

“And shall teach men so.” The particle, “so,” is interpreted by some to mean: As I am just now teaching; so that it refers to the man who teaches well, but through frailty, violates the commandments, not practising what he teaches. In this interpretation, “least” means, shall be lowered in his grade, and not obtain the place he would otherwise be entitled to. For, the violation of the least commandment, such as to be angry from a sudden impulse, would hardly utterly exclude from heaven. Others, more probably, understand the words to refer to the man that violates the least precept, and shall teach others they may lawfully “do so,” and violate the commandments after his example. Such a man “shall be called,” that is, in the judgment of God, shall be pronounced to be, and shall be in reality, “least,” that is, utterly excluded from heaven; or if, by “the kingdom of heaven,” we mean the Church, such a man shall be excluded from the society of the faithful, as a propounder of erroneous doctrine, and ultimately from heaven, unless he repent. “Least” is used in preference to excluded, as containing an allusion to the least commandment.

Our Redeemer is manifestly alluding to the Pharisees, who not only violated the law in certain points relative to interior acts of the will; but also taught men that interior acts and intentions, v.g., of adultery or murder were not sinful, and should not be heeded; that they might be indulged in with impunity, and without moral guilt.

In the preceding verse, our Redeemer shows how He came to fulfil that portion of the law which pertained to promises, types, and judicial sanction for its observance. In this verse, He shows how He fulfilled the moral law—the chief and most important branch of the law—by giving an example of observing it Himself, and teaching others the duty of observing it; and by declaring that any man who, like the Pharisees, violates the law (in even what men would consider its least precepts, as the Pharisees regarded deliberate sins of thought), would merit everlasting exclusion from the Church and the kingdom of God’s glory.

“But he that shall do and teach;” he does not add, “the least commandment,” because it is required to observe all the commandments, and teach properly in regard to them.

“Shall be called,” shall be in reality, and pronounced so in the judgment of God, “great,” deserving of the highest place and dignity in that house where “there are many mansions,” in which “star differs from star” in brilliancy and glory, and in which, those who instruct many unto justice shall shine as stars for all eternity. “Great, and least” are antithetical. So are, “shall break, and so teach,” and “shall do and teach.”

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.

“For I tell you,” &c. Here is contained an illustration and particular application of the preceding verse. “Least in the kingdom of heaven,” means exclusion from it. “For, I tell you … shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

“Your justice.” The observance of the moral law is called “justice,” because it is by keeping the law, we are justified. “Factores legis justificabuntur” (Rom. 2); “Si vis ingredi vitam serva mandata” (Matt. 19:17). “Scribes” (see 2:4); “Pharisees” (see 3:7). Our Lord here introduces “the justice” or observance of the law by the Scribes, &c., because they were regarded as the most observant among the Jews, and still it was defective. Their observance of the law was confined to external acts; they regarded of no consequence interior acts of the will, and taught others the same. Hence, they shall be “least;” in other words, “shall never enter the kingdom of heaven.” What our Redeemer condemns, is not their observance of the law, apart from the motive and false teaching, as far as it went; but, He condemns it as defective, not going far enough. Hence, He says, “unless it abound more,” exceeds theirs, be fuller, more perfect, either as regards teaching or practical observance, it will not do.

This verse may be connected with the preceding, of which it is an application and clearer illustration; or, with verse 17, thus proving, He came not to destroy the law, since He requires a more perfect observance of it than was ever practised or exhibited by even the most observant among the Jews, who were the teachers and guides of the people, viz., “Scribes and Pharisees.” The more perfect observance required, as is inferred from the following, consists—1st. Not only in external observances merely, but in the regulation of the internal thoughts and feelings. “Whosoever shall look on a woman to lust after her,” &c. 2ndly. In avoiding what the law merely tolerated from necessity, v.g., bill of divorce, usury, vengeance, &c. 3dly. In observing the law, not merely according to the letter, as explained by the Scribes, &c., of whose exposition we have an example in the words, “odio habebis inimicum,” but according to its spirit and the intention of the Divine legislator.

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.

Our Redeemer now proceeds to fulfil the law (v. 17), so far as regards the moral or chief portion of the law is concerned. In the first place, He clears away the false glosses and interpretations put upon the precepts of the moral law by the Scribes and Pharisees, whose justice He condemns, inasmuch as they not only themselves violated certain important precepts of the law, which they regarded as of little value—those “least commandments” (v. 19); but also taught “men” (to do) “so,” i.e., do the same, by their false interpretations of the law. In the next place, it seems most likely that in the following discourse, wherein as legislator, He promulgates the New Law, He even, in a certain sense, corrects the Old Law itself, not by destroying it, as containing anything bad, or anything opposed to the New Law—for, in itself the law was “holy, spiritual” (Rom. 7:12–14), and every one of its precepts is “holy, just, and good”—(Rom. 7:12), but, as imperfect; for, “it brought nothing to perfection” (Heb. 7:11). He supplies its defects, and perfects it, by more clearly evolving the precepts of the natural law which it contained, by superadding evangelical counsels, and certain points of explicit faith. He opposes Himself and the law He promulgates to Moses and his law as the more perfect to the less perfect, as the covenant of a better hope, containing and fulfilling better and more exalted promises, imperfect testament, which was only intended as an introduction to His (Heb. 7:19). This shall be more clearly seen in the interpretation of each passage.

