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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible
Matthew 5

 

 

Other Authors
Verse 1

§ 36. — SERMON ON THE MOUNT

1. Seeing the multitudes — Gathered together, doubtless with the understanding that a great discourse was to be uttered. As Luke informs us, he had spent the night previous in the Mount in solitary prayer. In the morning he called and formally chose his twelve apostles. Luke says he then walked down with the twelve to the level plain, or “table-land.” There it was that the mighty multitudes met him; from Tyre and Sidon north, from Judea and Jerusalem south, they had assembled in vast volume. He had prepared authority for his teachings by countless miracles. The loving multitudes pressed upon him, for power went forth out of him to heal them. At this point Matthew’s history commences, beginning with the opening words of this verse: seeing the pressing multitudes he went up into THE (not A, as in our translation) mountain.

What mountain this was is not said by either evangelist. Tradition, however, has selected a mount, which has been called from the event, “The Mount of Beatitudes,” which is thus beautifully described by Stanley, a writer not remarkable for ready credulity for tradition:

“The undulating table-land, which skirts the hills of Galilee on the east, is broken by a long low ridge rising at its northern extremity into a square shaped hill with two tops, which give it the modern name of ‘the Horns of Hattin,’ Hattin being the village on the ridge at its base. This mountain or hill — for it only rises sixty feet above the plain — is that known to pilgrims as the Mount of the Beatitudes, the supposed scene of the ‘Sermon on the Mount.’ The tradition cannot lay claim to any early date; it was in all probability suggested first to the Crusaders by its remarkable situation. But that situation so strikingly coincides with the intimations of the Gospel narrative, as almost to force the inference that, in this instance, the eye of those who selected the spot was, for once, rightly guided. It is the only height seen in this direction from the shores of the Lake of Gennesaret. The plain on which it stands is easily accessible from the lake, and from that plain to the summit is but a few minutes’ walk. The platform at the top is evidently suitable for the collection of a multitude, and corresponds precisely to the ‘level place’ ( τοπου πεδινου) to which He would ‘come down’ as from one of its higher horns to address the people. Its situation is central both to the peasants of the Galilean hills and the fishermen of the Galilean lake, between which it stands, and would therefore be a natural resort both to ‘Jesus and his disciples’ when they retired for solitude from the shores of the sea, and also to the crowds who assembled ‘from Galilee, from Decapolis, from Jerusalem, from Judea, and from beyond Jordan.’ None of the other mountains in the neighbourhood could answer equally well to this description, inasmuch as they are merged into the uniform barrier of hills round the lake; whereas this stands separate, ‘the mountain,’ which alone could lay claim to a distinct name, with the exception of the one height of Tabor, which is too distant to answer the requirements.”

From this description we see that there are, in the locality, three grades of elevation above the ordinary level of ground. First, the “table-land;” second, the broad area on the hill-top; from which rise, third, the “Horns.” We rather suppose that Jesus spent the previous night of devotion in one of the “Horns;” his inauguration of his apostles is upon the level hill-top; whence he descends with the twelve and meets the multitude upon the “table-land,” or level plain of Luke. Had we Luke’s account alone, we should infer that the sermon was delivered upon the “tableland,” which is, indeed, a part proper of “the Mount.” But from Matthew’s words, “seeing the multitudes, he went up into the mount,” we learn that Jesus led up the multitudes from the “table-land to the broad level upon the hill.” This he doubtless did for the high symbolic reasons that induced the choice of Sinai, Gerizim, Ebal, and Zion for scenes of sublime inaugurations. Herein it will be seen that we differ from Stanley in our identifying the “level plain” ( τοπαυ πεδινου) with the “table-land,” rather than with the level “hill-top.” This view completely conciliates the preparatory statements of the three evangelists.

When he was set — The Jewish rabbi sat in delivering instruction to his pupils. Disciples came — And formed the inmost circle of auditors.


Verse 2

2. Opened his mouth — The phrase expresses the importance of the utterance. The Orientals, especially the Hindoos, when narrating the commands or precepts of some god, hero, or teacher, use the phrase, he opened his mouth, as a formula of high dignity. They use for the word opened, not the ordinary term for opening a door, but the term that designates the opening or expanding of a flower. Saying — This word implies that the following is a substantial summary of his discourse.

The discourse itself has been treated too much by commentators as a mere series of sentiments and maxims, with little plan or symmetry as a whole. If we mistake not, there exists a true order of parts, not formally announced or artificially studied, but naturally arising from the true position of the discourse. Tholuck and Stier have both given plans of the discourse, founded on their own analyses. My own plan differs wholly from either, being, as I conceive, more simple, true, and accordant with the position of the sermon as a platform amid surrounding religious systems.

The discourse, as a programme of the principles of the New Testament dispensation, is clearly distinguishable into three parts, and the following may be given as its outline:

PLAN.

I. CHRISTIAN PIETY, AS DISTINGUISHED FROM IRRELIGION. Matthew 5:3-16.

1. Nine benedictions upon humility, penitence, meekness, aspirations after goodness, mercy, purity, peacemaking, and holy suffering for righteousness’ sake. 3-12.

2. Woes pronounced upon contrary traits. Luke 6:24-26.

3. Active duties enjoined upon the blessed ones. 13-16.

II. CHRISTIAN PIETY, AS DISTINGUISHED FROM JUDAISM. Matthew 5:17; Matthew 6:19.

1. Is the completion of pure Judaism. 17-20.

2. Distinguished from degenerate Judaism, in regard to (1.) angry passions, (2.) sexual purity, (3.) oaths, (4.) conciliation, (5.) moral love, (6.) sincerity in alms, prayer, and fasting. Matthew 5:20 to Matthew 6:18.

III. CHRISTIANITY, AS DISTINGUISHED FROM GENTILISM. Matthew 6:19 to Matthew 7:27.

1. Supreme trust in God our provident Father. Matthew 6:19-34.

(1.) The earth-treasures must not come into competition with the heavenly treasures. 19-23.

(2.) The world-god must not stand in competition with our heavenly Father. 24-34.

2. Supreme reverence for God as our adjudging Father.

Matthew 7:1-27.

(1.) Usurp not his place as Judge. Matthew 7:1-6.

(2.) Confide in his more than earthly paternity. 7-12.

(3.) Enter the narrow way to him, avoiding all false guides. 13-20.

(4.) Profession no assurance before his judgment-bar. 21-23.

(5.) We stand or fall in judgment, only by obedience to Christ’s words. 24-27.


Verse 3

I. CHRISTIAN PIETY, AS DISTINGUISHED FROM IRRELIGION.

The Nine Benedictions, Matthew 5:3-12.

3. Blessed — The Gospel opens with a blessing, again and again. There are more than the sacred seven. There are the thrice three; the well rounded nine benedictions. How many were the woes which solemnly echoed to them we know not; for Matthew omits them, and Luke gives them, perhaps, incompletely. This word blessed conveys not an opinion or a prayer, as human benedictions do, but a sentence or a decree. Such things are blessed, not because he says they are merely, but because he makes and pronounces them so. It is an anticipation of that final, “Come ye blessed,” which he will pronounce upon his judgment throne. Our Lord here truly speaks with authority, as the one who will be the final judge of human destiny.

