Patristic reflections: Not an eye for an eye but love of enemies

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?

Matthew 38-46

Do not return evil for evil: A law prescribing an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, has this foundation: Each will spare the other as long as one fears for one’s own limbs. It was thereby imagined that no evil person would be found. But woe to the earth for its failures! For as long as we live in this world, over which the devil rules, slanderers, fighters and persecutors will necessarily abound. If therefore we begin, according to the mandate of the law, to return evil for evil to everyone, we are all made evil, the foundation of the law is dissolved, and what results? While the law wanted to make the evil good, it also made the good evil. If, however, following the mandate of Christ, we do not resist evil, then even if the evil ones are not harmed, still the good will remain good. Thus through the mandate of Christ, the mandate of the law is also filled. For one who fulfills the mandate of the law does not at the same time fulfill that of Christ; but one who fulfills the mandate of Christ at the same time fulfills that of the law. Anonymous. (Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 12. The Greek Fathers, 56:699)

Tolerate injury: The Lord wishes that the hope of our faith, extending into eternity, be tested … so that the very toleration of a hidden injury should be a witness of our future judgment. The law used to hold unfaithful Israel within a boundary of fear and contained the desire for injury by the threat of injury returned. Faith, however, does not permit resentment for injuries, nor does it wish for revenge …. There is in the judgment of God a greater consolation for those who have suffered injury and a punishment more dreadful than injuries returned. Therefore the Gospels not only warn us away from iniquities but also drive out the latent desire for vengeance. For if we have received a blow, we ought to offer the other cheek….The Lord who accompanies us on our journey offers his own cheek to slaps and his shoulders to whips, to the increase of his glory. Hilary (On Matthew 4.25)

Resist not evil: For this reason Jesus has also added, “But I say to you, do not resist the evil one.” He did not say “do not resist your brother” but “the evil one”! We are authorized to dare to act in the presence of evil through Christ’s influence. In this way he relaxes and secretly removes most of our anger against the aggressor by transferring the censure to another. “What then?” one asks. “Should we not resist the evil one at all?” Indeed we should, but not in this way. Rather, as Jesus has commanded, we resist by surrendering ourselves to suffer wrongfully. In this way you shall prevail over him. For one fire is not quenched by another, but fire by water. Chrysostom. (The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 18.1)

Be removed from every lawsuit: Beyond the tolerance of physical injury, the Lord wants us also to have contempt for things of this world and to be so far removed from every lawsuit or contest of judgment. If by chance a slanderer or tempter comes forward to initiate a lawsuit for the sake of testing our faith and desires to rob us of the things which are ours, the Lord orders us to offer willingly not only the things that the person goes after unjustly but even those not demanded. Chromatius. (Tractate on Matthew 25.2.1)

 

Joseph’s flight: Just as Joseph lost his cloak in the hand of the prostitute and fled dressed with a better cloak, so throw your cloak into the hands of the slanderer and flee with the better covering of justice. If not, while you want to reclaim the clothes of the body, you may squander the most precious clothing of the soul. If the unbelievers see you, a Christian, repay injuries with worse injuries by worldly means and hammer earthly judgments against a lawless plunderer even to the destruction of your soul, how should they believe in reality of the hope of the heavenly kingdom that Christians preach? For they who hope for heavenly things easily spurn earthly things. Yet I doubt that those who strongly embrace worldly things believe firmly in heavenly promises. Anonymous. (Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 12, The Greek Fathers)

The second mile: Do you grasp the excellence of a Christian disposition? After you give your coat and your cloak, even if your enemy should wish to subject your naked body to hardships and labors, not even then, Jesus says, must you forbid him. For he would have us possess all things in common, both our bodies and our goods, as with them that are in need, so with them that insult us. For the latter response comes from a courageous spirit, the former from mercy. Because of this, Jesus said, “If any one shall compel you to go one mile, go with him two.” Again he leads you to higher ground and commands you to manifest the same type of aspiration. For if the lesser things he spoke of at the beginning receive such great blessings, consider what sort of reward awaits those who duly perform these and what they become even before we hear of receiving rewards. You are winning full freedom from unworthy passions in a human and passible body. Chrysostom (The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 18.3)