“You have heard,” when the books of Moses were read for you, as usually happens each Sabbath in your synagogues (Acts 13:14, 15), “that it was said to them of old,” i.e., it was enjoined by the law of Moses, on your fathers, to whom it was first promulgated in the desert of Mount Sinai. He omits the name of Moses, lest the mention of it might be any way invidious, as He is about perfecting His law and more fully developing it; and although the law given by Moses was the law of God, still we find Moses introduced as its promulgator. “Lex per Moysem data et.” (“The Law was given through Moses,” John 1:17)

“Thou shalt not kill,” by which is prohibited the taking away our neighbour’s life out of revenge or on our own personal, private authority; or, without some justifying cause, arising out of the just exercise of the commands of public authority, or necessary self-defence.

“And whosoever shall kill, shall be in danger of the judgment,” i.e., liable to capital punishment, or death, as a homicide, such being the punishment awarded by the law to homicides when brought before the tribunal called, “the Judgment.” These latter words are not found in the law, but they are there in substance. The terms expressive of the punishment of such a crime in the law are, “dying, let him die” (Lev. 24:17); or, as our Lord is quoting the words, according as they “heard” them from the Scribes and Pharisees, who gave the substance of the penalty contained in the law, the word, “judgment,” may mean, liable to be brought before the tribunal appointed to investigate into the cause of murder, as to whether it was justifiable or not, which is but an epitome of the several enactments on the subject (Exod. 21; Deut. 19), and in case it was wilful, death was the consequence.

Cardinal Baronius (Tom. 1. Annal.) relates, from the Talmudists, that there were three tribunals among the Jews. The first, consisting of three judges, who took cognizance of trivial cases, such as cases of theft, rapine, &c.; the second, composed of twenty-three judges. This tribunal, called “the Judgment,” referred to here, took cognizance of causes of grievous moment, and was armed with the power of life and death. The third, called the Sanhedrim—a term of Greek origin—composed of seventy-two judges, had jurisdiction in matters of the greatest moment, involving the public interests of religion and the State. It is a matter of doubt whether this had anything in common with the Council of Seventy Elders appointed by Moses to assist him in the government of the people (Num. 11:16, 17, 24). This latter tribunal (Sanhedrim) existed at Jerusalem only, and exercised judgment there only. The other tribunals, of three and of twenty-three judges, were appointed in the several cities and tribes (Deut. 16:18). It is recorded (2 Chron 19), that a similar arrangement was made by king Josaphat.

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.” Here our Redeemer fulfils the law by more fully explaining it, and correcting the false interpretations of the Scribes and Pharisees, who confined the prohibition of the precept to mere external acts, as is implied in the foregoing, and by the extension of the prohibition in this verse, in accordance with the natural law, to internal acts of consent, as entailing grievous moral guilt, and the heaviest punishment. “But I say to you.” “I,” the legislator of the New Law, the teacher sent down from heaven, the Prophet like unto Moses, raised up by God for you (Deut. 18:18). “I say to you,” that not only he who commits homicide, but, “whosoever is angry with his brother” (to which the Greek adds, εικη, without cause, but rejected by St. Jerome as spurious and as introduced by copyists).

“Angry” conveys the state of strong, passionate resentment and excitement, desiring (as is implied by the subject matter) and tending to deprive our neighbour of life, or inflict on him grievous bodily harm—just displeasure and indignation at the conduct of others, if moderated by reason, is not prohibited here as sinful—“shall be in danger of judgment;” that is to say, shall sin mortally and incur eternal death, just as in verse 28, the internal desire of adultery, though punishable by no earthly tribunal, entails grievous moral guilt.

“Raca.” This supposes the internal feelings of grievous anger referred to in the preceding, to proceed to reproachful language. “Raca,” a vile, contemptible, brainless wretch. This involves a greater amount of guilt and a heavier mortal sin than the mere internal feelings of anger, similar to that of which the Council of Seventy-two took cognizance among the Jews, and shall entail a heavier punishment in hell.

“Fool,” a still more reproachful term, probably involving a charge of impiety and irreligion; since, among the Jews, impiety was regarded as folly of the greatest kind. The use of such a reproachful term involves a degree of guilt so great, that there is no analogous tribunal among the Jews to take cognizance of it, and it deserves a punishment more grievous than that inflicted by the Sanhedrim, such as the sword or stoning; it deserves, that one would burn in the unceasing fire of Gehenna, an emblem of hell.

