Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.VI.
(1) From the protest against the casuistry which tampered with and distorted the great primary commandments, the Sermon on the Mount passes to the defects of character and action which vitiated the religion of Pharisaism even where it was at its best. Its excellence had been that it laid stress, as the religion of Islam did afterwards, on the three great duties of the religious life, almsgiving, fasting, and prayer, rather than on sacrifices and offerings. Verbally, Pharisaism accepted on this point the widest and most spiritual teaching of the prophets, and so its home was in the Synagogue rather than the Temple, and it gained a hold on the minds of the people which the priests never gained. But a subtle evil found its way even here. Love of praise and power, rather than spontaneous love, and self-denial, and adoration, was the mainspring of their action, and so that which is the essence of all religion was absent even from the acts in which the purest and highest form of religion naturally shows itself.
Your alms.—The better MSS. give righteousness, and obviously with a far truer meaning, as the wider word which branches off afterwards into the three heads of alms, fasting, prayer. In Rabbinic language the whole was often used for the part, and “righteousness” was identified with “mercifulness,” and that with giving money. The Greek version of the LXX. often renders the Hebrew word for righteousness by “alms.” In the New Testament, however, there is no such narrowing of its meaning, and here the full significance of the word is fixed by its use in Matthew 5:20. The reading “alms” probably arose from a misconception of the real meaning of the passage, and the consequent assumption that it simply introduced the rule given in Matthew 6:2-3.
To be seen of them.—It is the motive, and not the fact of publicity, that vitiates the action. The high ideal of the disciple of Christ is to let his light shine “before men” (the self-same words are used in Matthew 5:16 as here), and yet to be indifferent to their praise or even their opinion. In most religious men there is probably a mingling of the two motives, and we dare not say at what precise stage the presence of the lower overpowers the higher. It is enough to remember that it is the little speck which may taint the whole character till it loses all its life.
Of your Father which is in heaven.—More accurately, with your Father, as meaning, “in His estimate.” The act is not done to and for Him, and therefore (speaking after the manner of men) He looks on it as having no claim to payment.
Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.(2) Alms.—The history of the word is singularly interesting. In the original meaning of the Greek it was the quality of mercy, or rather of “mercifulness,” as something more complete. The practice of the Hellenistic Jews limited the word (eleemosyna) to money-gifts. It passed with this meaning untranslated into the language of Latin Christendom, and from that again into European languages, in various forms, “aumone,” “almose,” and at last the word of six syllables and rich fulness of meaning contracts and collapses into our modern English “alms.”
Do not sound a trumpet before thee.—Two conjectural interpretations have been given of the words:—It has been supposed (1) that the wealthy Pharisees had a trumpet literally blown before them, to give notice to the poor of the neighbourhood that they were distributing their alms; (2) that the words refer to the clang of the money as it fell into the metal trumpet-shaped alms-boxes which were found in the synagogue, a clang which came as sweet music to the ears of the purse-proud giver. But as regards (1), the best scholars have found no trace of any such practice in Jewish literature, and it is hardly credible that such a thing could have been done in the synagogues; and (2) seems hardly adequate to the active meaning of the verb. There is no reason, however, for taking the words so literally. The figure of speech which describes a vain man as being “his own trumpeter,” or making a “flourish of trumpets” about his own acts, has been, or might be. common in every country where trumpets have been used. What is meant is that, whether in the “offertories” of the synagogue or the alms given to beggars in the streets, there was a parade of benevolence which practically summoned men to gaze and admire.
As the hypocrites do.—Here again the word has a history of its own. Derived from a Greek verb which signifies answering, taking part in a dialogue, acting a part in a play, the noun in classical Greek was used simply for an actor, a man who plays a part. In one passage only in the LXX. version of the Old Testament (Job 36:13) it appears in the figurative sense of one who feigns a virtue which he has not. It thus lay ready for the wider use which the Evangelists have given it (it is not used by any writer of the New Testament except St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke), and passed with this new meaning, hardly altered in form, first into Latin and then into most of the languages of modern Europe.
They have their reward.—The Greek is more expressive: They have to the full, and so exhaust. There is nothing more for them to look for. They bargained for that praise of men, and they get it; but they sought not the honour that cometh of God only, and therefore He gives them none.
But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:(3) Let not thy left hand know.—The phrase was probably proverbial, and indicates, in the form of free hyperbole, extremest secrecy. It is possible that there may be some reference to the practice of using the right hand in offering gifts at the altar. The symbolical application, though an afterthought, is yet suggestive. The “right hand” is the higher spiritual element in us that leads to acts of true charity, the “left” is the baser, self-seeking nature. We ought, as it were, to set a barrier between the two, as far as possible, i.e., to exclude that mingling of motives, which is at least the beginning of evil.
That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.(4) That thine alms may be in secret.—Here again we have a principle rather than a rule. Publicity may be a duty, especially in public work. But this—gifts for schools, hospitals, and the like—is hardly contemplated in the word “alms,” which refers rather to acts of mercy, to cases of individual suffering. Ostentation in those acts is what our Lord especially condemns.
Thy Father which seeth in secret.—The attribute which we call the Omniscience of God is commonly dwelt on as calculated to inspire a just fear of the All-seeing One. He sees, we say, the evil deeds that are done in secret. Here it is brought before us as an encouragement and ground of hope. Do we feel isolated, not understood, not appreciated? He sees in secret and will reward.
