Cornelius a Lapide’s Commentary Matt 6:1-6, 16-18

Mat 6:1  Take heed that you do not your justice before men, to be seen by them: otherwise you shall not have a reward of your Father who is in heaven.

Take heed. &c. Instead of alms, some Greek Codices read δικαιοσύνην, righteousness, or justice. This is the reading of the Syriac and the Latin Vulgate. The Complutensian, Royal, and other Greek Codices read alms. The Arabic translates mercy—of which the Saviour speaks next. For this is in Scripture κατ ε̉ξοχην, or par excellence, a common word for righteousness, as I have shown on 2Co_9:10. Hence S. Chrysostom reads justice, understanding alms. After Christ in the preceding chapter had expounded one by one the precepts of the Law, which prescribe all righteousness, i.e., whatever is just, and right, and holy, or all good works, now, in this chapter He proceeds to teach the way of doing things holily and rightly, that we should do them with a right intention, and with the desire of pleasing God, not man. He begins with alms. Then He teaches how we ought to pray, and next how to fast; for with these three vain glory is wont chiefly to be bound up, says S. Chrysostom.

To be seen by them. The word that denotes the intention and the end. “Do not do holy and just works with this intention and object, to be seen and praised of men, for this is vain ostentation.” But Christ does not here forbid them to be done publicly, and advantageously, that men may see them and glorify God. Whence S. Gregory says, “Let thy works be so done openly that thy intention may remain in secret, and that we may afford an example of good works to our neighbours, so that yet with our intentions, by which we seek to please God only, we may always desire secrecy.”

Moreover, vain glory eats out all the dignity, worth, and merit of good works, like the worm the gourd (Jonah 4).

You shall not have a reward, &c. The reward of vain glory is the applause and favour of men. He who seeks to please men displeases God. For God, forasmuch as He is the author of good works, desires to be the object and end of the same, that we should do them for God, and refer them to His glory. Wherefore S. Paul says, “For if I yet pleased men I should not be the servant of Christ.”

S. Basil (in Constit. Monast. c. 11) calls vain glory the robber of good works. “Let us fly from vain glory,” he says, “the insinuating spoiler of good works, the pleasant enemy of our souls, the moth of virtues, the flattering ruin of our good things, who colours the poison with the honeyed mixture of her deceit, and who holds out to the souls of men her deadly cup. And I think she does this that men may the more greedily drink her down, and never be satiated with her. How sweet a thing is human glory to those who have not had experience of it!”

Mat 6:2  Therefore when thou dost an alms-deed, sound not a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be honoured by men. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.

When thou doest an alms-deed, sound not a trumpet before thee. Syr. do not blow a horn. When the Scribes and Pharisees were about to give away alms in the public streets they either sent a trumpeter before them, or else blew a horn themselves, under the pretext of drawing together by that means crowds of poor persons, who might run and receive alms, but in reality out of ostentation, and that their liberality might be seen and talked of by those who flocked together.

Observe that Holy Scripture, the prophets, but above all Christ, detest hypocrisy and hypocrites, who intend one thing in their heart, and pretend something else outwardly. For Christ is truth, simplicity, sincerity itself; wherefore He hates all falsehood and duplicity.

Moreover, hypocrites are like the monstrous beasts which S. John saw in the Apocalypse (chap. 9.), for they had the faces of women and the tails of scorpions. In the same manner hypocrites smile with their faces, and flatter with their mouths, but at the last they secretly strike and sting. Yet these very hypocrites, whilst they wish to hurt others, hurt themselves far more, “for there is nothing hid which shall not be revealed.” Wherefore their hypocrisy and fraud is easily detected, by which means they are confounded and lose their fame and credit, and become hateful unto all men. Wherefore David prays against hypocrites, and at the same time threatens them with most dreadful punishments (Ps 120): “Deliver my soul, 0 Lord, from lying lips and from a deceitful tongue. What reward shall be given or done unto thee, 0 thou false tongue? Even mighty and sharp arrows with hot burning coals.”