“Hell fire.” No doubt, hell fire is the punishment reserved for the preceding sins also, according to the interpretation now given, which supposes them to be mortal; but, to express the heinousness of this latter sin, which involves the most grievous insult and contumely, aggravated by the manner and circumstances of its utterance, relative to cause and persons, and their relation to each other, our Redeemer, who speaks in accommodation to the notions of His hearers regarding the guilt of sin, as seen from the tribunals before which it is brought, wishes to convey, that there was no tribunal on earth to award punishment analogous to that entailed by the sin of grievous contumely and insult, expressed by the word, “fool.” Others understand the passage thus: they say, that in the two preceding kinds of sin there may be some grounds for doubting their heinousness; and hence, they should form the subject of investigation. But, as regards this latter one, there can be no doubt whatever. It is clearly mortal, and, without further investigation, deserving of eternal punishment. However, looking to the kinds of crime adjudicated on and punished by the tribunals, “Judgment” and “Council,” with which our Redeemer compares internal anger and the uttering of the contumelious word, “Raca,” the former interpretation seems the more probable. The sin in each case is supposed to be mortal, of course, if deliberately indulged, but differing in degree, and the intensity of the eternal punishment it entails. Similar are the degrees of mortal sin described by St. James (1:15), “when concupiscence hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin; but sin, when it is completed, begetteth death.”

“Hell fire.” In Greek, the Gehenna of fire. This Gehenna, or Valley of Ennom, so called from the man who possessed it, called also “the Valley of the children of Ennom,” was a delightful valley near Jerusalem, at the foot of Mount Moria, irrigated by the waters of Siloe, as we are informed by St. Jerome, also Josue (15:8; 18:16). In this valley, the Israelites, imitating the impiety of the Chanaanites, erected an altar and burnt their children as victims to Moloch, the god or idol of the Ammonites, called by others, Saturn; and as they were wont to drown the cries of the children by the beating of drums or cymbals, the place was called on this account, Topheth (Jer. 7; 2 Kings 16:13; 21:20; Isa. 30:33), from Toph, a cymbal or drum.—Others derive Topheth from Toph, a cymbal, owing to the music practised there as being a place of joy and merriment.—In this valley, the Israelites sacrificed their children (Psa. 106:37-38). This valley the pious king Josias afterwards rendered abominable by casting into it the bones of the dead (2 Kings 23:10) The Lord, moreover, menaced the Jews (Jer. 7:32) that the valley would no longer be called Topheth, nor the Valley of the son of Ennom; but the valley of slaughter, that they should bury their dead in Topheth, and that the carcases of this people should be meat for the fowls of the air (Jer 19:12), and that He would make it the receptacle of all the abominations of Jerusalem. After their return from the Babylonish captivity, the Israelites so abominated this place, that, following the example of the pious king Josias (2 Kings 23:10), they cast the carcases of the dead and all the filth of the city into it; and as perpetual fire was needed to consume all this offal, it was termed the Gehenna of fire. Hence, on account of its abominable destination, and the impious rites performed in it at the sacrifices offered to Moloch, it was a fit emblem of the receptacle of the damned, and most likely it was really regarded as an emblem of hell, although it is used in SS. Scripture, for the first time by our Divine Redeemer, in this sense.

“Of fire,” to show the everlasting burning which continues there. It means, Gehenna, ever on fire, a fit emblem of hell.

Beelen holds, that hell fire is not directly referred to here; that the words only mean, that such a man is deserving of a punishment more grievous than that awarded by even “the Council,” which was stoning or the sword. He deserves to be cast into the Valley of Ennom, ever on fire, and to be burnt there. This is, no doubt, a fit emblem of hell fire, and was regarded by the Jews, as such.

Mat 5:23  If therefore thou offer thy gift at the altar, and there thou remember that thy brother hath anything against thee;

“Therefore,” is expressive of a plain inference from the foregoing, as if He said: Such being the obligation of avoiding a grievous violation of fraternal charity, no less in thought or word, as explained by me, than in action; and such being the grievous punishment which every such violation shall entail, should you recollect, in the discharge of the most meritorious duty, such as the offering of sacrifice—an act most agreeable and pleasing to God—that you gave “your brother,” i.e., any fellow-creature, just cause of offence, by calling him “raca,” or “fool,” &c., you should at once interrupt that work, should it be practicable to do so, and become reconciled, by making due reparation to the offended party, or at least form the resolution of doing so when practicable, and as soon as circumstances shall permit; otherwise, your work shall be displeasing to God, who prefers fraternal concord and the necessary duty of charity to any gifts whatsoever. “Offer thy gift,” i.e., sacrifice, a work most pleasing to God. This has reference to Jewish sacrifices. But it refers still more so to the sacrifice of love and concord, so far as it concerns us, viz., the Blessed Eucharist—“unum corpus multi sumus,” &c. (“We are one body though many,” 1 Cor. 10:17)

The allusion to sacrifice may also arise from this, that, probably the Scribes taught, that all violations of the precept, “thou shalt not kill,” might be expiated by sacrifice. Our Redeemer here teaches the contrary; and shows how our justice must exceed theirs in preferring the duty of charity to sacrifice. The necessary duty of charity and just reparation must be first fulfilled, if we wish that God would be pleased with any act of religion, be it ever so exalted. If this be true of sacrifice, how much more so, when less exalted and less meritorious works are in question.

