Father MacEvilly’s Commentary on Matthew 5:38-48

I’ve included Father’s brief summary analysis of the entire chapter. The notes on verses 38-48 follow it. Text in red, if any, are my additions.

ANALYSIS OF MATTHEW CHAPTER 5

In this chapter we have a full account of a portion of our Redeemer’s admirable discourse, commonly called, the Sermon on the Mount, continued and concluded in the two succeeding chapters, in which He delivers a comprehensive abstract of Christian faith and morality, perfecting at the same time the Law of Moses, and correcting the false glosses and corrupt interpretations of the Scribes and Pharisees. The Evangelist first briefly describes the circumstances in which it was delivered (1–2). He next records our Redeemer’s words, in which are pointed out the means for arriving at the secure enjoyment of happiness, commonly termed, the eight beatitudes; the very opposite of what mankind had hitherto supposed and followed, as the means of happiness (3–12). He admonishes the Apostles and all prelates, of their strict duty to edify and enlighten others by the example of a holy life and the shining light of pure doctrine (13–16). Meeting a charge to which His doctrine of perfection might expose Him, He shows, that far from being the enemy of the Law and the Prophets, He thoroughly fulfils and perfects them; and He declares, that the observance of the law by His followers must far exceed that of those reputed to be most observant among the Jews, viz., the Scribes and Pharisees (17–20). He more fully propounds the precept of the Decalogue relating to homicide; and He shows that the moral guilt and eternal punishment attached to it are incurred by those who violate it not only by act, but by thought or word; and as a means of observing it, He points out the necessity of fraternal union and concord (21–26). He next explains the law on the subject of adultery, which He declares to be violated by deliberate and wilful thoughts; and He insists on the necessity of sacrificing every object, however near or dear to us, that may prove the occasion of sin (27–30). He explains the law of divorce (31–32). He next fully explains the law on the subject of perjury, and shows the extent to which it binds us (33–37). He next explains the law of retaliation, lex talionis, and shows the retaliation alone suited to a Christian—forgiveness, patience, beneficence (38–42). He fully explains the law relating to the love of our enemies, and He points out the motives for the perfect observance of this precept (43–48).

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

In this verse our Redeemer corrects the false traditions and interpretations of the Scribes and Pharisees, respecting the precept of the Mosaic law, on the subject of retaliation for injuries inflicted, the lex talionis. He also perfects the law itself by substituting a species of retaliation hitherto unattended to—the retaliation of patience and forgiveness. The law of retaliation (lex talionis) is laid down (Exod. 21:24; Deut. 24:20). It was a just enactment, sanctioned by the usage of all the ancient peoples and nations. It had the effect of serving as an efficacious check on evil doers, whom the dread of sustaining a like injury restrained within the bounds of duty. It also served to check the vengeance of the injured party, since it did not permit him to exercise the punishment of retaliation himself, to demand “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” by private authority. It only allowed recourse to the Judges, whom it directed, or rather instructed, as to the amount of reparation they were to exact in the case of malicious injury done the members or limbs of the human body. It also had only reference to equals, because, even to curse a prince, much less to injure his person, was punishable with death among the Jews. Nor did it hold between master and slave (Exod. 21:26). It also admitted of a fair latitude of interpretation, and the party aggrieved might, either before or after the sentence of the judge, accept of pecuniary compensation. The law of Moses strictly prohibited feelings or dispositions of a revengeful character (Lev. 19:18).

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

 “But, I say to you,” &c. As the lex talionis did not authorize private revenge, any more than does the New Law; as, moreover, it only regarded the Judges, from whom the injured party might seek just reparation, a thing equally permitted in the New Law, for the occupant of power carries the sword to restrain evil-doers (Rom. 13)—nor are men prevented from having recourse to them for redress, should every other means fail,—it may fairly be asked, what then, does our Redeemer enact here, that did not exist already, “But I say to you?” &c. As regards the law itself, on this subject, it does not appear that our Redeemer adds anything. He only perfects and corrects it, viewed according to the false interpretation of the Scribes and Pharisees, who, it would seem, explained the law, as if it allowed individuals to retaliate, and to demand, of their own private authority, the reparation which the law allowed only after the sentence of the judge. This was evidently unlawful, as it would foster a spirit of vengeance, and would tend to great injustice. In this sense, our Redeemer tells us, “not to resist evil.” “Evil” may refer to the injury sustained, or the person unjustly inflicting it; if the former, the words mean, we should not retaliate for the injury; if the latter, we should not seek to take revenge on him. Our Redeemer goes farther, and proposes a Christian kind of retaliation, both as regards personal honour, property, or personal injury (39–41).

