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From the Catena Aurea, Patristic Commentary by St Thomas Aquinas on Matthew 23:1-12

From the Catena Aurea, Patristic Commentary by St Thomas Aquinas.

Catena Aurea - Gospel of Matthew - Chapter 23

1. Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples,

2. Saying, “The Scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat:

3. All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.

4. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.”

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Pseudo-Chrys.: When the Lord had overthrown the Priests by His answer, and shewn their condition to be irremediable, forasmuch as clergy, when they do wickedly, cannot be amended, but laymen who have gone wrong are easily set right, He turns His discourse to His Apostles and the people. For that is an unprofitable word which silences one, without conveying improvement to another.

Origen: The disciples of Christ are better than the common herd; and you may find in the Church such as with more ardent affection come to the word of God; these are Christ’s disciples, the rest are only His people. And sometimes He speaks to His disciples alone, sometimes to the multitudes and His disciples together, as here.

“The Scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat,” as professing his Law, and boasting that they can interpret it. Those that do not depart from the letter of the Law are the Scribes; those who make high professions, and separate themselves from the vulgar as better than they, are called Pharisees, which signifies768‘separate’.

Those who understand and expound Moses according to his spiritual meaning, these sit indeed on Moses’ seat, but are neither Scribes nor Pharisees, but better than either, Christ’s beloved disciples. Since His coming these have sat upon the seat of the Church, which is the seat of Christ.

Pseudo-Chrys.: But regard must be had to this, after what sort each man fills his seat; for not the seat makes the Priest, but the Priest the seat; the place does not consecrate the man, but the man the place. A wicked Priest derives guilt and not honour from his Priesthood.

Chrys., Hom. lxxii: But that none should say, For this cause am I slack to practise, because my instructor is evil, He removes every such plea, saying, “All therefore whatsoever they say unto you, that observe and do,” for they speak not their own, but God’s, which things He taught through Moses in the Law. And look with how great honour He speaks of Moses, shewing again what harmony there is with the Old Testament.

Origen: But if the Scribes and Pharisees who sit in Moses’ seat are the teachers of the Jews, teaching the commandments of the Law according to the letter, how is this that the Lord bids us do after all things which they say; but the Apostles in the Acts [marg. note: Acts 15:19] forbid the believers to do according to the letter of the Law. These indeed taught after the letter, not understanding the Law spiritually. Whatsoever they say to us out of the Law, with understanding of its sense, that we do and keep, not doing after their works, for they do not what the law enjoins, nor perceive the veil that is upon the letter of the Law.

Or by “all” we are not to understand every thing in the Law, many things for example relating to the sacrifices, and the like, but such as concern our conduct.

But why did He command this not of the Law of grace, but of the doctrine of Moses? Because truly it was not the time to publish the commandments of the New Law before the season of His passion. I think also that He had herein something further in view. He was about to bring many things against the Scribes and Pharisees in His discourse following, wherefore that vain men might not think that He coveted their place of authority, or spoke thus out of enmity to them, he first puts away from Himself this suspicion, and then begins to reprove them, that the people might not fall into their769 faults; and that, because they ought to hear them, they should not think that therefore they ought to imitate them in their works, He adds, “But do ye not after their works.” What can be more pitiable than such a teacher, whose life to imitate is ruin, to refuse to follow is salvation for his disciples?

Pseudo-Chrys.: But as gold is picked out of the dross, and the dross is left, so hearers may take doctrine and leave practice, for good doctrine oft comes from an evil man. But as Priests judge it better to teach the bad for the sake of the good, rather than to neglect the good for the sake of the bad; so also let those who are set under them pay respect to the bad Priests for the sake of the good, that the good may not be despised because of the bad; for it is better to give the bad what is not their due, rather than to defraud the good of what is justly theirs.

Chrys.: Look with what He begins His reproof of them, “For they say, and do not.” Every one who transgresses the Law is deserving of blame, but especially he who has the post of instruction. And this for a threefold cause; first, because he is a transgressor; secondly, because when he ought to set others right, be himself halts; thirdly, because, being in the rank of a teacher, his influence is more corrupting.