Shall reward thee openly.—A curious instance of an early attempt to improve on our Lord’s teaching. The adverb “openly” is not found in the best MSS., and is now omitted by most editors. It would seem either as if a false rhetorical taste desired a more complete antithesis, or that the craving for public acknowledgment in the presence of men and angels asserted itself even here, and led men to add to the words of the divine Teacher. It need hardly be said that the addition weakens and lowers the force of the truth asserted. It is not necessarily in this way, “openly,” that God rewards His servants, nor do the words point only to the reward of the last great day. The reward is at once immediate, and, it may be, secret—the hidden manna, the joy with which a stranger doth not intermeddle, and which no man taketh from us.
And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.(5) Standing in the synagogues.—The Jewish custom, more or less prevalent throughout the East, and for a time retained at certain seasons in the Christian Church, was to pray standing, with outstretched, uplifted hands, and there was nothing in the attitude as such that made it an act of ostentatious devotion; nor would there have been any ostentation in thus joining in the common prayer of the congregation assembled in the synagogue. What our Lord’s words point to, was the custom of going into the synagogue, as men go now into the churches of Latin Christendom, to offer private devotion (as, e.g., in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican), and of doing this so as to attract notice, the worshipper standing apart as if absorbed in prayer, while secretly glancing round to watch the impression which he might be making on others who were looking on.
In the corners of the streets.—Not the same word as in Matthew 6:3, but the broad, open places of the city. There, too, the Pharisees might be seen, reciting their appointed prayers—probably the well-known eighteen acts of devotion which were appointed for the use of devout Israelites—and with the tallith or veil of prayer over their head.
But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.(6) Enter into thy closet.—Literally, the store-closet of thy house. The principle, as before, is embodied in a rule which startles, and which cannot be binding literally. Not in synagogue or street, nor by the river-side (Acts 16:13); not under the fig-tree in the court-yard (John 1:50), nor on the housetop where men were wont to pray (Acts 10:9)—these might, each and all, present the temptations of publicity—but in the steward’s closet, in the place which seemed to men least likely, which they would count it irreverent to connect with the idea of prayer. The principle thus clothed in paradox is, of course, that personal prayer should be strictly personal and private. Our Lord’s mode of acting on the principle was, it will be remembered, to withdraw from crowds and cities, and to pass the night in prayer on the lonely slopes of the hills of Galilee (Matthew 14:23; Mark 6:46; John 6:15).
Openly.—Probably, as before, in Matthew 6:4, an interpolation.
But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.(7) Use not vain repetitions.—The Greek word has a force but feebly rendered in the English. Formed from a word which reproduces the repeated attempts of the stammerer to clothe his thoughts in words, it might be almost rendered, “Do not stutter out your prayers, do not babble them over.” The words describe only too faithfully the act of prayer when it becomes mechanical. The devotion of the rosary, in which every bead is connected with a Pater Noster or an Ave Maria, does but reproduce the eighteen prayers of the Rabbis, which they held it to be an act of religion to repeat. On the other hand, it is clear that the law of Christ does not exclude the iteration of intense emotion. That is not a “vain repetition;” and in the great crisis of His human life our Lord Himself prayed thrice “using the same words” (Matthew 26:44). How far our use of the Lord’s Prayer, or of the Kyrie Eleison of our Litanies, is open to the charge of “vain repetition” is another question. It is obvious that it may easily become so to any mechanical worshipper of the Pharisaic type; but there is, on the other side, an ever-accumulating weight of evidence from really devout souls, that they have found it helpful in sustaining the emotion without which prayer is dead.
As the heathen do.—We know too little of the details of the ritual of classical heathenism to be able to say how far the charge of vain repetition applied at this time to them. The cries of the worshippers of Baal “from morning even until noon” (1Kings 18:26), the shouts of those of Artemis at Ephesus “for the space of two hours” (Acts 19:34), may be taken as representative instances.
Their much speaking.—This thought was the root-evil of the worship of the heathen or the Pharisee. It gave to prayer a quantitative mechanical force, increased in proportion to the number of prayers offered. If fifty failed, a hundred might succeed. But this assumed that the object of prayer was to change the will of God, or to inform Him of what He did not know before, and our Lord teaches us—as, indeed, all masters of the higher life have taught—that that assumption vitiates prayer at once.
Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.(8) Your Father knoweth.—This truth is rightly made the ground of prayer in one of the noblest collects of the Prayer Book of the English Church—“Almighty God, the Fountain of all wisdom, who knowest our necessities before we ask, and our ignorance in asking.” Comp. St. Paul’s “We know not what we should pray for as we ought” (Romans 8:26). But why then, it may be asked, pray at all? Why “make our requests known unto God” (Philippians 4:6)? Logically, it may be, the question never has been, and never can be, answered. As in the parallel question of foreknowledge and free will, we are brought into a region in which convictions that seem, each of them, axiomatic, appear to contradict each other. All that can be done is to suggest partial solutions of the problem. We bring our wants and desires to God (1) that we may see them as He sees them, judge how far they are selfish or capricious, how far they are in harmony with His will; (2) that we may, in the thought of that Presence and its infinite holiness, feel that all other prayers—those which are but the expression of wishes for earthly good, or deliverance from earthly evil—are of infinitely little moment as compared with deliverance from the penalty and the power of the sin which we have made our own; (3) that, conscious of our weakness, we may gain strength for the work and the conflict of life in communion with the Eternal, who is in very deed a “Power that makes for righteousness.” These are, if we may so speak, the lines upon which the Lord’s Prayer has been constructed, and all other prayers are excellent in proportion as they approach that pattern. Partial deviations from it, as in prayers for fine weather, for plenty, and for victory, are yet legitimate (though they drift in a wrong direction), as the natural utterance of natural wants, which, if repressed, would find expression in superstition or despair. It is better that even these petitions, though not the highest form of prayer, should be purified by their association with the highest, than that they should remain unuttered as passionate cravings or, it may be, murmuring regrets.