“Strike thee on the right cheek,” i.e., if a man strike you on one cheek, turn to him the other also, as St. Luke expresses it (6:29). The form employed by our Lord shows He is speaking of private injury and satisfaction, “strike thee,” &c., but not of satisfaction to be exacted, on public grounds, or from the public authorities. The words of this and the following verses are, in certain circumstances, preceptive; in others, only matters of counsel; and sometimes, even inexpedient. They are preceptive in this sense, that we should never, even on public grounds, seek due satisfaction from a spirit of private vengeance, and that we should actually submit to the evils referred to, rather than avenge them from a private spirit of anger; and, moreover, we should be prepared in our minds to bear these injuries whenever the glory of God and the salvation of our neighbour demand it. But these circumstances do not always concur, and the instructions conveyed, in affirmative propositions, like the present, are not, therefore, always preceptive. St. Augustine (hic. and Ep. 5, ad Marcellinum et Lib. de Mendacio, c. 15), understands the precept, conveyed here, of the preparation of the mind, rather than of observance in act. That they are not always to be observed and practised in act, is clear from the example of our Divine Redeemer Himself, who, though often patiently submitting to personal injuries and insulting treatment, of the description referred to here (Isa. 50:6), still, at times refused doing so; v.g., He did not give His other cheek on the occasion, when He was struck by the servant of the High Priest; He rather reproved His striker (John 18:22, 23); from the example of St. Paul, who, though often beaten with stripes (1 Cor. 4:11, 12), still, when sentenced to be struck before the High Priest, did not gently put up with it, “percutiat te Dominus, paries dealbate,” &c., was his reply to the iniquitous judge. He had, at the same time, a heart prepared to suffer for the truth and for God’s sake. Circumstances sometimes occur in which the patient endurance of evils and reproaches would only have the effect of exciting our aggressors the more. In this case, it would be imprudent to do so. Hence, we are told “to answer a fool according to his folly, lest he imagine himself to be wise” (Prov. 26:5). Sometimes, it would only serve to let loose and embolden a whole herd of malefactors, whose only aim would be to subvert the altar and the throne. In such a case, forbearance would be opposed to the good order of society, and would, therefore, be utterly inexpedient.

40 And if a man will contend with thee in judgment, and take away thy coat, let go thy cloak also unto him.

“And if a man will contend with thee,” &c., i.e., if any man wishes to drag you unjustly before a court of justice for the purpose of depriving you of one of your garments; or, if he wishes to dispute with you in court for your coat, which he has unjustly taken away from you (the words, “contend in judgment,” and “take away thy coat,” may bear either meaning), then, sooner than violate charity, or suffer the loss of a greater good, viz., patience and peace of soul, be prepared to make over to him your cloak also. In St. Luke (6:29), the order is different, “and him that taketh away from thee thy cloak, forbid not to take thy coat also.” This is the more natural construction; as the cloak, which is the outer garment, is taken off first. The sense is the same in both constructions, the meaning being, if he take away one garment, be prepared to give him the other. The words of St. Luke may mean, if he take away the cheaper garment, give him the more costly one. According to St. Matthew, if he take away the inner, give him the outer, or more necessary garment. How far this is preceptive, and, in what circumstances, it is only of counsel, and when even inexpedient, may be gathered from the foregoing.

41 And whosoever will force thee one mile, go with him other two.

“And whosoever will force thee” (ἀγγαρευσει = angareusei). In the original term for “force” (angariauerit), which is a word of Persian origin (angar, in Persic, means a courier), is conveyed an allusion to the Persian custom of employing in the public service couriers, termed in the Persian language, angari, who, stationed at certain distances from one another, transmitted the public intelligence; they were in some respects, like our postmen. These public couriers, or king’s messengers, had authority to press men, or horses, or ships, into their service. The same custom was afterwards adopted among the Romans, in regard to their provincials, and is still in use among the Turks. This exotic Greek term (αγγαρος) is found in St. Matthew 27:32; also, Mark 15:21. The words mean; should you be forced on an errand for a certain distance, rather than resist and forfeit peace of mind, go voluntarily double the distance. How far this is obligatory, may be inferred from the foregoing. In the Greek, for “go other two,” it is, “go two,” as if to convey; instead of going one mile when pressed in the public service to that extent, go voluntarily double the required distance.

