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MATTHEW - Chapter 5

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Matthew 5

Supplemental Commentary:

I.  THE PUBLIC MINISTRY OF JESUS  3-25 (continued)

3.  Second Period of the Ministry in Galilee and Across its Lake  5, 1 -- 15, 20

St. Matthew begins this section of our Lord's ministry in Galilee with his "Sermon on the Mount" (5-7), one of the longest and undoubtedly the most famous of the Master's discourses.  While it is generally admitted that St. Matthew has arranged his material in groups which do not always correspond with the actual chronology of Christ's life (see Introduction) still it would be rash to assert that this whole discourse is an entirely artificial arrangement of various short sermons delivered on various occasions.  It seems quite certain that on this occasion (probably in the spring or summer of the second year of the Ministry) our Lord did preach an outstanding sermon at least substantially the same as that given by St. Matthew.  For the Sermon on the Mount as recorded in the First Gospel possesses on the whole too clear a unity and development of thought to be a mere artificial collection of various sayings of Christ.  Moreover, St. Luke independently of St. Matthew (for the third Evangelist has too fine an artistic sense not to appreciate the beauty of Matthew's Sermon on the Mount had he known it), has recorded a sermon of Christ that is substantially the same as Matthew's even though it is much shorter (Luke 6, 20-49).  Therefore we conclude that everything that is common to both these Sermons was certainly spoken on this occasion.  Likewise, there is no reason for placing elsewhere the passages which occur only in Matthew's Sermon.  The difficulty however consists in those passages of Matthew's Sermon on the Mount which occur in various parts of the Third Gospel other than Luke 6, 20-49.  Undoubtedly Christ often repeated His doctrine.  But it would be rather strange that He should have done so in exactly the same words on different occasions.  Besides, some of these passages, as the "Our Father," fit in much better in the context of the Third Gospel than they do in the great Sermon of the First Gospel.  In many of these cases we cannot know for certain whether the order of Matthew or of Luke or of both is correct chronologically.  Sometimes the same words have a somewhat different meaning as they occur in a different context.  This is especially the case with those few passages of the Sermon on the Mount which are also found in St. Mark's Gospel, sometimes in an entirely different context.  The general theme of this great Sermon is that the morality of the Kingdom of Heaven is something interior, spiritual, as contrasted with the more external justice of the Old Law and the mere hypocrisy of the Pharisees.    1.  We do not know what exact site is meant by the mountain, but because the article is used in this Greek expression, the reference seems to be the hills in general around the lake as opposed to the level stretch immediately bordering on the lake.  The oldest tradition (from the Byzantine period) localized this sermon on a hillside near the shore of the Lake of Galilee not far from the modern Ain Tabga, about one mile south of Tell Hum (Capharnaum).

5, 3-12:  The Beatitudes.  If the Sermon on the Mount may be called the Constitution of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Beatitudes form its worthy preamble.  The eight (really nine) Beatitudes of Matthew differ not only in number and arrangement but also largely in form and substance from the four Beatitudes and the four Woes of Luke 6, 20b-26.  In the First Gospel the Beatitudes are concerned primarily with the interior dispositions of the members of the Kingdom, whereas in the Third Gospel the external circumstances of these members are stressed.  It is simpler, therefore, to consider the Beatitudes in Luke not as identical with but as supplementary to those in Matthew.  Thus the first Beatitude in Matthew need not be interpreted as referring to the same virtue as the first Beatitude in Luke; the same holds true of the fourth Beatitude in Matthew as compared with the second in Luke.

3.  Blessed: in Greek literally, "happy, fortunate, enviable," the equivalent of the Hebrew congratulatory phrase, "O happiness of those who . . ."  Poor in spirit: literally, "poor of spirit," since the Greek phrase here is of the same type as the "pure of heart" of the sixth Beatitude.  Just as the latter phrase means "the pure-hearted," so the former phrase means "the poor-spirited," that is, those who admit that they are spiritually poor, who are not self-conceited, the humble; the opposite are "the rich-spirited," i.e., the Pharisees against whose spirit and teaching the Sermon on the Mount is primarily addressed; cf. Luke 1, 51.53.  The first Beatitude therefore strikes the keynote of the whole Sermon.  However, since Luke's first Beatitude, "Blessed are the poor," certainly refers to those who are in want of the goods of this world, Matthew's first Beatitude is more commonly understood of those who are detached from material wealth.