They have their reward—their, i.e., their own, viz., what they sought for. Again, their own is what is agreeable and congruous with their vanity, that of which alone they are worthy, that, like chameleons with wind, they may feed upon fleeting popular breath. How foolish are merchants like these, who, when by alms they might buy heavenly and eternal riches, neglecting these, prefer to buy the empty praise of men, that is, vain words, which beat the air, and then pass away!

Mat 6:3  But when thou dost alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doth.

But when thou doest  alms, &c. Omitting various explanations which are here collected by Maldonatus, I would say briefly, the meaning is as follows:—Avoid ostentation in thine alms and thy virtue, and as far as thou canst, seek for secrecy, that thou mayest not be seen of men, nor thy virtue talked about, that if, per impossibile, thy left hand could have eyes, it should not be able to see what good thy right hand doth, what, or how great alms thou dost bestow. It is a parabolical hyperbole common among the Syrians. Thus S. Chrysostom, Theophylact, and others. And as S. Jerome says in his Epitaph of Fabiola, “Virtue which is concealed rejoices in God as her judge.”

Mat 6:4  That thy alms may be in secret, and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee.

That thy alms, &c. “Openly”, i.e., says S. Augustine at the Resurrection, “Thou shalt be blessed, because the poor have not wherewith to recompense thee; but there shall be a recompense given thee at the Resurrection of the just, when the Lord, as the Apostle says, ‘shall reveal the hidden things of darkness, and make manifest the counsels of the heart, and then shall every man have praise of God.'” Just and congruous reward of secret work is public praise in the judgment. For Christ will reward thy secret work publicly in the judgment before God, angels, and men with eternal glory. Thus when S. Martin had divided his cloak, and given half of it to a poor man, in the night following, Christ appeared to Martin, clad in the same cloak, and praised him in the presence of the angels, saying, “Martin, while yet a catechumen, has clothed Me with this garment.”

But if thou make a show of thine alms, or any good work, God will hide it so that no one may behold, admire, or remember it: but if thou hide it God will manifest it to the whole world, especially in the Day of judgment. Thus S. Gregory gave alms to an angel in form of a shipwrecked sailor. He gave him large alms, again and again, when the angel asked them, but always in secret. But through this he gained the very summit of public glory; for the angel afterwards revealed that it was for this cause Gregory had deserved the chief bishopric of the Church. So Christ, in the form of a ragged beggar, asked of S. Catherine of Sienna first her tunic, then her cape, then her gloves, all of which she freely and secretly gave Him. On the following night He appeared to her, showing her the tunic bespangled with jewels, and promising that he would give her an invisible gown, which would preserve her from all cold (wherefore in future she never felt any cold), and in heaven public and illustrious glory. (So Raymund in her Life.)

Mat 6:5  And when ye pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, that love to stand and pray in the synagogues and corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men: Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.

And when ye pray, &c. Foolish and imprudent was this vanity and ostentation of the Scribes by which they affected the public streets, where was a greater crowd of people, that they might stand before them, and exhibit their prayers and devotion, when they ought rather to have sought for a secret place for prayer, in which they might collect their thoughts, and converse with God alone without distraction. What therefore is commonly said of three places unfit for study, that it is useless at a window, in the street, by the hearth, because of the various distractions which occur at those places, may be even more truly said of prayer. Prayer is useless at a window, in the street, by the hearth.

That love to stand and pray. From this and other passages Jansen is of opinion that the Jews stood, not knelt, to pray. But I say that the Priests and Levites sacrificed and sang Psalms to God standing, and the people who were present also stood, because if they had knelt they would have been unable to witness the sacrifices, especially in a great press of people, on account of the screen, three cubits in height, interposed between them and the altar. Again the people stood to hear a sermon, or to receive benediction, as in Solomon’s case; also in a solemn thanksgiving for victory, or any similar benefit, as we stand when a Te Deum is sung. S. Azarias and his fellows stood and sang the Benedicite in the fiery furnace of Babylon.