“Thy brother hath any thing,” &c. This supposes that he is the offended, we the offending party; he the party to whom reparation is due from us. Should we be the offended party, and “have any thing against him,” all required of us, as a matter of duty, is to pardon him from our hearts for the personal offence, as, in that case, he is the party to seek reconciliation and make due reparation. I say, as a matter of duty, for, high Christian perfection might suggest more; also there is question of personal offence; for, a man is not bound to forego injury in property; and he should, moreover, on public grounds, uphold, by the prosecution of evil-doers, the well-being of society.

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.

“And go first to be reconciled,” &c. The mode of doing this must depend, in a great measure, on circumstances. We must go actually and seek the necessary reconciliation, unless circumstances and motives of prudence should point out an opposite line of conduct, as the most conducive to the permanence of charitable relations in future; and in this latter case, it is preceptive to go in spirit and in will. Indeed, like all affirmative precepts, this is to be a good deal modified by circumstances and considerations of prudence.

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.

A continuation of the subject of reconciliation with our offended neighbour, and a new motive for doing so. In the preceding verses, is urged its necessity, in order that our other actions would be pleasing to God. In this verse, it is urged, in order to avoid the punishment which the neglect or voluntary omission to make due reparation would entail upon us.

“Thy adversary” (αντιδικος), an antagonist in a law suit; thy offended or injured fellow-creature. The words of this verse are, in their literal sense, allusive to the case of litigants on their way to a court of law, where the offending party wisely arranges matters, settles the case with his “adversary,” to avoid the penalty which the judge would award, perhaps the disgrace of imprisonment which might ensue. But, in their spiritual sense and application to the subject in hand, which is chiefly intended by our Redeemer under the guise of legal and forensic terms, all of which need not be applied to the chief subject of illustration, they are meant to convey, that we should be reconciled with our offended brother, “the adversary,” “who has something against us” (v. 23), while “in the way,” i.e., in this life, journeying to eternity and approaching nearer and nearer to the judgment seat of Jesus Christ, before which we must all “appear” (2 Cor. 5:10). “Lest perhaps, the adversary deliver thee to the judge,” by remitting the matter to God, who will take cognizance of it in His own time, or, lest his just cause and the injury unatoned for should plead with the judge against thee.

“The officer,” the devil and his angels. It is not, however, necessary to apply every word and part of a parable to the subject illustrated. The whole idea is, lest neglecting to discharge the duty of just reconciliation and reparation, you die in your sins, and be condemned by the just judgment of God, to everlasting and unchangeable punishment in the gloomy prison of hell, out of which there is no escape or ransom. It is not necessary, as regards the chief subject, to inquire into the application of the word, “officer,” or “last farthing,” &c. These terms are merely used to perfect the parable; and, probably, not intended to be applied to the chief subject.

26 Amen I say to thee, thou shalt not go out from thence till thou repay the last farthing.

In this is conveyed the rigour with which the sentence of the Eternal Judge shall be carried into execution in the life to come. If there be question of condemnation for mortal guilt, and of hell’s prison, whereas, full satisfaction—“the last farthing”—can never be made, the culprit shall not leave it for eternity. Some writers, from the particle, “until,” regard it as possible that reparation would be made in the case, and the accused party would leave his prison; and hence, they derive an argument in favour of the doctrine of Purgatory. But this does not necessarily follow from the text. It can be understood, and, most likely, ought, of never-ending punishment, as St. Augustine says, “donec pœnas œternas luent,” i.e., always paying eternal punishment. The meaning would be, “you must remain there, till you pay the last farthing, and if unable to pay it, then you shall never leave it.” If there were question of venial sin, then, the interpretation would be different. But it serves no purpose to be adducing weak or dubious arguments in proof of a doctrine clearly established from other undoubted sources. It only does mischief. And the enemies of the faith will be sure to enlarge upon the weak arguments, as if no better were forthcoming, leaving the undoubted arguments unheeded. (See comment. on 2 Peter 1:15).

27 You have heard that it was said to them of old: Thou shalt not commit adultery.

“Thou shalt not commit adultery.” After treating of the sins springing from the irascible appetite, so natural to man, our Lord now proceeds to treat of the sins appertaining to the concupiscible appetite, not less natural to man in his present fallen state. This precept—the sixth—immediately follows in order, the preceding in the Decalogue.