4.  In the Greek text the order of the second and the third Beatitude is inverted.  The wording of this Beatitude is based upon Ps. 36, 11, "The meek shall inherit the land."  In the Psalm "the land" is the land of Canaan; Christ takes this as a type of the Kingdom promised to His disciples.    6.  They who hunger and thirst for justice are they who ardently long for spiritual perfection.  This Beatitude need not have the same meaning as Luke's "Blessed are you who hunger now," which refers to those who are in want of material food.    7.  By the merciful are not directly meant they who have alms but rather they who forgive injuries.  Christ often insists on this disposition in His disciples (cf. Matt. 6, 14 f; 18, 21-35; Mark 11, 25 f; Luke 17, 4; cf. also Jas. 2, 13).    8.  The pure of heart are they whose mind (according to the Hebrew usage the heart is considered the organ of the reason and the will) is free from duplicity; they shall see God because the eye of their mind is clear (cf. Matt. 6, 22 f).    9.  The peacemakers shall be called the children of God because He is "the God of peace (1 Thess. 5, 23).    12.  Your reward, literally, "your wages," that is, the recompense due to you in justice.  This verse is rightly used by theologians as a proof for the Catholic doctrine of merit and reward hereafter.  Our Lord speaks at length elsewhere of the persecutions that the prophets of the Old Law endured as a type of the persecutions which His own disciples would have to suffer (cf. Matt. 23, 29-37; Luke 11, 47-51; cf. also Jas. 5, 10 f).

5, 13-16:  The Disciples Compared to Salt and Light.  These verses serve as a transition from the introductory Beatitudes to the body of the Sermon.  Having just spoken of the persecutions that His disciples were to suffer, Christ now encourages them by reminding them of the great role they are to play in furthering the spiritual welfare of mankind.  They are to be the salt of the earth, to give the world its spiritual tone and to preserve it from moral corruption; they are to illumine the world by the light of their good example.  But they must have the true interior spirituality of the Kingdom if they are to fulfill this high office (transition to the next session).    13.  Salt improves the flavor of food, makes it wholesome and preserves it from spoiling.  The natural salt that was often used at that time in Palestine was chemically impure and therefore liable to undergo a chemical change which would render it worthless.  The application of this figure to the disciples of Christ is obvious.  The same thought is apparently intended in the parallel passage of Luke 14, 34 f; but the very similar words in Mark 9, 49 occur in such a different context that their exact meaning is doubtful.  See Commentary there.    14-16. If the disciples let men see their good works with the intention that their Father in heaven thereby receive glory, they are not disobeying Christ's command that they should do their good works---their almsgiving, praying and fasting---in secret (6, 1-6.16-18), for in the latter case it is the evil intention of self-glory that is condemned.  However, the main thought here is not so much that the disciples should go out of their way to give good example but rather that because of their high office they cannot help being seen and therefore must be careful not to give bad example.  A city set on a mountain cannot be hid: this sentence as well as the application of the figure of a lamp of good example is peculiar to Matthew.  The figure of the lamp also occurs in Mark 4, 21; Luke 8, 16; 11, 33; but in these passages the applications of the figure are different.

5, 17-20:  The Old Law and the New.  This whole paragraph is peculiar to Matthew with the exception of 18 which has a parallel in Luke 16, 17, although in a different context.  Here Matthew gives the theme of the Sermon on the Mount: that the morality of the New Law of the Kingdom is higher and more spiritual than that of the Old Law especially as interpreted by the Scribes and Pharisees, but at the same time it is not something entirely new but rather the natural development and perfection of the Old Law.    17.  The Law, the Prophets: the first two of the three divisions of the Old Testament; therefore the entire Old Dispensation is meant here.  To fulfill: to bring the Law to its complete perfection by insisting not only on the external act but also on the interior dispositions.  If we understand the Prophets here not as part of the Old Law in general but as the Messianic prophecies in particular, then to fulfill them would be to accomplish them by carrying them into execution according to His Father's will.    18.  The jot was the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet as written at the time of Christ; it corresponds to the Greek iota and the I of our alphabet.  By a tittle, in Greek "a little horn," was probably meant the small projections by which one letter of the Hebrew alphabet is distinguished from another otherwise very similar letter.  Therefore the sense of Christ's saying is, that not until the end of the world shall any essential part, even the smallest, of the Old Law be abrogated, but it shall rather be perfected.    20.  This is the thesis of the Sermon on the Mount which is then developed by several individual applications in the following paragraphs.

