Matthew Chapter 6:14-24

14 Ἐὰν γὰρ ἀφῆτε τοῖς ἀνθρώποις τὰ παραπτώματα αὐτῶν, ἀφήσει καὶ ὑμῖν ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὁ οὐράνιος:

15 ἐὰν δὲ μὴ ἀφῆτε τοῖς ἀνθρώποις, οὐδὲ ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ἀφήσει τὰ παραπτώματα ὑμῶν.

For if you take away the mistakes of (other) people, your father in the heavens will also take away yours; (15). If you do not take away (the trespasses) of other, neither will your father in the heavens take away your missteps.

The word in Classical Greek means “blunder” or “misstep”. It has more of a connotation of an error rather than something done wrong deliberately. The Vulgate, however, uses “peccata” and that does mean “sins”. Taking the base of the Greek word, “mistake”, we’re actually dancing pretty close to the Platonic ideal that knowledge = virtue. To know the good is to do the good. Have I mentioned that I think that Matthew’s audience is mostly pagan? And that I think that Matthew began his life as a pagan? This is the sort of quasi-, or semi-Freudian slip that helps nudge me in the direction of believing this. When we come across things that betray a different sensibility than what we would expect from a Jewish milieu, this helps buttress the idea that Matthew had a way of looking at things that was different from the way Jews did. As a Classicist, I’m prone to understand the code words where someone trained biblically might miss the nuance. OTOH, there have been dozens of instances, no doubt, where an implication of a word, or a thought would be blindingly obvious to someone trained in Scripture, but that totally goes over my head. That’s the beauty of crossing disciplines. And here is another reason I like to use the Classical Greek dictionary; an NT dictionary renders this as “trespasses”, which, of course, many/most of us are used to from the Pater Noster. But this betrays a thousand years of Latin theology, in which the word is, unequivocally, “sins”. And St Jerome only chose this word after three hundred years of Latin theology, during which time the idea of forgiving sins took deep root in the Christian psyche while, simultaneously, reading Plato became an ever-rarer thing.

As for the content of the idea expressed, it’s a fairly straight quid pro quo based on the idea of the Golden Rule: treat others as you wish to be treated by the father in the heavens. I don’t think this is terribly remarkable, but it’s not particularly Greek, either. This is not a sentiment one comes across in Thucydides, or Herodotus, or even Plato. This is how and why it’s so easy to gloss everything into a Christian mould. Upon seeing a part that’s Christian (or what would become Christian), it’s easy not to notice that they other half maybe isn’t, especially if one is using a dictionary of NT Greek and one is not particularly versed in Plato. Which I think is a bit of a…well, I think it’s unfortunate. It’s been said that all Western philosophy is footnotes to Plato, and that’s not completely far-fetched. But it’s also true that Plato, eventually, had a huge impact on Christian thought. The leaders of the Church for about 600 years, from 50o CE until the revival of Aristotle were Platonists to the core. This led to their almost complete focus on the other world, the next world. The real world, they would have called it, and not the current world of deceit and corruption. To make sense of much of Mediaeval thought, it’s crucial to view it through a Platonist lens. And since Western thought took a decidedly Aristotelean turn starting in the 16/17th Centuries, Plato is not as familiar to us as he once was. As a result, some Mediaeval art, like the penchant for allegory, seems bizarre to a modern mind. Hence the derogatory term “Dark Ages”. Even “mediaeval” has a decidedly negative overtone. Honestly, it’s actually the period that I find most comfortable. I get the whole Realist thing. I took a detour into Classics, but the truth is, I’m really most at home in the Middle Ages. Give me a Gothic cathedral over a Greek temple any day. 

 14 Si enim dimiseritis hominibus peccata eorum, dimittet et vobis Pater vester caelestis;

15 si autem non dimiseritis hominibus, nec Pater vester dimittet peccata vestra.

16 Οταν δὲ νηστεύητε, μὴ γίνεσθε ὡς οἱ ὑποκριταὶ σκυθρωποί, ἀφανίζουσιν γὰρ τὰ πρόσωπα αὐτῶν ὅπως φανῶσιν τοῖς ἀνθρώποις νηστεύοντες: ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἀπέχουσιν τὸν μισθὸν αὐτῶν.

And when you fast, do not be like the gloomy-faced hypocrites, for they hide their faces so that they appear to people as ones who are fasting. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.  

