Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him:V.
(1) What is known as the Sermon on the Mount is obviously placed by St. Matthew (who appears in the earliest traditions connected with his name as a collector of our Lord’s “Oracles” or discourses) in the fore-front of his record of His work, as a great pattern-discourse, that which more than any other represented the teaching with which He began His work. Few will fail to recognise the fitness of its position, and the influence which it has exercised wherever the Gospel record has found its way. More than any other part of that record did it impress itself on the minds of men in the first age of the Church, and more often is it quoted by the writers of that period—St. James, and Barnabas, and Clement of Rome, and Ignatius, and Polycarp. More than any other portion, in recent time, has it attracted the admiring reverence even of many who did not look on the Preacher of the Sermon as the faith of Christendom looks on Him. Not unfrequently its teaching, as being purely ethical, has been contrasted with the more dogmatic character of the discourses that appear in St. John. How far that contrast really exists will appear as we interpret it. Two preliminary questions, however, present themselves: (1) Have we here the actual verbatim report of one single discourse? (2) Is that discourse the same as that which we find in Luke 6:20-49, and which, for the sake of distinctness, we may call the Sermon on the Plain? Following the method hitherto adopted in dealing with problems which rise from the comparison of one Gospel with another, the latter inquiry will be postponed till we have to meet it in writing on St. Luke’s Gospel. Here it will be enough to state the conclusion which seems to be most probable, that the two discourses are quite distinct, and that each has traceably a purpose and method of its own. The other question calls for discussion now.
At first sight there is much that favours the belief that the Sermon on the Mount is, as it were, a pattern discourse, framed out of the fragments of many like discourses. Not only is there a large element common to it and to the Sermon on the Plain, but we find many other portions of it scattered here and there in other parts of St. Luke’s Gospel. Thus we have:—
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In most of these passages St. Luke reports what served as the starting-point of the teaching. It conies as the answer to a question, as the rebuke of a special fault. We might be led to think that the two Evangelists, coming across a collection more or less complete of our Lord’s words (I use the term as taking in a wider range than discourses), had used them each after his manner: St. Matthew by seeking to dovetail them as much as he could into a continuous whole; St. Luke by trying, as far as possible, to trace them to their sources, and connect them with individual facts. This line of thought is, however, traversed by other facts that lead to an opposite conclusion. In chapters 5 and 6 of the Sermon on the Mount there is strong evidence of a systematic plan, and therefore of unity. The Beatitudes and the verses that immediately follow (Matthew 5:2-16) set forth the conditions of blessedness, the ideal life of the kingdom of heaven. Then comes the contrast between the righteousness required for it and that which passed current among the scribes and Pharisees; and this is carried (1) through their way of dealing with the Commandments (Matthew 5:17-48), and (2) through the three great elements of the religious life—almsgiving, prayer, and fasting (Matthew 6:1-18). This is followed by warnings against the love of money, and the cares which it brings with it, as fatal to the religious life in all its forms (Matthew 6:19-34). In the precepts of chapter 7 there is less traceable sequence, but its absence is as natural on the supposition of missing links in the chain, as on that of pearls threaded on a string, or a tesselated mosaic made up of fragments. The Sermon, as it stands, might have been spoken in thirty or forty minutes. There is no reason to think that this was the necessary or even customary limit of our Lord’s discourses. Assume a discourse somewhat longer than this, heard by a multitude, with no one taking notes at the time, but many trying, it may be some years afterwards, to put on record what they remembered; and then think of the writer of a Gospel coming to collect, with the aid of the Spirit (John 14:26), the disjecta membra which all held so precious; comparing, if he himself had heard it, what others had written or could tell him with what he recalled; placing together what he thus found with a visible order, where the lines had been left broad and deep; with an order more or less latent, where the trains of thought had been too subtle to catch the attention of the hearers—and we have a process of which the natural outcome is what we find here. On these grounds, then, we may reasonably believe that we have substantially the report of a single discourse, possibly with a few additions from other similar discourses,—the first great prophetic utterance, the first full proclamation of “the perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25), the first systematic protest against the traditions of Pharisees and scribes—that protest in which we find the groundwork of holiness, and the life of Jesus translating itself into speech. That it was not more than this; that it did not reveal doctrines which, from our Lord’s own teaching and that of His apostles, we rightly hold to be essential to the true faith of Christians; that it is therefore wrongly made, as some would fain make it, the limit of theology—is explained by the fact that our Lord spake the word as men were able to hear it; that this was the beginning, not the end, of the training of His disciples; that the facts on which the fuller doctrines rested as yet were not. And so He was content to begin with “earthly things,” not “heavenly” (John 3:12), and to look forward to the coming of the Comforter to complete what He had thus begun. Those who would follow His method, must begin as He began; and the Sermon on the Mount, both in its negative and positive elements, is therefore the eternal inheritance of the Church of Christ, at all ages “the milk for babes,” even though those of full age may be capable of receiving the food of higher truths.
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.(3) Blessed.—The word differs from that used in Matthew 23:39; Matthew 25:34, as expressing a permanent state of felicity, rather than the passive reception of a blessing bestowed by another.
The poor in spirit.—The limitation, as in “the pure in heart,” points to the region of life in which the poverty is found. In Luke 6:20 there is no such qualifying clause, and there the words speak of outward poverty, as in itself a less perilous and therefore happier state than that of riches. Here the blessedness is that of those who, whatever their outward state may be, are in their inward life as those who feel that they have nothing of their own, must be receivers before they give, must be dependent on another’s bounty, and be, as it were, the “bedesmen” of the great King. To that temper of mind belongs the “kingdom of heaven,” the eternal realities, in this life and the life to come, of that society of which Christ is the Head. Things are sometimes best understood by their contraries, and we may point to the description of the church of Laodicea as showing us the opposite type of character, thinking itself “rich” in the spiritual life, when it is really as “the pauper,” destitute of the true riches, blind and naked.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.(4) They that mourn.—The verb is commonly coupled with weeping (Mark 16:10; Luke 6:25; James 4:9; Revelation 18:15-19). Here, as before, there is an implied, though not an expressed, limitation. The “mourning” is not the sorrow of the world that worketh “death” (2Corinthians 7:10) for failure, suffering, and the consequences of sin, but the sorrow which flows out in the tears that cleanse, the mourning over sin itself and the stain which it has left upon the soul.
They shall be comforted.—The pronoun is emphatic. The promise implies the special comfort (including counsel) which the mourner needs; “comforted” he shall be with the sense of pardon and peace, of restored purity and freedom. We cannot separate the promise from the word which Christendom has chosen (we need not now discuss its accuracy) to express the work of the Holy Ghost the Comforter, still less from the yearning expectation that then prevailed among such of our Lord’s hearers as were looking for the “consolation”—i.e., the “comfort”—of Israel (Luke 2:25).
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.(5) The meek.—The word so rendered was probably used by St. Matthew in its popular meaning, without any reference to the definition which ethical writers had given of it, but it may be worth while to recall Aristotle’s account of it (Eth. Nicom. v. 5) as the character of one who has the passion of resentment under control, and who is therefore tranquil and untroubled, as in part determining the popular use of the word, and in part also explaining the beatitude.