Blessed means not merely happy, as even Mr. Wesley renders it. As happiness is higher than pleasure, so blessedness is higher than happiness. Blessedness is more truly divine. It is the more than happiness produced by God’s sunshine in the soul.

Poor in spirit — The spirit is the immortal nature in man; and especially the moral part of the human soul wherewith a man is religious and receives and communes with the Divine Spirit. He whose spirit the Gospel finds already supplied and falsely rich with something else than the Gospel, cannot receive the Gospel. If the spirit be full and satisfied with some false religion, or pride, or earthly good, or moralism, it has no room or receptivity for the Gospel, and no blessing from Christ. So the outright, self-conscious sinner, morally poor in fact and poor in spirit, is often more likely to receive the Gospel than he who has something that is not religion in the place of religion. Blessed, then, is he who has a receptive vacancy, a poverty, real and felt, for the Gospel.

Kingdom of heaven — A very bountiful filling up of the vacuity. The pauper shall be a king; his empty box shall be filled with royal treasures.


Verse 4

4. They that mourn — Of course all the terms are to be understood as within the sphere of religion. The mourning is not secular, but religious grief — penitence. As sin is the only essential evil, so this mourning is for sin. And for sin the only comfort is forgiveness and divine favour. Penitence is a blessed receptivity of the true blessedness.


Verse 5

5. The meek — Who are placidly ready, without pride or captiousness, to receive the good. They shall inherit the earth — Rather, the land. As Israel were to enjoy the promised land below, so the true Israel shall enjoy that land of which the earthly land was typical.


Verse 6

6. Hunger and thirst. — Here is something more than mere vacuity, or penitence, or tranquil readiness. It is an ardent longing — a holy appetite for all that is right and good. Filled — The Gospel can fill the largest desire for the true good.

Thus far has Jesus, in the act of propounding his Gospel, pronounced preparatory blessings on those who are variously ready to receive it. Four benedictions are thus conferred on a proper receptiveness of heart.

He next pronounces two benedictions on positive traits of character; the one being a natural virtue sanctified by grace, the other a gracious state wrought by piety.


Verse 7

7. Blessed are the merciful — Mercy is the exercise of benevolence toward the unfortunate or guilty. It may and does exist as a natural quality in the human heart. It is an approvable trait which has survived the fall.

We must here distinguish between a virtue and a piety. A virtue may exist in unregenerate nature. It is an excellence. Nor is it, like some excellences, as beauty of person, elegance of manners, strength of intellect, taste for literature, a mere neutral excellence; for as a moral excellence it is in itself superior to any of these. Moral virtues stand as good by themselves, as approved by man, and even, in a sense, approved by God; inasmuch as even to God himself they are better than their absence, or their opposite instead.

But all mere virtue is defective unless the sanctifying grace of God brightens and heightens it to piety. For (1.) it is in itself defective, not being as perfect as it should be. (2.) Being defective, it cannot receive the unqualified favour of God. (3.) Virtues not heightened to piety may be used to wicked ends, as Absalom used his own justice, amiableness, and beauty to win Israel to rebellion. (4.) Mere unregenerate virtues cannot atone for our sins of countless multiplicity. They cannot stand in the place of the Redeemer; nay, they may ruin us by inducing us to make these a substitute for him.


Verse 8

8. Blessed are the pure in heart — Here is a trait of character which God’s Spirit can alone produce. This is sanctification. It may exist in different degrees. It may be partial; it may be complete. Even when complete, it may, in this world, coexist with many an error of judgment, and many a defect of temperament. Yet it enables us to live without offending God, so as to maintain for us the permanent undiminished fulness of the divine approbation. And when the heart is clean, the eye is clear. When purity makes us like God, then can we realize and see his countenance. The eye of the pure spirit beholds the pure Spirit. Through the beams he shed down upon us, we can look up and see the face that shines. In the light of his smile we behold his smile. So the pure in heart shall see God.


Verse 9

9. Peacemakers — A triad of benedictions will now be pronounced on Christian doings. Let us be excused for the quaintness of saying, that of these nine benedictions four are pronounced upon Christian receptivities; two upon Christian positivities, and three upon Christian activities. The three activities on which he will now pronounce benedictions are peace-making, the endurance of persecution the endurance of false reproach.

Peacemakers, in the simple and natural sense, are those who seek to remove quarrels and hates, and to produce kindly affections between men. They are good. Though unregenerate men, these men are herein blessed. How much better than mere indifference; how immensely better than the truly devilish opposite. Even if, for other sins and for the defectiveness of this virtue, the peacemaker be not saved from hell, from what depths of hell may he not be saved!

But the true peacemaker is Christ himself, who first reconciles God and man. And then, by shedding the Spirit of the God of peace into men’s hearts, he brings them to peace. And this is the real basis of all true peace. And he is the true peacemaker who endeavours to lay this basis. He is the true Christian peacemaker who endeavours, like Christ, to plant the divine spirit of peace in men’s hearts. And the promise here accordingly is, that as they are herein like Christ the Son of God, so they shall be called the children of God. So we have a family consisting of the God of Peace, the Prince of Peace, and the sons of peace.

All who truly seek to spread the Gospel, who endeavour to establish the reign of right and truth, who seek to reduce the contentiousness of even the Church, and to bring the imperfect Christianity of the age to a more loving tone, are peacemakers. On the other hand, the mere zealots for party and sect, the partisan politician, the warlike statesman, the glory-loving hero, the duellist, the oppressor, are reverse characters, for whom a counter woe is implied.

Yet the true peacemaker does not seek peace by a compromise with sin. That is a false peace which is made with the devil and sin, and is a true discord and war against good and God. Christ, the true peacemaker, was a terrible denouncer of iniquity.


Verse 10

10. Persecuted for righteousness — Let us not suppose, however, that peacemakers in this world will always enjoy peace from men. In maintaining truth and right, and all those principles which truly make for the peace and blessing of the world, they will find room for the most heroic firmness, and for the bravest activity. They will find they have blows to take, and sufferings to endure. The scourge, the prison, and the stake have been their fate. But here is a benediction that can pay them for all And doubtless these simple words have, in all ages, consoled the sufferers for Christ in dungeons, under the rack, and amid the flame. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven — To the persecutor belongs the kingdom of hell, but to the true sufferers for Christ belongs the kingdom of heaven. The persecution named in this eighth benediction seems to consist rather of bodily tortures and martyrdoms. Hence the reward is the glorified kingdom of God. In benediction first, the kingdom of God below — a present reward for a present want — is promised; but in benediction eighth, the kingdom of glory is the martyr’s reward.


Verse 11

11. Revile… persecute… say all manner of evil against you falsely — In this benediction it is the endurance of persecution of character, the martyrdom of reputation, by revilings and calumny, which is blessed. Opposed to this is the woe pronounced upon “you when all men shall speak well of you.” The reward is promised in the following verse.


Verse 12

12. Rejoice and be exceeding glad — This verse may be most easily explained by reversing the order of its clauses. As your sufferings associate you with the prophets which were before you, so like their’s your reward in heaven is great; therefore Rejoice, etc.

2. Woes pronounced upon the opposite characters.

To three of these benedictions, St. Luke’s report of the discourse contains three counter woes. They are so presented as to suggest that Luke reports but a part, and that our Lord uttered an antithetic woe for each benediction.