But at other times, the Jews prayed kneeling, especially in acts of adoration or penitence. Especially Solomon at the Dedication of the Temple prayed and worshipped kneeling. For—mark this, ye courtiers and delicate ones, who like the Jews, bend one knee to Christ—he kneeled with both his knees upon the ground. (1 Kings 8:54). So Daniel kneeled down three times a day and worshipped God. So Micah 6:6. “I will bow my knees to the Most High God.” For this is the manner of adoration among all nations. Hence the words, “I will leave me seven thousand men in Israel, whose knees have not been bowed to Baal.” And God says (Isa 45:23), “Every knee shall bow to me.” And (2 Chron 29:30), “They bowed their knee and worshipped.” This standing then to pray on the part of the Scribes and Pharisees was a part of their pride and vanity. They thought themselves to be worthier and holier than the rest of the people.

As for Christians, from the very beginning they have been accustomed to kneel down to pray. For when Christ was near to die, he prayed, kneeling down; yea, prostrating Himself upon the earth. See also S. Peter (Acts 9:40), and S. John
(Rev 19:10, Rev 22:8); and S. Paul (Acts 20:36; and Eph 3:14, “For this cause I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”). Christians, therefore, in memory of the fall of Adam and his posterity, pray kneeling at all times except Sundays and the Paschal season, when they pray standing, in honour and as a figure of the Resurrection of Christ, as S. Justin teaches (Quæst. 115), “Whence is this custom in the Church? Because we ought to retain in everlasting remembrance both our fall through sin, and the grace of our Christ by which we have risen again from our fall. So for six days we kneel in token of our fall through sin, and on the Lord’s Day we stand in token of our deliverance from sin and death.” S. Irenæus teaches that this practice began in the time of the Apostles. (Lib. de Paschat.) Tertullian enjoins the same custom. (Lib. de Corona Militis. c. 3.)

Mat 6:6  But thou when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret, and thy father who seeth in secret will repay thee.

But thou . . . enter into thy chamber. Gr. ταμει̃ον, i.e., any private place such as thy bedchamber; Vatablus renders, thy cell.

SS. Augustine, Jerome, and Ambrose understand by closet the heart or the mind, and their privacy, as though he who prays should enter there and shut it, so that no distractions may creep in to draw away the soul from God. As S. Jerome says: “Shut the door—i.e., shut thy lips and pray inwardly in thy mind, as Hannah, the mother of Samuel, did” (1 Sam 1:13). Hear S. Ambrose: “The Saviour says, Enter into thy chamber, not that which is enclosed by walls which shuts up thy bodily limbs, but the closet which is within thee, in which thy thoughts are enclosed. This closet for prayer is ever near thee, and ever private, of which there is no witness or judge but God alone.” “God who,” says S. Cyprian (Tract. de Orat.), “is the hearer of the heart, not of the voice.” It was a saying of Francis, that “the body is a cell, and the soul a hermit, which tarries in its cell wheresoever it may be, even among men, to pray to the Lord, and meditate upon Him. Cassian gives another reason (Collat. 9, c. 34): “We must pray in silence, that the intention of our prayer may not become known to our enemies the demons, lest they should hinder it.”

This meaning is true, but mystical rather than literal. But there is no reason why closet here should not be understood in its plain ordinary sense, of any private place. Hear S. Cyprian: “The Lord bids us pray secretly in hidden places apart, in our very chambers, because it is more agreeable to faith, in order that we may know God is everywhere present, hears and sees all, and in the plenitude of His majesty penetrates the most hidden and secret places, as it is written. “Am I a God nigh at hand, and not a God afar off.” (Jer. 23)

So, then, Christ does not here condemn public prayer in church, which has been the common laudable practice both of Jews and Christians, as is plain from 1 Kings 8:29, Acts 1:24. Tertullian (in Apol. c. 30.) writes. “Looking up thitherwards (to heaven), we Christians pray, with hands expanded as innocuous, with head uncovered, because we are not ashamed.” For the Jews, especially the priests, were wont to pray with their heads covered, as I have said on the Pentateuch. Our missionaries also in China cover their heads when saying mass, in accordance with an Indult of Pope Paul V., because among the Chinese it is a mark of disgrace to uncover the head. “Finally,” proceeds Tertullian, “we pray without a prompter, because we pray from the heart.” Lastly, the temple is the proper place of prayer, in which one and all may pray to God as secretly as though they were praying in their own bedchambers.

