Confraternity Bible: New Testament and Supplemental Commentary

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MATTHEW - Chapter 19

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Matthew 19

Supplemental Commentary:

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

5.  Ministry on the Journey to Jerusalem  19-20

This account of the events of our Lord's last journey from Galilee to Jerusalem is closely paralleled in Mark 10.  But the corresponding section in the Third Gospel (Luke 9, 51 -- 18, 34) is much longer and contains much material which Matthew has in the earlier sections of the Public Ministry.  See Commentary on Luke 9, 51.  According to the first two Gospels this journey of Christ and His disciples was more or less direct, from Galilee through northern Judea to Perea and finally via Jericho to Jerusalem.  Nevertheless it was not a hurried trip but a missionary tour.    1.  The district of Judea beyond the Jordan: strictly speaking no part of Judea was on the east side of the Jordan; either Matthew speaks loosely of Perea as a part of Judea, which hardly seems probable, or his original text reads the same as the best Greek manuscripts of Mark 10, 1, "the district of Judea and (the district) beyond the Jordan."    2.  And great crowds followed him; therefore his journey is certainly district from the secret journey of Jesus to Jerusalem mentioned in John 7, 9 f.

19, 3-12:  The Question of Divorce.  Parallel in Mark 10, 2-12.  See Commentary on 5, 31 f.    3.  For any cause: Mark omits this phrase, yet it is essential to the question.  The second Evangelist, writing primarily for the Gentiles, considered the purely Jewish question about the grounds for divorce as of no interest to his readers.  But all the Jews at the time of Christ thought that divorce at least on some grounds was licit.  Only there was a difference of opinion among the Rabbis as to what grounds were sufficient for divorce.  The liberal school of Hillel taught that a man could divorce his wife for almost any reason whatever; if she spoiled the cooking, if her beauty no longer pleased him, etc.  The stricter school of Shammai permitted a man to divorce his wife only if she was guilty of some infidelity to her marriage vows.  All the Rabbis agreed that after a divorce both parties could remarry but that the first husband could never take back the divorced wife.  These Pharisees in Perea wished to learn what school of thought Jesus favored, Hillel's or Shammai's.  There is no need to read a hostile intention into their testing him.

4-6.  Jesus rejects both opinions and teaches that there are no licit grounds for divorce with the right to remarry.  His arguments from the Scripture are: (a) at the creation God made but one man and but one woman; therefore even successive bigamy is wrong (4); (b) marital relations cause such an intimate union between man and wife, that the severance of this bond is against the natural law (5); (c) God Himself is the author of this bond; therefore its severance is not merely a question of expediency or inexpediency, but it is impossible for any man to break the bond that God has tied (6).    4.  The reference is to Gen. 1, 27.  From the beginning: i.e., at creation; the phrase itself is an allusion to the first words of Gen. 1, 1.  Male and female: it is important to note that in the original both of these words are in the singular: God made only one man and only one woman; therefore the institution of monogamous marriage is from God himself.    5.  A citation of Gen. 2, 24; quoted also in Eph. 5, 31, and in part in 1 Cor. 6, 16.    7.  To the Pharisees Christ's complete denial of the right to divorce seemed opposed to the Law of Moses.  There is only one reference to divorce in the Mosaic Law: Deut. 24, 1-4.  It seems well to quote here in full a literal translation of this passage according to the original Hebrew: "When a man marries a woman and has relations with her, if she does not find favor in his eyes, because he finds in her some matter of shame, and he writes a document of divorce for her and gives it into her hand and sends her from his house, and she departs and goes forth and becomes the wife of another man, and the second husband also hates her and writes a document of divorce for her and gives it into her hand and sends her from his house, or if the second husband who married her dies, the first husband who sent her away cannot take her again as his wife after she has been defiled, for this would be an abomination before the Lord."    8.  Christ gives the authentic interpretation of this law.  Moses did not "command" a man to divorce his wife, as the Pharisees said.  He merely permitted, i.e., tolerated, divorce because it was an abuse of long standing among the Israelites, although it was not according to God's institution of marriage at the creation of man.  Moses merely takes cognizance of this abuse and forbids further evils that may result from it.    9.  Conjugal infidelity justifies separation but not divorce with the right to remarry.  See Commentary and notes on 5, 31 f.  Cf. also Mal. 2, 14 ff.  Christ had to mention this apparent exception here on account of the nature of the question proposed by the Pharisees (3).