They shall inherit the earth.—The words may be partly allusive to the “kingdom of the saints of the Most High” in that prophecy of Daniel (Daniel 7:27) which had done so much to fashion the Messianic expectations of the time. They have, however, a wider and continuous fulfilment. The influence of the meek and self-controlled is in the long-run greater than that of the impulsive and passionate. Their serenity helps them to find the maximum of true joy in all conditions of life; for to them the earth is not a stage for self-assertion and the graspings of desire, but an “inheritance” which they have received from their Father.
Many of the best MSS. invert the order of Matthew 5:4-5, and this arrangement has, at all events, the merit of bringing out the latent antithesis between the kingdom of heaven in its unseen greatness and the visible inheritance of the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.(6) Which do hunger and thirst.—We seem in this to hear the lesson which our Lord had learnt from the recent experience of the wilderness. The craving of bodily hunger has become a parable of that higher yearning after righteousness, that thirsting after God, even as the hart desireth the water-brooks, which is certain, in the end, to gain its full fruition. Desires after earthly goods are frustrated, or end in satiety and weariness. To this only belongs the promise that they who thus “hunger and thirst” shall assuredly be filled. The same thoughts meet us again in the Gospel which in many respects is so unlike that of St. Matthew. (Comp. John 4:14; John 4:32).
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.(7) The merciful.—The thought is the same as that afterwards embodied in the Lord’s Prayer. They who are pitiful towards men their brethren are ipso facto the objects of the divine pity. The negative aspect of the same truth is presented in James 2:13. In this case, the promised blessing tends to perpetuate and strengthen the grace which is thus rewarded. No motive to mercy is so constraining as the feeling that we ourselves needed it and have found it.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.(8) Pure in heart.—Here, as with the poor in spirit, the noun determines the region in which the purity is to be found—the “heart” as representing desires and affections, as the “spirit” represents the will and higher personality. The purity so described is not that which was the ideal of the Pharisee, outward and ceremonial, nor, again, was it limited, as the common language of Christians too often limits it, to the absence of one special form of sensual sin; but it excluded every element of baseness—the impurity of hate or greed of gain, no less than that of lust. Not without cause, however, has the evil of the latter sin so overshadowed the others that it has almost monopolised the name. No single form of evil spreads its taint more deeply than that which “lets in contagion to the inward parts.”
Shall see God.—Does the promise find its fulfilment only in the beatific vision of the saints in glory, seeing God as He is (1John 3:2), knowing even as also we are known (1Corinthians 13:12)? Doubtless there, and there only, will be the full fruition which now we wait for; but “purity of heart,” so far as it exists, brings with it the power of seeing more than others see in all through which God reveals Himself—the beauty of nature, the inward light, the moral order of the world, the written word, the life and teaching of Christ. Though we see as yet “through a glass,” as in a mirror that reflects imperfectly, yet in that glass we behold “the glory of the Lord” (1Corinthians 13:12; 2Corinthians 3:18).
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.(9) The peacemakers.—Our version rightly distinguishes between the temper which is simply “peaceable” in itself (James 3:17), and this, the higher form of the same grace, acting energetically upon others. To be able to say with power to those who are bitter foes, “Sirs, ye are brethren”.(Acts 7:26), is nobler even than to strive,” as much as lieth in us, to live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18). Rightly does this beatitude follow on that of the “pure in heart,” for it is the absence of all baseness and impurity that gives the power to make peace.
The children of God.—Better, sons of God. The English version slightly obscures the connection between the promise and the character of Him who had been declared to be the Son of God in the truest and highest sense. Not in the ways which the Tempter had suggested, but in the work of “making peace” between God and man, between Jew and Gentile, even at the price of shedding His own blood (Colossians 1:20), was the witness of sonship to be found, and those who were sharers in that work should, according to their capacity, “be called”—i.e., be, and be recognised as, sharers in that sonship.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.(10) Persecuted for righteousness sake.—Here again there is a profound significance in the order. The work of the peacemakers is not a light and easy work. Often, as of old, when we “labour for peace,” men “make them ready for battle” (Psalm 120:7); but not the less is the blessing sure to follow. Amid seeming failure or seeming success, those who are persecuted, not for opinions, but for right conduct, the true martyrs and confessors of righteousness, attain their reward at last. There is something suggestive in the fact that the last promise is the same as the first. We end, as we began, with “the kingdom of heaven;” but the path by which we have been led leads us to see that that includes all the intermediate blessings, of which at first it seemed but the prelude and beginning.
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.(11) Blessed are ye.—Here, for the first time, the beatitude is uttered, not as a general law, but as the portion of the listening disciples to whom the Teacher spoke. The words contain three forms, hardly three successive grades, of suffering: (1) the vague contempt. showing itself in gibes and nicknames; (2) persecution generally; (3) deliberate calumnies, such as those of the foul orgies and Thyesteian banquets, which were spread against the believers in Christ in the first two centuries.
Falsely.—The word is absent from the best MSS., and was probably added as a safeguard against the thought that a man might claim the reward of the persecuted, even if really guilty of the crimes laid against him.
For my sake.—Here, again, there is a more emphatic personal directness. For the abstract “righteousness” we have “for my sake.” He forewarns His disciples that they must expect persecution if they follow Him; His very name will be the signal and occasion of it (Acts 14:22; 2Timothy 3:12).
Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.(12) Rejoice, and be exceeding glad.—The second word implies a glorious and exulting joy. The same combination is found, possibly as an actual echo of its use here, in 1Peter 1:8; 1Peter 4:13; Revelation 19:7.
Your reward.—The teaching of Luke 17:10 shows that even here the reward is not “of debt, but of grace” (Romans 4:4). It may be added that the temper to which the “reward” is promised practically excludes the possibility of such claim as of right. The reward is for those only who suffer “for righteousness, for Christ,” not for those who are calculating on a future compensation.
In heaven.—Literally, in the heavens, as in the phrase, the “kingdom of heaven.” the plural being used possibly with reference to the Jewish belief in three (2Corinthians 12:2) or seven heavens, more probably as implying, in its grand vagueness (like the “many mansions” of John 14:2), the absence of any space limits to the promised reward. As with the “kingdom of heaven,” so here, the word is not to be thrown forward into the far-off future, but points to the unseen eternal world which is even now present to us, and of which all true disciples of Christ are citizens (Philippians 3:20).
So persecuted they the prophets.—Zechariah the son of Jehoiada (2Chronicles 24:21), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 11:21; Jeremiah 20:2), and the sufferers in the reign of Ahab (1Kings 18:4), are the great historical instances. Isaiah may be added from tradition. But the words were, we can hardly doubt, true of the prophetic order as a whole. The witnesses for unwelcome truths have never had, anywhere or at any time, a light or easy task. In the words “the prophets which were before you” there is a tacit assumption that the disciples also to whom He spake were called to a prophetic work. There was to be, in part at least, a fulfilment of the old grand wish, “Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets!” (Numbers 11:29). The Church of Christ, endowed with the Pentecostal gift, was to be as a prophet to the nations.
Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.(13) Ye are the salt of the earth.—The words are spoken to the disciples in their ideal character, as the germ of a new Israel, called to a prophetic work, preserving the earth from moral putrescence and decay. The general reference to this antiseptic action of salt is (as in Colossians 4:6, and possibly in the symbolic act of Elisha, 2Kings 2:21) enough to give an adequate meaning to the words, but the special reference to the sacrificial use of salt in Mark 9:49 (see Note there) makes it probable enough that there was some allusion to that thought also here.
