Father MacEvilly’s Commentary on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

This post opens with the Father’s brief analysis of chapter 6 followed by his notes on verses 1- 6 and 16-18.


Having pointed out in the preceding chapter, the works of justice we are obliged to perform, our Lord commences this chapter with pointing out how they are to be performed, and the motives from which they should proceed. He inculcates the necessity of avoiding vain glory in the performance of our good works in general (1). Descending to particulars, He reduces our good works to the general heads of alms-deeds, prayer, fasting. He first points out how alms-deeds are to be performed, viz., in private, in order to secure an eternal reward (2–4). Next, point out how we should discharge the duty of prayer, the faults we are to avoid, common among the Pharisees (5), and among the Pagans (7–8); the secrecy with which we should perform the duty of private prayer (6). He next teaches us that most excellent and most comprehensive form of prayer, called the Lord’s Prayer (9–13), and He points out the necessity of forgiving injuries referred to in one of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer (14–15). He next points out the faults committed by hypocrites in the exercise of fasting, and shows how we ought to appear, while fasting (16–18). He next inculcates detachment from earthly goods, and dissuades us from amassing earthly goods, on several grounds, because of their fleeting character and insecure tenure, as contrasted with heavenly goods (19–20); because, they engross all our thoughts, and withdraw us from heavenly things (21); because, they destroy the merit of our good actions, and withdraw us from God (22–23); because, they make us slaves of that wealth which we worship and idolize (24). He, next, by way of meeting a tacit objection, which might be made to His teaching on the subject of indifference and detachment in regard to earthly treasures, on the ground of the necessity of making provision for the future, shows on several grounds, the folly of too much anxiety on this head; first, because of the goodness of God manifested in the past provision made for us (25); again, from a comparison of the care He takes of the worthless birds of the air (26); again, on the grounds of the utter uselessness of such inordinate solicitude (27). Again, referring to the subject of raiment, so necessary for our subsistence, He suppresses inordinate solicitude on this head, from a consideration of what God has done to clothe with beauty the very grass of the field (28–31). Finally, from the consideration that such solicitude is Pagan in its tendency (32). He concludes with exhorting to make God’s kingdom and His justice the chief object of our solicitude, and not inordinately forecast future troubles, which will all be provided for by God’s providence, in their own good time (33–34).

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. Our Redeemer, having fully shown, in the preceding chapter, how far our “justice,” i.e., our observance of the moral law should excel that of the Scribes and Pharisees, and having also pointed out their violation of the law, both in their teaching and their actions, commences this chapter by showing how far we should excel them as to the motives which should actuate us in the performance of the precepts of the law, common to His followers and the Jews.

The words, “take heed,” convey, that we should employ the utmost vigilance and caution in guarding against vain glory, as the most dangerous, insidious, and subtle of all our spiritual enemies, since it destroys all the merit of our good works. It is the evil which those particularly are most liable to, who lead a life of virtue, and against which, therefore, they should be chiefly on their guard. Other passions domineer over the wicked; this, chiefly attacks those who lead a life of virtue. The opinion which some expositors put forward, viz., that this portion of the discourse, which embraces quite a different subject from the foregoing, was not a continuation of the preceding, which they say, was delivered to the Apostles on the mountain; this, to the multitude in the plain, is fully answered (c. 5:1). For, one and the same speaker, in the same discourse, and before the same audience, may, and frequently does, employ different subjects, and treat them differently, in accommodation to the wants of his audience, or of several portions of his audience.

“Justice,” means our good works in general, by which we are made just, and the law is fulfilled; or, our observance of the law of God, without reference to any particular class of works. These are called “justice,” because by them we are justified (c. 5:20). In the Greek, for “justice,” it is “alms-deeds,” which is also the reading of St. Chrysostom. The Vulgate reading, “justice,” is supported by the Vatican and other MSS., St. Augustine, Jerome, &c. However, there is practically but very little difference as regards the meaning, since “alms-deeds” signifies works of justice, which the rich owe the poor and necessitous. Alms are styled “justice” (Ps 112:9; Prov 10:2; 2 Cor 9:10). The general signification conveyed by the Vulgate reading, “justice,” would seem to be the more appropriate; so that from general, our Redeemer would proceed to particular virtues, which He specifies in detail. He supposes that all the duties of religion are comprised under the three following works, and may be classed under them: Prayer comprises, in a general way, our duties to God, and His worship; “alms-deeds,” those we owe our neighbour; and fasting, those we owe ourselves, as the means of advancing our own personal sanctification. And, in order to impress upon us more clearly how these works are to be performed, our Redeemer shows first, how the Scribes and Pharisees performed them, and the corrupt motives by which they were actuated; and next, how we should perform them, and the purity of intention with which we should perform these works—our observance of God’s law.