5, 21-26:  Against Anger.  Peculiar to Matthew except 25 f which occur in a similar form in Luke 12, 58 f, where however they may have a somewhat different sense, due to a different context.    21 f.  In the Old Law the act of murder was condemned (Ex. 20, 13; Deut. 5, 17), but Christ teaches that according to His New Law the interior acts of anger which lead to the external act of murder are likewise condemned.  Cf. 1 John 3, 15.  The judgment mentioned here probably refers to the local tribunal.  On the meaning of Raca, fool and Gehenna see the foot-note to the text.  Since there seems to be an ascending scale of punishment here, it is generally assumed that, whatever be the meaning of the term, to call one's brother Raca is worse than being merely angry with him, and to say to him, "Thou fool" is worst of all.  But it is difficult to see such immense malice in these opprobrious expressions.  Perhaps there is rather a descending scale here as in 39-42.  In this case the sense would be: to be angry with one's brother is so obviously sinful that even a local tribunal can handle such a case; to insult him by calling him "empty-headed" is not considered as bad as murderous anger, yet there is guilt in this also which the highest tribunal, competent to judge the more difficult cases, will perceive; finally, even such a seemingly slight insult as the common expression, "Thou fool," is not free from all guilt in the eyes of God to whom alone belongs the right of condemning to Gehenna (Matt. 10, 28).    25 f.  Christ refers to a well-known custom of human prudence: that it is better to settle a litigation equitably out of court rather than to have a plaintiff who has some right on his side appeal to the law against you; the spiritual sense intended by Christ is: "If thy brother has anything against thee, go first to be reconciled to thy brother while thou art still on the way of life, for if thou art not yet reconciled when death summons thee it will go hard with thee when the case comes up before the divine Judge."

5, 27-30:  Chastity of Mind and Body.    27 f.  Only in Matthew.  The Old Law condemned not only the act of adultery (Ex. 20, 14; Deut. 5, 18) but also the desire of adultery (Ex. 20, 17; Deut. 5, 21).  Christ perfects this law by teaching that even an act which is indifferent in itself when done with an evil intention (in this case the act of looking at a woman with the intention of thereby arousing sensual desires) is also sinful.  Who even looks with lust at a woman: literally in Greek and Latin, "Whoever looks at a woman in order to lust after her."    29 f.  These same words on avoiding the occasions of sin are given in Mark 9, 42.46 as spoken by Christ on another occasion.  Hence one might argue that Matthew incorporated them into his Sermon on the Mount where they may not have been spoken originally.  But since Matthew himself (18, 8 f) has the passage which strictly speaking parallels Mark 9, 42 ff, it seems much more reasonable that Christ spoke them more than once.  Therefore one may hold that they are original in the Sermon on the Mount where they form a slight, though natural, digression.  These words need not be taken literally; yet they are not a mere counsel but a strict precept in the sense intended by Christ, that is, that we must give up the things that are dearest to us if they prove an occasion of sin.  The right hand is mentioned specifically because normally it is more valuable than the left hand; this then induced a singling out of the right eye although each eye normally is of equal value.  Note that in Mark and Matt. 18, 8 f the hand is mentioned before the eye; probably the original order.

5, 31-32:  Divorce.  Although Christ treated the question of divorce on at least one other occasion (Matt. 19, 3-9; Mark 10, 2-12) still this passage is undoubtedly original to the Sermon on the Mount, for it is introduced by the typical phrases, It was said . . . but I say to you.  The similar statement of Luke 16, 18 stands there in no clear connection with its context and probably represents the same saying of Christ as Matt. 5, 32.    31.  Christ quotes (somewhat freely) Deut. 24, 1 where Moses regulated the custom of divorce which had already been of long standing among the Israelites.  Jesus here perfects the Old Law on this point by completely abrogating this custom which had been merely tolerated in the Mosaic Law.  The teaching of Christ on divorce as recorded by the other Evangelists and understood by St. Paul (1 Cor. 7, 10 f.39; Rom. 7, 2) makes it perfectly clear that His prohibition of divorce with the right to remarry is absolute.  Therefore the seeming exception mentioned in the First Gospel, save on account of immorality (5, 32), except for immorality (19, 9) cannot be understood in the sense that the innocent partner of an unfaithful spouse may divorce the guilty one and marry another person.  The traditional interpretation of these words is undoubtedly correct: unfaithfulness justifies separation from bed and board, but the bond of marriage remains unbroken.  St. Matthew records the words of Christ in their entirety.  Our Lord had reason to mention this partial exception lest His absolute prohibition of divorce seem to imply that the injured party is obliged to continue to live with the unfaithful spouse.  The other Evangelists however, omit these words, probably intentionally, to forestall a false interpretation of them in the sense of permitting a divorce with the right to remarry.  On the Jewish custom of divorce and Christ's attitude toward it see Commentary on Matt. 19, 3 ff where our Lord speaks at greater length on this question.