“Adultery,” under which is included fornication, and all other external acts of illicit intercourse.

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.

“But I say to you, that whosoever shall look upon woman to lust after her.” “To,” may mean the consequence of looking on her; so that lusting after her is the result of looking, which implies that the act of coveting or lusting must be fully deliberate, and voluntarily indulged in. The mere look is not sinful. It is only the look, followed by deliberate desire and consent, that is so. Or, it more probably means, the end, the purpose for which he looked on her (προς), viz., for the purpose of indulging in desires of sinning with her, if the occasion or opportunity offered. In either interpretation, it is supposed, that in order to be a mortal sin, a thought or desire against chastity must be deliberately indulged and fully consented to. What is said of looking applies equally to the other senses, hearing, touch, &c., which are the inlets of sin and death. Sin is equally committed through them, if they are made the organs for admitting into the soul the deliberate desire of committing the external prohibited act. Although human laws, which cannot directly reach the soul, cannot punish or take cognizance of internal desires, the latter shall entail mortal guilt before God, the just Judge and searcher of hearts. But to be sinful, desires or thoughts should be wilful and deliberate, as is clear from the words of our Lord just explained. Wicked thoughts, if resisted and battled against, far from being sinful, only prove a source of greater merit. In this our Redeemer perfects the Old Law, and corrects the false interpretations of the Scribes and Pharisees. Although coveting another’s wife was prohibited by the Ninth Commandment of the Decalogue; still, some expositors say the Scribes understood the Ninth Commandment of that concupiscence, or these internal sins of adultery merely which were made known by some external act, and only in circumstances in which they would lead to the violation of the Sixth Commandment, which, according to them, was confined to the commission of the act of adultery, but did not extend to internal acts of consent, as such. Josephus, a Pharisee, speaking of Antiochus Epiphanes, says he committed no crime in merely wishing to rifle the temple of Diana, “quia voluntas tantum, ac non perfecisse sacrilegiuem non vidatur res supplicio digna.” (Lib. xii.; Antiq. c. xiii.) Moreover, it is likely they confined the prohibition of the Ninth Commandment to coveting their neighbour’s wife only, but not to the coveting of women in general. No doubt, the Ninth Commandment did prohibit internal acts of consent; but it did not declare so expressly or so precisely as our Lord did, that looking on a woman with impure eyes and coveting her entailed the guilt of adultery. Our Redeemer, then, more fully explains the Sixth Commandment; first, as forbidding, under pain of incurring the guilt of adultery, mere internal acts, without any external manifestation. Secondly, as referring not only to our neighbour’s wife, but to any woman whatsoever. “Shall look ON A WOMAN.”

From these words may be derived a very salutary lesson as to the custody of our senses, particularly when the holy virtue of chastity is in question, “pepigi fœdus cum oculis meis ut non cogitarem quidem de virgine” (Job 31); “ne respicias in mulieris speciem” (“Let not thy eye be caught by a woman’s beauty” Sirach 25:28 vulgate)

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.
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.

From the allusion made by our Redeemer in the foregoing to the scandal or spiritual ruin sometimes occasioned by looking at a woman, He takes occasion to inculcate a general lesson regarding the necessity of avoiding scandal in general, and the occasions of sin, and of putting away any person or thing, be they ever so dear, useful, or necessary for us, that may prove a source of scandal, be the removal or avoidance of such object ever so painful, and should it cost us the greatest sacrifice in life. The words of these verses are to be understood metaphorically. The idea is borrowed from the treatment used by surgeons, who, on seeing danger to the body from any diseased limb or member, at once amputate it, be it ever so necessary, in order to save the rest of the body. This exaggerated metaphor never can bear a literal signification, as it is never necessary to amputate any member of our body to avoid sin; and hence, it is never allowed. But, in its exaggerated form, the metaphor conveys that if such amputation were necessary (which it never is or can be) it should be done, if the salvation of our soul required it. “The right eye” and “the right hand” give an idea of objects very dear, very near, useful, and necessary for us. The words, “pluck it out,” “cast it off”—a very painful operation, imply great torture and suffering in parting with it. It is better we would part with this object, however dear, however great the pain or privation such parting would entail; and sacrifice the gratification its presence gives us, than after enjoying it for a time, suffer, on its account, in the end, the eternal torments of hell. The allusion to the looking after a woman in preceding verse suggests the idea of “the eye,” in the first place, as one of the inlets of sin, and one of the most necessary members or organs of the body. “Scandalize thee.” The word, scandal, primarily and literally conveys the idea of a stumbling block of offence against which one jostles and is made to fall. Transferred to a spiritual signification, it means, whatever is the occasion of our spiritual ruin, that is, whatever is the occasion of our falling into mortal sin, which causes the spiritual death of the soul. There is hardly any point of Christian morality upon which we should observe such vigilant care as upon the subject of avoiding the proximate occasions of sin; nor is there any other point upon which those who are charged with the care of others, should so inexorably insist as upon this, particularly if there be question of the external and proximate occasion of sins against chastity. A melancholy experience unhappily attests that the only means of obtaining a victory on this point is flight. In this point particularly, owing to the corruption of human nature, the words of the Holy Ghost are verified, “qui amat periculum in illo peribit.” Every other means of avoiding sin, every other remedy, shall prove unavailing if this be neglected. As a general rule, it may be laid down, that so sure as a man voluntarily exposes himself to the proximate and external occasion of this sin in particular, so surely shall he fall. Hence, the rigour with which the most approved spiritual writers treat this case, although mild in regard to almost every other; so close is the connexion they trace between frequenting the occasion and the commission of sin (see St. Alphonsus Liguori in his Moral Theology and all his spiritual works “ON THE PROXIMATE OCCASIONS OF SIN”); also our Commentary (1 Cor. 6:18).

