Patristic commentaries on the Sermon on the Mount, continued...
You have heard that it was said to the men of old, “You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, “You fool!” shall be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny.
– The Gospel According to Matthew: 5:21-26
Moving to a higher level: It was [Jesus] himself who also gave those laws, but in an indirect manner. If on the one hand he had said, “You have heard that I said to those of ancient times,” the saying would have been hard for his present hearers to believe and would have been a roadblock for their understanding. If on the other hand, after Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times by my Father,” he had added, “But I say,” he still would have seemed to be taking yet more on himself.
So he simply states the commandment, attempting to make only one point: to demonstrate that at the right time he had come to clarify this requirement. For by the words “it was said to those of ancient times” he pointed out the length of time since they had received this commandment. He did this to shame those hearers who were still reluctant to advance to the higher levels of his teachings. Jesus spoke much like a teacher to a lazy student: “Don’t you know how much time you have spent learning syllables?” He also covertly intimates this through his use of the expression “those of ancient times.” For the future, Jesus summons his hearers to a loftier order of instruction. It is as though he had said, “You have spent enough time on these lessons. It is now time to press on to lessons higher than these.”
It is fitting that Jesus does not disturb the order of the commandments but begins with the earlier ones, those with which the law began, to point to the harmony between them. [St. John Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 16.5]
The law’s deeper meaning: This is what the Lord said: “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.” In other words, to accentuate what was considered least; that is to say, to reform for the better the precepts of the law. For this reason the holy apostle says, “Do we, then, overthrow the law by this faith?” By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. The law commands us not to murder. The gospel commands us not to get angry without reason, that we may remove every root of sin from our hearts, because anger can even lead to homicide. [Chromatius, Tractate on Matthew 21.1.1-2]
Christ and the law: Christ’s commandment is not contrary to the law but broader than the law. Christ’s commandment contains the law, but the law does not contain Christ’s commandment. Therefore whoever fulfills the commandments of Christ implicitly fulfills the commandments of the law. For one who does not get angry is much less capable of killing. But one who fulfills what the law commands does not completely fulfill what Christ commands.
Often a person will not kill because of the fear of reprisal, but he will get angry. Do you see then that the fulfilled law has the benefit of not being abolished? Consequently, without these commandments of Christ the commandments of the law cannot stand. For if the freedom to get angry is allowed, there are grounds for committing murder. For murder is generated by anger. Take away the anger, and there will be no murder. Therefore whoever gets angry without cause commits murder with respect to the will, even if he does not actually do so out of fear of reprisal. The remorse may not be the same as if he had committed the deed, but such a sin matches the one who gets angry. Thus John, in his canonical epistle, says, “Everyone who hates his brother without cause is a murderer.” [Anonymous, Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 11]
Taming the tongue: Consider this analogy from the animals that we tame. A horse does not tame itself; a camel does not tame itself; an elephant does not tame itself; a snake does not tame itself; a lion does not tame itself. So too a man does not tame himself. In order to tame a horse, an ox, a camel, an elephant, a lion and a snake, a human being is required. Therefore God should be required in order for a human being to be tamed. [Augustine, Sermon 55.2]
Put aside anger: How greatly the Lord esteems fraternal love we know from this, for he makes clear that a gift offered to God is not acceptable unless the giver of a gift to his brother puts aside his anger and becomes reconciled to him. Furthermore, we learn that the gifts offered by Cain were rejected by God. He failed to observe charity toward his brother and harbored anger in his heart. Hence, not without good reason does the Lord in the Gospel indicate in many places the prime necessity of fraternal charity when he says, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another.” And again: “By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Rightly so, the Lord also spoke through Zechariah: “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy each to his brother.” Through David he likewise declared: “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!” [Chromatius, Tractate on Matthew 21.3.1-3]
Offering your gift at the altar: What goodness! What all-surpassing love is shown to humanity! Showing no regard for the honor rightfully his, he calls us to pour forth love toward our neighbor. He explains that he did not speak his earlier threatening words out of hatred or desire to punish but from the most tender affection. For what can be more gentle than these words? “Interrupt the service you are offering me,” he says, “so that your love may continue. To be reconciled to your brother is to offer sacrifice to me.” Yes, this is the reason Jesus did not say “after the offering” or “before the offering.” Rather, precisely while the very gift is lying there, when the sacrifice is already beginning, he sends you at that precise time to be reconciled to your brother. Neither after removing nor before presenting the gift, but precisely while it lies before you, you are to run to your brother.