5, 33-37:  Concerning Oaths.  Only in Matthew.    33.  Christ refers to the laws of Moses which prohibit perjury and the breaking of vows (cf. Lev. 19, 12; Num. 30, 3; Deut. 23, 21).    34-37.   He then perfects the old Law in this regard: (a) by condemning the Pharisees' false interpretation of these laws according to which only those oaths in which the divine name was expressly mentioned were binding, while simulated oaths in which a person swore by swore by something having some special relation to God, as heaven, the earth, Jerusalem, one's head, were not binding; (b) by prohibiting absolutely the use of oaths in private conversation: His disciples should have such a reputation for honesty that there should be no need for them to strengthen their affirmations or negations by calling on God as a witness.  Therefore when they say yes or no it should be simply yes or no; adding an oath to this is instigated by the devil.  Jas. 5, 12 states this teaching of Christ with perfect clarity, probably re-echoing the words of the Master even more exactly than Matthew has done.

5, 38-42:  The New Law of Talion.    38.  Christ quotes these well-known phrases from the Mosaic Law (Ex. 21, 24; Lev. 24, 19 f; Deut. 19, 21) according to which willful damage was punished by inflicting the same damage on the offender.  Other ancient nations, as the Babylonians and the Romans, had similar laws.  Such laws were not dictated by a spirit of cruelty but rather by a desire of restraining undue revenge.  One may rightly doubt whether these laws were frequently carried out to the letter.    39-42.  Parallel in Luke 6, 29 f.  Christ perfects the Old Law on this point by prohibiting all private retaliation.  He counteracts the spirit of revenge by inculcating the opposite spirit of charity by which His disciples should willingly give up their own just rights for the sake of peace.  But Christ is not merely giving a counsel.  His teaching on this matter "is partly of precept and partly of counsel.  It is of precept: (a) that we should not seek revenge; (b) that we should rather suffer a second injury than revenge the first, (turn to him the other cheek also); (c) that we be willing to give up our rights whenever charity or the glory of God seem to demand it.  It is of counsel that even though neither charity nor God's glory demand it, we nevertheless obey Christ's words literally for the sake of Christian self-denial" (Menochius).  The words of St. Paul in 1 Cor. 6, 7 f may be taken as an authentic commentary on Christ's teaching in this matter.  In the application of this principle our Lord gives various examples in a descending scale of violated rights: physical violence, unjust litigation, pressing into public service, asking for a gift, asking for a loan.  Whoever forces thee: the Greek and the Latin words used here are derived from the Persian word for "messenger, courier," and are based on the Persian custom according to which the public couriers had the authority to demand the necessary means of transportation from any citizen.  The same word is used in Matt. 27, 32 and Mark 15, 21 of Simon of Cyrene being "forced" to carry the cross of Jesus.

5, 43-48:  The Love of Enemies.    43.  Lev. 19, 18 commanded the Israelite to love his neighbor.  Thou shalt hate thy enemy: these words are not found in the Old Testament.  Christ is probably citing the teaching of the Scribes who drew this false conclusion from the Old Testament teaching that the Israelites should not be contaminated by the surrounding pagan nations.    44-47.  Parallel in Luke 6, 27 f.32-35.  Our Lord corrects this false notion by ordaining that we must be charitable to all alike, whether they love us or hate us.    48.  This verse is often understood as a call to absolute, spiritual perfection in all respects, but this is correct only in an accommodated sense.  According to the context perfect means "complete, all-embracing" in our charity just as God is all-embracing in His charity.  That this is the direct literal sense is clear from the parallel, Luke 6, 36.

Confraternity Bible:

The Beatitudes  1 And seeing the crowds, he went up the mountain.  And when he was seated, his disciples came to him.  2 And opening his mouth he taught them, saying,
3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

4*  Blessed are the meek, for they shall possess the earth. 

5* Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 

6 Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied. 

7 Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. 

8* Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God. 

9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. 

10 Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 Blessed are you when men reproach you, and persecute you, and, speaking falsely, say all manner of evil against you, for my sake.  12 Rejoice and exult, because your reward is great in heaven; for so did they persecute the prophets who were before you.

13 "You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its strength, what shall it be salted with?  It is no longer of any use but to be thrown out and trodden underfoot by men.

14 "You are the light of the world.  A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.  15 Neither do men light a lamp and put it under the measure, but upon the lamp-stand, so as to give light to all in the house.  16 Even so let your light shine before men, in order that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

The Old Law and the New  17 "Do not think that I have come to destroy the Law or the Prophets.  I have not come to destroy, but to fulfill.  18* For amen I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not one jot or one tittle shall be lost from the Law till all things have been accomplished.  19 Therefore whoever carries them out and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  20 For I say to you that unless your justice exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Against Anger  21* "You have heard that it was said to the ancients, 'Thou shalt not kill'; and that whoever shall kill shall be liable to judgment.  22* But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; and whoever says to his brother, 'Raca,' shall be liable to the Sanhedrin; and whoever says, 'Thou fool!', shall be liable to the fire of Gehenna.  23 Therefore, if thou art offering thy gift at the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother has anything against thee, 24 leave thy gift before the altar and go first to be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.  25 Come to terms with thy opponent quickly while thou art with him on the way; lest thy opponent quickly deliver thee to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.  26 Amen I say to thee, thou wilt not come out from it until thou hast paid the last penny.

Chastity of Mind and Body  27 "You have heard that it was said to the ancients, 'Thou shalt not commit adultery.'  28 But I say to you that anyone who so much as looks with lust at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

29 "So if thy right eye is an occasion of sin to thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee; for it is better for thee that one of thy members should perish than that thy whole body should be thrown into hell.  30 And if thy right hand is an occasion of sin to thee, cut it off and cast it from thee; for it is better for thee that one of thy members should be lost than that thy whole body should go into hell.

Divorce  31 "It was said, moreover, 'Whoever puts away his wife, let him give her a written notice of dismissal.  32* But I say to you that everyone who puts away his wife, save on account of immorality, causes her to commit adultery; and he who marries a woman who has been put away commits adultery.

Concerning Oaths  33 "Again, you have heard that it was said to the ancients, 'Thou shalt not swear falsely, but fulfill thy oaths to the Lord.'  34 But I say to you not to swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is the throne of God; 35 nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.  36 Neither do thou swear by thy head, for thou canst not make one hair white or black.  37 But let your speech be, 'Yes, yes'; No, no'; and whatever is beyond these comes from the evil one.

The New Law of Retaliation  38 "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye,' and, 'A tooth for a tooth.'  39 But I say to you not to resist the evildoer; on the contrary, if someone strike thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; 40 and if anyone would go to law with thee and take thy tunic, let him take thy cloak as well; 41 and whoever forces thee to go for one mile, go with him two.  42 To him who asks of thee, give; and from him who would borrow of thee, do not turn away.

The Love of Enemies  43 "You have heard that it was said, 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and shalt hate thy enemy.'  44 But I say to you, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute and calumniate you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, who makes his sun to rise on the good and the evil, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.  46 For if you love those that love you, what reward shall you have?  Do not even the publicans do that?  47 And if you salute your brethren only, what are you doing more than others?  Do not even the Gentiles do that?  48 You therefore are to be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.

4: Ps. 36, 11.

5: Isa. 61, 2 f.

8: Pss. 23, 4; 72, 1.  The clean of heart: those free from sin and single-minded.

18: Amen: a Hebrew word meaning "firmly" or "surely," prefixed by Christ to statements of especial solemnity.

21: To judgment: by the local court.

22: Raca: means "empty-headed."  Fool: seems to denote a rebel against God; cf. Ps. 13, 1.  Gehenna: originally the "Valley of Hinnom," where the bodies of criminals were burnt after execution of sentence.  In the New Testament the name is usually applied to hell.

32: Cf. 19, 9.  Unfaithfulness justifies separation from bed and board, but the bond of marriage remains unbroken.  This truth is clear enough from the conclusion of this verse, and still clearer in Mark 10, 11; Luke 16, 18; Rom. 7, 2; 1 Cor. 7, 10f. 39.