After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.(9) After this manner.—Literally, thus. The word sanctions at once the use of the words themselves, and of other prayers—prescribed, or unpremeditated—after the same pattern and in the same spirit. In Luke 11:2 we have the more definite, “When ye pray, say, . . . .”
Our Father.—It is clear that the very word “Abba” (father) uttered by our Lord here, as in Mark 14:36, so impressed itself on the minds of men that, like “Amen” and “Hallelujah” and “Hosanna,” it was used in the prayers even of converts from heathenism and Hellenistic Judaism. From its special association with the work of the Spirit in Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6, it would seem to have belonged to the class of utterances commonly described as the “tongues,” in which apparently words from two or more languages were mingled together according as each best expressed the devout enthusiasm of the worshipper.
The thought of the Fatherhood of God was not altogether new. He had claimed “Israel as His son, even His firstborn” (Exodus 4:22), had loved him as His child (Jeremiah 31:9; Hosea 11:1). The thought of an outraged Fatherhood underlies the reproaches of Isaiah (Isaiah 1:2) and Malachi (Malachi 1:6). “Thou, O Lord, art our Father” (Isaiah 64:8) was the refuge of Israel from despair. It had become common in Jewish liturgies and forms of private prayer. As the disciples heard it, it would not at first convey to their minds thoughts beyond those with which they were thus familiar. But it was a word pregnant with a future. Time and the teaching of the Spirit were to develop what was now in germ. That it had its ground in the union with the Eternal Son, which makes us also sons of God; that it was a name that might be used, not by Israelites only, but by every child of man; that of all the names of God that express His being and character, it was the fullest and the truest—this was to be learnt as men were guided into all the truth. Like all such names, it had its inner and its outer circles of application. It was true of all men, true of all members of the Church of Christ, true of those who were led by the Spirit, in different degrees; but all true theology rests on the assumption that the ever-widening circles have the same centre, and that that centre is the Love of the Father.
The words “Our Father” are not a form excluding the use of the more personal “My Father” in solitary prayer, but they are a perpetual witness that even then we should remember that our right to use that name is no peculiar privilege of ours, but is shared by every member of the great family of God.
Which art in heaven.—The phrase, familiar as it is, has a history of special interest. (1.) In the earlier books of the Old Testament the words “Jehovah is God in heaven above and in earth beneath” (Deuteronomy 4:39; Joshua 2:11), express His universal presence; and this was embodied also in the name of “the Most High God, the Possessor of heaven and earth,” of the earliest patriarchal faith (Genesis 14:22). Later on, men began to be more conscious of the infinite distance between themselves and God, and represented the contrast by the thought that He was in heaven and they on earth (Ecclesiastes 5:2); and this thought became a liturgical formula in the great dedication prayer of Solomon, “Hear thou in heaven thy dwelling-place” (l Kings 8:42, 43, et cet.; 2Chronicles 6:21, etc.). And so, emancipated from over-close identification with the visible firmament, the phrase became current as symbolising the world visible and invisible, which is alike the dwelling-place of God, uttering in the language of poetry that which we vainly attempt to express in the language of metaphysics by such terms as the Infinite, the Absolute, the Unconditioned. (2.) We ought not to forget that the words supply at once (as in the phrase, “God of heaven,” in Ezra 1:2; Daniel 2:18-19) a link and a contrast between the heathen and the Jew, the Aryan and Semitic races. Each alike found in the visible heaven the symbol of the invisible forces of the universe of an unseen world; but the one first identified his heaven (the Varuna of the Vedic hymns, the Ouranos of the Greeks) with that world, and then personified each several force in it, the Pantheism of the thinker becoming the Polytheism of the worshipper; whilst to the other heaven was never more than the dwelling-place of God in His undivided unity.
Hallowed be thy name.—The first expression of thought in the pattern prayer is not the utterance of our wants and wishes, but that the Name of God—that which sums up all our thoughts of God—should be “hallowed,” be to us and all men as a consecrated name, not lightly used in trivial speech, or rash assertion, or bitterness of debate, but the object of awe and love and adoration. The words “Jehovah, hallowed be His name,” were familiar enough to all Israelites, and are found in many of their prayers, but here the position of the petition gives a new meaning to it, and makes it the key to all that follows. Still more striking is the fact, that this supplies a link between the teaching of the first three Gospels and that of the fourth. Thus the Lord Jesus taught His disciples to pray—thus, in John 12:28, He prayed Himself, “Father, glorify Thy name.”
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.(10) Thy kingdom come.—Historically, the prayer had its origin in the Messianic expectations embodied in the picture of the ideal king in Isaiah 11:1-6; Isaiah 42:1-7, Daniel 7:14. It had long been familiar to all who looked for the consolation of Israel. Now the kingdom of God, that in which He manifests His sovereignty more than in the material world or in the common course of history, had been proclaimed as nigh at hand. The Teacher of the prayer knew Himself to be the Head of that kingdom. But it was not, like the kingdoms of the world, one that rested on the despotism of might, but on the acknowledgment of righteousness. It was therefore ever growing to a completeness, which it has never yet reached. Its advance to that completeness might be retarded by man’s self-will, and hastened by man’s fulfilment of its conditions. And therefore we pray that it may “come” in its fulness, that all created beings may bring their wills into harmony with God’s will. So tar as that prayer comes from the heart and not from the lips only, it is in part self-fulfilling, in part it works according to the law by which God answers prayers that are in harmony with His own will; and in so far as the kingdom, though in one sense it has come, and is in the midst of us, and within us, is yet far from the goal towards which it moves, ever coming and yet to come, the prayer is one that never becomes obsolete, and may be the utterance of the saints in glory no less than of toilers and sufferers upon earth.