Once again, we seem to be slipping into the shame/guilt dichotomy. The purpose of fasting is to have everyone know you’re fasting. Believe it or not, there’s really nothing wrong with that in many cultures. Now, I don’t know if this is a shot at Jews or pagans. My sense is that fasting was more valued as a religious practice by Jews, but it’s not an exclusive thing. Given my education in the Roman Rite, in the time and place I received it, the tendency was to see this as directed at Jews more so than pagans. But, let’s face it, for two thousand years we all assumed that the early part of the Jesus movement was a Jewish affair. But if that had ceased to be true, if the Jesus movement had become predominantly pagan, then I don’t think we can just make this assumption. We can make an argument that this demonstrates a Jewish, or anti-Jewish mentality, but we have to make the case. We cannot just assume this as a matter of course, without making the case. But overall, the sentiment expressed is another point emphasizing that what matters is the internal attitude, not the outward action.

The question is just how much of a change this represents from the status quo at the time of Matthew, whether that status is pagan or Jewish. Admittedly, the bulk of my reading was historical writing, but thinking back to The Golden Ass, perhaps the mindset Matthew advocates is not so far from that described by Apuleius. I think the difference is the social class of the audience. For Apuleius, the audience was the educated elite; for Matthew, the audience was lower on the socio-economic scale. As a result, the significance of this is that the audience for this internalized behaviour is moving further down the socio-economic scale.  

16 Cum autem ieiunatis, nolite fieri sicut hypocritae tristes; demoliuntur enim facies suas, ut pareant hominibus ieiunantes. Amen dico vobis: Receperunt mercedem suam.

17 σὺ δὲ νηστεύων ἄλειψαί σου τὴν κεφαλὴν καὶ τὸ πρόσωπόν σου νίψαι,

18 ὅπως μὴ φανῇς τοῖς ἀνθρώποις νηστεύων ἀλλὰ τῷ πατρί σου τῷ ἐν τῷ κρυφαίῳ: καὶ ὁ πατήρ σου ὁ βλέπων ἐν τῷ κρυφαίῳ ἀποδώσει σοι.

So you fasting, anoint your head and wash your face, (18) so that you do not appear to people (as) fasting, but to your father in secret; and your father seeing you in secret will give over to you (reward you, presumably).

To start, “in secret” isn’t a wonderful rendering because it contravenes my intention of translating very literally. Better would be “in a/your secret (“place”, being understood)”. The definite article in Greek can be a bit confusing, or maybe ambiguous. A lot of time in situations like this, the best sense is that of a possessive pronoun, in this case “your”. Honestly, I’m not always big on trying to untangle the intricacies of the Greek, because more than 80% of the time it really doesn’t matter all that much. In fact, that’s probably more like 90% of the time. When I get concerned is when we have a neologism peculiar to the NT like we had above, a word that doesn’t have a lot of Classical usage, or when the NT Dictionary translation seems to depart too sharply from the Classical usage in order to obtain a particular sense in the translation. We had that with “sins/blunders”. And in those cases, it’s a matter of making sure that the problematic nature has been pointed out to allow everyone to draw their own conclusions.

Getting away from the technicalities, here is where implications of the shame/guilt distinction start to take on a life of their own. If we’re going to do things in secret, how will anyone know? Answer, no one will. So why do them? Well, because God will know. The father, looking down from the heavens–which is a great vantage point, will see these secret things. He will know that you are doing them. How? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Here’s how things develop. How they change. How they evolve. Don’t be like the hypocrites who trumpet their good works so that all know. Rather, do them in secret. Now, there is no questioning about whether giving alms or fasting  are good things. That is assumed, taken as points given, not to be questioned. Now, obviously, in giving alms, you will know and the person receiving will know. That, really is all that is necessary. But God will also know, because it’s a semi-public event; at least two people know about the act. But fasting, that is truly private. How does God know?

We had a discussion about God coming to be viewed as omniscient. This is how God came to be considered so. If we are to do things in secret, to be rewarded, God has to know about what we do. If he knows about secret things, then he almost necessarily has to be omniscient. Q.E.D. This is how an awful lot of standard Christianity–that cuts across Catholicism and most Protestant denominations–came to be. To cite a few examples, that is how the doctrines of grace and the Trinity and the Divine Omnis–omniscient, omnipotent–came into being. A line of Scripture has implications, and the working out of those implications is pretty much what theology is all about. These implications accumulated, and so the edifice of Christian doctrine was slowly erected. Note the difference between the way Mark started his gospel from the way Matthew started his; the latter had to add sort of a prequel to explain how we got to the place where Mark began. There are very different Christologies attached to these different beginings, but that is something for another topic. I should have dealt with it when I was doing Chapter 1 for each of the gospels, but it’s a classic case of missing the forest for the trees. More on that later.