If the salt have lost his savour.—The salt commonly used by the Jews of old, as now, came from Jebel-Usdum, on the shores of the Dead Sea, and was known as the Salt of Sodom. Maundrell, the Eastern traveller (circ. A.D. 1690), reports that he found lumps of rock-salt there which had become partially flavourless, but I am not aware that this has been confirmed by recent travellers. Common salt, as is well known, will melt if exposed to moisture, but does not lose its saltness. The question is more curious than important, and does not affect the ideal case represented in our Lord’s words.
Wherewith shall it be salted?—The words imply a relative if not an absolute impossibility. If gifts, graces, blessings, a high calling, and a high work fail, what remains? The parable finds its interpretation in Hebrews 6:1-6.
To be trodden under foot of men.—The Talmud shows (Schottgen in loc.) that the salt which had become unfit for sacrificial use in the store-house was sprinkled in wet weather upon the slopes and steps of the temple to prevent the feet of the priests from slipping, and we may accordingly see in our Lord’s words a possible reference to this practice.
Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.(14) The light of the world.—In its highest or truest sense the word belongs to Christ, and to Him only (John 1:9; John 8:12). The comparison to the “candle” or “lamp” in Matthew 5:15 shows, indeed, that even here the disciples are spoken of as shining in the world with a derived brightness flowing to them from the Fount of light.
A city that is set on an hill.—Assuming the Sermon on the Mount to have been preached from one of the hills of Galilee near the “horns of Hattin,” our Lord may have looked or pointed at Safed, 2,650 feet above the sea, commanding one of the grandest panoramic views in Palestine. It is now one of the four holy cities of the Jews, and probably existed as a fortress in our Lord’s time (Thomson’s The Land and the Book, p. 273). The imagery might, however, come from the prophetic visions of the Zion of the future, idealising the position of the actual Zion (Isaiah 2:2; Micah 4:1). No image could so vividly set forth the calling of the Church of Christ as a visible society. For good or for evil, it could not fail to be prominent in the world’s history, a city of refuge for the weary, or open to the attacks of the invader.
Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.(15) Light a candle.—The word so rendered was probably a portable lamp rather than a candle in the common meaning of the word. The candles of the seven-branched candlestick of the Temple were undoubtedly lamps supplied with oil, and so probably were the “candles” of household use. The word is not the same, however, as that used for the “lamps” of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25:1), and was applied apparently to the cheaper vessels of the poor rather than to those of the wealthy. Wiclif translates it “lantern.”
The image was drawn from objects familiar to all the hearers, and the presence of the article in the Greek, “under the bushel,” “on the candlestick or lamp-stand,” implies the familiarity. Each cottage had one such article of furniture. The “bushel” was a Latin measure, nearly the same as the English peck. It adds to the interest of the illustration to remember that as they were commonly of wood, such articles as these must often have been turned out from the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth for the use of its neighbours. It should also be remembered that the self-same word had been applied a short time before by our Lord to the Baptist (John 5:35). His disciples were in this way to continue the Baptist’s work.
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.(16) Let your light so shine.—The English form of the sentence is somewhat misleading, or at least ambiguous. It is not simply, Let your light so shine that men may glorify; but, “Thus, like the lamp on its stand, let your light shine. . . .” The motive to publicity is, however, the direct opposite of the temper which led the Pharisee to his ostentatious prayers and almsgiving; not “to be seen of men,” and win their praise, but to win men, through our use of the light which we know to be not our own, to glorify the Giver of the light. We have at least a partial fulfilment of the command in the impression made on the heathen world by the new life of the Church when they confessed, in spite of all prejudices, “See how these Christians love one another.”
Your Father which is in heaven.—The name was in common use among devout Jews, but its first occurrence in our Lord’s teaching deserves to be noted. The thought of God as a Father was that which was to inspire men not only when engaged in prayer (Matthew 6:9), but in the activity of obedience. (See Note on Matthew 6:9.)
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.(17) Here a new section of the discourse begins, and is carried on to the end of the chapter. From the ideal picture of the life of the society which He came to found, our Lord passes to a protest against the current teaching of the scribes, sometimes adhering to the letter and neglecting the spirit, sometimes overriding even the letter by unauthorised traditions—lowering the standard of righteousness to the level of men’s practices, instead of raising their practices to the standard which God had fixed.
Think not that I am come.—The words imply that men had begun so to think. The Teacher who came preaching repentance, but also promising forgiveness, was supposed to be what in later times has been called Antinomian, attacking the authority of the two great channels through which the will of God had been revealed. “The Law and the prophets” were popularly equivalent to the whole of the Old Testament, though a strict classification required the addition of the Hagiographa, or “holy writings,” i.e., the poetical and miscellaneous books.
I am not come.—Better, I came not. The words might be naturally used by any teacher conscious of a mission, but they gain a new meaning when we remember that He who so spake was emphatically “He that should come;” that “He came into the world” not in the same sense as other men, but in a manner absolutely His own.
Not . . . to destroy, but to fulfil.—Explained by the immediate context, the words would seem to point chiefly to our Lord’s work as a teacher. He came to fill up what was lacking, to develop hints and germs of truth, to turn rules into principles. Interpreted on a wider scale, He came to “fulfil the Law and prophets,” as He came “to fulfil all righteousness” (3:15) by a perfect obedience to its precepts, to fulfil whatever in it was typical of Himself and His work by presenting the realities. The further thought that He came to fulfil what are called the Messianic prophecies hardly comes within the range of the words. No one could dream for a moment that the Christ could do anything else, and throughout the whole discourse there is no reference to those predictions. The prophets are named, partly in conformity with usage, partly in their character as ethical teachers, expounding and spiritualising the Law, and preparing the way for a further and fuller development.
It may be noted as a singular instance of the boldness of some of the early heretics, that Marcion, who rejected the Old Testament altogether, maintained that these words had been altered by the Judaisers of the apostolic age, and that the true reading was, “Think ye that I came to fulfil the Law or the prophets? I came not to fulfil, but to destroy.”
For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.(18) Verily.—The first occurrence in the Gospel of the word so common in our Lord’s teaching seems the right place for dwelling on its meaning. It is the familiar Amen of the Church’s worship—the word which had been used in the same way in that of the wilderness (Numbers 5:22; Deuteronomy 27:15) and of the Temple (Psalm 41:13; Psalm 72:19, et al). Coming from the Hebrew root for “fixed, steadfast, true,” it was used for solemn affirmation or solemn prayer. “So is it,” or “so be it.” For the most part, the Greek LXX. translates it; but in 1Chronicles 16:36, and Nehemiah 5:13, it appears in its Hebrew form. From the worship of the synagogue it passed into that of the Christian Church, and by the time the Gospels were written had become so familiar that it was used without hesitation by all the Evangelists, sometimes singly, sometimes (uniformly in St. John) with the emphasis of reduplication.
Till heaven and earth pass.—The formula was probably one in common use by our Lord to express the unchangeableness of the divine word. It was afterwards used, we must remember, by our Lord, with even augmented force, in reference to His own words (Matthew 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33).
One jot or one tittle.—The “jot” is the Greek iota (0, the Hebrew yod (’), the smallest of all the letters of the alphabet. The “tittle” was one of the smaller strokes, or twists of other letters, such, e.g., as distinguished ד (D) from ר (R), or כ (K) from ב (B). Jewish Rabbis used to caution their scholars against so writing as to cause one letter to be mistaken for another, and to give examples of passages from the Law in which such a mistake would turn a divine truth into nonsense or blasphemy. The yod in its turn was equally important. It distinguished Joshua from Hoshea, Sarai from Sarah. The Jews had indeed a strange legend that its insertion in the former name was given as a compensation for its exclusion from the latter. The meaning is obvious enough,” Nothing truly belonging to the Law, however seemingly trivial, shall drift away and be forgotten until it has done all that it was meant to do.”