Luke (Luke 6:24-25) pronounces a woe upon the rich and the full; that is, upon those who have made this world’s goods, or some other satisfaction, a substitute for the Gospel grace and blessedness. Their case we have sufficiently explained in our comment on Matthew 5:3.

Luke 6:25 : Woe unto you that laugh — in opposition to the penitents of Matthew 5:4. The evil of sin makes no impression upon their revelling merriment; or instead of mourning for sin, they drown the commencing grief with laughter, and perhaps riot. Christ pronounces upon them WOE a word in which grief and authority in him are combined, and in which future sorrow and vain weeping are predicted for them.

Luke 6:26 : Woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you — This woe stands opposed to the blessed, spoken of those who are reviled for righteousness’ sake in Matthew 5:11. The phrase all men (like the term the world) is used to distinguish the great ungodly mass as opposed to the righteous few. The phrase alludes to the fact that, in Jewish history, the mass of the nation — the all men — reviled the prophets, and persecuted the righteous few. Woe to that preacher who wins applause by whitewashing sin.


Verse 13

13. Ye — This must have been addressed especially to the apostles, who doubtless formed the front circle immediately around our Lord. Indeed, Matthew 5:12 seems to show that the benedictions were addressed to them. Yet the multitudes, as listeners, were entitled to appropriate their share.

Salt of the earth — The earth, the living world of men, is like a piece of meat, which would putrify, but that the grace and Gospel of God, like salt, arrests the decay, and purifies and preserves it. The apostles, and in their degree all Christians, are the substance and body of that salt. They are the substance to which the saltness inheres. Salt have lost its savour — If the living body to which this gracious saltness inheres doth lose that quality, whereby shall the quality be restored? Wherewith shall it — shall what? — be salted? — The it refers to the solid salt which has lost its saltness or savour. What, alas! shall ever resalt that savourless salt? The Christian is the solid salt, and the grace of God is his saltness; that grace is the very salt of the salt. Now this solid salt is intended to salt the world with; but, alas I who shall salt the salt? This question the Saviour answers by pronouncing it unanswerable. It is thenceforth good for nothing — This shows that it is the savourless salt which needs the salting. And this strong answer shows, too, that in the case supposed, the saltness is not almost, but completely gone. Not a particle of the grace of God remains, or the loser would not be quite good for nothing. Nor is it to be rightly viewed as a mere abstract possibility, which God secures shall never happen, but a practical matter, which may be believed to happen often and ordinarily. Surely the Antinomian dogma that assures the Christian that God secures him from losing divine grace, cannot stand before this warning passage. Trodden under foot of men — The symbol of utter perdition.

Our Lord’s allusion to salt that has lost its savour is not without a foundation in natural fact. Salt does lose its saltness by chemical decomposition. But we are inclined to think (with Schoettgen) that the allusion is to the bituminous salt from Lake Asphaltites, which was strewn over the sacrifices at the temple in order, by its fragrant odour, to neutralize the smell of the burning flesh, and which, when spoiled by exposure to sun and atmosphere, was cast out upon the walks to prevent the feet from slipping. Dr. Thomson (vol. ii, p. 44) says: “Indeed, it is a well-known fact that the salt of this country, when in contact with the ground, or exposed to rain and sun, does become insipid and useless. From the manner in which it is gathered, much earth and other impurities are necessarily collected with it. Not a little of it is so impure that it cannot be used at all and such salt soon effloresces and turns to dust, not to fruitful soil, however. It is not only good for nothing itself, but it actually destroys all fertility wherever it is thrown; and this is the reason why it is cast into the street. There is a sort of verbal verisimilitude in the manner in which our Lord alludes to the act: ‘it is… cast out’ and ‘trodden under foot;’ so troublesome is this corrupted salt, that it is carefully swept up, carried forth, and thrown into the street. There is no place about the house, yard, or garden, where it can be tolerated. No man will allow it to be thrown on to his field, and the only place for it is in the street, and there it is cast, to be trodden under foot of men.”


Verses 13-16

3. Duties enjoined upon the blessed ones, Matthew 5:13-16.

Thus far we have in Matthew benedictions. We have now commands or injunctions. The blessed ones are compared to salt, and to light; as the former, they must purify and preserve; as the latter, they must illuminate.


Verse 14

14. Ye — Apostles, and indeed all Christians — are the light of the world — For how dark the world would be without a Christ, a Gospel, a Holy Spirit, and a Church! Yet the Christian is not like the sun, self-luminous, but borrows his rays, like the moon, from a primal source. Or rather he is like the candle, mentioned below, deriving light, yet putting forth vigour to produce light. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid — So the Church of God should be as a central and elevated city, visible to all the world. Some think the allusion is to the small city of Safed, which stood on a hill, so visible at the mount of Beatitudes that the Saviour might have pointed to it. The allusion may have been to Jerusalem, which stands upon heights, and is the emblem of the Church.

Of Safed Dr. Thomson (vol. i, p. 420) says: Maundrell, Jowett, and others, throw out the hint that this was the city set on a hill, which could not be hid; and if that greatest of sermons was preached on the horns of Huttin, or near them, as tradition affirms, and if any particular city was referred to, there would be plausibility enough in the suggestion. These ancient parts of the castle render it all but certain that there was then a city or citadel on this most conspicuous “hill” top, and our Lord might well point to it to illustrate and confirm his precept. The present Hebrew name is Zephath, and may either refer to its elevation like a watch-tower, or to the beauty and grandeur of the surrounding prospects. Certainly they are quite sufficient to suggest the name. There lies Gennesaret, like a mirror set in framework of dark mountains and many-faced hills. Beyond is the vast plateau of the Hauron, faintly shading with its rocky ranges the utmost horizon eastward. Thence the eye sweeps over Gilead and Bashan, Samaria and Carmel, the plains of Galilee, the coasts of Phoenicia, the hills of Naphtali, the long line of Lebanon, and the lofty head of Hermon, a vast panorama, embracing a thousand points of historic and sacred interest. Safed is truly a high tower, on which to set the watchmen of Zion. My aneroid makes it 2650 feet above the Mediterranean. Tabor looks low, and Huttin seems to be in a valley.


Verse 15

15. Light a candle — Or lamp. Candlestick — Or lampstand. House — The world, or circle of your acquaintance. The Christian should, like a lamp, shed divine light upon all in reach.

Neither do men light a candle — Men light candles; God has lighted you for his candles to the world. Men are not so foolish as to light a candle to be covered up, so God is not so unwise as to light you for concealment. You are lighted that you may illuminate. A bushel — In Greek the bushel, with the definite article, to indicate that he refers to a measure ordinarily in use. It was the modius, a measure really containing about a peck.


Verse 16

16. Let your light shine — While you indulge no ostentation to win applause for yourself, it is your duty so to manifest the clearness of your good works as that men may honour the Gospel. And glorify your Father — Do nothing to glorify yourself, but everything to get glory to God by honouring the Gospel. The illumination of the candle is not for itself, but for the master whose house it illumines.

Men should not wish their donations to a Church or to a charity to be published, for the reputation of it, but in order that the Gospel should have the credit of it, and that others may be influenced to like liberality by the example.