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

“Whosoever shall put away his wife,” &c. In this form of expression, it is clearly conveyed, that putting away or divorcing one’s wife, even for a just cause, was not commanded, but only permitted or tolerated in the Old Law (see 19:8). All that was commanded, as is here expressed, was, that in case a man divorced his wife, she should get from him a (written) “bill of divorce,” and it was only after the wife left her husband’s house, furnished with this written bill of divorce, the act of separation was valid. As regards the power of divorcing their wives granted to husbands in the Old Law, it is to be observed that the law of Moses permitted this divorce solely on account of some uncleanness, (Deut. 24:1, &c.) Many understand the words, not only of a sin against purity, but of any uncleanness, whether physical or moral. At a later period of Jewish History—after their return from captivity—a great dispute arose on this point; and in our Redeemer’s time, the Jewish doctors of the two famous schools of Hillel and Schamai, took different views of the question; the former contending for the sufficiency of any cause, however trifling; the latter restricting the privilege of divorce to the case of adultery (see Matt. 19:1–10), (Dixon, vol. ii. 296).

2ndly. The privilege of divorcing was not given to the wife, but to the husband only, although, towards the end of the Jewish kingdom, females of the higher class, claimed to themselves, after the example of Roman matrons, the right of divorce. The law of Moses permitted the aggrieved wife not to give a bill of divorce herself, but to seek it at the hands of the judge (Exod. 21:10).

3rdly. This permission of the law of Moses most probably dissolved the vinculum of the former marriage, so that it was dissolved in foro interno et Coram Deo (see commentary on Matt 19:3-12).

4thly. The husband could receive back his divorced wife, after giving her a bill of divorce, unless she was married to another; but not, once she was married to another (Deut. 26:1–4; Jer. 3:1), thus consulting, for public decency, lest husbands might seem to have given their wives for a time to another, which would savour of a community of wives. He was commanded to give a bill of divorce, in order to consult for the condition of his wife; and this also was hampered with conditions, all of which should concur in order to render valid the bill of divorce. The consequence was, that the bill of divorce was rendered very difficult; and time for deliberation was given to the husbands in case they rashly resolved in sending away their wives, even for a just cause (see Carrière de Mat. vol. ii., p. 170–179). Our Redeemer altogether abolishes this law of divorce, so far as the vinculum or marriage tie is concerned, which is never dissolved after consummation, if there be question of Christian marriages. (Concil. Trid. §§ xxiv. Can. vii.—See chapter 19)

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.

Our Redeemer here declares, that if a man put away his wife without a justifying cause—“excepting the cause of fornication”—he incurs the guilt of adultery, to which he unjustly exposes her. For, quantum in se est, he makes her commit adultery, and a man incurs the guilt of the sins, which by his injustice he occasions (Rom. 1:32). But if the husband have a just cause for sending away his wife, and for dismissing her, quoad thorum, then, should she commit adultery, she herself is guilty of the sin, by putting herself perversely in the occasion, and not he. Although there are several causes that justify a separation, quoad thorum et mensam in the New Law, in which the rights of the husband and wife, as regards the marriage contract, are made equal (1 Cor. 7:4; Mark 10:12), still, our Redeemer only instances that of “adultery;” because, it was the only cause peculiar to the marriage state, arising out of it exclusively, that justified a separation. The other causes usually alleged, as warranting a separation, would justify a departure from any contract whatsoever, v.g., the attempt of one party to bring the other into sin, and cause his spiritual ruin, and so with the rest. Moreover, “adultery” is the only permanent cause of separation, even after the party so guilty had done penance, and made all possible reparation. Even if this were done, the innocent party is not bound to take back the adulterous party. The other causes are not permanent, but temporary, ceasing, when the offending party becomes repentant.