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

“Give to him,” &c. In the foregoing maxims, our Redeemer shows we should have the dispositions of not retaliating injuriously on those who injure and act violently towards us. In this verse, He points out our obligation to exercise acts of benevolence and liberality towards our afflicted and indigent brethren, be they friends or be they foes, the sole consideration to be attended to being, their wants and necessities. Hence, in place of the law of retaliation and vengeance, our Lord substitutes the law of charity and beneficence. Wherefore, “give to him that asketh of thee,” whoever he be, friend or foe, even if he be of those who may have “struck thee on thy right cheek” (v. 39); and should he wish to borrow of thee, even though he may have maltreated thee, do not, on this account, turn away thy face indignantly from him; but, lend to him, just as if he inflicted no injury whatever on thee. The words, “would borrow,” i.e., wishes to borrow, and from feelings of shame or modesty, may not actually prefer his request, convey that we are not to turn away in disgust from such persons, even though they may not actually apply to us; but rather attend to their wants.

St. Luke (6:30), to this, adds another precept, “and of him who taketh away thy goods, ask them not again,” which shows that our Redeemer is speaking of those who did us an injury. This and the preceding are preceptive whenever our neighbour is either in extreme necessity, or reduced to such grievous necessity, as would call upon us to relieve his wants. Outside this state of things, they are only a matter of counsel; and circumstances may arise where their observance would be inexpedient, and not in accordance with the dictates of prudence. In other words, the above instructions may be said to be preceptive in this sense, that we are bound to have the prompt dispositions of relieving our neighbour’s wants, as often as it is in accordance with right reason that we should do so, i.e., whenever the glory of God and our neighbour’s salvation require it. But if it should happen that their observance would be opposed to right reason and the good of society, which, in certain conceivable circumstances, might occur; then, in such circumstances, our Redeemer never meant that they should be observed.

St. Luke (6:31), adds, “and as you would that men should do to you, do you also to them in like manner,” which is also found (c. 7:12) of this Gospel. This shows that the above instructions are to be attended to only when our neighbour could reasonably expect similar treatment from us. Our conduct towards him and our wishes in regard to the treatment he would show us, are always to be in accordance with the dictates of prudence and right reason.

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

“Thou shalt love thy neighbour,” &c. The first part of this verse, regarding the love of our neighbour, is found in Leviticus (19:18). The Hebrew word for neighbour, Reagh, also signifies “friend;” and hence, it is rendered by St. Jerome, in the above passage, “thou shalt love thy friend: diliges amicum tuum.”

“And hate thy enemy.” These latter words are found in no part of the Old Testament, and hence, our Lord says, “you have heard,” i.e., from the false glosses and interpretations of the Scribes and Pharisees, who, finding it laid down in the law, “thou shalt love thy friend,” by a false interpretation and contrary induction inferred, “therefore, thou shalt hate thy enemy.” But, this is found nowhere in Scripture. For, although the Jews are ordered to put to death, and extirpate the Chanaanite nations, nowhere are they told to hate them, any more than an executioner, who carries out the sentence of death, or the soldier ordered to slay his enemies, is told to hate them. On the contrary, the Jews are commanded in several passages of the books of Moses, to show kindness, and to practise benevolence towards their enemies. The Hebrew word, Reagh, signified “friend”—those connected with us by blood or kindred, and also all those with whom we have any relations whatever, including the known relations of necessity under which he may labour. The Scribes and Pharisees took the word in its limited sense, confining it to the Jews, the seed of Abraham, and drew a false inference, as if all, not of the seed of Abraham, i.e., all the Gentiles, were to be hated. Our Divine Redeemer, taking the word in its full, universal, and extended sense, corrects the false and contracted interpretation given the word by the Pharisees, as well as their false induction, and explains the precept as obligatory, in its most extended sense, so as to include our enemies, who are joined to us not alone in the relation of common origin from the same original stock in the first Adam, and redemption through the second; but also in the relation of spiritual necessities, which the very fact of being our enemies, and their injuring us, implies.