Till all be fulfilled.—Literally, Till all things have come to pass. The words in the English version suggest an identity with the “fulfil” of Matthew 5:17, which is not found in the Greek. The same formula is used in the Greek of Matthew 24:34. The “all things” in both cases are the great facts of our Lord’s life, death, resurrection, and the establishment of the kingdom of God. So taken, we find that the words do not assert, as at first they seem to do, the perpetual obligation even of the details of the Law, but the limit up to which the obligation was to last; and they are therefore not inconsistent with the words which speak of the system of the Law as a whole as “decaying and waxing old, and ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:13). The two “untils” have each of them their significance. Each “jot” or “tittle “must first complete its work; then, and not till then, will it pass away.
Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.(19) Shall break one of these least commandments.—The words seem at first to imply that even the ceremonial law was to be binding in its full extent upon Christ’s disciples. The usage of the time, however, confined the word to the moral laws of God (as in Ecclesiasticus 32:23-24), and throughout the New Testament it is never used in any other sense, with the possible exception of Hebrews 7:5; Hebrews 7:16 (comp. especially Romans 13:9; 1Corinthians 7:19). And the context, which proceeds at once to deal with moral laws and does not touch on ceremonial, is in accordance with this meaning. The “least commandments,” then, are those which seemed trivial, yet were really great—the control of thoughts, desires, words, as compared with the apparently greater commands that dealt with acts. The reference to “teaching” shows that our Lord was speaking to His disciples, as the future instructors of mankind, and the obvious import of His words is that they were to raise, not lower, the standard of righteousness which had been recognised previously.
Shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.—The consequence of tampering with the great laws of duty, or the least laws, which are practically great, is described in terms at once severe and gentle; gentle, because the sentence, where the guilt is not wilful, or is repented of, is not one of absolute exclusion from the kingdom; severe in so far as being the “least” in that kingdom, the object of pity or sorrow to others, involved a severe humiliation to those who aimed at being the highest. To that condemnation many in every age of the Church have been liable, the Anthiomian fanatic and the Jesuit casuist standing so far on the same footing.
Whosoever shall do and teach.—Here again the teaching work of the disciples is prominent. The combination is in this case even more significant than in the other. Not right doing only, still less right teaching only, but both together, made up the ideal of the preacher’s work.
Great.—Not “greatest.” The avoidance of the latter word, interpreted by the later teaching of 18:4, would seem to have been deliberate. Men might aim at a positive standard of the greatness of the true teacher and the true worker, but the conscious aim at being “greatest” was self-frustrating. That honour belonged to him only who was all unconscious that he had any claim to it.
For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.(20) Shall exceed.—Better, Shall abound more than.
Scribes and Pharisees.—Here, for the first time, the scribes are mentioned in our Lord’s teaching. The frequent combination of the two words (thirteen times in the first three Gospels) implies that for the most part they were of the school of the Pharisees, just as the “chief priests” were, for the most part, of that of the Sadducees. Where “scribes and chief priests” are united, it is with a different import, as the two chief divisions of the Sanhedrim, or Great Council. The New Testament use of the word differs from the Old. There the scribe is simply the man who writes, the secretary or registrar of the king’s edicts and official documents (2Samuel 8:17; 2Samuel 20:25; 2Kings 18:18). After the return of Babylon, as in the case of Ezra (Ezra 7:6; Ezra 7:12), it was used first of the transcribers and editors of the sacred books, and then, by a natural transition, of their interpreters; and this is the dominant sense of the word in the New Testament. As interpreters they were much occupied with the traditional comments of previous teachers, and these as descending more into particulars, and so affording a better basis for a casuistic system, had come to usurp the rightful place of the Law. As far as the three Gospels are concerned this is the first direct protest of our Lord against their teaching. St. John’s record, however, shows that the conflict had begun already in Jerusalem (John 5:10), and that the Sabbath question was prominent in it.
Ye shall in no case enter . . . .—The “kingdom of heaven” is here neither what we speak of as the visible Church—for there the evil and the good grow together till the harvest—nor yet the Church triumphant in the far future. It stands here rather for the ideal and invisible Church on earth—that which answers to its name, that to which belong the blessings and the promises. Into that Church none enter who are content with an outward conventional standard of righteousness. All who strive after a high standard, sooner or later, in spite of wanderings and mistakes, find their way into it (Matthew 25:34; John 7:17).
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:(21) By them of old time.—There is no reasonable doubt that the marginal reading, to them of old time, is right. The construction is identical with that of Romans 9:12; Romans 9:26; Galatians 3:16; Revelation 6:11; Revelation 9:4. Two questions present themselves for answer: (1) Who were “they of old time”? (2) Who was the speaker of the words quoted? (1) The words are very general, and, as interpreted by the use of “old time” in Acts 15:21, seem to point to the time when synagogues began to be established, i.e., after the return from Babylon. (2) The impersonal form, the contrast between “it was said,” and “I say unto you,” the tone of authority imposing a new law for that which it supersedes, seem conclusive against referring the words, even when they are found in the Law, to that Law as given by God through Moses. Stress is laid on the words “Ye heard that it was said.” “This was the report of the Law given you by your teachers in school and synagogue. I give you another and truer report. Not what you so heard, but what I now say unto you is the true completion of the Law and the Prophets, and therefore the abiding law of my kingdom.”
Whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment.—The fact that these words are not found in the Old Testament confirms the view that our Lord is speaking of the traditional comments on the Law, and not of the Law itself. The phrase “in danger” had a somewhat more technical sense in A.D. 1611 than it has now, and meant “legally liable to.” The “judgment” spoken of was that of the local courts of Deuteronomy 16:18. They had the power of capital punishment, but the special form of death by stoning was reserved for the Sanhedrim, or Council.
But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.(22) I say unto you.—The I is emphasized in the Greek. It was this probably that, more than anything else, led to the feeling of wonder expressed in Matthew 7:28-29. The scribe in his teaching invariably referred to this Rabbi and that; the new Teacher spoke as one having a higher authority of His own.
Angry . . . without a cause.—The last three words are wanting in many of the best MSS. They may have been inserted to soften down the apparent harshness of the teaching; but if so, it must have been at an early date—before the fourth century. They may, on the other hand, have been in the text originally, and struck out, as giving too wide a margin to vain and vague excuses. Ethically, the teaching is not that the emotion of anger, with or without a cause, stands on the same level of guilt with murder, but that the former so soon expands and explodes into the latter, that it will be brought to trial and sentenced according to the merits of each case, the occasion of the anger, the degree in which it has been checked or cherished, and the like. As no earthly tribunal can take cognisance of emotions as such, the “judgment” here is clearly that of the Unseen Judge dealing with offences which in His eyes are of the same character as those which come before the human judges. “Hates any man the thing he would not kill?”
Raca.—As far as the dictionary sense of the word goes, it is the same as that of the “vain fellows” of Judges 9:4, Jdg_11:3; Proverbs 12:11; but all words of abuse depend for their full force on popular association, and raca, like words of kindred meaning among ourselves, was in common use as expressing not anger only but insolent contempt. The temper condemned is that in which anger has so far gained the mastery that we no longer recognise a “brother” in the man who has offended us, but look on him with malignant scorn.