Again, He brings a further charge against them, that they oppress those that are put under them; “They bind heavy burdens;” in this He shews a double evil in them; that they exacted without any allowance the utmost rigour of life from those that were put under them, while they allowed themselves large licence herein. But a good ruler should do the contrary of this, to be to himself a severe judge, to others a merciful one. Observe in what forcible words He utters His reproof; He says not they cannot, but “they will not;” and not, lift them, but “touch them with one of their fingers.”

Pseudo-Chrys.: And to the Scribes and Pharisees of whom He is now speaking, heavy burdens not to be borne are the commandments of the Law; as St. Peter speaks in the Acts, “Why seek ye to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither we nor our fathers were able to bear? [Acts 15:10] For commending the burdens of the Law by fabulous proofs, they bound as it were the shoulders of the heart of their hearers with bands, that thus tied as though with proof of reason to them, they might not fling them off; but themselves did not in the least measure fulfil them, that is, not only did not wholly, but did not so much as attempt to.

Gloss., interlin.: Or, “bind burdens,” that is, gather traditions from all sides, not to aid, but to burden the conscience.

Jerome: But all these things, the shoulders, the finger, the burdens, and the bands with which they bind the burdens, have a spiritual meaning. Herein also the Lord speaks generally against all masters who enjoin high things, but do not even little things.

Pseudo-Chrys.: Such also are they who lay a heavy burden upon those who come to penitence, so that while men would avoid present punishment, they overlook that which is to come. For if you lay upon a boy’s shoulders a burden more than be can bear, be must needs either cast it off, or be broken down by it; so the man on whom you lay too grievous a burden of penance must either wholly refuse it, or if be submit himself to it will find himself unable to bear it, and so be offended, and sin worse.

Also, if we should be wrong in imposing too light a penance, is it not better to have to answer for mercy than for severity ? Where the master of the household is liberal, the steward should not be oppressive. If God be kind, should His Priest be harsh? Do you seek thereby the character of sanctity? Be strict in ordering your own life, in that of others lenient; let men hear of you as enjoining little, and performing much. The Priest who gives licence to himself, and exacts the utmost from others, is like a corrupt tax-gatherer in the state, who to ease himself taxes others heavily.

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5. “But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments,

6. And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues,

7. And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.

8. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.

9. And call no man your father upon the earth for one is your Father, which is in heaven.

10. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.

11. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.

12. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.

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Chrys.: The Lord bad charged the Scribes and Pharisees with harshness and neglect; He now brings forward their vain-glory, which made them depart from God.

Pseudo-Chrys.: Every substance breeds in itself that which destroys it, as wood the worm, and garments the moth so the Devil strives to corrupt the ministry of the Priests, who are ordained for the edification of holiness, endeavouring that this good, while it is done to be seen of men, should be turned into evil. Take away this fault from the clergy, and you will have no further labour in their reform, for of this it comes that a clergyman who has sinned can hardly perform penance.

Also the Lord here points out the cause why they could not believe in Christ, because nearly all they did was in order to be seen of men; for he whose desire is for earthly glory from men, cannot believe on Christ who preaches things heavenly.

I have read one who interprets this place thus. “In Moses’ seat,” that is, in the rank and degree instituted by Moses, the Scribes and Pharisees are seated unworthily, forasmuch as they preached to others the Law which foretold Christ’s coming, but themselves did not receive Him when come. For this cause He exhorts the people to hear the Law which they preached, that is, to believe in Christ who was preached by the Law, but not to follow the Scribes and Pharisees in their disbelief of Him. And He shews the reason why they preached the coming of Christ out of the Law, yet did not believe on Him; namely, because they did not preach that Christ should come through any desire of His coming, but that they might be seen by men to be doctors of the Law.

Origen: And their works likewise they do to be seen of men, using outward circumcision, taking away actual leaven out of their houses, and doing such like things. But Christ’s disciples fulfil the Law in things secret, being Jews inwardly, as the Apostle speaks. [marg. note: Rom 2:29]

Chrys.: Note the intensive force of the words of His reproofs. He says not merely that they do their works to be seen of men, but added, “all their works.” And not only in great things but in some things trivial they were vainglorious, “They make broad their phylacteries and enlarge the borders of their garments.”