Mission and the second mile: Some believe that this section, “He who is pressed into service for one mile, let him go with that man as far as another two,” is to be understood spiritually in this fashion: If a nonbeliever, or one who has not yet followed the knowledge of the truth, makes mention of the one God the Father, the founder of all things, as if coming to God by the way of the law, go with that one the second mile. That is, after his profession of God the Father, lead this same person, by the way of truth, to the knowledge of the Son and the Holy Spirit, showing that one is to believe not only in the Father but also in the Son and the Holy Spirit. Chromatius (Tractate on Matthew 25.3.2)

Freely give to those who beg: It is folly, it is madness, to fill our wardrobes full of clothes and to regard with indifference a human being, a being made in the image and likeness of God, who is naked, trembling with cold and almost unable to stand. You say: “But the fellow is pretending to tremble and not to have any strength.” So what? If that poor fellow is acting, he is doing it because he is trapped between his own wretchedness and your cruelty. Yes, you are cruel and guilty of inhumanity. You would not have opened your heart to his destitution without his play-acting. If it were not necessity compelling him, why should he behave in such a humiliating way just to get a bit of bread? The made-up tale of a beggar is evidence of your inhumanity. His prayers, his begging, his complaints, his tears, his wandering all day long round the city did not secure for him the smallest amount to live on. That perhaps is the reason why he thought of acting a part. But the shame and the blame for his made-up tale falls less on him than on you. He has in fact a right to be pitied, finding himself in such an abyss of destitution. You, on the other hand, deserve a thousand punishments for having brought him to such humiliation. Chrysostom (On the First Letter to the Corinthians 21, 5; PG61, 177)

 

Give so that others need not beg: I have children, one says, and I am afraid [to give] lest I myself be reduced to the extremity of hunger and want and myself stand in need. I am ashamed to beg. For that reason therefore do you cause others to beg? I cannot, you say, endure hunger. For that reason do you expose others to hunger? Do you know what a dreadful thing it is to beg, how dreadful to be perishing by hunger? Spare also your brethren! Are you ashamed, tell me, to be hungry, and are you not ashamed to rob? Are you afraid to perish by hunger, and not afraid to destroy others? And yet to be hungry is neither a disgrace nor a crime; but to cast others into such a state brings not only disgrace, but extreme punishment. Chrysostom (Homilies on 1 Thess. 10)

The rich and the poor: The rich man cannot be tested or proved through physical suffering. No one will likely do him violence. Rather, he is tested and proved by generosity. Anonymous (Incomplete Work on Matthew, The Greek Fathers)

You tear yourself apart by hating: We have seen how murder is born from anger and adultery from desire. In the same way, the hatred of an enemy is destroyed by the love of friendship. Suppose you have viewed a man as an enemy, yet after a while he has been swayed by your benevolence. You will then love him as a friend. I think that Christ ordered these things not so much for our enemies as for us: not because enemies are fit to be loved by others but because we are not fit to hate anyone. For hatred is the prodigy of dark places. Wherever it resides, it sullies the beauty of sound sense. Therefore not only does Christ order us to love our enemies for the sake of cherishing them but also for the sake of driving away from ourselves what is bad for us. The Mosaic law does not speak about physically hurting your enemy but about hating your enemy. But if you merely hate him, you have hurt yourself more in the spirit than you have hurt him in the flesh. Perhaps you don’t harm him at all by hating him. But you surely tear yourself apart. If then you are benevolent to an enemy, you have rather spared yourself than him. And if you do him a kindness, you benefit yourself more than him. Anonymous (Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 13, The Greek Fathers)