10-12.  Only in Matthew.  According to Mark 10, 10-12 the disciples asked Jesus in private about this matter, and the Master repeated the words that He had spoken to the Pharisees; hence this conclusion of the disciples: "If a man cannot divorce his wife, it is better not to marry."    11.  This teaching: the obvious meaning seems to be, "This teaching that I have just given on divorce."  Others understand it as, "This teaching that you are giving by saying that it is not expedient to marry."  The latter interpretation is more in keeping with the following words.  To whom it has been given: a special grace of God is needed.    12.  Besides the two classes of men who are physically incapable of begetting children, our Lord teaches that there is a third class who voluntarily abstain from marriage for the kingdom of heaven's sake.  The last words show that Christ gives His approval to this third class.  Let him accept it who can; therefore voluntary celibacy is proposed as a counsel, not as a precept, to His disciples.  Not only would it be inexpedient but it would be against God's will to impose perpetual virginity as a precept.  (The Church can, of course, prescribe celibacy as a precept in the clerical state of the Latin rite, but no one has an obligation to enter that state.)  Marriage is from God (cf. 4-7) and therefore is something good in itself.  Celibacy in itself is something negative and therefore of itself is not something better than the good from which it abstains.  Celibacy, when embraced for purely selfish motives, is not as good as matrimony.  But celibacy for the kingdom of heaven's sake, i.e., not only for the sake of facilitating the work of the divine ministry and the works of mercy but also for the sake of one's own personal sanctification, is better than the married state.  This is also the clear teaching of St. Paul (cf. 1 Cor. 7).

19, 13-15:  Jesus Blesses the Children.  Parallels in Mark 10, 13-16 and Luke 18, 15-17.  Cf. the previous incident of Jesus and a child in 18, 1-5 and parallels.  The two events are certainly distinct, even though the words of Christ on each occasion are very similar, and His words about receiving children seem to fit in better with the second occasion, while His words about children serving as a model for His disciples fit the first occasion better.    13.  The word Then is probably a mere connective particle implying no immediate relation with the preceding.  To lay hands on and pray for some one is an ancient symbolic gesture in bestowing a blessing, signifying the granting of the things asked for in the prayer.  The interference of the disciples, while undoubtedly well meant, showed that they did not fully grasp the true nature of the kingdom of heaven; therefore our Lord rebuked them.    14.  From these words of Christ one may rightly argue to the licitness of infant-baptism, for unless a child is baptized, it cannot come to Christ.  The disciples of Christ must be distinguished by their practice of the virtues which are seen as the natural characteristics of all good children: humility, simplicity, docility, purity, etc.    15.  He departed from that place: only in Matthew; but since we do not know what this place was nor where Christ went next, this remark is of no great help.

19, 16-30:  The Dangers of Riches.  Parallels in Mark 10, 17-31 and Luke 18, 18-30.  All three Gospels have the same three sections on this episode in the same order: (a) the incident of the rich young man (16-22); (b) the conversation on the danger of riches (23-26); (c) the reward promised by Christ to those who leave all for His sake (27-30).