“To be seen by them,” expresses the end or intention we have in view in performing our actions. We should not propose to ourselves, for end in our good works, to be seen by men. This is not opposed to c. 5:16, since our Redeemer does not prohibit us here to perform our actions before men, any more than the words of St. Paul (Gal 1:10; 1 Cor 10:33) do. He here refers to the motive or end we have in view in thus performing our good works in public, viz., vain glory—“to be seen by them.” In chapter 5 we are told to perform our good works in such a way as to have the glory of them referred to God; “that they may see,” not you, but “your good works, and glorify your Father,” &c. Here, we are prevented from performing them so as to have the glory taken from God and given to ourselves—“to be seen;” not you, but your good works, “by them.” In chapter 5 there is question of “seeing the works,” and glorifying their author; here, there is question of seeing the men, and glorifying them instead of God. St. Gregory admirably reconciles both passages thus: Sit opus in publico quatenus intentio maneat in occulto,” &c. No doubt, works done in public and seen by men shall obtain a reward, “sic luceat lux vestra ut videant opera vestra,” &c., but not works done for the end or intention, that the workers may be seen by men, and out of motives of vain glory. Similar is the mode of reconciling the passage of St. Paul above quoted. St. Paul did not please men, because his object was to please God, while he became all to all.

“You will not have a reward from your Father,” &c., shows that the merit of such works is lost. Performed from earthly motives, they must be content with an earthly reward. They are not done for God, and, therefore, not entitled to any reward from Him.

“Who is in heaven,” shows the reward of good works, referred to God, to be heavenly, divine, and eternal; while that of works done to obtain human applause is earthly, human, and transitory.

“You shall not have.” The Greek is in the present tense, “you have not.” The meaning comes to be the same, “you have not” treasured up for yourselves hereafter in heaven. Our Lord does not say, “you shall be damned,” because it may frequently happen, that the desire of human applause for doing a good work may not be deserving of damnation. It may be only venial; and, moreover, the loss of a good work is only the loss of a reward to be given by God.

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.

Having alluded to our good works in general, and cautioned us against vain glory in their performance, He now descends to particulars. (The three kinds of works, alms-deeds, prayer, fasting, summarily contain the whole of our religious duties.) He shows how they are not to be done, and next, how they should be done, or the motives which should actuate us, in doing them.

“Therefore, when thou dost an alms-deed, sound not a trumpet before thee.” Some expositors say there is allusion here to a custom among the Jews, of employing a trumpet to call the poor together on the occasion of the distribution of alms, to mark the time and place for such distribution. This was a laudable proceeding, as it served to bring together all who were in want, and no deserving object would be excluded. But the Pharisees abused this custom, for purposes of display and vain glory, “that they may be honoured by men;” and it is this corrupt intention our Redeemer censures here. Others say there is no vestige of any such custom existing for such purposes among the ancients, and understand the words metaphorically, so as to convey that they should not ostentatiously proclaim their deeds of charity, as if they sounded them forth with a trumpet, and thus called public attention to them. The people used generally be called together, on public occasions, by the sound of a trumpet, and, probably, special allusion is made to the mode of calling people together to view theatrical performances. The sound of a trumpet preceded the actor when he came forward; and these men were but actors. “Hypocrite” means, literally, a theatrical performer, a stage actor, who acts a part different from the reality, and sustains a character different from what he really is. So these wicked dissemblers, here denounced by our Redeemer, act the part of holy men, and put on the external mask of sanctity, to which they have no claim whatever in reality. Instead of being really beneficent and charitable, they were only self-seekers, looking for the praises of men.

“In the synagogues,” probably includes, as well places for prayers, as all public meeting places where alms were distributed, and “streets” both words refer to the most public places of resort.

“That they may be honoured by men.” it is not the doing of good works in public that our Redeemer here condemns, but the corrupt motives of catching after the applause of men, which dictated them.