Jerome: For the Lord, when He had given the commandments of the Law through Moses, added at the end, “And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be ever before thine eyes;” [Deut. 6:8] the meaning of which is, Let my precepts be in thine hand so as to be fulfilled in thy works; let them be before thine eyes so as that thou shalt meditate upon them day and night.

This the Pharisees misinterpreting, wrote on parchments the Decalogue of Moses, that is, the Ten Commandments, and folding them up, tied them on their forehead, so making them a crown for their head, that they should be always before their eyes. Moses had in another place given command that they should make fringes of blue in the borders of their garments, [marg. note: Num 15:39] to distinguish the people of Israel; that as in their bodies circumcision, so in their garments the fringe, might discriminate the Jewish nation.

But these superstitious teachers, catching at popular favour, and making gain of silly women, made broad hems, and fastened them with sharp pins, that as they walked or sat they might be pricked, and by such monitors be recalled to the duties of God’s ministry. This embroidery then of the Decalogue they called phylacteries, that is, conservatories, because those who wore them, wore them for their own protection and security. So little did the Pharisees understand that they were to be worn on the heart and not on the body; for in equal degree may cases and chests be said to have books, which assuredly have not the knowledge of God.

Pseudo-Chrys.: But after their example do many invent Hebrew names of Angels, and write them, and bind them on themselves, and they seem dreadful to such as are without understanding. Others again wear round their neck a portion of the Gospel written out. But is not the Gospel read every day in the Church, and heard by all? Those therefore who receive no profit from the Gospel sounded in their ears, how shall the having them hung about their neck save them? Further, wherein is the virtue of the Gospel? in the shape of its letters, or in the understanding its meaning? If in the characters, you do well to hang them round your neck; if in their meaning, they are of more profit when laid up in the heart, than hung round the neck.

But others explain this place thus, That they made broad their teachings concerning special observances, as phylacteries, or preservatives of salvation, preaching them continually to the people. And the broad fringes of their garments they explain of the same undue stress upon such commandments.

Jerome: Seeing they thus make broad their phylacteries, and make them broad fringes, desiring to have glory of men, they are convicted also in other things; “For they love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues.”

Raban.: It should be noted, that He does not forbid those to whom this belongs by right of rank to be saluted in the forum, or to sit or recline in the highest room; but those who unduly desire these things, whether they obtain them or not, these He enjoins the believers to shun as wicked.

Pseudo-Chrys.: For He rebukes not those who recline in the highest place, but those who love such places, blaming the will not the deed. For to no purpose does he humble himself in place who exalts himself in heart. For some vain men bearing that it was a commendable thing to seat himself in the lowest place, chooses so to do; and thus not only does not put away the vanity of his heart, but adds this additional vain ostentation of his humility, as one who would be thought righteous and humble. For many proud men take the lowest place in their bodies, but in haughtiness of heart think themselves to be seated among the highest; and there are many humble men who, placed among the highest, are inwardly in their own esteem among the lowest.

Chrys.: Observe where vain glory governed them, to wit, in the synagogues, whither they entered to guide others. It had been tolerable to have felt thus at feasts, notwithstanding that a doctor ought to be had in honour in all places alike, and not in the Churches only. But if it be blameworthy to love such things, how wrong is it to seek to attain them?

Pseudo-Chrys.: They love the first salutations, first, that is, not in time only, before others; but in tone, that we should say with a loud voice, Hail, Rabbi; and in body that we should bow low our bead; and in place, that the salutation should be in public.

Raban.: And herein they are not without fault, that the same men should be concerned in the litigations of the forum, who in the synagogue in Moses’ seat, seek to be called Rabbi by men.

Pseudo-Chrys.: That is, they wish to be called, not to be such; they desire the name, and neglect the duties.

Origen: And in the Church of Christ are found some who take to themselves the uppermost places, that is, become deacons; next they aspire to the chief seats of those that are called presbyters; and some intrigue to be styled among men Bishop, that is, to be called Rabbi. But Christ’s disciple loves the uppermost place indeed, but at the spiritual banquet, where he may feed on the choicer morsels of spiritual food, for, with the Apostles who sit upon twelve thrones, he loves the chief seats, and hastes by his good works to render himself worthy of such seats; and he also loves salutations made in the heavenly marketplace, that is, in the heavenly congregations of the primitive.