Thy will be done.—The prayer has often been, even in the lips of Christians, hardly more than the “acceptance of the inevitable.” Like the Stoic, we have submitted to a destiny; like the Moslem, we have been resigned to a decree. But as it came from the lips of the Son of Man, it was surely far more than this. We pray that the will of God may be done because we believe it to be perfectly loving and righteous. It is the will that desires our sanctification (1Thessalonians 4:3), that does not will that any should perish. The real difficulty in the prayer is, that it lands us, as before. in a mystery which we cannot solve. It assumes that even the will of God is in part dependent on our wills, that it will not be done unless we so pray. The question, “Who hath resisted this will? Does it not ever fulfil itself?” forces itself on our thoughts. And the answer is found, as before, in accepting the seeming paradox of prayer. In one sense the will of God, which is also the eternal law, must fulfil itself; but it is one thing for that law to work in subduing all things to itself, another for it to bring all created wills into harmony with itself. And in really praying for this we, as before, in part fulfil the prayer.
As it is in heaven.—The thought is true of the order of the visible heaven, where law reigns supreme, with no “variableness or shadow of turning.” But seeing that the obedience contemplated is that of the will, it is better, perhaps, to think of the words as pointing to the unseen hosts of heaven, the ministering angels, and the spirits of just men made perfect. That all wills on earth should be brought into the same entire conformity with the divine will as theirs, is what we are taught to pray for.
Give us this day our daily bread.(11) Give us this day our daily bread.—A strange obscurity hangs over the words that are so familiar to us. The word translated “daily” is found nowhere else, with the one exception of the parallel passage in Luke 11:3, and so far as we can judge must have been coined for the purpose, as the best equivalent for the unknown Aramaic word which our Lord actually used. We are accordingly thrown partly on its possible derivation, partly on what seems (compatibly with its derivation) most in harmony with the spirit of our Lord’s teaching. The form of the word (see Note in Excursus) admits of the meanings, (1) bread sufficient for the day now coming; (2) sufficient for the morrow; (3) sufficient for existence; (4) over and above material substance—or, as the Vulgate renders it, panis super substantialis. Of these, (1) and (2) are the most commonly received; and the idea conveyed by them is expressed in the rendering “daily bread.” So taken, it is a simple petition, like the prayer of Agur in Proverbs 30:8, for “food convenient for us;” and as such, has been uttered by a thousand child-like hearts, and has borne its witness alike against over-anxiety and far-reaching desires for outward prosperity. It is not without some hesitation, in face of so general a concurrence of authority, that I find myself constrained to say that the last meaning seems to me the truest. Let us remember (1) the words with which our Lord had answered the Tempter, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4); (2) His application of those words in “I have meat to eat that ye know not of” (John 4:32); (3) His own use of bread as the symbol of that which sustains the spiritual life (John 6:27-58); (4) the warnings in Matthew 6:25-31 not only against anxiety about what we shall eat and drink, but against seeking these things instead of seeking simply the kingdom of God and His righteousness—and we can scarcely fail, I think, to see that He meant His disciples, in this pattern Prayer, to seek for the nourishment of the higher and not the lower life. So taken, the petition, instead of being a contrast to the rest of the Prayer, is in perfect harmony with it, and the whole raises us to the region of thought in which we leave all that concerns our earthly life in the hands of our Father, without asking Him even for the supply of its simplest wants, seeking only that He would sustain and perfect the higher life of our spirit. So when we ask for “daily bread,” we mean not common food, but the “Bread from heaven, which giveth life unto the world.” So the reality of which the Eucharistic bread is the symbol is the Lord’s gracious answer to the Prayer He has taught us.
II.—THE WORD “DAILY,” IN Matthew 6:11.
The word ἐπιούσιος has been derived (1) from ή ἐπιοῡσα (sc. ἡμέρα)=the day that is coming on; and this meaning is favoured by the fact that Jerome says that the Hebrew Gospel current in his time gave the word mahar (= crastinus) to-morrow’s bread, and by the very early rendering, quotidianum, in the Latin versions. On the other hand, this meaning introduces a strange tautology into St. Luke’s version of the prayer, “Give us day by day—i.e., daily—our daily bread.” (2) The other derivation connects it with οὐσία in some one or other of its many senses, and with ἐπὶ as signifying either “for” or “over”—the former force of the preposition suggesting the thought “for our existence or subsistence;” the latter, the supersubstantialis of Jerome, that is, “over or above our material substance.” It is said, and with truth, that in classical Greek the form would have been not ἐπιούσιος, but ἐπούσιος; but it is clear that that difficulty did not prevent a scholar like Jerome from accepting the derivation, and it was not likely that the Hellenistic Jew who first translated our Lord’s discourses should be more accurate than Jerome in coining a word which seemed to him wanted to express our Lord’s meaning. The derivation being then admissible, it remains to ask which of the two meanings of οὐσία and of ἐπὶ gives most force to the clause in which the word occurs, and for the reasons given above I am led to decide in favour of the latter. New words would hardly have been wanted for the meanings “daily” or “sufficient.” When a word is coined, it may fairly be assumed that it was wanted to express a new thought, and the new thought here was that which our Lord afterwards developed in John 6, that the spirit of a man needs sustenance not less than his body, and that that sustenance is found in the “bread of God which cometh down from heaven” (John 6:33). The student should, however, consult Dr. Lightfoot’s admirable excursus on the word in his Hints on a Revised Version of the New Testament.