17 Tu autem cum ieiunas, unge caput tuum et faciem tuam lava,

18 ne videaris hominibus ieiunans sed Patri tuo, qui est in abscondito; et Pater tuus, qui videt in abscondito, reddet tibi.

19 Μὴ θησαυρίζετε ὑμῖν θησαυροὺς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, ὅπου σὴς καὶ βρῶσις ἀφανίζει, καὶ ὅπου κλέπται διορύσσουσιν καὶ κλέπτουσιν:

20 θησαυρίζετε δὲ ὑμῖν θησαυροὺς ἐν οὐρανῷ, ὅπου οὔτε σὴς οὔτε βρῶσις ἀφανίζει, καὶ ὅπου κλέπται οὐ διορύσσουσιν οὐδὲ κλέπτουσιν:

Do not treasurize your treasure upon the earth, where moths and corrosion make (your treasure) bad in appearance, and where thieves break in and steal (it). (20) Rather, treasurize your treasure in heaven, where moths and corrosion don’t disfigure (your treasure), and where thieves do not break in and steal (it).

First, the Greek does say something like “treasurize your treasure”. Normal English would say something like “create your treasure”, but the goal here is not normal English. And the verb is the same for both verses. In 19 I chose “make bad in appearance” because that was as close as I could get to the Greek verb. The root is “to appear”, usually as in the sense of “to seem”, or “to look like”. In both verses the negative prefix << α >> is attached. We use this in English, too, as in “a-moral”. But in Greek, this negation doesn’t mean “not make it seem”, but has a more active sense as in “to disfigure”.

But the more interesting aspect here is in V-20: treasurize your treasure in heaven. And it’s singular here. And our father will reward us. We are inching ever closer to an afterlife, but we’re still a long way from there. The idea exists; sort of. In my reading, I keep coming across a lot of different descriptions of the Jewish and Greek conceptions of the afterlife, of what happens after we die. I am thoroughly confused and uncertain about what the folks of the First Century believed, which tells me that we don’t entirely know what the vast bulk of the people alive at that time actually believed. Even today, asking a hundred people what they believed would probably elicit dozens of ideas, so to expect that the vast majority of the people held one view or another, and to expect that we can tell what this belief was at a remove of 2,000 years seems a bit optimistic. What I have gleaned is that, for the vast majority of the OT, the idea of the afterlife was very similar to that described by Homer in The Odyssey. The Jewish locus of the afterlife, Sheol, was very similar to Hades; a land of shadows populated by shadows, where all went, regardless of the quality of their life.  

But then, the book of Daniel and other pieces written in the hundred years on both sides of the turn of the Common Era imply a very different notion of what happens after death. The ideas are neither uniform nor consistent, but The Book of Daniel includes ideas about a raising of the dead at the end of time, at which point the good will be eternally rewarded and the malefactors will be eternally punished. At the turn of the Second Century CE, the Didache has language that assumes or implies some sort of sorting-out after we die. So the idea of this was in the air; since Pythagoras by way of Plato introduced the idea of an immortal soul into the conversation, and Greek ideas spread throughout the ancient Mediterranean, it’s hard not to see these Greek ideas mingling with Jewish apocalyptic thinking to come up with a hybrid concept that put us well on the way to mature Christian doctrine. But here, we’re only at the beginning of that journey. 

19 Nolite thesaurizare vobis thesauros in terra, ubi aerugo et tinea demolitur, et ubi fures effodiunt et furantur;

20 thesaurizate autem vobis thesauros in caelo, ubi neque aerugo neque tinea demolitur, et ubi fures non effodiunt nec furantur;

21 ὅπου γάρ ἐστιν ὁ θησαυρός σου, ἐκεῖ ἔσται καὶ ἡ καρδία σου.

For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.

This could have been attached to the preceding section, but perhaps it’s worth a look on it’s own. Here’s the thing: this is a pretty obvious statement. In fact, one could suggest, and probably argue, that “heart” and “treasure” are de facto synonyms. The result is that, used as they are here, this is pretty much a tautology. But, obvious as this idea is to us, it had not reached general awareness at the time Matthew wrote this. The Stoics would have agreed with this wholeheartedly even if they would have formulated it differently. The Stoics believed in a detachment from this world, as did all Greek dualist thinkers. Or possibly all dualist thinkers. So again, the idea here isn’t exactly new, but it’s put in a novel form, I think. And the other thing is that Stoicism, and most Hellenistic philosophies in general, really only appealed to the educated elite. This was a fairly small fragment of the general population. And the surviving Stoic writings obviously have thus audience in mind. What this verse here represents is the time when these ideas of Hellenistic philosophy and Greek dualism were being transmitted to the general population. Matthew, and the Christians in general, had the gift of putting these messages of a focus on the other world into a form that was readily digestible by a mass audience. 

