Confraternity Bible: New Testament and Supplemental Commentary

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MATTHEW - Chapter 6

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Matthew 6

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 (continued)

6, 1:  Purity of Intention.  Only in Matthew.  Having shown how the commandments of His New Law demand a higher morality and a greater heroism than those of the Old Law, our Lord now comes to the second section of His sermon.  The general principle is stated in this verse: our acts of piety must be performed with a pure intention.  The next three paragraphs apply this to three typical acts of piety: almsgiving, prayer and fasting.

6, 2-4:  Almsgiving.  Only in Matthew.    2.  To sound a trumpet before oneself is a metaphor for ostentation.  There is no reason to believe that the Pharisees, here called the hypocrites, did so literally.    3.  Another metaphor, the sense of which is: "Do not even take self-satisfaction in thy almsgiving."    4.  And thy Father, who sees in secret, will reward thee: these words are repeated with powerful effect at the end of these three paragraphs (cf. 6.18).

6, 5-15:  Prayer.    5 f.  Only in Matthew.  Perhaps only these two verses formed part of the original Sermon on the Mount, while the remaining verses on prayer may have been added here from some other discourses of our Lord.  The form of this paragraph as compared with those on almsgiving and fasting would seem to favor this view.  Still it is quite possible that Christ Himself made this digression by adding some other thoughts on prayer.  Prayer in common is not forbidden; in fact our Lord Himself recommends it elsewhere (18, 19 f).  What is here condemned is praying in public for the purpose of ostentation.  There is no emphasis on the word standing, for this was the normal posture at prayer (see note to text).    7 f.  Only in Matthew.  Christ does not condemn vocal prayer.  What is here condemned is the superstitious notion that certain prayer-formulas repeated a great number of times even though with no attention have a special efficacy.  Multiply words: the meaning of the Greek verb that is rendered by this phrase is uncertain; perhaps it means "to mumble unintelligible words."  A good example of the pagan custom of frequently repeating the same prayer-formula is seen in the incident of Elias and the priests of Baal (3 Kgs. 18, 26 ff).  On the other hand, our Lord taught the usefulness and even the necessity of frequently repeating the same prayer as long as it comes from the heart, as can be shown both by His words (Luke 11, 5-13; 18, 1-8) and His example (Luke 6, 12; 22, 41-43; Mark 14, 36.39).  Your Father knows what you need: therefore we do not pray as if God had to be informed of our needs, but rather that we ourselves may have a more vivid realization of the truth that all good gifts come from Him.

9-13.  The Lord's Prayer, in a slightly shortened form, is also given in Luke 11, 2-4 in a context which seems more original than that of Matthew.  Still there is nothing improbable in supposing that our Lord taught His disciples this beautiful prayer on more than one occasion.  Despite its depths of pure piety, one of the chief characteristics of the Our Father is its clarity and simplicity, so that it should be meditated on rather than commented on.  After its opening invocation it contains three petitions concerned with God's glory followed by four petitions concerned with our needs.  Several of these petitions may be compared to similar words in certain Jewish prayers which can be traced back to about the time of Christ, but even when the words are the same they have a new and much deeper import as spoken by Christ and His disciples.

9.  In this manner, therefore, not necessarily with these very words are we to pray.  Christ wished to give us a model upon which we are to form our own prayers.  But His followers rightly feel that they cannot improve upon the prayer of the Master and therefore they love to use the very words that He taught them.  Our Father who art in heaven: in Greek simply, Our Father in heaven; but since the Greek must use the definite article before an attributive phrase, the Latin tries to imitate this by using a relative clause.  We address God as our heavenly Father to distinguish Him from our earthly father.  The Israelites frequently addressed the Lord as their Father, just as He often called them His children (cf. Deut. 32, 6; Isa. 43, 6; 63, 16; 64, 8; Ecclus. 23, 1.4; etc.), and more was meant by this than the common fatherhood of God as Creator of all mankind.  But this term has still deeper signification as used both by Jesus, the Son of God in His divine nature, and by the members of His Mystical Body who, being "led by the Spirit of God, are the sons of God," having "received a spirit of adoption as sons, by virtue of which we cry, 'Abba!  Father!'" (Rom. 8, 14 f).  Even when a Christian prays alone he should say Our Father and not My Father, for he should be conscious of the spiritual union with his brethren.  By the name of God is meant God Himself as known and spoken of by men.  Hallowed: glorified, honored, reverenced, etc.    10.  Thy kingdom come: may God's reign be acknowledged by all.  In this petition we pray that the Messianic kingdom, the Church of Christ, be spread more and more throughout the world and that Christ the King may reign in the hearts of all men.  In the third petition we pray that all men on earth may obey God's will as perfectly as do the angels in heaven (cf. Ps. 102, 20 f).  Thy will be done is not merely a prayer of resignation.  Although the words on earth, as it is in heaven, are usually understood as referring only to the third petition, perhaps Christ intended them to qualify all three preceding petitions.