That is indeed a ridiculous heresy which has sprung up lately in Holland, from a wrong understanding of this passage by a certain innovator, who rejects all temples, and holds the conventicles of his sect nowhere but in bedrooms. The Calvinists, too, when they ask a blessing before meat, cover their faces with their hats, that they may pray in secret; but then a hat is not a bedchamber, as is very plain.

Mat 6:16  And when you fast, be not as the hypocrites, sad. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.

And when you fast, &c. Christ has taught the way to pray, He now teaches how to fast, because prayer without fasting is weak, as S. Chrysostom says. He teaches that it should be in earnest, and in secret, not with the object of pleasing men but God. For sad, the Greek has σκυθρωτοὶ, i.e., with a severe and lowering countenance, which is in opposition to being ίλαροὶ, or pleasant and joyful; σκυθρωποὶ is derived from σκυθροὶ, sad, disagreeable, and ώπα, the face.

Disfigure, Gr. α̉φανίζουσι, which S. Jerome translates by demoliuntur, S. Hilary by conficiunt, and S. Chrysostom by corrupt; others better, obscure their faces, i.e., by affecting, putting on severity, pallor, sadness of countenance. Others translate labefaciant, obliterant, perdunt, and velut e medio tollunt: i.e., make their face as it were not to appear, which the Vulgate represents by exterminate. For α̉φάνιζειν is, to make to vanish, to take the face out of sight, as those who use varnish; such are they who by a pretended emaciation and sorrowful pallor feign sanctity. Such are hypocrites, as the scribes were. Hear S. Jerome, “Exiles exterminantur, who are sent away extra terminos, beyond the boundaries of their country.” Then he explains exterminate by demoliuntur. “The hypocrite demolishes his countenance that he may feign sadness: and when perchance his mind is joyful he may carry grief in his face.”

Mat 6:17  But thou, when thou fastest anoint thy head, and wash thy face;
Mat 6:18  That thou appear not to men to fast, but to thy Father who is in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret, will repay thee.

But thou . . . Father in secret. Who hides His essence and His majesty, and who is as much in secret as in public places, and who sees as clearly the hidden things of the heart as the manifest things of our works.

It was a practice with the inhabitants of Palestine, in common with other Orientals, on holy days and other joyful occasions, especially at feasts, to anoint and wash the face, both for purposes of refreshment, for beauty, and for a sweet smell. Palestine being a very hot country the climate occasions profuse perspiration. They wash the face then to wipe away the perspiration, and anoint to banish unpleasant odours. This is clear from Ruth 3:3, Judith 10:3, 2 Sam 12:20, Luke 7:46. When the Magdalene anointed Christ the house was filled with the odour of the ointment. (John 12:3.) Therefore in times of affliction and mourning they abstained from anointing and washing.

Observe here a catachresis, similar to that in Matt 3:6, and elsewhere. For Christ does not here command any actual anointing, but joyfulness and the putting away all outward signs of fasting. Anoint thine head, i.e., be joyful, and present the appearance of hilarity, as though thou wert anointed with oil, which is the symbol and the cause of gladness, according to the words “That he may make his face joyful with oil.” (Ps 104:15) Yea, that thou shouldst so conceal thy fasting, as to put on the symbol of feasting, namely, anointing and washing. Thus S. Jerome. With this agrees that golden saying of S. Syncletica, preserved in the Lives of the Fathers, “As a treasure manifested is quickly spent, so virtue which is made known, or becomes public, is destroyed. For as wax rnelteth at the face of the fire so does a soul become worthless by praise, and lose the vigour of its virtues.”

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One Response to Cornelius a Lapide’s Commentary Matt 6:1-6, 16-18

  1. Pingback: Commentaries for Ash Wednesday | stjoeofoblog

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