On the assumption that the Lord’s Prayer included and spiritualised the highest thoughts that had previously been expressed separably by devout Israelites, we may note, as against the meaning of “bread for the morrow,” the saying of Rabbi Elieser, that “He who has a crumb left in his scrip, and asks, ‘What shall I eat to-morrow?’ belongs to those of little faith.”
There is, it must be admitted, a difficulty in conjecturing what Aramaic word could have answered to this meaning of ἐπιούσιος, and the fact that a word giving the other meaning is, as it were, ready to hand, and was actually found in the Hebrew Gospel in the fourth century, has some weight on the other side. That word may, however, itself have been not a translation of the original, but a re-translation of the Latin quotidianus; and the fact that Jerome, knowing of this, chose another rendering here, while he retained quotidianus in St. Luke 11:3, shows that he was not satisfied with it, and at last, it may be, halted between two opinions.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.(12) Forgive us our debts.—Duty—i.e., that which we owe, or ought to do—and debts are, it may be noted, only different forms of the same word. A duty unfulfilled is a debt unpaid. Primarily, therefore, the words “our debts” represent sins of omission, and “trespasses” the transgression of a law, sins of commission. The distinction, however, though convenient, is more or less technical. Every transgression implies the non-fulfilment of duty in a more aggravated form, and the memory of both presents itself to the awakened conscience under the character of an ever-accumulating debt. Even the sins against our neighbour are, in this sense, debts which we have incurred to God; and as the past cannot be undone, they are debts which we can never pay. For us, therefore, the one helpful prayer is, “Forgive the debt,” and the gospel which our Lord proclaimed was, that the Father was ready to forgive. The confession of the debt was enough to ensure its remission, and then there was to come the willing service of a grateful love instead of the vain attempt, which Pharisaism encouraged, to score up an account of good works, as part payment, and therefore as a set-off, reducing the amount of debt. The parables of the Two Debtors (Luke 7:41) and of the Unforgiving Creditor whose own debt had been forgiven (Matthew 18:23-35) were but expansions of the thought which we find in its germ in this clause of the Lord’s Prayer.
In striking contrast with that clause is the claim of merit which insinuates itself so readily into the hearts of those who worship without the consciousness that they need forgiveness, and which uttered itself in the daring prayer attributed to Apollonius of Tyana, “Give me that which is my due—pay me, ye gods, the debts ye owe to me.”
As we forgive our debtors.—The better reading gives, We have forgiven, as a completed act before we begin to pray. In the very act of prayer we are taught to remind ourselves of the conditions of forgiveness. Even here, in the region of the free grace of God, there is a law of retribution. The temper that does not forgive cannot be forgiven, because it is ipso facto a proof that we do not realise the amount of the debt we owe. We forget the ten thousand talents as we exact the hundred pence, and in the act of exacting we bring back that burden of the greater debt upon ourselves.
Up to this point, in the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, we may think of the Man Christ Jesus as having not only taught the Prayer, but Himself used it. During the years of youth and manhood it may well have been thus far the embodiment of the outpourings of His soul in communion with His Father. Even the prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” whether we take it in its higher or its lower meaning, would be the fit utterance of His sense of dependence as the Son of Man. Can we think the same of the prayer, “Forgive us our debts?” It is, of course, opposed to the whole teaching of Scripture to believe that there dwelt on His human spirit the memory of a single transgression. In the fullest sense of the word He was without sin, the Just One, needing no repentance. And yet the analogy of those of His saints and servants who have followed most closely in the footsteps of His holiness may lead us to think it possible that even these words also may have had a meaning in which He could use them. In proportion as men attain holiness and cease to transgress, they gain a clearer perception of the infinite holiness of God, and seek to be made partakers of it. They would fain pray and praise and work for Him evermore, but though the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak. They are weary and faint, and they become more intensely conscious of the limits of their human powers as contrasted with the limitless range of their desires. In this sense, therefore, and strictly in reference to the limitations of the true, yet absolutely sinless, humanity which He vouchsafed to assume, it is just conceivable that He too Himself may have used this prayer. And we must remember also that He prayed as the Brother of mankind, as the representative of the race. The intensity of His sympathy with sinners, which was the condition of His atoning work (Hebrews 4:15), would make Him, though He knew no sin, to identify Himself with sinners. He would feel as if their transgressions were His transgressions, their debts His debts.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.(13) Lead us not into temptation.—The Greek word includes the two thoughts which are represented in English by “trials,” i.e., sufferings which test or try, and “temptations,” allurements on the side of pleasure which tend to lead us into evil. Of these the former is the dominant meaning in the language of the New Testament, and is that of which we must think here. (Comp. Matthew 26:41.) We are taught not to think of the temptation in which lust meets opportunity as that into which God leads us (James 1:13-14); there is therefore something that shocks us in the thought of asking Him not to lead us into it. But trials of another kind, persecution, spiritual conflicts, agony of body or of spirit, these may come to us as a test or as a discipline. Should we shrink from these? An ideal stoicism, a perfected faith, would say, “No, let us accept them, and leave the issue in our Father’s hands.” But those who are conscious of their weakness cannot shake off the thought that they might fail in the conflict, and the cry of that conscious weakness is therefore, “Lead us not into such trials,” even as our Lord prayed, “If it be possible, let this cup pass away from me” (Matthew 26:39). And the answer to the prayer may come either directly in actual exemption from the trial, or in “the way to escape” (1Corinthians 10:13), or in strength to bear it. It is hardly possible to read the prayer without thinking of the recent experience of “temptation” through which our Lord had passed. The memory of that trial in all its terrible aspects was still present with Him, and in His tender love for His disciples He bade them pray that they might not be led into anything so awful.