16.  A certain man: Luke calls him "a certain ruler," which may mean either "a ruler of a synagogue" or, more probably, "a member of the Sanhedrin."  Matthew alone calls him a "young man" (20), but this Greek word was used for any man who had not reached middle age.  That he was no longer young seems clear from the fact that he was a "ruler" and that he says, "From my youth" (according to the Greek of Mark and Luke).  In Matthew the best Greek manuscripts have simply Master; the preceding word Good was probably taken over into the First Gospel from the other two.    17.  The words that is God are not in the Greek text and represent a correct gloss added to the Latin text.  In Matthew the sense of our Lord's answer is, "No action is morally good except in relation to the One who is good," i.e., the mere observance of the Law as such cannot give justice and eternal life (cf. Gal. 3, 21b); the formal reason why the observance of the commandments leads to eternal life is because they are the will of God and the norms by which man imitates God's own goodness.  In the other two Gospels a somewhat different answer of Christ is recorded, on the meaning of which see Commentary on Mark 10, 18.  But these two answers are not at all contradictory, and undoubtedly both were given by Christ.

18.  The order of the commandments as cited by Christ differs somewhat in each of the Gospels and there is still further confusion in the manuscripts.  Cf. Ex. 20, 12-16; Deut. 5, 17-20.  In all three Gospels the fourth commandment is placed after the others.  In Matthew alone is Lev. 19, 18 cited, while in Mark alone occur the words "Thou shalt not defraud," which probably refers to Deut. 24, 14.    20.  It seems clear from the context that the young man was sincere in what he said.    21.  Sell . . . and give: cf. Luke 12, 33.  Treasure in heaven: cf. 6, 20.  If thou wilt be perfect: these words make a clear distinction between what is obligatory for all (18 f) and what is recommended by Christ to those who would be His closer followers, i.e., the counsels of perfection.  This passage is rightly considered the principal basis for the three traditional vows of religious life: poverty (sell what thou hast, and give to the poor), obedience (come, follow me), and chastity, since any one pledged to absolute poverty cannot raise a family (cf. also 19, 12).

23-26.  It is very difficult for a rich man to save his soul; not that the possession of riches in itself is necessarily sinful, but riches are often unjustly acquired and therefore unjustly retained, they easily lead a man to commit sins of self-indulgence and, what is an important point in Christ's teaching, the pursuit of the things of this world keeps a man from the whole-hearted service of God and induces a certain self-confidence that is opposed to the humble trust that we must have in God's providence.  Christ is emphatic on this matter (cf. 6, 19-34; Luke 12, 13-34; 16), and any attempt to weaken this teaching is unworthy of His disciples.  A camel through an eye of a needle is a proverbial expression meaning that something is impossible.  Similar paradoxical expressions are found not only in the Talmud but also in Greek and Latin literature.  To try to explain camel by a similar-sounding Greek word meaning "rope," or to interpret an eye of a needle as meaning a low gate in the walls of a city through which pedestrians, but hardly camels, can pass, are futile attempts to whittle down the force of Christ's words.    25.  That the disciples understand this teaching literally is seen in the fact that they were exceedingly astonished and "amazed" (Mark).    26.  Looking upon them, to stress the importance of this teaching, Jesus repeats His doctrine without figurative language: it is humanly impossible for a rich man to be saved, but by the grace of God it is possible for him to give away his wealth to the poor or at least to use it as a wise steward uses the property which his master entrusts to him (cf. Luke 16, 1-13), which practically means ceasing to live as a rich man.

27-30.  The reward Christ promises to those who renounce all things to follow Him.    28.  This special reward for the Apostles alone is given in this context by Matthew only, but cf. the similar words in Luke 22, 29 f.  Regeneration, or "rebirth": the Greek word that is used here is found in only one other place in the New Testament, viz., Titus 3, 5, where however it signifies the spiritual rebirth at baptism (cf. John 3, 3.5).  Here it is a synonym for the "Last Day" when God will restore the world to the primeval happiness and harmony it enjoyed before the fall of our first parents (cf. Isa. 65, 17; 66, 22; Acts 3, 21; Rom. 8, 19-21; 2 Pet. 3, 13; Apoc. 21, 1-5).  Judging probably signifies here not "condemning" but "obtaining justice for, avenging the wrongs of" (according to the common Hebrew usage).  The twelve tribes of Israel are all the elect of both the Old and New Covenants (cf. Apoc. 7).    29.  House signifies not so much the material building as "household, home."  Wife: not in Mark, and missing in the best Greek manuscripts of Matthew, but certainly authentic in Luke.  But the disciple of Christ could not leave his wife without her consent.  Perhaps what is meant here is "the prospect of marrying."  A hundredfold: the other two Gospels add "in the present time."  This promise need not be taken literally; but cf. 6, 33; in place of the relations whom the disciple of Christ abandons (cf. 10, 35-37), he receives many more new "brethren" in Christ.    30.  A proverbial saying often used by our Lord; besides the parallel passage in Mark 10, 31, it also occurs in Matt. 20, 16 and Luke 13, 30.  In the present context the meaning is, "They who are rich and honored in the present life will be poor and without honor in the world to come, but they who give up all for Christ and are despised by the world will be the richest and the most honored in the future life."  God's standards are not the standards of the world.  However, this verse probably belongs logically to 20, 1-16, and as such has a somewhat different meaning.