11.  Bread is used here, as part for the whole, for all that is necessary for our sustenance.  It is well to note that this is the only one of the seven petitions that is concerned with the temporal needs of man: a good norm for our own prayers.  The Greek word that is here translated as daily is of uncertain meaning, but daily is at least as probable as any of the other translations that have been suggested, such as "supersubstantial," "for sustenance," "for tomorrow," "necessary."  This petition by which we express our confidence that God will provide for our temporal life, is in perfect accord with Christ's teaching that we should not be anxious about our food and clothing (cf. 6, 25-34).    12.  Debts: used figuratively for "sins," the word used by St. Luke in this petition, as is also evident from 14 f where offenses is used as a synonym.  Our debtors therefore means those who have offended us.  On sin as a "debt" cf. 18, 21 ff.  As we also forgive: from the Greek it is evident that this does not mean, "In proportion as we forgive," but "since we also forgive."  With childlike simplicity we mention this as an inducement for God also to forgive us.  But it is also a necessary condition for our pardon by God (cf. 14 f).    13.  For our own good God allows us at times to be tempted, but conscious of our weakness we humbly ask Him to spare us this trial as far as possible.  Finally, even though we are tempted, we ask God to save us from falling into the evil of sin.  However, according to the Greek where the article is used before the adjective evil, the more probable translation would be, "Deliver us from the evil one."  There is no clear example where this adjective when used with the article in Greek signifies "evil" in the abstract sense, while it is frequently used of the devil, rendered either "the evil one" or "the wicked one" in our translation; cf. Matt. 5, 37; 13, 19.38; Eph. 6, 16; 1 John 2, 13 f; 3, 12; 5, 18 f; so also it can be understood in John 17, 15.  In the Our Father the traditional translation is retained because it is so well known in this form.  The last petition then is essentially the same as the preceding one; perhaps for this reason it is omitted by St. Luke (Origen's explanation).    14 f.  The thought contained in the fifth petition (12) is elaborated here.  Mark 11, 25 f, in a different context on prayer, parallels this.  Cf. also Matt. 18, 35.

6, 16-18:  Fasting.  Only in Matthew.  The third type of pharisaical piety to be avoided: ostentatious fasting.  Far from condemning the practice of fasting as such, our Lord in this passage presupposes that His disciples will fast; but their works of mortification are not to be done in a spirit of vainglory.  The Law of Moses prescribed only one general fast-day each year, on Yom Kippur, the great Day of Atonement (cf. Lev. 16, 29-31; 23, 27-32; Num. 29, 7).  In the Prophets there are many references to the proper spiritual dispositions that should accompany an acceptable fast.  At least after the Babylonian Exile we find instances of special public fasts (cf. 1 Esd. 8, 21.23) and private fasts (cf. 2 Esd. 1, 4).  At the time of our Lord pious Jews fasted often (cf. Matt. 9, 14 and parallels), even twice every week (cf. Luke 18, 12).  According to the ancient practice of doing penance in sackcloth and ashes, the Jews, when fasting, denied themselves the pleasure of anointing their head, and instead of oil, they sprinkled ashes over their head and face.  These symbolic acts were not wrong in themselves but are here condemned by Christ because they were done from motives of ostentation.