Deliver us from evil.—The Greek may grammatically be either neuter or masculine, “evil” in the abstract, or the “evil one” as equivalent to the “devil.” The whole weight of the usage of New Testament language is in favour of the latter meaning. In our Lord’s own teaching we have the “evil one” in Matthew 13:19; Matthew 13:38; John 17:15 (probably); in St. Paul’s (Ephesians 6:16; 2Thessalonians 3:3), in St. John’s (1John 2:13-14; 1John 3:12; 1John 5:18-19) this is obviously the only possible interpretation. Romans 12:9, and possibly John 17:15, are the only instances of the other. Added to this, there is the thought just adverted to, which leads us to connect our Lord’s words with His own experience. The prayer against temptation would not have been complete without reference to the Tempter whose presence was felt in it. We may lawfully pray to be spared the trial. If it comes, there is yet room for the prayer, “Deliver us from the power of him who is our enemy and Thine.”
For thine is the kingdom. . . .—The whole clause is wanting in the best MSS. and in the earlier versions, and is left unnoticed by the early Fathers, who comment on the rest of the Prayer. Most recent editors have accordingly omitted it, as probably an addition made at first (after the pattern of most Jewish prayers) for the liturgical use of the Prayer, and then interpolated by transcribers to make the text of the discourse harmonise with the liturgies.
For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:(14, 15) The condition implied in the Prayer itself is more distinctly asserted. It is, as we have seen, not an arbitrary condition, but the result of the eternal laws of the divine order. Repentance is the condition of being forgiven, and the temper that does not forgive is ipso facto incompatible with the temper of the penitent. As if for greater emphasis, the truth is presented in both its positive and negative aspects.
Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.(16) When ye fast.—Fasting had risen under the teaching of the Pharisees into a new prominence. Under the Law there had been but the one great fast of the Day of Atonement, on which men were “to afflict their souls” (Leviticus 23:27; Numbers 29:7) and practice had interpreted that phrase as meaning total abstinence from food. Other fasts were occasional, in times of distress or penitence, as in Joel 1:14; Joel 2:15; or as part of a policy affecting to be religious zeal (1Kings 21:9; 1Kings 21:12); or as the expression of personal sorrow (1Samuel 20:34; 2Samuel 12:16; Ezra 10:6; Nehemiah 1:4; et al.). These were observed with an ostentatious show of affliction which called forth the indignant sarcasm of the prophets (Isaiah 58:5). The “sackcloth” took the place of the usual raiment, “ashes” on the head, of the usual unguents (Nehemiah 9:1; Psalm 35:13). The tradition of the Pharisees starting from the true principle that fasting was one way of attaining self-control, and that as a discipline it was effectual in proportion as it was systematic, fixed on the fasts “twice in the week,” specified in the prayer of the Pharisee (Luke 18:12); and the second and fifth days of the week were fixed, and connected with some vague idea that Moses went up Mount Sinai on the one, and descended on the other. Our Lord, we may note, does not blame the principle, or even the rule, on which the Pharisees acted. He recognises fasting, as He recognises almsgiving and prayer, and is content to warn His disciples against the ostentation that vitiates all three, the secret self-satisfaction under the mask of contrition, the “pride that apes humility.” The very words, “when thou fastest” contain an implied command.
Of a sad countenance.—Strictly, of sullen look, the moroseness of affected austerity rather than of real sorrow.
They disfigure their faces.—The verb is the same as that translated “corrupt” in Matthew 6:19. Here it points to the unwashed face and the untrimmed hair. possibly to the ashes sprinkled on both, that men might know and admire the rigorous asceticism.
But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face;(17) Anoint thine head, and wash thy face.—Both these acts were rigidly prohibited by the traditions of the Elders on the Day of Atonement, and by implication on other fast days also. They were the outward signs of joy (Ecclesiastes 9:8), and were therefore looked on as unsuitable for a time of mourning. The disciples of Christ were to hide their contrition and self-discipline, and even when the heart knew its own bitterness were to be blithe and cheerful, opening their griefs only to their Father in heaven.
Openly.—Here again the artificial antithesis is to be rejected as an interpolation.
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:(19) Lay not up for yourselves treasures.—Literally, with a force which the English lacks, treasure not up your treasures.
Where moth and rust doth corrupt.—The first word points to one form of Eastern wealth, the costly garments of rich material, often embroidered with gold and silver. (Comp. “Your garments are moth-eaten” in James 5:2.) The second word is not so much the specific “rust” of metals, as the decay which eats into and corrodes all the perishable goods of earth.
But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:(20) Treasures in heaven.—These, as in the parallel passage of Luke 12:33, are the good works, or rather the character formed by them, which follow us into the unseen world (Revelation 14:13), and are subject to no process of decay. So men are “rich in good works” (1Timothy 6:18), “rich in faith” (James 2:5), are made partakers of the “unsearchable riches of Christ and His glory” (Ephesians 3:8; Ephesians 3:16).