Pray for those who persecute you: Which [of the pagan philosophers] have so purified their own hearts as to love their enemies instead of hating them; instead of upbraiding those who first insult them (which is certainly more usual), to bless them; and to pray for those who plot against them? . With us, on the contrary, you will find unlettered people, tradesmen and old women, who, though unable to express in words the advantages of our teaching, demonstrate by acts the value of their principles. For they do not rehearse speeches, but give evidence with their good deeds. When struck, they do not strike back; when robbed, they do not sue; to those who ask, they give, and they love their neighbors as themselves. We cannot endure to see a man being put to death even justly We see little difference between watching a man being put to death and killing him. Athenagoras of Athens (Legatio 11, 34-35)

 

Joint heirs with Christ by adoption: “That you may be children of your Father who is in heaven” is to be understood in the sense in which John also speaks when he says, “He gave them the power of becoming children of God.” For there is One who is the Son by nature, and he absolutely knows no sin. But since we have received the power to become sons, we are made sons insofar as we fulfill the precepts that have been given by the Son. “Adoption” is the term used by the apostle to denote the character of our vocation to the eternal inheritance, in order to be joint heirs with Christ. By spiritual regeneration we therefore become sons and are adopted into the kingdom of God, not as aliens but as his creatures and offspring. Augustine (Sermon on the Mount 1.23.78)

The sun and the rain: Since he calls us to adoption as sons through the only begotten Son, he calls us to his own likeness. For, as the Lord at once adds, “He makes his sun to rise on the good and the evil and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” Now, if you would understand the expression “his sun” to mean not the sun that is visible to bodily eyes but his wisdom, to which the following expressions refer “ “he is the brightness of eternal light” and also “The sun of justice is risen upon me” as well as “But to you that fear the name of the Lord, the sun of justice shall arise” “ then you must also understand the rain as a watering by the teaching of truth, because that teaching has become manifest to the good and to the evil. But you may prefer to understand it as the sun that is manifest to the bodily eyes of beasts as well as people and to understand the rain as the showers that produce the fruits that God has given us for the perfection of the body. I believe this to be surely the more probable meaning, since the other “sun” does not rise except on the good and the holy, for this is the very thing that the unjust bewail in the book that is called the Wisdom of Solomon: “And the sun [of understanding] has not risen upon us.” And the spiritual rain refreshes only the good, for the vine signifies the bad of whom it is said, “I will command my clouds not to rain upon it.” Augustine (Sermon on the Mount 1.23.79)

The destiny of the just and unjust is linked: He put it carefully when he said “over the just and the unjust,” not “over the unjust as over the just,” because God puts all good things on the earth, not on account of all people but on account of the few holy ones. He is more content that sinners should enjoy the benefits of God against their deserving than that the just should be robbed of his benefits against their deserving. Likewise, when the Lord is irritated by sinners, he sends his punishment not on account of the good but only on account of the sinners. Nevertheless it touches the just in equal measure with the sinners. For as in prosperity he does not separate the sinners from the just, so he does not separate the just from the sinners in hard times. He does not separate the sinners from the just in prosperity, lest, being separated, they should know themselves to be cast down and despair. He does not separate the just from the sinners in hard times, lest, being separated, they should know themselves to be chosen and boast. Above all, prosperity should not benefit the evil but rather hurt them, nor should difficult times harm the good but rather benefit them. Anonymous (Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 13, The Greek Fathers)

The perfection of loving the enemy: He who loves his friends loves them for his own sake, not on account of God, and therefore he has no treasure. The loving itself delights him. However, he who loves his enemy loves not for his own sake but on account of God. Hence he has great treasure, because he goes against his own instincts. For where labor sows the seed, there it reaps the fruit. “Be ye therefore perfect, just as your Father is perfect.” He who loves his friend does not in fact sin but does not work justice. It is half a good that one depart from evil and not pursue good. It is perfect, however, that one not only flee evil but also accomplish good. So he said, “Be perfect,” so that you might both love your friends on account of shunning evil and love your enemies on account of possessing justice. The former frees us from punishment; the latter leads us into glory. For a representative of God is not perfect who does not resemble God through his or her works. Anonymous (Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 13)