44 But I say to you, Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you:

“But I say to you.” “I,” who am your Master, and your Sovereign Lord. “I,” who cannot lead you astray, as I am the infallible truth, incapable of deceiving you or being myself deceived. Interpreters remark, as has been noticed in the preceding verse, that our Redeemer does not say, “IT HAS BEEN SAID to them of old,” or it has been enjoined on your fathers; but, “you HAVE HEARD that it was said,” as if He meant to correct not what was really said, but what they heard was said—that is to say, to correct the false glosses and interpretations of their teachers—the Scribes and Pharisees. “I say to you.” I command you “to love your enemies,” which expresses the interior and sincere feelings of the heart. Far from entertaining feelings of hatred, they should, on the contrary, have feelings of love and affection for their enemies, who—as appears from our Lord’s own teaching, and the illustration (Luke 10), where He gives the parable of the good Samaritan, the enemy of the Jew—are also our neighbours, whom we are bound to love, as we would reasonably hope to be loved ourselves, and this is not merely to be confined to the heart; it should be exhibited “in work and truth.” “Do good to them that hate you,” refers to charity towards our neighbour, exhibited in work; “and pray for them that persecute you,” refers to the tongue, or the expression of charity by the tongue or by words. Hardly is there any violation of charity so common, and withal so little scrupled, as that committed by words and by the wicked tongue. This “world of iniquity” (James 3:6). “If any man think himself religious, not bridling his tongue … this man’s religion is vain” (James 1:26). “Detract not one another,” &c. (James 4:11.—See commentary on).

In the Greek, the phrase, “bless them that curse you,” is added and inserted between “do good to them that hate you,” and “pray for them that persecute,” &c. The order of this latter member also is inverted in the Greek, which runs thus, “pray for them that calumniate and persecute you.”

The precept conveyed in this verse obliges us, per se, only to show our enemy the common marks of friendship and charity. To exclude him from the common offices of friendship would be a grave violation of this precept. To exhibit special marks of friendship to him if he be not in extreme or grievous want, saluting him by name, familiarly accosting him, &c., is only a matter of counsel. I said, per se, because there may be special grounds of obligation to show him peculiar marks of friendship in certain circumstances, v.g., if scandal arose from the omission, or the salvation of our enemy required it, &c. (See Matt 18:23, &c.)

45 That you may be the children of your Father who is in heaven, who maketh his sun to rise upon the good, and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust.

Our Redeemer commends the observance of the precept of loving our enemies, from which corrupt nature so strongly recoils, and which grace alone could enable us to fulfil, by a two-fold consideration of the most pressing nature. The first is, that by loving our enemies, we demonstrate that we are, by imitation, sons, or faithful imitators of our Heavenly Father, whose sons we are already become by grace and adoption, and give proof that we are deserving to be reckoned among His children, when, by our actions, we faithfully reflect His boundless beneficence. Without distinguishing between His friends or His enemies, between “the just and the unjust,” between “the good and the bad,” He diffuses His blessings alike on all, without distinction. He bestows the priceless blessings of rain and heat on all without distinction, which are the great sources of the temporal blessings which we enjoy.

46 For if you love them that love you, what reward shall you have? do not even the publicans this?

The second consideration, to influence them to love their enemies, is that, if they act otherwise, they are entitled to no supernatural reward. They do no more than the “publican,” whom they despise, whose unjust course of life they detest and abhor; and whom they universally regard as placed outside the pale of salvation. If, then, the former motive should be regarded by them as too exalted, as exceeding their strength or aspirations, viz., that of becoming like to God; the latter could not by any means, as, they surely must aspire to a higher course of life, of virtuous actions, and to more exalted rewards, than “the publican” could pretend to or expect.

“The publicans” were the collectors of the taxes among the Jews—a class of heartless oppressors, everywhere throughout the Gospel regarded, by our Redeemer, as outside the pale of salvation.