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.(21) Where your treasure is.—The words imply the truth, afterwards more definitely asserted, that it is impossible to “serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24). Men may try to persuade themselves that they will have a treasure on earth and a treasure in heaven also, but in the long-run, one or the other will assert its claim to be the treasure, and will claim the no longer divided allegiance of the heart.
The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.(22) The light of the body.-Literally, the lamp of the body. So in Proverbs 20:27, “The spirit of man is the candle (or ‘lamp’) of the Lord”—that which, under the name of “conscience,” the “moral sense,” the “inner man” discerns spiritual realities, distinguishes right from wrong, gives the light by which we see our way. If this is “single,” if it discerns clearly, all is well. The “whole body,” the life of the man in all its complex variety, will be illumined by that light. The connection with what precedes lies on the surface. Singleness of intention will preserve us from the snare of having a double treasure, and therefore a divided heart.
But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!(23) If thine eye be evil.—If the spiritual faculty, whose proper work it is to give light, be itself diseased—if it discerns not singly but doubly, and therefore dimly—then the whole life also is shrouded in gloom. If that is the case with the higher life, what will be the state of the lower! If the light is darkened, what will be the state of the region of life which is in itself naturally dark—the region of appetites and passions, which needs the presence of the light to keep them at all in check! “If the light that is in thee be darkness, the darkness how great will it be!”
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.(24) No man can serve two masters.—Literally, can be the slave of two masters. The clauses that follow describe two distinct results of the attempt to combine the two forms of service which are really incompatible. In most cases, there will be love for the one, and a real hatred for the other. The man who loves God cannot love the evil world, and, so far as it is evil, will learn to hate it. The man who loves the world will, even in the midst of lip-homage, hate the service of God in his inmost heart. But there are natures which seem hardly susceptible of such strong emotions as love or hatred. In that case there will be a like though not an identical, issue. The man’s will will drift in one direction or another. He will cleave to one with such affection as he is capable of, and will hold the other cheap. God or mammon, not both together, will be the ruling power with him.
Mammon.—The word means in Syriac “money” or “riches,” and is used in this sense in Luke 16:9. It occurs frequently in the Chaldee Targum, but no word resembling it is found in the Hebrew of the Old Testament. In the fourth century Jerome found it in use in Syria, and Augustine in the Punic dialect of his native country. There is no ground for believing that it ever became the name of any deity, who, like the Plutus of the Greeks, was worshipped as the god of wealth. Here, there is obviously an approach to a personification for the sake of contrasting the service or worship of money with that which is due to God. Milton’s description of Mammon among the fallen angels is a development of the same thought (Par. Lost, I. 678).
Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?(25) Take no thought.—The Greek word some times thus translated, and sometimes by “care” or “be careful” (1Corinthians 7:32-34; Philippians 2:20; Philippians 4:6), expresses anxiety, literally, the care which distracts us. And this was, in the sixteenth century, the meaning of the English phrase “take thought.” Of this we have one example in 1Samuel 9:5; other examples of it are found in Shakespeare, “take thought, and die for Cæsar” (Julius Cæsar, ii. 1), or Bacon (Henry the Eighth, p. 220), who speaks of a man “dying with thought and anguish” before his case was heard. The usage of the time, therefore, probably led the translators of 1611 to choose the phrase, as stronger than the “be not careful” which in this passage stood in all previous versions. The changing fortune of words has now made it weaker, and it would be better to substitute “over-careful” or “over-anxious.” The temper against which our Lord warns His disciples is not that of foresight, which merely provides for the future, but the allowing ourselves to be harassed and vexed with its uncertainties. To “take thought” in the modern sense is often the most effectual safeguard (next to the higher defence of trust in God) against “taking thought” in the older.
For your life.—The Greek word is the same as that commonly rendered “soul,” and the passage is interesting as an example of its use in the wider sense which includes the lower as well as the higher life. (Comp. Matthew 10:39; Matthew 16:25; Mark 3:4, et at.) We note in the form of the precept the homeliness of the cases selected as illustration. We hear the language of One who speaks to peasants with their simple yet pressing wants, not to the wider cares of the covetous or ambitious of a higher grade.
Is not the life more than meat, . . .?—The reasoning is à fortiori. God has given you the greater, can you not trust Him to give you also the less? In some way or other there will come food to sustain life, and clothing for the body, and men should not so seek for more as to be troubled about them.
Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?(26) Behold the fowls of the air.—Better, birds. As the words were spoken we may venture to think of them as accompanied by the gesture which directed attention to the turtle-doves, the wood-pigeons, and the finches, which are conspicuous features in a Galilean landscape. Our modern use of the word has restricted “fowls” to one class of birds; but in Chaucer, and indeed in the English of the sixteenth century, it was in common use in a wider sense, and we read of the “small fowles that maken melodie,” as including the lark, the linnet, and the thrush.
Are ye not much better than they?—Here again the reasoning is à fortiori. Assuming a personal will, the will of a Father, as that which governs the order of the universe, we may trust to its wisdom and love to order all things well for the highest as for the meanest of its creatures. For those who receive whatever comes in the spirit of contented thankfulness, i.e., for those who “love God,” all things work together for good.
Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?(27) One cubit unto his stature.—The Greek for the last word admits either this meaning (as in Luke 19:3, and perhaps Luke 2:52) or that of age (as in John 9:21; John 9:23, and Hebrews 11:24). Either gives an adequate sense to the passage. No anxiety will alter our bodily height, and the other conditions of our life are as fixed by God’s laws as that is, as little therefore dependent upon our volition; neither will that anxiety add to the length of life which God has appointed for us. Of the two meanings, however, the last best satisfies the teaching of the context. Men are not anxious about adding to their stature. They are often anxious about prolonging their life. Admit the thought that our days are but “as a span long” (Psalm 39:5), and then the addition of a cubit becomes a natural metaphor. It is to be noted that in the parallel passage in St. Luke (Luke 12:26) this appears as “that which is least,” and which yet lies beyond our power.