But the righteous man would be called Rabbi, neither by man, nor by any other, because there is One Master of all men.

Chrys.: Or otherwise; Of the foregoing things with which He had charged the Pharisees, He now passes over many as of no weight, and such as His disciples needed not to be instructed in; but that which was the cause of all evils, namely, ambition of the master’s seat, that He insists upon to instruct His disciples.

Pseudo-Chrys.: “Be not ye called Rabbi,” that ye take not to yourselves what belongs to God. And call not others Rabbi, that ye pay not to men a divine honour. For One is the Master of all, who instructs all men by nature. For if man were taught by man, all men would learn that have teachers; but seeing it is not man that teaches, but God, many are taught, but few learn. Man cannot by teaching impart an understanding to man, but that understanding which is given by God man calls forth by schooling.

Hilary: And that the disciples may ever remember that they are the children of one parent, and that by their new birth they have passed the limits of their earthly origin.

Jerome, Hieron. cont., Helvid. 15: All men may be called brethren in affection, which is of two kinds, general and particular. Particular, by which all Christians are brethren; general, by which all men being born of one Father are bound together by like tie of kindred.

Pseudo-Chrys.: “And call no man your Father upon earth;” because in this world though man begets man, yet there is one Father who created all men. For we have not beginning of life from our parents, but we have our life transmitted through them.

[ed. note: The Catholic doctrine is, that “the man” is born from his parents, by propagation, but that the soul is immediately created by God, the human agency being but a certain disposition of matter - such that according to God’s good pleasure, by a law which He has appointed, the gift of a soul is accorded to it. And thus, though a man’s soul cannot be called the son of his parents, yet that compound nature of which the soul forms part, is such.

That the soul is immediately from God by creation is the Catholic doctrine. St. Leo speaks of the Catholic faith consistently and truly, preaching that the souls of men, before they were breathed into their bodies, were not, nor are incorporated by any other but by God the Framer, Who is Creator of them as well as the bodies. Ep. 15, ad Turrib. 10. And so St. Hilary, “Every soul is the work of God, but the generation of the flesh is come from the flesh.” De Trin. x.20. Vide also Greg. Nyss. deAnim. p.934. Ambros, de Noe. 4. Hieron. in Eccles. xii. 7.]

Origen: But who calls no man father upon earth? He who in every action done as before God, says, “Our Father, which art in Heaven.”

Gloss., non. occ: Because it was clear who was the Father of all, by this which was said, “Which art in Heaven,” He would teach them who was the Master of all, and therefore repeats the same command concerning a master, “Neither be ye called masters; for one is your Master, even Christ.”

Chrys.: Not that when Christ is here said to be our Master, the Father is excluded, as neither when God is said to be our Father, is Christ excluded, Who is the Father of men.

Jerome: It is a difficulty that the Apostle against this command calls himself the teacher of the Gentiles; and that in monasteries in their common conversation, they call one another, Father. It is to be cleared thus. It is one thing to be father or master by nature, another by sufferance. Thus when we call any man our father, we do it to shew respect to his age, not as regarding him as the author of our being. We also call men ‘Master,’ from resemblance to a real master; and, not to use tedious repetition, as the One God and One Son, who are by nature, do not preclude us from calling others gods and sons by adoption, so the One Father and One Master, do not preclude us from speaking of other fathers and masters by an abuse of the terms.

Chrys.: Not only does the Lord forbid us to seek supremacy, but would lead His hearer to the very opposite; “He that is greatest among you shall be your servant.”

Origen: Or otherwise; And if one minister the divine word, knowing that it is Christ that makes it to be fruitful, such a one professes himself a minister and not a master; whence it follows, “He that is greatest among you, let him be your servant.” As Christ Himself, who was in truth our Master, professed Himself a minister, saying, “I am in the midst of you as one that ministers.” [Luke 22:27] And well does He conclude this prohibition of all vain-glory with the words, “And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.”

Remig.: Which means that every one who thinks highly of his own deserts, shall be humbled before God; and every one who humbles himself concerning his good deeds, shall be exalted with God.

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