“If you love those (only) that love you.” Our Redeemer speaks of exclusively loving those that love us. For, to love our friends from good motives, is praiseworthy, and deserving of reward. It has charity for its principle. Our Lord speaks of that exclusive love of our friends, as in next verse He speaks of “saluting our brethren only.” “What reward shall you have?” He, of course, speaks of supernatural rewards hereafter, as in returning the love of our friends, there is some earthly reward here, with a continuance of reciprocal love. Hence, He speaks of the reward in store in heaven hereafter, of which, by exclusively loving their friends—thus showing that their love is purely natural—they will show themselves no more deserving than the publicans do, who exercise natural love towards their friends. “Shall you have?” In the Greek, it is present, “have you,” which means, laid up for you in heaven, and thus the meaning of the present and future reading of the verb, as in the Vulgate, amount to the same.

47 And if you salute your brethren only, what do you more? do not also the heathens this?

“Salute,” the Greek word, ασπασησθε, denotes the mode of salutation among friends, practised among the ancients, both Jews, and Gentiles, by embraces. It was observed also among the early Christians, “Salutate invieem in osculo sancto” (2 Cor. 13:12). It denotes all other modes of expressing friendly feelings.

“Your brethren only,” i.e., those united to us by ties of blood or kindred. The Jews regarded the whole Jewish race, the whole seed of Abraham, as “brethren.”

“What do you do more?” “More,” may mean, more than those do whose actions have no supernatural merit; like the Pagans referred to, or, “more,” περισσον (perisson), may mean, excellent, deserving of commendation.

“Heathens,” as well as you, show peculiar marks of friendship and affection to their friends. Christians must surely aspire to higher merits and reward than Pagans are entitled to, who, although capable of supernatural acts under the influence of Divine grace, still are incapable of supernatural merit, since faith, although not absolutely, the first grace—for, Pagans receive many actual graces—still, it is the first grace in the order of justification. The love confined to friends exclusively, without extending to our enemies, is but Pagan love, which is, by no means, meritorious before God.

For “Pagans,” the common Greek reading has “Publicans.” But, the Vulgate is supported by the Vatican, and other MSS., and the Fathers generally.

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

“Be you, therefore, perfect,” &c. “You,” who are children of God by grace and adoption; and who must far exceed Pagans and Publicans in the practice of virtue. “Therefore,” on account of your Christian position and relations to God, as sons, “made partakers of the Divine nature” by grace and faith. “Perfect,” St. Luke has (c. 6), “merciful,” which embraces not only the exercise of mercy towards the unfortunate and miserable; but, also, beneficence and benevolence towards all, a signification which the word, mercy, often bears in SS. Scripture (Gen. 39:21, &c.), and is well suited to express the meaning of “perfect” here, which generally refers to the observance of God’s commandments, as explained in the preceding chapter, and, in a special way, to the exercise of beneficence to all mankind, our enemies included; and, in this twofold sense of the word, “perfect,” the particle, “therefore,” expresses a general conclusion, drawn from the foregoing chapter, and a particular conclusion, derived from what immediately precedes, regarding the love of our enemies.

“As your heavenly Father is perfect.” “As,” expresses only similitude, a resemblance, but not equality, by any means; as there can be no equality between the finite and the Infinite. God is Infinite in all perfections; man can only, in a limited degree, imitate and resemble Him in the practice of perfection. The “perfection” referred to here, while embracing the exercise of all virtues, refers, in a special degree, to the exercise of mercy, beneficence, and benevolence towards all mankind, as is expressed by St. Luke (6:36), “as your heavenly Father is merciful.” The word, “merciful,” is taken in its most extended sense, to embrace the exercise of beneficence to all the world. The Greek for “Be you,” is future, “you shall be;” but this is a gentle form, of conveying a precept, common to the Greek with other languages. These words are partly preceptive and of obligation; partly, of counsel. It is preceptive on all Christians to strive to acquire the perfection necessary for their state, so far as the precepts of God bearing on that state, and the duties of their state, are concerned. Hence, it is preceptive, so far as the observance of God’s commandments in general are concerned. It is preceptive also on us, as regards the love of our enemies, and the showing of benevolence to them, to show them the common marks of friendship, and if they be in extreme or grievous want, to come to their relief; and to show special marks of friendship and affection, whenever God’s glory or our neighbour’s salvation would be injured by our withholding them. Outside these cases, it is only of counsel, to show special marks of friendship to our enemies; or, taking the text in a more extended sense, to do more than observe God’s commandments.

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One Response to Father MacEvilly’s Commentary on Matthew 5:38-48

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

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