The council.—Offences of this kind are placed by our Lord on the same level as those which came before the great court of the Sanhedrim. That word, though it looks like Hebrew, is really only a transliterated form of the Greek word for council. The court consisted of seventy or seventy-two members, with a president and vice-president, and was made up of the heads of the twenty-four courses of the priests, with forty-six or forty-eight (how chosen it is not known) from the “elders” and “scribes.” Like the Areopagus at Athens, it took cognisance—as in the case of our Lord (Matthew 26:65) and Stephen (Acts 6:13)—of blasphemy and other like offences, and its peculiar prerogative was that it could order death by stoning. The point of our Lord’s teaching was, therefore, that to scorn God’s image in man is to do dishonour to God Himself. We cannot truly “fear God” unless we also “honour all men” (1Peter 2:17). The reverence for humanity as such must extend even to the man who has most provoked us. In the unseen eternal world the want of that reverence has its own appropriate punishment.
Thou fool.—The Greek word so rendered agrees accidentally in its consonants with the Hebrew word translated “rebel” (m’re) in Numbers 20:10, and hence it has been thought by some that we have here, as with raca, a common Hebrew term of opprobrium. There is no evidence, however, that the word was thus used, and it is more probable that the Greek is a translation of some word which, like the “fool” of the Old Testament, implied, as in Psalm 14:1, utter godlessness as well as lack of intellectual wisdom. With that meaning it embodied the temper, not, like that represented by raca, of petulant contempt, but of fixed and settled hatred. That it was the temper and not the utterance of the mere syllables which our Lord condemned is seen in that He Himself used the word of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:17; Matthew 23:19), and St. Paul of the sceptical Greek materialist (1Corinthians 15:36). The self-same word might spring from a righteous indignation or from malignant hatred.
Of hell fire.—Literally, of the Gehenna of fire. Great confusion has arisen here and elsewhere from the use of the same English word for two Greek words of very different meanings: (1) Hades, answering to the Sheol (also for the most part translated “hell”) of the Old Testament, the unseen world, the region or state of the dead, without any reference to their blessedness or misery; (2) Gehenna, which had come to represent among the later Jews (not in the time of any Old Testament writer) the place of future punishment. The history of the word is worth studying. Originally, it was the Greek form of Ge-hinnom (the Valley of Hinnom, sometimes of the “son” or the “children” of Hinnom), and was applied to a narrow gorge on the south of Jerusalem (Joshua 15:8). There Solomon erected a high place for Molech (1Kings 11:7). There the fires of that god had received their bloody offerings of infant sacrifice under Ahaz and Manasseh (2Kings 16:3; 2Chronicles 28:3; 2Chronicles 33:6). Josiah, in his great work of reformation, defiled it, probably by casting the bones of the dead and other filth upon it (2Kings 23:10-14); and the Jews on their return from captivity showed their abhorrence of the idolatry of their fathers by making it, as it were, the place where they cast out all the refuse of the city. Outwardly, it must have been foul to sight and smell, and thus it became, before our Lord’s time, a parable of the final state of those in whom all has become vile and refuse. The thought first appears in the Targum or Paraphrase of Isaiah 33:14 (“Gehenna is the eternal fire”). It is often said that fires which were kept burning to consume the solid refuse added to the horror of the scene; but of this, though it is suggested by this passage and Mark 9:48. there is no adequate evidence. Here the analogy of the previous clauses suggests also the thought that the bodies of great criminals were sometimes deprived of burial rites, and cast out into the Valley of Hinnom; but of this, too, there is no evidence, though it is in itself probable enough. In any case, the meaning of the clause is obvious. Our passing words, expressing states of feeling, and not the overt act of murder only, are subject to the judgment of the Eternal Judge, and may bring us into a guilt and a penalty like that of the vilest criminals.
Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;(23) If thou bring thy gift to the altar.—Literally, If thou shouldst be offering. Our Lord was speaking to Jews as such, and paints, therefore, as it were, a scene in the Jewish Temple. The worshipper is about to offer a “gift” (the most generic term seems intentionally used to represent any kind of offering), and stands at the altar with the priest waiting to do his work. That is the right time for recollection and self-scrutiny. The worshipper is to ask himself, not whether he has a ground of complaint against any one, but whether any one has cause of complaint against him. This, and not the other, is the right question at such a moment—has he injured his neighbour by act, or spoken bitter words of him?
Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.(24) Leave there thy gift.—The words describe an act which would appear to men as a breach of liturgical propriety. To leave the gift and the priest, the act of sacrifice unfinished, would be strange and startling, yet that, our Lord teaches, were better than to sacrifice with the sense of a wrong unconfessed and unatoned for, and, à fortiori, better than the deeper evil of not being ready to forgive. The Talmud gives a curious rule, to which the words may perhaps allude: “If a man is on the point of offering the Passover, and remembers that there is any leaven left in the house, let him return to his house, and remove it, and then come and finish the Passover” (Pesachim, f. 49). What the scribes laid down as a duty in regard to the “leaven of bread,” our Lord applies to the leaven of malice and wickedness.
Be reconciled.—It is not enough to see in this only a command to remove ill-will and enmity from our own mind, though that, of course, is implied. There must be also confession of wrong and the endeavour to make amends, to bring about, as far as in us lies, reconciliation, or atonement.
Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.(25) Agree with thine adversary.—The imagery is changed, and returns to that of human tribunals, which has met us in Matthew 5:22. The man whom we have wronged appears as the “adversary,” the prosecutor bringing his charge against us. The impulse of the natural man at such a time, even if conscious of wrong, is to make the best of his case, to prevaricate, to recriminate. The truer wisdom, Christ teaches, is to “agree”—better, to be on good terms with—show our own good will, and so win his. The whole teaching, it is obvious, is addressed to one who has done wrong. The treatment of a false charge involves different considerations.
The officer.—In this case, the officer of the court, the gaoler.
In the application of the words, the judge is clearly God, and the officers, those (angels or others) who execute His judgment, and the “adversary,” those whom we have wronged, leaving the wrong unredressed. In 1Peter 5:8 the devil is described as the great “adversary,” and that meaning is, perhaps, not excluded, though it is not prominent, here. Any evil deed becomes in the end as an accusing Satan, bearing its witness against us; and Satan himself is the embodiment of all such accusers.
Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.(26) The uttermost farthing.—The Greek word is derived from the Latin quadrans, the fourth part of the Roman as, a small copper or bronze coin which had become common in Palestine. The “mite,” half the quadrans (Mark 12:42), was the smallest coin in circulation. The “farthing” of Matthew 10:29 is a different word, and was applied to the tenth part of the drachma.
Do the words point to a terminable or to an endless punishment? In the frame-work of the similitude such a sentence would not involve perpetual imprisonment, if only the condemned could get together the money wherewith to pay his debt or fine; and we might infer, as Romanist divines have inferred, that such a payment, to be followed by liberation, was possible in the divine judgment. But in practice, unless the man had friends or property, the sentence would, for the most part, involve a life-long punishment. And the question may well be asked, when we turn to the realities shadowed forth in the parable, Can a man pay the “uttermost farthing” in that unseen world? Does he pay by enduring for a given time a given measure of suffering, bodily or spiritual? Can he there find others to pay it for him? Do not the words “till thou hast paid” exclude the thought of their intervention as availing to stay the full action of the great law of retribution? These questions must, for the most part, be so answered as to diminish the force of the first hasty inference. If hope is not shut out altogether, it is because we cannot absolutely answer the first question in the negative. There may be a suffering that works repentance, and the repentance may lead to peace and pardon—there may be, but that is the very utmost that can be said. It is noticeable that the word “prison” is that used in 1Peter 3:19, where the “spirits in prison” are, almost beyond a doubt, represented as the objects of a dispensation that proclaimed even there the good news of salvation. But the whole tone of the passage is that of one who seeks to deepen the sense of danger, not to make light of it, to make men feel that they cannot pay their debt, though God may forgive it freely, accepting faith in Him in lieu of payment.