Verse 17

II. CHRISTIAN PIETY DISTINGUISHED FROM JUDAISM, Matthew 5:17 to Matthew 6:19.

The Saviour next proceeds to show the relations in which his GOSPEL stands to the previous dispensation, as being the fulfilment and confirmation of true Judaism, and the reformation of degenerate Judaism.

1. Christianity the completion of pure Judaism, Matthew 5:17-20.

17. Think not — The crowds who came to the great gathering at the Mount had their thoughts. What will this great Jesus do? Will he destroy the law by letting all commandment go, and fulfil the prophets by a great and glorious kingdom? Or will he wholly destroy Moses, and set the Old Testament at naught? Our Lord gives them a powerful think not. Believe not, O ye people, whatever I may say of your elders as false interpreters, that I for a moment disparage Moses. Think it not, whatever your false shepherds may hereafter charge against me. Nor think ye, my disciples, who are to preach my doctrines, that while ye must rend away the false interpretations of the doctors, ye must overthrow the foundations laid by God’s ancient word.

It is remarked by Alford that rationalism generally commences by doubting the Old Testament. Paley had said before him, that infidels generally endeavour to wound the New Testament through the Old. Indeed, in the second century a half Christian, Marcion, endeavoured wholly to abandon the Old Testament, and retain Christianity wholly separate. And as these words of Christ were in his way, he altered the text and made it read, “What think ye? That I have come to fulfil the law or the prophets? I have come to destroy, but not to fulfil.”

I am come — Not I am born. He is the great Comer. He has come for a work, and what that work is he will now pronounce. By so doing he answers the question, Art thou He that should come?

The law, or the prophets — The Law and the Prophets was a customary phrase for the whole Old Testament. See Matthew 7:12; Matthew 11:13; Matthew 22:40. But the Law and the Prophets are here viewed not as merely separate books of the Old Testament. Law, as God’s commandment, and prophecy, as God’s promises or threatenings for the future, are blended in the whole Old Testament. The law Christ fulfils not only by his own obedience and atonement, but by perfecting its obedience in his saints, and executing its penalty upon the impenitent. The prophecies he fulfils not only in his own life and sufferings, but in the establishment, glory, and perpetuity of his kingdom.

The law, as requiring the Mosaic ritual and the Jewish state, was fully accomplished, and both ceased at the required time. So that Christ does not require any obedience to the peculiarities of the Old Testament in the New. On the other hand, the Old Testament remains divinely sanctioned by Christ as the first volume to the New. Its law was God’s law; its prophets were God’s prophets. So that no one can strike at one Testament without striking at the other.

Destroy the law… but to fulfil — The ceremonial law, consisting of types and shadows, would be fulfilled in the Anti-type, Christ. The moral law, which requires man to do right, and only right, and which is mainly embodied in the Decalogue, is perpetual. Prophets — They are not destroyed, but their authority is forever established by the fulfilment of all their predictions. Christianity, therefore, is not the destruction, but the completion of Mosaicism. A greater than Moses carries the work of Moses to an honourable consummation.


Verse 18

18. For verily — Very emphatic is our Lord in removing all thought that he annuls, instead of fulfilling, the law. He repeats his I am come; he adds a verily I say unto you, and asserts the infinite value of every point of the law. Verily is the same in the original as our word Amen, and it was a solemn so let it be. As the Hebrews used it for a solemn confirmatory close, the Christian Church has retained it for the same purpose.

Heaven and earth — As Stier remarks, the heaven here is not the heavens of Matthew 5:12; as the earth here is not the earth promised in Matthew 5:5. Heaven and earth as they now are, are transitory. They shall pass away.

One jot or one tittle — Our Lord proceeds to show that, so far from destroying or dishonouring the law, he would magnify it even beyond their Pharisaic teachers, who divided its precepts into the weightier and lighter classes, the former of which must be kept, while the latter might be slighted. He taught, on the contrary, that the slightest point of God’s law is of limitless obligation and imperishable completion. The jot was the yod, ( י,) the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The tittle was the term for the point by which very similar Hebrew letters (as for instance, Resh ר and Daleth ד) were distinguished from each other. As many Hebrew words and letters were very similar, a slight change would often very greatly vary the sense. So the Jewish writers had many curious remarks; such as the following, which we quote from Clarke on the passage:

“In Vayikra Rabba, s. 19, it is said: Should any person, in the words of Deuteronomy 6:4, Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is אחד achad, ONE Lord, change the ד daleth into a ר resh, he would ruin the world.” [Because, in that case, the word אחר achar, would signify a strange or false God.] “‘Should any one, in the words of Exodus 34:14, Thou shalt worship no OTHER, אחרachar, God, change ר resh into ד daleth, he would ruin the world.’ [Because the command would then run, Thou shalt not worship the ONLY or true God.] “‘Should any one, in the words of Leviticus 22:32, Neither shall ye PROFANE, תחללו techalelu, my holy name, change חcheth into הhe, he would ruin the world.’ [Because the sense of the commandment would then be, Neither shall ye PRAISE my holy name.]”

Our Lord here, of course, uses the names of the Jewish characters figuratively, to indicate the smallest point in the moral force of the law. Till all be fulfilled — There is twice a till in this verse, rendering the meaning slightly obscure. The sense briefly is, Not the slightest principle of the law shall fail of accomplishment while the world stands.


Verse 19

19. Whosoever — Our Lord farther shows his reverence for the law by guarding its least requirement with highest penalties. These least commandments — Contained in the Old Testament. Teach men so — As many of you may have feared that I or my disciples were about to do, in the new kingdom. Our Lord therefore is here laying down principles affecting the teachers whom he is to send forth. Shall teach men so — If to violate, with purpose, a known law of God is a dangerous sin, how much deeper the danger of teaching others to sin! Least — Many of the best commentators understand this as signifying that he shall be excluded. Yet such, surely, is not its exact meaning. Clearly to be least IN the kingdom of heaven is far less than shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. Our Lord’s phrase here is adopted by him for the purpose of the antithesis — the violator of the least shall himself be least. Such mercy is shown to the case of erring man, in whom mistake may mingle in the interpretation of God’s laws, even when he would be a wise teacher, that our Lord uses a sentence which may imply, and yet does not absolutely express, exclusion. Such a man’s reward is terribly cut down; he is scarce if at all saved. Nothing but a state of repentance for all sin, known or unknown, can avail him. Great — The true observer and teacher of the law in its completeness shall be a star of brightest lustre in the firmament of heaven. Our Lord here clearly illustrates the truth of different degrees of future reward.


Verse 20

20. For I say unto — By way of illustration of the terrible danger of making void God’s law. Exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees — These not only violated the spirit of the law, but often both letter and spirit, and systematically taught men so. They could not be even the least within the kingdom; they were excluded from it. They, with all the ancient fathers of their tradition, had lowered the power of God’s law, as Jesus proceeds to show in the following verses.

2. Christianity distinguished from degenerate Judaism, Matthew 5:20 to Matthew 6:18.

(1.) In regard to angry passions:

In interpreting much that follows, it is important to understand that corporeal and earthly objects are often made to stand as symbols for spiritual ideas. Sometimes the entire sentence is constructed with a series of such symbols; as, for instance, Matthew 5:25. A true interpretation will reduce the figurative to the literal, by substituting the idea symbolized for the symbol. Having prepared his way by showing that he does not oppose but fulfil the pure Judaism, the Teacher now proceeds to reject and condemn the false glosses and traditions heaped upon Moses, which the people had heard from the Jewish doctors.