And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:(28) Why take ye thought for raiment?—The question might well be asked of every race of the whole family of man. Yet we ought not to forget its special pointedness as addressed to a people who reckoned their garments, not less than their money, as part of their capital, and often expended on them the labour of many weeks or months. (Comp. Matthew 6:20; James 5:2.)
Consider the lilies of the field.—Here again we may think of the lesson as drawn immediately from the surrounding objects. The hill-sides of Galilee are clothed in spring with the crown imperial, and the golden amaryllis, and crimson tulips, and anemones of all shades from scarlet to white, to say nothing of the commoner buttercups and dandelions and daisies; and all these are probably classed roughly together under the generic name of “lilies.” And these, with what we may reverently speak of as a love of Nature, the Lord tells His disciples to “consider,” i.e., not merely to look at with a passing glance, but to study—to learn, as it were, by heart—till they have realised every beauty of structure and form and hue.
And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.(29) I say unto you.—The formula of emphasis is not without a special force here (comp. Matthew 18:10; Matthew 18:19). Man’s gaze was drawn to the “gorgeous apparel,” the gold-embroidered robes of kings and emperors. Jewish traditions as to the glory of Solomon represented even his attendants as clothed in purple, and with hair glittering with gold-dust. He, the true Son of David, saw in the simplest flower that grows a glory above them all. “The lily shames the king.”
Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?(30) The grass of the field.—The term is used generically to include the meadow-flowers which were cut down with the grass, and used as fodder or as fuel. The scarcity of wood in Palestine made the latter use more common there than in Europe. The “oven” in this passage was the portable earthen vessel used by the poor for baking their bread. The coarse ligneous hay was placed below it and round it, and short-lived as the flame was, so that “the crackling of the thorns” (Psalm 118:12; Ecclesiastes 7:6) became proverbial, it had time to do its work.
O ye of little faith.—The word is found only in our Lord’s teaching, and the passages in which it occurs are all singularly suggestive. The disciples were not faithless or unbelieving, but their trust was weak. They lacked in moments of anxiety the courage which leads men to rely implicitly on the love and wisdom of their Father. So in the stormy night on the lake, or when Peter began to sink in the waves, or when the disciples had forgotten to take bread, the same word recurs (Matthew 8:26; Matthew 14:31; Matthew 16:8).
Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?(31) Therefore . . .—The command which, in Matthew 6:25; Matthew 6:28, had before been given as general and abstract, is now enforced as the conclusion of a process of thought more or less inductive. A change in the tense, which we fail to express in English, indicates more special and personal application—“Do not take thought, do not be over-anxious now.”
(For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.(32) After all these things do the Gentiles seek.—The tone is one of pity rather than of censure, though it appeals, not without a touch of gentle rebuke (as before in Matthew 6:5) to the national pride of Israelites: “You look down upon the heathen nations, and think of yourselves as God’s people, yet in what do you excel them, if you seek only what they are seeking?”
For your heavenly Father knoweth . . .—The bearing of this teaching on the meaning of the “daily bread” of the Lord’s Prayer has already been noticed (comp. Note on Matthew 6:11). The outer life of man, and its accidents, may well be left to the wisdom of the All-knowing. It lies below the region of true prayer, or occupies an altogether subordinate place within it.
But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.(33) Seek ye first the kingdom of God.—The context shows that the words point to the “seeking” of prayer, rather than of act, though the latter meaning is, of course, not excluded. What is thus to be sought is “the kingdom of God” (the change from the less personal “kingdom of heaven” is significant), the higher spiritual life in its completeness, for ourselves and for others; and with it we are to seek “His righteousness,” that which, being perfect beyond the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, must be His gift to us, and therefore to be sought in prayer. One who seeks for this may well be content to leave all else in his Father’s hands. Even without his asking “they shall be added unto him” in such measure as is best for him. Among the few traditional sayings ascribed to our Lord of which we can think as probably an authentic report of His teaching, is one to the same effect quoted by Origen and Clement of Alexandria,” Ask great things, and little things shall be added to you: ask heavenly things, and earthly things shall be added to you.”
Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.(34) Take therefore no thought for the morrow.—No precept of divine wisdom has found so many echoes in the wisdom of the world. Epicurean self-indulgence, Stoic apathy, practical common-sense, have all preached the same lesson, and bidden men to cease their questionings about the future. That which was new in our Lord’s teaching was the ground on which the precept rested. It was not simply the carpe diem—“make the most of the present”—of the seeker after a maximum of enjoyment, nor the acceptance by man’s will of an inevitable destiny, nor the vain struggle to rise above that inevitable fate. Men were to look forward to the future calmly, to avoid the temper
To cast the fashion of uncertain evils,”
because they had a Father in heaven who cared for each one of them with a personal and individualising love.
Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.—The word rendered “evil” occurs in the Gospels only in this passage, and in the Epistles has commonly the sense of “wickedness.” That meaning would be too strong here; but it reminds us that our Lord is speaking not of what we call the simple accidents or misfortunes of life, but of the troubling element which each day brings with it, and against which we have to contend, lest it should lead us into sin. That conflict is more than enough for the day, without anticipating a further mischief.