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:(27) By them of old time.—Omitted in the best MSS. If retained, translate as before, to them of old time. It was probably inserted for the sake of conformity with Matthew 5:21. Here the words are simply those of the divine commandment, but it is given as it was taught in the Rabbinic schools, simply in the narrowness of the letter, without any perception that here too the commandment was “exceeding broad.” It is with that teaching, as before, that our Lord contrasts His own.
But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.(28) To lust after her.—The intent is more strongly marked in the Greek than in the English. It is not the passing glance, not even the momentary impulse of desire, but the continued gaze by which the impulse is deliberately cherished till it becomes a passion. This noble and beautiful teaching, it has often been remarked, and by way of disparagement, is found elsewhere. Such disparagement is out of place. By the mercy of God the Light that “lighteth every man” has led men to recognise the truth thus asserted, and parallels to it may be found in the writings of Conlucius, Seneca, Epictetus, and even of the Jewish Rabbis themselves. The words of Juvenal closely express the general sentiment:—
“ Scelus intra se tacitus qui cogitat ullum,
Facti crimen habet.”
[“Who in his breast a guilty thought doth cherish,
He bears the guilt of action.”]
Our Lord’s words speak primarily of “adultery,” but are, of course, applicable to every form of sensual impurity.
And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.(29) If thy right eye offend thee.—The Greek verb means, strictly, to cause another to stumble or fall into a snare, and this was probably the sense in which the translators used the word “offend.” It is doubtful, however, whether it ever had this factitive sense in English outside the Authorised version, and the common use of the word gives so different a meaning that it cannot be regarded as a happy rendering. The difficulty of finding an equivalent is shown by the variations in the successive English versions: “offend,” in Tyndal’s; “hinder thee,” in Cranmer’s; “cause thee to offend,” in the Geneva; “scandalise,” in the Rhemish; “offend,” again in the Authorised version. Of these the Geneva is, beyond doubt, the best.
Pluck it out.—The bold severity of the phrase excludes a literal interpretation. The seat of the evil lies in the will, not in the organ of sense or action, and the removal of the instrument might leave the inward taint unpurified. What is meant is, that any sense, when it ministers to sin is an evil and not a good, the loss of which would be the truest gain. Translated into modern language, we are warned that taste, culture, æsthetic refinement may but make our guilt and our punishment more tremendous. It were better to be without them than
“Propter vitam vivendi perdere causas.”
[“ And for life’s sake to lose life’s noblest ends.”]
It is profitable.—The element of prudential self-love, of a calculation of profit and loss, is not excluded from Christian motives. As addressed to a nation immersed in the pursuit of gain, it conveys the stern, yet pertinent, warning—“If you must think of profit, make your calculations wisely.”
Hell.—Gehenna, as in Matthew 5:22. The language is still symbolical. The horrid picture of a human body thrown into the foul, offal-fed flame of the Valley of Hinnom is again a parable of something more terrible than itself.
And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.(30) If thy right hand offend thee.—The repetition of the same form of warning has, in part, the emphasis of iteration, but it points also to a distinct danger. Not the senses only, through which we receive impressions, but the gifts and energies which issue in action, may become temptations to evil; and in that case, if the choice must be made, it were better to forfeit them. The true remedy is, of course, found in so directing the will that eye and hand may each do its work in obedience to the law of righteousness.
It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement:(31) It hath been said.—The better MSS. give, “But it was said,” as though stating an implied objection to the previous teaching. Men might think that they could avoid the sin of adultery by taking the easy course of divorcing one wife before marrying another.
Whosoever shall put away . . .—The quotation is given as the popular Rabbinic explanation of Deuteronomy 24:1, which, as our Lord teaches in Matthew 19:8, was given, on account of the hardness of men’s hearts, to prevent yet greater evils. The words of the precept were vague—“If she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her,” and the two school of casuists took opposite views of its meaning. The stricter party of Shammai held that the “uncleanness” meant simply unchastity before or after marriage. The followers of Hillel held, on the other hand (as Milton among Christian teachers), that anything that made the company of the wife distasteful was a sufficient ground for repudiation. Even a moralist generally so pure and noble as the son of Sirach, took in this matter the laxer view—“If she go not as thou wouldest have her, cut her off from thy flesh, and give her a bill of divorce, and let her go” (Ecclesiasticus 25:26). It is noteworthy that our Lord, whose teaching, especially as regards the Sabbath question, might have been, for the most part, claimed by the school of Hillel, on this matter of divorce stamps the impress of His approval on the teaching of his rival.
But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.(32) Saving for the cause of fornication.—The most generic term seems intentionally used to include ante-nuptial as well as post-nuptial sin, possibly, indeed, with reference to the former only, seeing that the strict letter of the Law of Moses made death the punishment of the latter, and so excluded the possibility of the adultery of a second marriage. The words causeth her to commit adultery imply that the “putting away” was legally a divorce à vinculo, leaving the wife, and à fortiori the husband, at liberty to marry again; for otherwise she could not have incurred the guilt of adultery by a second marriage: but it asserts that in such a case, when divorce was obtained on any other ground than the specific sin which violated the essence of the marriage contract, man’s law (even that of Moses) was at variance with the true eternal law of God.
Whosoever shall marry her that is divorced.—The Greek is less definite, and may be rendered either “a woman who has been put away,” or better, “her when she has been put away.” Those who take the former construction, infer from it the absolute unlawfulness of marriage with a divorced woman under any circumstances whatever; some holding that the husband is under the same restrictions, i.e., that the vinculum matrimonii is absolutely indissoluble; while others teach that in the excepted case, both the husband and the wife gain the right to contract a second marriage. The Romish Church, in theory, takes the former view, the Greek and most Reformed Churches the latter; while some codes, like those of some countries in modern Europe, go back to the looser interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1, and allow the divorce à vinculo for many lesser causes than incontinence. Of these contending views, that which is intermediate between the two extremes seems to be most in harmony with the true meaning of our Lord’s words. The words “put away” would necessarily convey to His Jewish hearers the idea of an entire dissolution of the marriage union, leaving both parties free to contract a fresh marriage; and if it were not so, then the case in which He specially permits that dissolution would stand on the same level as the others. The injured husband would still be bound to the wife who had broken the vow which was of the essence of the marriage-contract. But if he was free to marry again, then the guilt of adultery could not possibly attach to her subsequent marriage with another. The context, therefore, requires us to restrict that guilt to the case of a wife divorced for other reasons, such as Jewish casuistry looked on as adequate. This, then, seems the true law of divorce for the Church of Christ as such to recognise. The question as to how far national legislation may permit divorce for other causes, such as cruelty or desertion, seems to stand on a different footing, and must be discussed on different grounds. In proportion as the “hardness of heart” which made the wider license the least of two evils prevails now, it may be not only expedient, but right and necessary, though it implies a standard of morals lower than the law of Christ, to meet it, as it was met of old, by a like reluctant permission.
Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths:(33) By them of old time.—Read, to them of old time, as before. Here, again, the reference is to the letter of the Law as taught by the Rabbis, who did not go beyond it to its wider spirit. To them the Third Commandment was simply a prohibition of perjury, as the Sixth was of murder, or the Seventh of adultery. They did not see that the holy name (Leviticus 19:12) might be profaned in other ways, even when it was not uttered; and they expressly or tacitly allowed (See Philo, De Special. Legg.) many forms of oath in which it was not named, as with the view of guarding it from desecration. Lastly, out of the many forms thus sanctioned (as here and in Matthew 23:16-22) they selected some as binding, and others as not binding, and thus by a casuistry at once subtle, irrational, and dishonest, tampered with men’s sense of truthfulness.
But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne:(34) Swear not at all.—Not a few interpreters, and even whole Christian communities, as e.g. the Society of Friends, see in these words, and in James 5:12, a formal prohibition of all oaths, either promissory or evidential, and look on the general practice of Christians, and the formal teaching of the Church of England in her Articles (Art. xxxix.), as simply an acquiescence in evil. The first impression made by the words is indeed so strongly in their favour that the scruples of such men ought to be dealt with (as English legislation has at last dealt with them) with great tenderness. Their conclusion is, however, it is believed, mistaken: (1) Because, were it true, then in this instance our Lord would be directly repealing part of the moral law given by Moses, instead of completing and expanding it, as in the case of the Sixth and Seventh Commandments. He would be destroying, not fulfilling. (2) Because our Lord himself answered, when He had before been silent, to a solemn formal adjuration (Matthew 26:63-64), and St. Paul repeatedly uses such forms of attestation (Romans 1:9; 1Corinthians 15:31; 2Corinthians 1:23; Galatians 1:20; Philippians 1:8). (3) Because the context shows that the sin which our Lord condemned was the light use of oaths in common speech, and with no real thought as to their meaning. Such oaths practically involved irreverence, and were therefore inconsistent with the fear of God. The real purpose of an oath is to intensify that fear by bringing the thought of God’s presence home to men at the very time they take them, and they are therefore rightly used when they attain that end. Practically, it must be admitted that the needless multiplication of oaths, both evidential and promissory, on trivial occasions, has tended, and still tends, to weaken awe and impair men’s reverence for truth, and we may rejoice when their number is diminished. In an ideal Christian society no oaths would be needed, for every word would be spoken as by those who knew that the Eternal Judge was hearing them.
(34-35) Neither by heaven; . . . nor by the earth; . . . neither by Jerusalem.—Other formulæ of oaths meet us in Matthew 23:16-22; James 5:12. It is not easy at first to understand the thought that underlies such modes of speech. When men swear by God, or the name of Jehovah, there is an implied appeal to the Supreme Ruler. We invoke Him (as in the English form, “So help me God”) to assist and bless us according to the measure of our truthfulness, or to punish us if we speak falsely. But to swear by a thing that has no power or life seems almost unintelligible, unless the thing invoked be regarded as endowed in idea with a mysterious holiness and a power to bless and curse. Once in use, it was natural that men under a system like that of Israel, or, we may add, of Christendom, should employ them as convenient symbols intensifying affirmation, and yet not involving the speaker in the guilt of perjury or in the profane utterance of the divine name. Our Lord deals with all such formulæ in the same way. If they have any force at all, it is because they imply a reference to the Eternal. Heaven is His throne, and earth is His footstool (the words are a citation from Isaiah 66:1), and Jerusalem is the city of the great King. To use them lightly is, therefore, to profane the holy name which they imply. Men do not guard themselves either against irreverence or perjury by such expedients.
Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.(36) By thy head.—This is apparently chosen as an extreme instance of a common oath in which men found no reference to God. Yet here, too, nothing but an implied reference to Him fits it to be an oath at all. He made us, and not we ourselves, and the hairs of our head are not only numbered, but are subject in all their changes to His laws, and not to our volition.
But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.(37) Let your communication.—One of the few instances in which our translators seem to have preferred a somewhat pedantic Latin word for the more literal and homely English speech. (Comp. Luke 24:17.)
Yea, yea.—St. James reproduces the precept in James 5:12 of his Epistle, but the phrase is found in the Talmud, and was probably proverbial. In all common speech a man’s words should be as good as his oath. Yes should mean yes, and No should mean no, even though there be no oath to strengthen it.
Cometh of evil.—The Greek may (as in the Lord’s Prayer, “Deliver us from evil”) be either neuter, “from evil in the abstract,” or masculine, “from the evil one.” With some hesitation, and guided chiefly by Matthew 13:19-38, I accept the latter as the more probable. These devices of fantastic oaths come not from Him who is the Truth, but from him who “when he speaketh a lie, speaketh of his own” (John 8:44).
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:(38) An eye for an eye.—Here again the scribes first took their stand on the letter, regardless of the aim and purpose, of the Law, and then expanded it in a wrong direction. As originally given, it was a check on the “wild justice” of revenge. It said, where the equilibrium of right had been disturbed by outrage, that the work of the judge was not to do more than restore the equilibrium, unless, as in the case of theft, some further penalty was necessary for the prevention of crime. It was, in its essence, a limit in both directions. Not less than the “eye for an eye,” for that might lead to connivance in guilt; not more, for that would open a fresh score of wrong. The scribes in their popular casuistry made the rule one not of judicial action only, but of private retaliation; and it was thus made the sanction of the vindictive temper that forgives nothing.
But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.(39) Resist not evil.—The Greek, as before in Matthew 5:37, may be either masculine or neuter, and followed as it is by “whosoever,” the former seems preferable; only here it is not “the evil one,” with the emphasis of pre-eminence, but, as in 1Corinthians 5:13, the human evil-doer. Of that mightier “evil one” we are emphatically told that it is our duty to resist him (James 4:7).
Shall smite.—The word was used of blows with the hand or with a stick, and for such blows fines from a shekel upwards were imposed by Jewish courts.
Turn to him the other also.—We all quote and admire the words as painting an ideal meekness. But most men feel also that they cannot act on them literally; that to make the attempt, as has been done by some whom the world calls dreamers or fanatics, would throw society into confusion and make the meek the victims. The question meets us, therefore, Were they meant to be obeyed in the letter; and if not, what do they command? And the answer is found (l) in remembering that our Lord Himself, when smitten by the servant of the high priest, protested, though He did not resist (John 18:22-23), and that St. Paul, under like outrage, was vehement in his rebuke (Acts 23:3); and (2) in the fact that the whole context shows that the Sermon on the Mount is not a code of laws, but the assertion of principles. And the principle in this matter is clearly and simply this, that the disciple of Christ, when he has suffered wrong, is to eliminate altogether from his motives the natural desire to retaliate or accuse. As far as he himself is concerned, he must be prepared, in language which, because it is above our common human strain, has stamped itself on the hearts and memories of men, to turn the left cheek when the right has been smitten. But the man who has been wronged has other duties which he cannot rightly ignore. The law of the Eternal has to be asserted, society to be protected, the offender to be reclaimed, and these may well justify—though personal animosity does not—protest, prosecution, punishment.