Verse 21

21. Ye — The apostles primarily, the people inferentially. Have heard — Not ye have read in the law, but ye have heard from the elders. Our Saviour is not setting himself up as an opponent, though a superior, of Moses. He is only disburdening Moses of the load of long-standing misinterpretations, and bringing out the law in its own purity. By them of old time — By the founders of Rabbinical traditions, which the scribes and Pharisees are now inculcating, and by which they cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven. Thou shalt not kill — The words Thou shalt not kill, are the words of Moses; and at first sight it might appear that our Lord was reproving Moses as being too lax. But this is a very mistaken view. Our Lord does not here so much quote the commandment in the decalogue, as the bald and verbal repetition of it by the rabbies of old, who recited its letter devoid of the spirit. (See note on Matthew 5:31-32.) They confined the criminality to the external act, without tracing the act to the temper in the heart, and so condemning the evil in its root. Shall be in danger of the judgment — To the proper legal verdict and sentence in the case.


Verse 22

22. But I say unto you — Our Lord here uses the Ego, I, with great emphasis. All the traditions of the whole generation of rabbies are to be as nothing before the declarations of this majestic I. Angry with — Since all murder is rooted in the angry passion, all unholy anger is incipient murder. His brother — That is, any one. The term does not signify a blood relative, but is used in conformity with the custom of calling all Israelites brethren. Without a cause — Rashly or vainly. It implies all feeling inconsistent with love, or a desire to bring about mild justice and reformation. Some have indeed supposed, without good grounds, that the words without a cause are spurious. But, first, there is such a thing as a righteous anger, (Mark 3:5; Ephesians 4:25; James 1:19,) which is not only not forbidden, but commanded. 1 Samuel 3:13. And, second, there is the anger for just cause, which in its due measure is just. It is the feeling implanted in our nature which requires our right when wronged; which seeks the reformation of our injurer, and the reparation of our wrong. In default of these it justly demands the infliction of penalty. Raca — A Syriac word signifying blockhead. Our Lord here does not refer to the mere pronunciation of the word; but to its utterance as the outward symbol of an inner malignant purpose to destroy a man’s just reputation for intellect. Fool — In Scripture the fool is an impious fellow, a stupid atheist, a man defective intellectually, because depraved morally. It stands here as the symbol for a malignant purpose in the heart to destroy the just moral reputation of a man. Here, then, are three sins of the heart: 1. Wrath; 2. A hostility to one’s intellectual rights; and 3. A destructiveness toward one’s moral character, (the two last indicated by symbols,) rising in grades above each other. For these three grades of sin our Lord pronounces three grades of punishment. He indicates the grades symbolically; and, as before remarked, the meaning is obtained by translating the symbol into its literal. The judicature of the earth stands as an emblem of the judicature of heaven. And the adjustment of the degree of penalty by man to the degree of crime, is paralleled by the adjustment by God to the degree of wickedness, of the penalties of a future world. The symbolical terms here used are, 1. Judgment; 2. Council; and 3. Gehenna of fire; that is, death, 1. by sword; 2. by stoning; and 3. by burning. This will appear by the following explanation: 1. The judgment was the penalty of civil crimes, passed by the lower courts, liable to appeal, and it could amount in capital cases to execution by sword. 2. The council was the Sanhedrim, or court, or senate of seventy-two, (established under the Maccabees,) which decided questions of war and peace, as well as the higher crimes of false prophets, etc. These were cases of spiritual treason, and the severer capital penalty of stoning to death was inflicted. 3. Last was the giving over the dead body to the horrible valley of Hinnom. Upon this see note on Matthew 10:28.

The amount of the entire verse, then, is this: Not merely bodily killing, but the mental impulse and purpose, which are the root of all murder — whether it be mental murder of the body, of the intellectual reputation, or of the moral honour — are to be punished according to their aggravations in the high Court of Heaven. Our Lord here conceptually frames a code of divine retribution above, as parallel to the codes of earthly criminal law.

That our Lord did not here lay down rules for human courts is plain. For, first, he was no legislator for human jurisprudence; second, anger cannot be proved or tried by human law; and third, no human court ever hurt a person for saying Thou fool.

It follows, therefore, here, 1. Our Lord here does, in opposition to Universalism, threaten a penalty for sin in a future world. 2. That penalty is strictly judicial, and not a mere natural consequence of sin. It is a positive infliction by the hand of divine justice. 3. The degree of intensity (not the duration) of that punishment is adjusted to the grade of the sin.


Verse 23

23. Therefore — As an inference drawn from the severe penalties affixed in the last verse to all injuries, even in purpose, committed by us against another. If thou bring thy gift to the altar — The image is taken from the sacrifices of the Old Testament. It stands as a symbol for all drawing nigh to God under the new dispensation. Our bringing our gift is the presentation of any worship or service to God. Rememberest — In that state of recollectedness and self-examination which true worship implies. Hath aught against thee — Aught, or anything, that is, of any of the injuries specified in the last verse. Observe, our Lord is not referring to the case where we are angry, because some one hath injured us. It is the case in which we have injured another, and have made no proper reparation.


Verse 24

24. Before the altar — Not upon the altar. Proceed not so far as to lay thy sacrifice before God. Interrupt the service and go thy way. First be reconciled — By making the proper reparation. Then come and offer thy gift — For not till then will thy sacrifice be holy, or thy prayer accepted.

Our Lord here implies, first, that the aught against thee is a just complaint for a real wrong. No one can be supposed unacceptable to God because a captious and slanderous man assails him with charges. And, second, the reconcilement required is not to be measured by the overbearing demands of an unreasonable person; but what we, in an exchange of cases, would justly think our rightful due.

We may here remark, 1. That the enclosure within the railing around the pulpit is properly called the chancel. But as the place where our sacred service and self-consecration are performed, it is not without Scripture reason sometimes styled the altar. 2. The advice of our Lord to clear our minds of every unholy feeling is all important. Spiritual blessings, outpourings of divine influence, revivals that do not melt away our feuds and quarrels, are of very doubtful character. 3. Yet we would caution any person from giving up the habit or form of prayer because he is conscious of not living consistently with his prayer. Let our prayers continue until they make our sins cease, and do not continue sin and let it make prayer cease.


Verse 25

25. Adversary — A plaintiff at law, to whom a debt or payment of penalty is due. While thou art in the way with him — An allusion to the Roman law, by which the plaintiff himself seized the defendant, and drew him before the court for trial. So in Luke 12:58, it is, “When thou goest with thine adversary to the magistrate, as thou art in the way.” Our Lord here counsels a compromise on the way. Officer — Who executes the penalty.

The whole is a symbolical representation of divine judgment, as is shown by the next verse, in which justice without mercy is inflexibly declared. The Adversary stands for our offended God. Quickly and the way stand for the brief period of our probation The Judge is the Son of man at his coming. The officer is the judicial angel. Matthew 25:31. The prison is hell. Sentiment, repair every wrong before divine justice inflict punishment to the utmost.


Verse 26

26. Paid the uttermost — See on chap. Matthew 18:30. Farthing — About two fifths of a cent.


Verse 27

(2.) Christian law of sexual purity.