“Amen.” In truth, “I say to you, they have received their reward,” i.e., human applause, “THEIR reward.” “Their,” the only reward they looked for; “their,” the only reward suited to them; but they need not expect the reward from God to which their good works would be otherwise entitled, and which they would most certainly receive, if they worked for God. The Greek for “have received” (απεχουσι) is “receive,” expressing what is customary and usually happens.

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

This means, that, while bestowing alms or doing works of charity, we should carefully avoid all ostentation, and seek privacy, to such an extent, that if it were possible for our “left hand” to have eyes, so as to see, it would not see or be aware of the deeds of beneficence and charity performed by “our right hand;” in a word, that it should be so secret, as to escape even our own observation. It is the strongest language of figurative exaggeration. The words of this verse may be regarded either in the light of a precept, or, of an admonition. In the former sense, they refer to our intention in performing good actions, as is explained in verse 1. In the latter sense, they merely convey an admonition, that, from a consciousness of our great infirmity, and the corrupt tendency of our nature, to seek human applause in our actions, we should endeavour to perform works of charity, with the utmost privacy, unless when motives of edification may demand it otherwise.

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

“Who seeth in secret.” Nothing can escape His ever-watchful eye. To Him light and darkness are all alike.

“Will repay thee.” The Greek adds “in public,” a very appropriate mode of recompensing those who avoid all human applause in the performance of their good actions. St. Luke (14:14), treating of a similar subject, has, “at the resurrection of the just.” Christ, the just Judge, will, on the Day of Judgment, “when He will reveal the hidden things of darkness,” publicly set forth, before the assembled nations of the earth, the private good works of His faithful servants. How foolish, then, are they who “love vanity and seek after lies;” who run after the empty praise of this world, which, like the passing wind, shall be utterly unheeded; instead of seeking, in every thing, the goodwill and pleasure of their bountiful Father, who will not fail to repay us, if we labour for Him, with the solid and imperishable goods of heaven.

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.

Our Redeemer next treats of another portion of our religious duties, viz., prayer; and He points out the faults to be avoided, in the performance of this duty, and the mode of performing it properly.

“When you pray,” &c. In Greek, it is the singular form, “When thou prayest,” &c. “That love (in Greek, because they love) to stand and pray in the synagogues,” &c. They stood thus, either for the purpose of being seen, or, to seem motionless, and altogether absorbed in prayer and union with God, and thus secure human applause. On certain occasions of public prayer, viz., of sacrifice, or singing psalms, or public benediction, or solemn thanksgiving, it was usual with both priests and people to remain in a standing posture, but the posture generally observed was that of kneeling, particularly on occasions of adoration or penance. We see Solomon did so (3 Kings 8:54); Daniel (6:10); Micheas (6:6). In truth, kneeling was the posture generally observed, and commonly in use amongst all nations, when addressing the Supreme Deity (A. Lapide); while it would seem, from several parts of SS. Scripture, that among the Jews, in public devotions, the attitude varied from standing to kneeling (3 Kings 8:15, 54; 1 Esdras 9:5; Daniel 6:10; 2 Paralip. 6:13). It would also seem, that, in private devotions, some form of kneeling was the most usual posture (see Kitto’s Cyclopædia, word, attitudes). From the very beginning, the Christian custom was to kneel at prayer—except on certain occasions, at the pasch and solemn thanksgiving—after the example of our Lord (Matt. 26:39); of St. Peter (Acts 9:40); St. Paul (Acts 20:36). Our Lord here, speaks of private devotions; and hence, He speaks of their “standing,” manifestly to be seen, and thus gain popular applause.

“Corners of the streets,” is generally understood of the intersection of the public thoroughfares, where there is generally the greatest concourse of people. Others understand the words, of the private recesses of the streets, where, however, the people could see them, and give them credit, not alone for praying, but also for doing so privately, and the Pharisees did so, affecting humility, while it was all dictated by feelings of vain glory.