And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.(40) If any man will sue thee at the law.—The Greek is somewhat stronger: If a man will go—i.e., is bent on going—to law with thee. The verse presents another aspect of the same temper of forbearance. Not in regard to acts of violence only, but also in dealing with the petty litigation that disturbs so many men’s peace, it is better to yield than to insist on rights. St. Paul gives the same counsel to the believers at Corinth: “Why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?” (1Corinthians 6:7). Here also, of course, the precept, absolutely binding, as far as self-interest is concerned, may be traversed by higher considerations.
Coat.—The close-fitting tunic worn next the body.
Cloke.—The outer flowing mantle, the more costly garment of the two. (Comp. John 19:23, and the combination of the two words, in Acts 9:39, “coats and garments.”) The meaning of the illustration is obvious. It is wise rather to surrender more than is demanded, than to disturb the calm of our own spirit by wrangling and debate.
And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.(41) Whosoever shall compel thee.—The Greek word implies the special compulsion of forced service as courier or messenger under Government, and was imported from the Persian postal system, organised on the plan of employing men thus impressed to convey Government dispatches from stage to stage (Herod. viii. 98). The use of the illustration here would seem to imply the adoption of the same system by the Roman Government under the empire. Roman soldiers and their horses were billeted on Jewish householders. Others were impressed for service of longer or shorter duration.
A mile.—The influence of Rome is shown by the use of the Latin word (slightly altered) for the mille passuum, the thousand paces which made up a Roman mile—about 142 yards short of an English statute mile. It is interesting to note a like illustration of the temper that yields to compulsion of this kind, rather than struggle or resist, in the teaching of the Stoic Epictetus—“Should there be a forced service, and a soldier should lay hold on thee, let him work his will; do not resist or murmur” (Diss. iv., i. 79).
Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.(42) Give to him that asketh.—Here again our Lord teaches us by the method of a seeming paradox, and enforces a principle binding upon every one in the form of a rule which in its letter is binding upon no man. Were we to give to all men what they ask, we should in many cases be cursing, not blessing, them with our gifts. Not so does our Father give us what we ask in prayer; not so did Christ grant the prayers of His disciples. That which the words really teach as the ideal of the perfect life which we ought to aim at, is the loving and the giving temper that sees in every request made to us the expression of a want of some kind, which we are to consider as a call to thoughtful inquiry how best to meet the want, giving what is asked for if we honestly believe that it is really for the good of him who asks, giving something else if that would seem to be really better for him. Rightly understood, the words do not bid us idly give alms to the idle or the impostor; and St. Paul’s rule, “If a man will not work, neither let him eat” (2Thessalonians 3:10), is not a departure from the law of Christ, but its truest application and fulfilment.
From him that would borrow.—The force of the precept depends on its connection with the Jewish Law, which forbade not only what we call usury, i.e., excessive interest, but all interest on loans where debtor and creditor alike were Israelites (Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:37; Deuteronomy 23:19-20). From our modern point of view that law cannot be regarded as in harmony with the present order of society, nor consistent with our modern views of financial justice. It is not the less true, however, that in the education of a family or nation, such a prohibition may be a necessary and useful discipline. We should look with scorn on boys who lent on interest to their brothers or their schoolfellows, and the ideal of the Law of Moses was that of treating all Israelites as brothers brought under the discipline of the schoolmaster. As if with a prescient insight into the besetting temptation of the race, the lawgiver forbade a practice which would have destroyed, and eventually did destroy, the sense of brotherhood (Nehemiah 5:1-13), leaving it open to receive interest from strangers who were outside the limits of the family (Deuteronomy 23:20). The higher law of Christ treats all men as brothers, and bids us, if it is right to lend as an act of charity, to do so for love, and not for profit. Cases where the business of the world calls for loans not for the relief of want, but as a matter of commercial convenience, lie obviously outside the range of the precept.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.(43) Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.—In form the latter clause was a Rabbinic addition to the former; and this is important as showing that our Lord deals throughout not with the Law as such, but with the scribes’ exposition of it. But it can hardly be said these words, as far as national enemies were concerned, were foreign to the spirit of the Law. The Israelites were practically commanded to hate the Canaanites and Amalekites, whom they were commissioned to destroy. The fault of the scribes was that they stereotyped the Law, which was in its nature transitory, and extended it in a wrong direction by making it the plea for indulgence in private enmities. Our Lord cancels the Rabbinic gloss as regards national and, à fortiori, private hatreds, and teaches us to strive after the ideal excellence which He realised, and to love, i.e., to seek the good of those who have shown us the most bitter hostility. So He taught men to find a neighbour even in a Samaritan, and so He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;(44) Bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.—The latter words are omitted in so many of the most ancient MSS. that most recent editors hold that they were inserted in the fourth or fifth century, so as to bring the verse into verbal agreement with Luke 6:28. Taking it as it stands here, we note (1) the extension of the command to love our neighbour (Leviticus 19:18), so that it includes even those whom natural impulse prompts us to hate; (2) the stress laid on prayer as the highest utterance of that love. In such cases, circumstances may preclude acts which would be rejected, and words that would be met with scorn, but the prayer that they too may be delivered from the evil which has been their curse is always in our power, and in so praying we are drawing near to the mind of God, and asking that our wills may be as His.
That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.(45) That ye may be.—Literally, and with far fuller meaning, that ye may become. We cannot become like God in power or wisdom. The attempt at that likeness to the Godhead was the cause of man’s fall, and leads evermore to a like issue; but we cannot err in striving to be like Him in His love. (Comp. St. Paul’s “followers [or, more literally, imitators”] of God” in Ephesians 5:1.) And the love which we are to reproduce is not primarily that of which the children of the kingdom are the direct objects, showing itself in pardon, and adoption, and spiritual blessings, but the beneficence which is seen in Nature. Our Lord assumes that sunshine, and rain, and fruitful seasons are His Father’s gifts, and proofs (whatever may be urged to the contrary) of His loving purpose. Here, again, the teaching of the higher Stoics presents an almost verbal parallel: “If thou wouldst imitate the gods, do good even to the unthankful, for the sun rises even on the wicked, and the seas are open to pirates” (Seneca, De Benefic. iv. 2, 6).
For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?(46) The publicans.—An account of the “publicans” of our Lord’s time will find a more fitting place in the Notes on Matthew 9:9. Here, it may be remarked that our Lord puts Himself, as it were, on the level of those to whom He speaks. They despised the publicans as below them, almost as a Pariah caste, and He speaks, as if He were using their own familiar language, yet with a widely different application. Were they after all above the publicans, if they confined their love to a reciprocity of good offices?
And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?(47) If ye salute your brethren.—The prominence of salutation in the social life of the East gives a special vividness to this precept. To utter the formal “Peace be with you,” to follow that up by manifold compliments and wishes, was to recognise those whom men saluted as friends and brothers. But this the very heathen did (heathen rather than “publicans” being here the true reading): were the followers of Christ to be content with copying heathen customs?
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.(48) Be ye therefore perfect.—Literally, Ye therefore shall be perfect—the ideal future that implies an imperative.
Your Father which is in heaven.—The better reading gives, your heavenly Father. The idea of perfection implied in the word here is that of the attainment of the end or ideal completeness of our being. In us that attainment implies growth, and the word is used (e.g., in 1Corinthians 2:6; Hebrews 5:14) of men of full age as contrasted with infants. In God the perfection is not something attained, but exists eternally, but we draw near to it and become partakers of the divine nature when we love as He loves:
———“Earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.”