What is his motivation in making such an immediate command? It seems to me he has two ends in mind toward which he is hinting and preparing. First ... he desires to show how highly he values love and considers it to be the greatest sacrifice. So he does not even receive the sacrifice of worship without the sacrifice of love. Next, he is imposing such a necessity for reconciliation that it admits of no excuse. The person who has been commanded not to offer sacrifice to God before one is reconciled will hurry to the one who has been grieved and eradicate the enmity between the two. He does so that his sacrifice may not lie unconsecrated. [Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 16.9]
Loving the wounded brother: The statement “if you should bring your gift” shows that this is conceived as a means of salvation and as an escape from punishment for sinners. For this God invented repentance. One will avert punishment, however, who tends to the feelings of another who has been wounded. But one who does not love his brother does not love the Lord. Hence it is fitting that whoever bears hard feelings toward his brother is not accepted, since he does not approach the Lord in truth. [Cyril of Alexandria, Fragment 50]
First reconcile with your brother:To give assent to sin is already a completed evil, even if someone does not actually commit the deed. And by this saying our Savior, hurling us away from the cause of sins, endeavors to cut sin off completely. For when this intention is not present in our souls, neither shall the action accompany it. [Origen, Fragment 103]
Let brotherly peace come first: He did not say, “If you have anything against your brother” but “If your brother has anything against you,” so that a greater need for reconciliation is imposed on you. As long as we are unable to make peace with our brother, I do not know whether we may offer our gifts to God. [Jerome, Commentary on Matthew 1.5.23]
Leave your gift at the altar: In the spiritual sense therefore we may understand faith as an altar in the inner temple of God, to which the visible altar symbolically points. Whatever gift we offer to God – whether it be prophecy, or doctrine, or prayer, or a hymn, or a psalm, or whatever other spiritual gifts of this kind may come to mind – cannot be acceptable to God unless it is held up by sincere faith and firmly and immovably fixed on it, so that our words may be pure and undefiled. [Augustine, Sermon on the Mount 1.10.27]
Be first to ask pardon: Do not counter with “He offended me; I didn’t offend him. He ought to square up with me, and not I with him.” If for the sake of your salvation the Lord orders you to make friends, though you are the one who has been more offended, you must apologize, that you may have double credit: first, because you have been offended and, second, because you were the first to apologize. For if you have offended someone and then ask pardon of him, the Lord will forgive you for your offense because you were the first to ask pardon. You will have no reward, however, if you are found to be the guilty person and have asked pardon. But if one has done wrong by you and you are the first to apologize, you will have a great reward. Hurry therefore to be the first one to make friends. Otherwise, if you should delay, he may be the first to apologize and may snatch from your hands the reward of love. If he has offended you and asked your pardon, your friendship is fruitless. For what righteousness do you have before the Lord if you receive an apology and are thereby placated? Certainly the Lord does not want you to grovel for forgiveness, but he orders you to be the first to apologize. [Anonymous, Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 11]
Make friends with your accuser: In this life, this way traveled by all, you do well to accept and not ignore the suggestions of the conscience. But if you are inconsiderate and negligent in this life, conscience itself, assuming the role of a prosecutor, will accuse you before the judge. Conscience will subject to the juryman’s decision, and you will be handed over to incurable punishments. Such things you would not have suffered, if along the way you had in fact acquired goodwill toward your accuser, accepting his reproaches as offered out of goodwill. For this also the divine Evangelist John says in his letter: “If our conscience does not condemn us, we have confidence before God.” [Origen, Fragment 102]