27. Not commit adultery — The same principles are applied to the seventh commandment as are used in the preceding paragraph to elucidate and disencumber the sixth. Actual adultery is traced to the lust in the heart. The hidden crime is viewed as the essential crime of which the external act is the manifestation.


Verse 28

28. Looketh… to lust — Where the will consents, and the volition permits the sensual feeling. Yet not every glance of admiration or desire, cast upon the beauty of one of the opposite sex, is here condemned. Such affections are planted in our nature for pure and beneficial purposes. Not even the recognition of the superior attractions of another man’s wife, or another woman’s husband, is transgression. Indeed, the sentiment of pleasure arising from beauty of persons around us, may be as pure as the pleasure of surveying pictures. A sweet voice is justly pleasant to the ear, a graceful manner to the taste, a fair form or face to the eye. But when from a sentiment it becomes a sensation, the danger commences. If the sensation be volitionally permitted, there is guilt. If nothing but opportunity were wanting to the guilty act, the adultery of the heart is fully committed. God, who sees the heart, holds the hidden man guilty.


Verse 29

29. Offend thee — Seduce thee, entrap thee to sin; for such is the meaning of the word offend in the Greek. Eye… members… body — Symbolical terms again. We have a corrupt inner system; a depraved hidden man, within the outer man, with all its members, eye, hand, and foot, in which resides our appetency for sin. And yet it is ourself, and cannot be cast into perdition without taking the whole being. Now if this corrupt eye seduce us to adultery, if the itching palm contract theft, if the foot tend to blood, let spiritual amputation be performed. This may bring the whole corrupt man to health. One of thy members perish — The adventurous figure is boldly carried out. It is as if some bystander had endeavoured to push our Lord’s simile into absurdity by saying, If we amputate as you advise, we should go to heaven maimed. Our Lord virtually replies, Very well; better go to heaven maimed, than to hell whole.

The sentiment, therefore, is — affections and lusts for forbidden objects must be sacrificed at whatever expense of feeling.

Upon this passage Roberts remarks, “This metaphor is in common use to this day; hence people say of anything which is valuable, ‘It is like my right eye!’ ‘Yes, yes, that child is the right eye of his father.’ ‘That fellow forsake his sins! never; they are his right eye.’“


Verse 31

31. A writing of divorcement — The Mosaic law (Deuteronomy 24:1) was, that if “uncleanness” were found in a wife, the husband might “write a bill of divorcement, and put it into her hand, and send her out of his house.” On the meaning of the word “uncleanness,” the schools of the two Rabbies Shammai and Hillel differed. The former taught that the law allowed divorce for adultery alone; the latter interpreted it to mean any defect of person or character. Divorces thereby had become shamefully common, and the marriage tie of little force. As a consequence, all the laws of morality were loose, and all the best affections of our nature but slightly existed. The family is the true school of the purer virtues and noblest feelings. Where it exists in its full excellence, and its well managed government, the young character is rightly shaped, and men go forth into the world trained to maintain a well ordered society. Where this institution is in ruins, or but loosely maintained, childhood and youth are but poorly formed, and maturer years are lawless and unprincipled. Family disorganization is the forerunner of social disorganization, anarchy, and final despotism.


Verse 32

32. But I say unto you — Our Lord has quoted the words of Moses, and seems to oppose them with this but. Yet it is not the law in its purity which he quotes and corrects. He does not oppose Moses. But what he does oppose and correct is that law as it is uttered by the mouth of those who quote it for licentious purposes, making it the means of all that dissoluteness described in our note on Matthew 5:31. That licentiousness he corrects by limiting divorce to cases of adultery; or rather he restores this provision as the true intent of the law of Moses. Causeth her to commit adultery — The dismissing a wife for other cause than unfaithfulness, did not dissolve the marriage. Yet, as by unlawful custom she could marry again, in such cases the husband dismissing her occasioned the adultery. Whosoever shall marry her that is divorced — That is, thus unlawfully divorced, and so not divorced at all. Committeth adultery — By marrying her who is still bound by an unbroken marriage tie to her former husband, who has unlawfully dismissed her.


Verse 33

(3.) Christian law of oaths.

33. Forswear — Perjure. Shalt perform — Shalt not commit perjury by breaking thy vows and solemn affirmations.


Verse 34

34. Swear not at all — Neither in his prohibition of swearing nor of violence (38-42) is our Lord giving any law for the magistrate or the governmental regulations, but for private conduct. The officer of government has still a right to use force, and the magistrate to administer an oath. In fact, to forbid these things in private life secures that they may be done magistratively with better effect.

None of the oaths which our Lord adduces as specimens are judicial oaths. The Orientalists are great profane swearers, and the secondary oaths here forbidden by our Lord are just the ordinary profanities of their conversation. Dr. Thomson (vol. i, p. 284) says: “This people are fearfully profane. Everybody curses and swears when in a passion. No people that I have ever known can compare with these Orientals for profaneness in the use of the names and attributes of God.… They swear by the head, by their life, by heaven, and by the temple, or, what is in its place, the church. The forms of cursing and swearing, however, are almost infinite, and fall on the pained ear all day long.” Our Lord’s caution not to forswear is given because the people held that to violate these minor oaths of conversation was no perjury. Our Lord not only pronounces it to be forswearing, but forbids the swearing at all.


Verse 35

35. Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool — The Lord here exposes the fallacy of those who avoided using the name of God, and swore by some object created by God. Our Lord declares that to swear by anything of God’s is to swear by him; since it is God who gives it all the worth by which it becomes the object of an oath. An oath by God, invokes the attributes of God — his power, justice, and unchangeableness, to sustain our credibility. If, therefore, we swear by anything he has created, we swear secondarily by him; for those same attributes of his give to those things the qualities that render them the basis of an oath.


Verse 36

36. Swear by thy head — ”It is very common among the Orientals,” says Mr. Paxton in his Illustrations, “to swear by the life or head of the king.” Joseph, improperly yielding to the fashion of the country, swore by the life of Pharaoh; and this oath is still used in various parts of the East. According to Mr. Hanway, the most sacred oath among the Persians is by the head of the king; and Thevenot asserts that to swear by the head of the king is, in Persia, more authentic and of greater credit than if they swore by all that is most sacred in heaven and upon the earth. The ordinary phrase, “I will give you my head if it is not so,” is a colloquial form of swearing of the same kind; it pledges the head or the life upon the certainty of the affirmation.

Thou canst not make one hair white or black — Thy life, thy head, thy every hair are all God’s workmanship, and their preservation is his act. To swear, therefore, by life or head, is to swear by the act, power, and person of God. The presumption of the oath reaches the Divine Being.


Verse 37

37. Yea, yea; Nay, nay — That is, use in conversation only these simple affimatives and negatives, enforced by no violent adjurations.

Cometh of evil — The oath arises from men’s want of conversational veracity, or from an undue excitement of feeling. If men were not false in their simple affirmations no oath would be needed. Hence it is well said the man is the surety of the oath, not the oath of the man. Hence it is only where there is much falsehood that the oaths are needed; so that lying and swearing are twin vices. The habit of oaths also cherishes excited and violent feeling. It is averse to that calm, self-reliant firmness which both Christianity and dignified character require, and which can depend on its own simple affirmation for all the demands of life.