6, 19-24:  True Riches.  Here begins a new section of the Sermon, which however flows naturally from the preceding considerations.  Christ has just emphasized the truth that our works of piety must be done with the pure intention of pleasing God.  Therefore we must serve God with an undivided heart.  But the chief obstacle in the way of this whole-hearted service of God is man's preoccupation with the things of this world, especially the pursuit of earthly wealth.  Man's excuse is that he must provide for the future.  Christ answers that man's anxiety for the future is excessive because he lacks genuine trust in God.  Therefore, since all this is so logically developed in the Sermon on the Mount, there is no good reason for assuming that it is not original here, even though almost all the words that Matthew attributes to Christ on this occasion are given by Luke in various parts of his Gospel other than in the Sermon on the Mount.  Our Lord no doubt treated these important matters on more than one occasion.    19-21.  Parallel in Luke 12, 33 f.  People at the time of Christ hoarded up their wealth in the form of expensive clothing or precious metals and jewels.  The former would be consumed by moths, the latter corroded by rust, all alike stolen by thieves.  Therefore even from a natural viewpoint this was folly.  Only treasures stored in heaven are secure.    19.  Break in: literally, "dig through," for the mortar used in the houses was not much more than mud.    21.  This is the fundamental reason why we must avoid the engrossing pursuit of earthly riches; the profound truth of experience that a man's interests, his heart, all his thoughts and desires are centered in the things which he values most highly, his treasure.  Therefore if a man's treasure consists in earthly riches, he will be interested in the things of earth and not in God; if his sole treasure consists in the merits of his good works which are laid up for him in heaven, he will be interested only in God and the things of God.

22 f.  Almost the same words in Luke 11, 34-36, where the different context gives them a somewhat different meaning.  In Matthew the sense of this passage seems to be this.  Since God demands a whole-hearted service (preceding context) and man cannot combine His service with the service of mammon (following context), therefore we must be single-minded in His service.  Christ teaches this truth here in the form of a little parable.  It is through the eye that the light guides all our bodily actions, so that in a sense the eye is the lamp of the body.  When the eye is sound and healthy the whole body is in the light and can adapt itself to the world round about.  But when the eye is diseased or blind the whole body is partially or totally in the dark even though the sun be shining brightly.  The spiritual sense of this parable is this.  The eye of the body is the mind or purpose of the spirit.  If the mind is spiritually healthy and "single," that is, directed solely towards the service of God, the whole spirit will be filled with God's light.  But if the mind is evil, directed mostly or entirely to the service of earthly wealth, the whole spirit is in spiritual darkness.  If then because of the excessive pursuit of wealth the spiritual light that should be in us is darkened, how great is the spiritual darkness within us!  As Christ says in the Beatitudes, only the pure of heart, that is, the single-minded can see God.  If thy eye be sound: literally "simple," that is, in the physical sense "sound and healthy," in the spiritual sense "single in purpose, pure-intentioned."  If thy eye be evil: in the physical sense "diseased, blind," in the spiritual sense, "evil, directed towards the things of earth."

24.  Parallel in Luke 16, 13.  Christ illustrates the same truth by this little parable of the two masters, the application of which in the spiritual sense is obvious.  Mammon: from the Aramaic word for "wealth," mamona.  Hate the one and love the other . . . stand by the one and despise the other: probably referring indifferently to God and mammon, although it is possible that the sense intended is: those who love mammon hate God whose laws interfere with the unrestricted pursuit of wealth, while those who stand by God despite the allurements of wealth, despise mammon.