Make friends quickly: Having mentioned first the judgment, then the council, then hell, and having spoken of his own sacrifice, Jesus then adds, “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court.” That is, don’t be saying, “What if I am the injured party? What if I have been plundered and dragged before the tribunal?” Even this kind of circumstance fails to qualify as an excuse or occasion for refusing to be reconciled. Jesus commands us even in these circumstances not to be at enmity with others. Then, since this command was so significant, he illustrates his counsel with examples drawn from daily affairs. Less intelligent people, after all, are more apt to respond to present realities than future ones. “What is that you are saying?” he asks. “So your adversary is stronger and has wronged you? He will wrong you even more if you don’t make it right and he ends up taking you to court. In the former case, by giving up some money, you keep yourself free. Once a judge has passed sentence, however, you will be thrown in jail and pay a stiff fine. If you stay out of court, you will reap two benefits. First, you won’t have to suffer anything painful. Second, the good you end up doing will be your own doing and not something you have been forced to do. But if you refuse to be convinced by these words, you are wronging yourself more than your opponent.” [Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 16.10]
❖ The Authors ❖
St. Augustine (354-430) was a key 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 there. In 383 he moved to Rome, and the following year to Milan to teach in the imperial court. The influence of St. Ambrose of Milan plus the impact of reading a life of St. Anthony brought him to baptism in 387. In 388 he returned to Africa. After converting his family home into a monastery, he sold his patrimony and gave the money to the poor.
Anonymous: Not all the names of the authors of ancient New Testament commentaries have survived. However, recognizing the value of their writings, the Greek and Latin Fathers preserved surviving fragments in collections of their own writings.
St. Chromatius of Aquileia (+406/407), one of the most celebrated prelates of his time. He urged 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. He gave loyal support to St. John Chrysostom when he was suffering oppression from the imperial court.
St. Cyril of Alexandria (376-444) wrote several exegeses, including Commentaries on the Old Testament, Thesaurus, Discourse Against Arians, Commentary on St. John’s Gospel, and Dialogues on the Trinity.
St. Jerome, born in Stridon about 340-2, went to Rome about 360, where he was baptized. He next went to Trier to begin his theological studies. About 373 he traveled to the East, first settling in Antioch, where he heard Apollinaris of Laodicea, one of the first exegetes of that time. Ordained priest at Antioch, he went to Constantinople (380-81), where a friendship sprang up between him and St. Gregory of Nazianzus. From 382 to 385 he again sojourned in Rome, then returned to the East, reaching Bethlehem in 386, where he led a life of asceticism, study, correspondence, writing and translation. He is best known for his translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. He died in Bethlehem in 420.
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 of Constantinople. Concerned with the spiritual and temporal needs of the poor, he emphasized almsgiving and modest living in his sermons. He often spoke out against the abuse of wealth and refused to host lavish entertainments. An irritant 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.
Origen (185-254) grew up in a Christian family in Alexandria. He was 17 when his father died a martyr’s death. After their property was confiscated, Origen supported his family by teaching. Taking the place of Clement of Alexandria, Origen assumed direction of the city’s catechetical school while also devoting himself to studying Plato and the Stoics. In his late 40s, he settled in Palestine, where he founded a school. During the persecution of Maximinus (235-37), he stayed with friends in Cappadocia. Origen was over 60 when he wrote his “Contra Celsum” (his defense of Christian refusal to serve in the army) and his “Commentary on St. Matthew.” The persecution of Decius in 250 brought about Origen’s imprisonment. He died in 254, never having recovered from torture. For centuries his tomb in the cathedral of Tyr was visited by pilgrims.
Note: These commentaries are taken from Matthew 1-13, edited by Manlio Simonetti, in the series The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (InterVarsity Press).