Men are often excited to more violent passion by the very profanity which is produced by passion. Our own violent expression increases our own violent feeling and character. And thus, lying, swearing, and violence are associate vices.

That the oath before the magistrate is not prohibited is plain, for our Lord himself answered under the oath imposed upon him by Caiaphas. (Matthew 26:63-64.) As magistracy is instituted by God, so the invocation of his presence has the solemnity of worship, not the irreverence of profanity. The oath, then, is the tie of society and not its dissolution.

And it is to preserve the purity of the authoritative oath that the licentious oath is forbidden.

So also the solemn appeal to God made by the pious man has none of the irreverence of profanity, but, again, a prayer-like solemnity. So St. Paul, (Galatians 1:20 :) “Behold, before God, I lie not;” and, (2 Corinthians 1:23 :) “I call God for a record upon my soul.” (4.) Christian law of conciliation.

The Mosaic law laid down the rule of punishment by the magistrate, to inflict the evil upon the wrong doer, which the wrong doer had committed against a complainant. Exodus 21:22. It was life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. This is, no doubt, for the magistrate, the abstract principle of retribution, which must ever be retained in criminal law. But the Jews introduced this principle of retaliation into private life. Each man became judge for himself when and how far it should be inflicted. Thereby the principle of revenge was cultivated, and all conciliation became dishonourable.

Christ enjoins here a different method of dealing with an assailant. Instead of resenting every affront, and retorting every blow aimed, to disarm him by skilful generosity. Our Saviour expresses the principle by symbolic specimens; that is, by strong external instances. But these outward acts are to be understood as mere symbols to express the internal disposition, and mere examples to illustrate the general rule.

Judgment must always be exercised as to when and in what individual cases these laws of conciliation will apply. Certainly they will not apply where it is clear that no conciliation will follow. Our Lord here prescribes a method for an end, which cannot be used where the end could not be attained, and where the method would only produce useless submission to increasing aggression. The law of self-defence then comes in, to be exercised either under the magistrate, or, if necessary, in our own persons.


Verse 38

38. An eye for an eye — This is the old law of retaliation, to which reference has just been made.


Verse 39

39. Resist not evil — The word here, resist, may also signify retaliate. As it is the maxim of individual retaliation that our Lord is here annulling, this would seem to be the natural meaning of the word. It is also the law of retaliation, an eye for an eye, that he is now expounding. The instinct of self-preservation seems to be given us divinely, for the very purpose of instantaneous resistance of violence; and the religion of Jesus does never condemn the healthful action of any one of our primary instincts. Yet the feeling of revenge proper, the appetite to inflict a pain upon him who has given us pain, our Lord does condemn. In the place of this he substitutes:

1. The aim to bring the injurer to repentance and reformation. 2. The effort to disarm him by unexpected concession and graceful conciliation. This is the true Christian mode of overcoming a foe.

Still it must be acknowledged that the Greek verb here used signifies to resist rather than to retaliate. It is a compound word, literally signifying to stand against. The command, therefore, is, not to take our stand in opposition to, or to take issue with the evil. The word in the text rendered evil may signify either evil or the evil person. The latter is perhaps the preferable meaning. The import, therefore, of the command, with these definitions of the words, may be best completely understood when we have explained the latter half of the verse.

Cheek, turn him the other also — Our Lord gives a supposable instance. The turning the other cheek is a symbol by specimen or sample of the thing. To do this in a bare literal way would probably expose a man to ridicule, especially if known to be a mechanical compliance with the letter of the command. But follow that course skilfully of which this instance is an index. By some method subdue your enemy with an unexpected stroke of generosity, of candour, of concession, of confidence, of appeal to the magnanimous part of his nature. Thus you will make him your friend, develop the good in him, and illustrate the true generosity of the Gospel.

Both members, therefore, of the verse taken together will amount to this: The Christian way of dealing with the bad assailant is not to take issue with him, or to overcome him by hostile force; but to disarm him by generous concessions and benefactions. The sentiment is therefore identical with the precept of the wise man in the Old Testament, (Proverbs 25:21-22 :) “If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink. For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the Lord shall reward thee.” Yet it would be doing great violence both to the words of Solomon in the Old Testament and of the greater than Solomon in the New, to understand them as commanding us to extinguish the instinct and to disobey the law of self-preservation, when assaulted by some violent and unappeasable foe.

And here we must repudiate the interpretation of our Lord’s commands in regard to oaths and to non-resistance of an enemy, adopted by Stier and other German critics, and also by Alford, which represent those commands as not intended for the real, but imperfect Church hitherto existing on earth, but for an ideal Church hereafter to exist. Whatever our Lord’s commands were, they are binding in their full moaning now. The fact that the low state of Christian morality renders the declining of oaths and the practice of non-resistance inconvenient at the present time, does not abrogate the law. If the Quaker interpretation be true, the Quaker doctrine is true, and the Quaker practice right, and all Christendom is bound to be Quaker. There can be no sliding scale in Christian morality. Nor is obedience to the commands of Christ to be postponed to some distant age in the unknown future.

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Verse 40

40. Coat… cloak — How much may a man not gain by a timely and magnanimous surrender! How much does he not gain by the disposition to be above a sensitive irritability and anxiety to maintain his rights and battle for every inch! How many a most contemptible misery can be avoided by the high spirit that can say without ostentation, “You have got that, and I will fling this into the bargain rather than have a quarrel with my neighbour.” Even if there be a temporary loss, there is, in the long run, a stupendous gain.

Yet this does not command or advise us to allow a man persistently to assail our well-being without prevention or reparation. It does not apply to cases where a ruffian would seize our valuable property, violate chastity, endanger or take life. If possible, reform and benefit an assailant; if that cannot be, then, for the good of society, bring him to legal justice; if his assault be too sudden, defend yourself with the least harm possible to him; if instantly necessary, it is your right, inasmuch as he is a criminal, to save yourself by damage to him. All this is consistent with the law of love.

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The coat here mentioned was a tunic, worn next to the skin, with armholes or sleeves, and reaching down, like a shirt, to the knees. Its material was commonly linen. It was bound round the waste by a girdle. A person wearing this only is called in Scripture naked, that is, undressed. Isaiah 20:2-4; 1 Samuel 19:24; John 21:7. In later times; this coat or tunic was made larger, and a shirt worn under it. The coat of our Saviour, “without seam, woven from the top throughout,” (John 19:23,) was the garment here described.

The cloak, called in modern times the “aba,” was a large square piece, several feet in length and breadth, and worn very much as an American Indian wears his blanket. It was put on by flinging one corner of it over the left shoulder, and bringing the cloth around the back, then around the right side under the right arm, crossing the breast and reaching again over the left shoulder. Thus, while the left arm took care of it, the right arm was free.

This “aba” or cloak was used by the poor, by night, as a bed. Such were the garments spread before the Saviour as he entered Jerusalem. Matthew 21:8. See also John 13:4; John 21:7; Matthew 24:18.


Verse 41

41. Compel thee to go a mile — The phrase was borrowed from the practice of the oppressive Eastern despotisms. The custom was introduced from the Persian into the Roman government. The royal officers in transmitting government dispatches, were empowered to impress any man into service, and compel him or his beast to perform a stage or two of the message. So Simon, the Cyrenian, was compelled to bear the cross. Now, says our Lord, if any one obliges you to perform some task for him like this, make him magnanimously ashamed, if possible, by doubling the favour.