That the vinculum, or tie of marriage, is not dissolved in case of adultery, as the Catholic Church teaches in regard to consummated Christian marriages (Conc. Trid. §§ xxiv. Can. xii.), is clear from the general form, without any exception, used here by our Divine Redeemer, that “whosoever shall marry her that is put away” (whether with cause or without it; no distinction is made), “committeth adultery.” The same is clear from St. Mark 10:11, 12; Luke 16:18. St. Paul (1 Cor. 7:11) gives the wife who left her husband, even with a just cause, no alternative but to remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband. That St. Paul speaks of a departure from a just cause, is clear from his giving her the option referred to. Had she left without some justifying cause, the Apostle would have given her no such alternative. He would have commanded her to return at once and fulfil her plighted obligations (see c. 19:4–9).

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.

Here, our Lord passes from the sixth to the second precept of the Decalogue. “Thou shalt not forswear thyself.” These words are found in substance, although not identically (in Exod. 20:7; Levit. 19:12; Deut. 5:11), where the original Hebrew word, scau, signifies, thou shalt not take the name of God in vain, or falsely. For, “in vain,” means also, “falsely.” Hence, our Redeemer here quotes only the substance of the law. These words have reference to assertory oaths.

“But, thou shalt perform thy oaths,” &c. These words are quoted substantially from Numbers 30:3. They refer to promissory oaths, and mean, that whatever we promise the Lord to do, whom we invoke by oath, we should fulfil it. By others (among them, Suarez), these latter words are understood to convey that in our oaths we should swear by the true God, and not in the name of idols, “et per nomen ejus jurabis.” (Deut.)

34 But I say to you not to swear at all, neither by heaven for it is the throne of God:

“Not to swear at all.” The Scribes and Pharisees understanding the words, “in vain,” to mean only falsely, which signification also, as has been observed, the Hebrew word, scau, bears, interpreted the prohibition contained in the Second Commandment, as simply meaning, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in a lie;” and hence, they inferred that it was not prohibited to invoke His holy name irreverently, on every occasion, no matter how trivial or unimportant the cause; 2ndly, as appears from the following verses, and 23:16, they interpreted the words, “the Lord thy God,” strictly, so that in this commandment was not conveyed the prohibition to swear by creatures, whether common, such as heaven and earth; or those consecrated to God, such as Jerusalem, the Temple, &c. They also taught that such oaths were not binding, save in cases favourable to their own avarice (20:16).

35 Nor by the earth, for it is his footstool: nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king:

It was, then, in reference to these false notions of the Pharisees on the subject of oaths, that our Redeemer tells us “not to swear at all,” in the sense in which an oath was allowed by the Scribes and Pharisees, i.e., not to invoke the holy and adorable name of God rashly and without cause, nor, to swear by creatures either, without the like cause; since, in swearing by them, we swear by God, their Creator, whose attributes they reflect, whose creatures they are, and who is intimately connected with them. “Heaven is the throne of God, the earth His footstool.” These words contain an allusion to Isaias (66:3), and are understood figuratively in accommodation to human ideas. These words mean, that the majesty and immensity of God are resplendent in them.

“City of the great king,” are allusive to Psa. 47, “Mount Sion, founded on the sides of the north, the city of the great king.” From the city where God resides, and is specially worshipped, chosen preferably to all others, His Majesty is resplendently reflected.

36 Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.

“By thy head,” &c. The mention of heaven and earth, &c., as specially belonging to God, suggests to our Redeemer, to prevent swearing by our head, as if our head belonged to ourselves, so that we might dispose of it, as we thought proper. He meets this insinuation by saying that, although given for our use, it is not ours exclusively; we neither created it, nor can we change its condition. “Thou canst not make one hair white or black.” It belongs to God, as do all the other members of our body, of which the head was the principal. This form of oath, “by the head,” was common among the Greeks and Romans, from whom, in their intercourse with them, the Jews probably borrowed it.

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

“Let your speech be yea, yea,” &c. The meaning is, when you assert any thing, content yourselves with mere simple affirmation of its truth; when you deny anything to be true, confine yourself to mere denial, without having recourse to swearing, to corroborate what you assert or deny. These particles are doubled, to express the certain truth of what is asserted or denied.

“And that which is over and above these,” for the greater confirmation of what we say, viz., an oath, “is of evil.” By “evil,” some interpreters (Maldonatus, &c.) understand the evil one, or the devil. The Greek, τοῦ πονηροῦ, the evil, would render this opinion probable; and according to it, our Redeemer would institute an opposition between Himself, or rather between His precepts, “I say to you,” &c., and the suggestions of the devil. I command one thing, viz., to abstain from all oaths, in the sense already assigned. The devil suggests to you to employ oaths in the same sense, viz., unnecessarily and frivolously. The devil may be said to be not so much the suggester, as the occasional cause of all oaths, inasmuch as he was the first source of sin; and the necessity for having recourse to oaths in any circumstances, arises from sin. This latter sense, although, according to it, “from evil,” is referred to the devil, hardly much differs, in substance, from the interpretation, which understands “from evil,” not to refer directly to the devil, but to the wickedness and duplicity of man, his inconstancy and weakness, arising from the evil principle of sin, implanted in his nature, in its present fallen condition. Our Redeemer does not say, that what is beyond more assertion or negation is in itself evil; but only that its necessity and existence are derived from evil, as already explained.