Confraternity Bible:

1* And it came to pass when Jesus had brought these words to a close, that he departed from Galilee and came to the district of  Judea beyond the Jordan.  2* And great crowds followed him, and he cured them there.

The Question of Divorce  3* And there came to him some Pharisees, testing him, and saying, "Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for any cause?"  4* But he answered and said to them, "Have you not read that the Creator, from the beginning, made them male and female, and said, 5* 'For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'?  6* Therefore now they are no longer two, but one flesh.  What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder."  7* They therefore said to him, "Why then did Moses command to give a written notice of dismissal, and to put her away?"  8* He said to them, "Because Moses, by reason of the hardness of your heart, permitted you to put away your wives; but it was not so from the beginning.  9* And I say to you, that whoever puts away his wife, except for immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a woman who has been put away commits adultery."

10* His disciples said to him, "If the case of a man with his wife is so, it is not expedient to marry."  11* And he said, "Not all can accept this teaching; but those to whom it has been given.  12* For there are eunuchs who were born so from their mother's womb; and there are eunuchs who were made so by men; and there are eunuchs who have made themselves so for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.  Let him accept it who can."

Jesus Blesses the Children  13 Little children were brought to him then that he might lay his hands on them and pray; but the disciples rebuked them.  14* But Jesus said to them, "Let the little children be, and do not hinder them from coming to me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven."  15 And when he had laid his hands on them, he departed from that place.

The Danger of Riches  16 And behold, a certain man came to him and said, "Good Master, what good work shall I do to have eternal life?"  17 He said to him, "Why dost thou ask me about what is good?  One there is who is good, and he is God.  But if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments."  18* He said to him, "Which?"  And Jesus said,
"Thou shalt not kill,

Thou shalt not commit adultery,

Thou shalt not steal,

Thou shalt not bear false witness,

19* Honor thy father and mother,

and, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." 
20 The young man said to him, "All these I have kept; what is yet wanting to me?"  21 Jesus said to him, "If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."  22 But when the young man heard the saying, he went away sad, for he had great possessions.

23 But Jesus said to his disciples, "Amen I say to you, with difficulty will a rich man enter the kingdom of heaven.  24* And further I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven."  25 The disciples, hearing this, were exceedingly astonished, and said, "Who then can be saved?"  26 And looking upon them, Jesus said to them, "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."

27 Then Peter addressed him, saying, "Behold, we have left all and followed thee; what then shall we have?"  28 And Jesus said to them, "Amen I say to you that you who have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man shall sit on the throne of his glory, shall also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  29 And everyone who has left house, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and shall possess life everlasting.  30 But many who are first now will be last, and many who are last now will be first.


1-9: Divorce is forbidden; cf. 5, 32.

10-12: Continence practised in view of the kingdom of God is better than the married life.

14: Many of the qualities which characterize children, such as docility, are necessary for admission into the kingdom of God.

18-19: Ex. 20, 12-16.

24: Our Lord expresses in a paradoxical way the idea that it is very difficult for a rich man to be saved; v. 26 shows that it is not impossible with the help of God.