6, 25-34:  Trust in God.  Parallel in Luke 12, 22-31, spoken on a different occasion but in the same sense.  The common excuse for undue pursuit of worldly goods is desire to provide for an uncertain future, in modern language the desire for "social security."  Christ, with a deep sympathy for the sufferings and needs of the poor, teaches them the folly of this excessive worry about the future.  He argues (a) from natural reason, that worry is useless since it cannot change the future, and harmful since there are sufficient troubles in the present without adding to these by worrying about future troubles; (b) from faith, that God who takes such good care of His irrational creatures, such as the birds and the wild flowers, will certainly take care of us, His rational creatures, whom He loves much more than these.  If we attend to the thing of primary importance, the service of God, He will attend to such secondary things as the preservation of our earthly life.  Therefore we should not be preoccupied with the things of earth as the heathens are who do not know God.    25.  If God gave us our life and body He will also give us the lesser gifts, the food and clothing that are necessary for our life and body.    26.  Note that Christ does not tell us to imitate the birds and the lilies of the field in their freedom from work.  The birds and the flowers are merely pointed out as examples of God's providence.  Every creature of God must live according to its nature: the way that man's nature is constituted he must sustain himself by work.  The birds and the flowers are especially chosen as illustrations because by them Christ can refer to man's two main worries, food from agricultural labor and clothing from the work of spinning and weaving.    27.  Stature renders a Greek word which can mean either height (of the human body) or length (of human life).  Since a lineal measure, the cubit which equals about half a yard, is mentioned, the Latin from which our translation is directly made, understood this Greek word in the sense of stature, height of the body.  But the context would seem to demand the sense of length of life.  For men are not normally worried about food and clothing in order to become a foot and a half taller, but they are anxious about their span of life.  For although we must take a reasonable care of our health, the hour of our death is already determined for us by God, and anxiety about it will not change it.  Worry, if anything, will rather shorten our span of life.    28.  The lilies of the field: probably the crimson anemones are meant, for these are a common wild flower of Galilee in the springtime and their color naturally suggests the royal robes of Solomon.    30.  The grass of the field here means all the wild verdure which when withered in the heat of summer is used as fuel in Palestine.

Confraternity Bible:

Purity of Intention  1 "Take heed not to do your good before men, in order to be seen by them; otherwise you shall have no reward with your Father in heaven.  2 Therefore when thou givest alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and streets, in order that they may be honored by men.  Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.  3 But when thou givest alms, do not let thy left hand know what thy right hand is doing, 4 so that thy alms may be given in secret; and thy Father, who sees in secret, will reward thee.

Prayer  5 "Again, when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites, who love to pray standing in the synagogues and at the street corners, in order that they may be seen by men.  Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.  6 But when thou prayest, go into thy  room, and closing thy door, pray to thy Father in secret; and thy Father, who sees in secret, will reward thee.

7 "But in praying, do not multiply words, as the Gentiles do; for they think that by saying a great deal, they will be heard.  8 So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.  9 In like manner therefore shall you pray:
'Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. 

10 Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.  

11 Give this day our daily bread. 

12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. 

13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.' 
14 For if you forgive men their offenses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you your offenses.  15 But if you do not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive you your offenses.

Fasting  16 "And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, who disfigure their faces in order to appear to men as fasting.  Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.  17 But thou, when thou dost fast, anoint thy head and wash thy face, 18 so that thou mayest not be seen fasting by men, but by thy Father, who is in secret; and thy Father, who sees in secret, will reward thee.

True Riches  19 "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where rust and moth consume, and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither rust nor moth consumes, nor thieves break in and steal.  21 For where thy treasure is, there also will thy heart be.

22 "The lamp of the body is the eye.  If thy eye be sound, thy whole body will be full of light.  23 But if thy eye be evil, thy whole body will be full of darkness.  Therefore if the light that is in thee is darkness, how great is the darkness itself!

24* "No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will stand by the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and mammon.

Trust in God  25 "Therefore I say to you, do not be anxious for your life, what you shall eat; nor yet for your body, what you shall put on.  Is not the life a greater thing than the food, and the body than the clothing?  26 Look at the birds of the air: they do not sow, or reap, or gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are not you of much more value than they?  27 But which of you by being anxious about it can add to his stature a single cubit?

28 "And as for clothing, why are you anxious?  Consider how the lilies of the field grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like one of these.  30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which flourishes today but tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more you, O you of little faith!

31 "Therefore do not be anxious, saying, "What shall we eat? or, 'What shall we drink?' or, 'What are we to put on?' 32 (for after all these thing the Gentiles seek); for your Father knows that you need all these things.  33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things shall be given you besides.  34 Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow; for tomorrow will have anxieties of its own.  Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

24: Mammon: worldly goods.