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, when thou shall pray,” &c. This shows that our Redeemer is referring, in the foregoing, to private prayers, practised by each individual, apart. “Enter into thy chamber.” St. Augustine (in hunc locum) understands the word metaphorically, of the closet of one’s heart. St. Jerome, too, approves of the metaphorical interpretation of the word; but by the “door when shut,” he understands having one’s lips closed, after the example of Anna, the mother of Samuel. (1 Sam 1) It is more probable, however, that our Redeemer meant the word in its literal signification, of a material chamber, as opposed to the “synagogues and corners of the streets;” and not only should one enter into a private chamber, but, he should also, “have the door shut,” in order the more diligently to avoid being seen, and escape all temptations to vain glory, in so sacred an action. What our Lord principally intends to enjoin on us here, is, that in discharging the duty of prayer, we should avoid, as much as possible, everything calculated to generate feelings of vain glory, and to secure human applause, so that, in our public prayers, which sometimes are a matter of precept, we should attend to God alone, as if no one else saw us, and as if we were shut up in our private closet, unobserved by human eye, seen only by the Searcher of hearts, and the just Judge of all; and in our private prayers, we should avoid all boasting, otherwise we would be, in the sight of God, imitating the hypocrites, in the prayers which they offer up, with the view of being seen by men; when praying in public, as a matter of duty, and edification, our motives should be always in private. “Will repay thee,” to which is added, in the Greek, in public or openly. Our Redeemer by no means censures here the practice of public prayer, so laudably sanctioned by the common usage of both Jews and Christians (1 Kings 8:29; Acts 1:24; 6:6), and by the example of our Redeemer Himself, who, on festival days, went up to the temple to attend public worship; a practice, moreover, calculated to offer joint violence to heaven, and thus more effectually secure the objects of our petitions; to give God public honour; to stimulate the tepid by example of the fervent; to increase and nourish fraternal charity.

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.

Having given them instructions to avoid ostentation and vain glory in the practice of alms-deeds and prayer, our Lord now gives similar instructions regarding fasting. He places “prayer” between alms-deeds and fastings, as they hold the place of the two wings whereby it is borne aloft, “bona est oratio cum jejunio et elecmosyna.”

“Sad,” putting on a penitential, mournful appearance, wearing a morose countenance. Our Lord does not censure sadness of heart and soul, which produces contrition and penance; but only that stern sadness of visage, assumed for purposes of vain glory, and of gaining the praises of men. That sadness which may be the natural effect of fasting is not here censured, but the motive of putting it on.

“Disfigure,” i.e. destroy the naturally cheerful and pleasing appearance of their countenance. Hiding this, they put on a pallid, emaciated aspect. This is the meaning of the Greek word, αφανιζουσι, which is well rendered in the Vulgate, exterminant, and this they do in order that their fasts may be made known to men, and thus gain them the repute of being mortified men. He speaks of fasts really undergone, but for the purposes of vain glory. St. Chrysostom speaks of men in his day who did not fast at all, and pretended they did. These were greater hypocrites still than the Pharisees of old, who really fasted, but fasted from bad motives.

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.

“Anoint,” &c. This is allusive to the custom prevalent in Judea, of anointing their hair and washing their face on festive and joyous occasions (Ruth 3:3; 2 Kings 12:20; Luke 7:46). The climate and great heat made this process a necessary external accompaniment of joy. On the other hand, when in mourning, they paid no attention to their persons, the better to express the interior sorrow of their souls (2 Kings 14:2). The words of our Redeemer are not to be taken literally, as of obligation. They are to be understood metaphorically (although where the custom of “anointing the head” &c., on occasions of joy existed, they may be taken literally in connexion with their metaphorical signification), and are chiefly meant to convey to all Christians, at all times and periods, that in fasting they should dissemble it, and avoiding every incentive to vain glory, they should, putting aside all appearance of grief, appear to men cheerful and joyous, like those who “anoint the head,” &c. So that our fasts may be seen by our Heavenly Father only, from whom alone we expect to receive the reward of our good actions. Some expositors (among them Bloomfield) say, the Jews, like the Greeks, regularly anointed their heads and washed their faces, save in times of mourning (Dan. 10:3). In that case, the words here would mean, whenever you fast, appear as usual, and put on no appearance of mourning or sorrow. Our Redeemer here refers only to voluntary fasting, privately practised; since, in reference to public fasting, performed on public grounds, and by public authority, there would be no particular grounds for boasting or indulging vain glory, as all should join in it; and hence, no motive for concealing the sorrow and penitential spirit which dictated it.

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One Response to Father MacEvilly’s Commentary on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

  1. Pingback: Commentaries for Ash Wednesday | stjoeofoblog

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