The Church Fathers on Oaths, Revenge and Love

Patristic commentaries on the Sermon on the Mount, continued…

Christ of the Last Judgment mosaic in the Baptistry of the Duomo in Florence (late 13th century)

Again you have heard that it was said to the men of old, “You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No.” Anything more than this comes from evil. 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? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:33-48

A simple yes or no: [Jesus] has prohibited anyone from swearing by his head, for in doing so one would be worshiping himself. Rather, Jesus intends to refer all glory to God, signifying that human beings are not finally masters of themselves…. Our understanding of the principles of virtue has advanced beyond the time of Moses. Therefore divorce is now seen to be adultery and the necessity of an oath to be from the evil one. If the earlier laws had been devilish from the first, they would never have resulted in such goodness. Had Moses’s laws not been forerunners, Jesus’s teaching would not have been so easily received. Chrysostom. The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 17.5-6.

Do not deify creation: Jesus prohibits us from swearing by heaven or by the earth … in order that we should not give to creation an honor surpassing creation. Do not deify creation. Those who swear, he says, “swear by the greater,” as the apostle has said. And he also forbids swearing by Jerusalem. For the earthly Jerusalem is a type of the Jerusalem above, and God swears only by himself, that is, by his own glory. Wherefore, since the similarity transcends us, we are obliged to swear neither by ourselves nor by our own glory. Cyril of Alexandria. Fragment 63.

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.

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.

Avoid 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 … a slanderer or tempter comes forward to initiate a lawsuit for the sake of testing our faith and 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.

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 sensitive body. Chrysostom. The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 18.3.

Give to one who begs: If we think that only [giving to beggars] is all that is taught about almsgiving, then there are many poor to whom it cannot apply, and even the wealthy can give forever, if they are always giving. For the sake of goodness, therefore, this doctrine of almsgiving was given to the apostles: that they who have freely received should freely give. Money of that sort is never lacking. As much as is given, by that much it is increased, and though the fountain water drench the fields below, it never runs dry. Jerome. Commentary on Matthew 1.5.42.

The rich and the poor: It is the law that you do not take from another, even if you do not give what is yours. It is grace, however, that you do not take from another and you give what is yours. Therefore whoever gives a loan fulfills both the law and grace. For he who gives freely of his own, would he then take the goods of another? The rich man therefore 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, Homily 12.

You destroy yourself 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…. If you merely hate your enemy, 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.

Pray for those who persecute you: Christ did not simply command to love but to pray. Do you see how many steps he has ascended and how he has set us on the very summit of virtue? Mark it, numbering from the beginning. A first step is not to begin with injustice. A second, after one has begun, is not to vindicate oneself by retaliating in kind. A third, to refuse to respond in kind to the one who is injuring us but to remain tranquil. A fourth, even to offer up one’s self to suffer wrongfully. A fifth, to give up even more than the wrongdoer wishes to take. A sixth, to refuse to hate one who has wronged us. A seventh, even to love such a one. An eighth, even to do good to that one. A ninth, to entreat God himself on our enemy’s behalf. Do you perceive how elevated is a Christian disposition? Hence its reward is also glorious. Chrysostom. The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 18.4.

Joint heirs with Christ: Since we have received the power to become sons, we are made sons insofar as we fulfill the precepts given to us 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 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 ❖

St. Augustine (354-430) was a key figure in the development of Christianity in the West. Born in North Africa, 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. 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, went to Rome in 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 was ordained a priest. He went to Constantinople where a friendship sprang up with St. Gregory of Nazianzus. In 386 he settled in Bethlehem, 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.

St. John Chrysostom, born in Antioch in 347, was famous for eloquence and his denunciations of the abuse of authority in both Church and 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 chosen as 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.

Note: These commentaries are taken from Matthew 1-13, edited by Manlio Simonetti, in the series The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (InterVarsity Press). The Pantocrator mosaic is in the Baptistry of the Duomo in Florence, Italy. The photo is by Jim Forest.

In Communion / Summer 2010 / issue 57