Verse 42

42. Give… turn not away — This forbids a churlish, unsympathizing closeness. It rebukes the maxim, “I neither ask nor grant favours.” It commands generosity; yet it is a suggestive, not a universal command. It does not mean that an industrious man’s purse must open at the call of every idle vagabond. There are occasions to which it is applicable, and others to which it is not; or rather, it presents specimens of the actions that come under the head of winning men by generous habits.


Verse 43

(5.) Christian law of love.

43. Love… neighbour… hate… enemy — The command, Love thy neighbour, (Leviticus 19:18,) was interpreted by the rabbles to include Israelites only. To hate the rest of mankind was, therefore, they held, religiously right. Our Lord, however, extends our neighbourhood over all mankind. As immortal beings, all are entitled to a solemn respect; as children of the same Father, they are the proper objects of our wishes for their wellbeing. That they are our enemies is a good reason why we should ward off their attacks; but it is no reason why we should not wish their happiness. One of the best ways of showing our benevolence is to invent some method of removing their bad disposition and disarming their enmity.

Love your friends and hate your enemies is the law written by selfishness on the human heart. Its’ necessary effect is to divide mankind into clans maintaining perpetual feuds. The action and reaction of revenge, sustained by the point of honour, render the feud permanent and cruel. Such was eminently the state of society when our Lord was engaged in dispensing these truths to his Church. To end these feuds, the commencement must be made by the good man’s making the advances of patience, of adventurous suffering, of disarming enmity by magnanimous disregard of the standing feud, of the point of honour, and even, sometimes, of the possible law of self-preservation. Here is the finest field for the purest heroism and the noblest generosity. And, at the same time, there is the fullest room for all our tact and fertility of invention to make our generosity truly tell. By blunder, by misapplication, by ill-timed introduction, our magnanimity may wear the look of cowardice; and the enemy, instead of being conciliated, will think himself called upon to trample upon our meanness. Thereby we shall not heap coals of fire upon his head, but apply a coal of fire to inflame his heart.

And what a beautiful and masterly calmness does our Lord here prescribe to the Christian heart. He is to keep his own temper undisturbed, and while his enemy is raging with insane fury he is calmly to study by what skilful application of touching kindness he can transform the lion to a lamb. By so doing he attains a victory; but that is the smallest part of the matter. He has transformed an enemy to a friend; and what is better than either, he has, perhaps, converted a sinner from his error, and saved a soul from death.


Verse 44

44. Love… bless… do good… pray — These are the Christian modes of feeling toward enemies. The external act of conciliation is good, and may perhaps prevail. It may immensely benefit our enemy, and yet it may fail of good to ourselves. It may proceed from mere policy. There may be a Pharisaic pride in so managing an impetuous man. Then, alas! though our act was right, yet our heart was not right in the act. We may save our enemy, and lose ourselves. It should be the case that the action springs from love. Then the same love that saves one will save both. For our own sake, our heart must be converted from hate. That same indwelling love by which we love God with all our heart, must love our neighbour, including our enemy, even as ourself.

And even if our act of conciliation fails, if our enemy remain enemy, our feelings must still be love. The same tranquil, masterly desire to do him good, and to watch the vulnerable point by which he can be approached, and his enmity slain, must be preserved. How happy is such a heart in its own great calmness, even though in the midst of foes, and girt with enmities. Yet nothing but the grace of God, co-operated with by our own determinations, guided by the precepts of Jesus, is ever likely to produce such a state in the heart. When every Christian attains this state, and every man becomes Christian, then complete will be the reign of the Prince of Peace.


Verse 45

45. Children of your Father — Images and likenesses of the Father of us all, who in patient calmness disregards the insults of men, and still pours upon them his sunlight and his showers. God, as a Father, we may well imitate, but not God as a judge. To him, indeed, vengeance belongeth, and, at the due time, by him it will be rendered. But it is rulers alone that are God’s representatives in this respect.

To become the children of God implies regeneration, or being born again. When a man is bidden to love God, and to love his enemy, he may truly reply, “I cannot love at my will — I cannot love to order — I cannot command a feeling to exist in my heart.” His excuse is true, and it proves the very doctrine of human helplessness which he is perhaps inclined to condemn. He cannot create a holy love, nor infuse a single holy emotion into his own heart. But he can see, if he will look at the truth written on his own conscience, that he ought to love God and man; and so seeing he may look to God the author of his being to renew him in righteousness, and to implant that affection in his heart which by nature he cannot have. That prayer, truly, and sincerely, and perseveringly offered, will be granted. So that while no man can regenerate himself, every man may, at proper will, attain regeneration from God.


Verse 46

46. What reward have ye — How have you manifested at all the power of the Gospel? Ye have only done what the most depraved characters on earth are ready to do. How can you expect the Christian’s reward for a mere heathen’s virtue? Publicans — The Roman government had conquered Judea, and obliged the Jews to pay taxes and tribute to support its tyranny. The publicans were the officers who collected the Roman taxes, and though they might be otherwise respectable men, they were hated by the Jews as tools of a foreign despotism.


Verse 47

47. Do ye more than others — How much soever civilization and the general influences of religion have improved society, the Christian ought to let his light shine by some way showing a superior excellence. He ought ever to be above the average standard of virtue around him. This should not be shown by an extra severity and moroseness, but by an extra serenity, sweetness, generosity, love, and devotion.


Verse 48

48. Perfect… as your Father — Be not at the low standard of publicans and other ordinary men; but make God your model; as was commanded in Matthew 5:45. Be not low and imperfect, like unregenerate man, but rise to an imitation of our Father. Be perfect, by having a heart purified from all hate, and filled with all love. If thy vessel be filled with love, God can be no more than full. He is the perfect infinite, thou art the perfect finite. The shrine of a temple was the perfect image of the temple. The temple was a perfect temple, the shrine was a perfect shrine. They were different in magnitude, but they were alike perfect.

It is to be remarked that the Greek verb here rendered be ye, is truly to be rendered ye shall be. It is therefore a promise that if we disregard the low average of customary morality around us, and fully obey the law and enjoy the power of love in our hearts, we shall be perfect even as our heavenly Father is perfect. Alford here remarks: “No countenance is given by this verse to… perfectibility in this life.” Taking the word perfectibility in its evangelical sense, we should like to know why? Our Saviour here distinctly affirms that it depends upon, or rather consists in the indwelling reign of love in our hearts. Nor must any man lower down to his own moral level the high promises of God’s word in this behalf. It is a practical promise, which is implied in the prayer of the apostle, and is expressly limited to this life, when he prays: “The very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Thessalonians 5:23. And it is a practical precept which St. James gives: “That ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.” James 1:4. Against these promises of the complete reign of love in the heart, completing our Christian life, it is useless to quote those imperfections and failings which belong to men as men, arising from the limitations of the human mind. Neither St. Paul nor St. James expected that the Christians they addressed would be perfect like angels, or even ideally perfect men, nor perfect performers of God’s absolute law. But they did expect that the law of love might possess a perfect power in their hearts, and in that would consist the perfected character of their piety.

 


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Bibliography Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Matthew 5:4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/whe/matthew-5.html. 1874-1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, November 12th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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