All things are perfected by goodness: The law used to demand that your neighbor be loved and allowed hatred against an enemy. Faith, rather, requires that enemies be cherished. It breaks the tendency we have to be peevish and urges us to bear life’s difficulties calmly. Faith not only deters anger from turning into revenge but even softens it into love for the injurer. It is merely human to love those who love you, and it is common to cherish those who cherish you. Therefore Christ calls us into the life of heirs of God and to be models for the just and the unjust of the imitation of Christ. He distributes the sun and the rain through his coming in baptism and by the sacraments of the Spirit. Thus he has prepared us for the perfect life through this concord of public goodness, because we must imitate our perfect Father in heaven. Hilary (On Matthew 4.27)

The law of gospel love: The Lord has shown that we cannot have the good work of perfect love if we love only those from whom in turn we know the return of mutual love will be paid in kind. For we know that love of this sort is common even to nonbelievers and sinners. Hence the Lord wishes us to overcome the common law of human love by the law of gospel love, so that we may show the affection of our love not only toward those who love us but even toward our enemies. Thus we may imitate the example of true piety and our Father’s goodness. Chromatius (Tractate on Matthew 21.2.1)

The authors

Athenagoras (+176/180) was an early Christian philosopher and apologist from Athens, who wrote “A Plea Regarding Christians” that was addressed to the emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodius. In it, Athenagoras defended Christians from the common accusations of atheism, incest and cannibalism.

St. Augustine (354-430) was a pivotal figure in the development of Christianity in the West. Born in North Africa, he went to Carthage at age 17 to continue his education and later taught in the same city. In 383 he moved to Rome, and the following year to Milan to teach in the imperial court. The influence of St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, plus the impact of reading a life of St. Anthony, brought him to baptism in 387. He quit his teaching position in Milan and devoted himself to serving God. In 388 he returned to Africa, sold his patrimony, giving the money to the poor, keeping only enough to convert his family house into a monastery. In 396 he became bishop of Hippo.

Anonymous: Not all the names of the authors of ancient New Testament commentaries have survived. However, recognizing the value of their writings, surviving fragments have been preserved in collections of the writings of the Greek and Latin Fathers.

St. Chromatius of Aquileia (+406/407), one of the most celebrated prelates of his time, was in frequent correspondence with his illustrious contemporaries, St. Ambrose and St. Jerome. Himself a scholarly theologian, he urged his friends to the composition of learned works, St. Ambrose to write exegetical works and St. Jerome to undertake translations and commentaries. In the bitter quarrel between Jerome and Rufinus, Chromatius sought to make peace between the disputants. Chromatius opposed the Arian heresy with zeal and gave loyal support to St. John Chrysostom when he was suffering oppression from the imperial court.

St. Hilary of Arles (+449) came from a notable family of Northern Gaul but, at the urging of St. Honoratus of Arles, abandoned honors and riches and embraced the ascetic life. After the death of St. Honoratus, the people of Arles drafted Hilary as their new archbishop. He assisted at church councils held at Riez, Orange, Vaison, and Arles.

St. John Chrysostom, born in Antioch in 347, was famous for eloquence in public speaking and his denunciations of abuse of authority in the Church and in government. He was nicknamed chrysostomos, Greek for “golden mouthed.” Baptized in 370, he was ordained deacon in 381 and priest in 386. In 398 he was called, against his will, to be the bishop in Constantinople. Concerned with the spiritual and temporal needs of the poor, in his sermons he emphasized almsgiving and living modestly. He often spoke out against the abuse of wealth and refused to host lavish entertainments. An irritant both to the imperial court as well as to worldly prelates, he died in exile in 407. His final words were “Glory be to God for all things!” He is regarded as one of the Three Holy Hierarchs, together with Sts. Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian.

Note: All but one of these commentaries are taken from Matthew 1-13, edited by Manlio Simonetti, in the series The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (InterVarsity Press).

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Fall 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 54

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