Our Redeemer’s prohibition here of swearing would seem to be founded on three reasons—1st. The danger of perjury, to which the habit of swearing exposes us (St. Augustine, in hunc locum). In Eccles. (23:9), we have, “Let not thy mouth be accustomed to swearing,” &c. 2ndly. On account of the reverence due to God’s name. For, if it would be indecorous to be invoking the name of man on every trivial occasion, how much more so when there is question of the holy and adorable name of God? To this reference is made in the words, “Nor by heaven, for it is God’s throne,” &c. 3rdly. On account of the good faith and mutual confidence which should exist among Christians. This would render swearing unnecessary; and, to it reference is made in the words, “Let your speech be yea, yea,” &c.

Our Redeemer does not prohibit resorting to an oath, in certain circumstances, and when vested with certain conditions, viz., “judgment,” with a cause or necessity; “justice,” when its object is just and lawful; and “truth.” “Thou shalt swear: as the Lord liveth, in truth, in judgment, and in justice.” (Jer. 4:2). In such circumstances an oath is an act of homage, in recognition of God’s supreme veracity. It is, however, when vested with these conditions, that it is an act of homage; and only then is it lawful.

That it is sometimes lawful to swear, is a point of Catholic faith against the Anabaptists and Wickliffe. The Apostle tells us that an oath is the termination of controversy (Heb. 6:16). Moreover, we have the example of God swearing, “Juravit Dominus,” &c. (Heb. 6:13) The Apostle swears. So do Abraham, Moses, &c. (See Comment. St. James 5:12).

Here is what the bishop wrote on James 5:12~St. James here proceeds to caution the converted Jews against a vice resulting from impatience, which vice being prevalent among the Jews of old, was, most likely, not wholly eradicated after their conversion; this was the abusive practice of indiscriminate swearing in common conversation. It appears from the Gospel, that there were erroneous doctrines taught by the Jewish doctors, and consequent abuses on two points, connected with the taking of an oath. The first was, that no matter how trivial or unnecessary the occasion of an oath might be, it was not sinful to invoke the name of God, provided it was done in truth; and hence, in the prohibition (Exodus, 20:7), “thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” they understood the words “in vain,” to mean, falsely, or in a lie—a signification which the original Hebrew word bears, but not exclusively, as they interpret it. Secondly, they held, that an oath by creatures, except in the cases favourable to their own avarice, “by the gold of the temple” (Matthew 23:17), was not binding. These erroneous and abusive teachings our divine Redeemer corrects in his Gospel (Matt. 5:34), and tells men “not to swear at all,” i.e., indiscriminately and in common conversation—even though their assertions should be true, in the sense, in which swearing was permitted by the Jewish teachers; and he also declares that swearing by heaven, or earth, was equally binding with the direct invocation of the name of God, since his attributes were reflected both in one and the other. Now, as St. James, the disciple, is to be supposed to have in view the same prohibition, which he heard from the lips of his Divine Master, his words; in this passage, are to be understood in the same meaning.

St. James, any more than our divine Redeemer, does not prohibit our resorting to an oath, when accompanied with the necessary dispositions of “judgment, justice, and truth” (Jeremias, 4:2); for, then, it is an act of homage in recognition of the supreme veracity of God, who knows all truth, and is incapable of sanctioning falsehood of any kind. But to be invoking God’s name on every occasion, is only insulting him, and profanely irreverencing his holy name. That it is sometimes lawful for Christians to swear, is a point of faith defined against the Anabaptists and Wicliffe, and clearly proved, from the example of God himself, “juravit Dominus et non pœnitebit eum,” from the examples of Moses, Abraham, St. Paul, &c. “Nor by any other oath,” i.e., by any other mode of invoking God’s veracity, as witness of truth. “But let your speech be, yea, yea; no, no;” in Greek, the word “speech” is not found, it is, ἤτω δε ὑμων το ναι, ναι, και το οὒ, οὔ; but let your yea be yea; and your no be no; the word, “speech” was, most likely, introduced here from (Matthew, 5:37), as both passages referred, in the mind of the interpreter, to the same thing. “That you fall not under judgment.” In some Greek readings it is, that you fall not into hypocrisy. The reading adopted in our Vulgate is, however, the most probable. They would fall under judgment or condemnation, by swearing in violation of God’s law and prohibition.

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

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

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