But the other point that needs to be recognized is that the timing of spreading these ideas to the general populace was fortuitous. Yes, life in the Roman Empire was hard for a lot of people. But it was also much easier for the vast majority of the population than it had ever been, and would be for centuries to come. The Pax Romana provided a trading area that allowed grain to be shipped, easily, cheaply, and safely from areas with a surplus to areas of scarcity. So famine was at a low point. And most of the Empire was in a state of relative peace and security. There was fighting on the German frontier, and fighting with the Parthians, but this was intermittent and fairly limited in scope. It did not affect the vast majority. So for people living in Southern France, Italy, much of North Africa, the Balkans, the Anatolian peninsula and environs, Spain, and much of the Near East, there was no real or sustained danger from marauding armies. The chance of a foreign army coming through, burning your village, killing all the men and enslaving all the women and children was much, much lower than it had been for, well, pretty much forever. This was no Golden Age; far from it, but it was an OK Age for  lot of people. What this means is that a large number of people had the security and the leisure to contemplate the other world to an unprecedented degree. 

I say this because if you look at the religious history of the Western Christian Church as compared to the Eastern (Byzantine) Christian Church in the five centuries after the fall of Rome, one glaring distinction in the experiences of the two different churches is that the Eastern Church was riven and nearly torn apart by heresies. The Western Church was almost heresy-free until the turn of the millennium, Why? Because the West was fighting for it’s life, buffeted by foreign invasions, a collapsing economy, and a host of other problems. Religion was a fifth, or fifteenth priority after all the requirements of mere survival.  In contrast, life in the Eastern Empire continued on, so that many people still had the security and the leisure to worry about defining the nature of Christ. And so here, during the heyday of the Roman Empire, people had the time and the physical security to think about the non-material world. This was the time of the fluorescence of a number of “Eastern Mystery Religions”, and a revival of many pagan temples and cults. Christianity came into being in this environment, along with many other belief systems.

As a result, wonderful little maxims like this found a wide audience, and wide acceptance.

21 ubi enim est thesaurus tuus, ibi erit et cor tuum.

22 Ὁ λύχνος τοῦ σώματός ἐστιν ὁ ὀφθαλμός. ἐὰν οὖν ᾖ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου ἁπλοῦς, ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου φωτεινὸνἔσται:

23 ἐὰν δὲ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου πονηρὸς ᾖ, ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου σκοτεινὸν ἔσται. εἰ οὖν τὸ φῶς τὸ ἐν σοὶσκότος ἐστίν, τὸ σκότος πόσον.

 The lamp of the body is the eye, so if your eye may be straightforward, the whole body of you will be lighted; but if your eye may be wicked, all is (in) shadow.

This hearkens back to the idea that lust in the heart is the same as the act of adultery. It reflects the dichotomy of healthy/wicked that we saw in previous metaphors, and it continues the “light of the world” motif. It does sort of play off the previous verse of the heart being where the treasure is. The point is that, as individuals, as humans, we are all of a piece, and so to be truly good, we have to be thoroughly good. One can’t commit adultery in the heart and be good; so the lustful eye, the covetous eye, the malignant eye will poison our whole person. It continues to build on the notion that what matters is what is inside us. Here, though, we get the twist that what is inside is affected–or even determined–by the filter we choose as a viewpoint onto the world.  

22 Lucerna corporis est oculus. Si ergo fuerit oculus tuus simplex, totum corpus tuum lucidum erit;

23 si autem oculus tuus nequam fuerit, totum corpus tuum tenebrosum erit. Si ergo lumen, quod in te est, tene brae sunt, tenebrae quantae erunt!

24 Οὐδεὶς δύναται δυσὶ κυρίοις δουλεύειν: ἢ γὰρ τὸν ἕνα μισήσει καὶ τὸν ἕτερον ἀγαπήσει, ἢ ἑνὸς ἀνθέξεται καὶ τοῦ ἑτέρου καταφρονήσει: οὐ δύνασθε θεῷ δουλεύειν καὶ μαμωνᾷ.

For no one can serve two masters; for he hates the one and loves the other, or he clings to one and scorns the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

24 Nemo potest duobus dominis servire: aut enim unum odio habebit et alterum diliget, aut unum sustinebit et alterum contemnet; non potestis Deo servire et mammonae.

Is it me? When reading this, doesn’t it seem like this is supposed to be connected to the ideas presented in the verses immediately preceding? But, when you stop to think about it, doesn’t it seem like there really is no conceptual connection? That the one does not follow from the other?

This is going to be a theme for the summary, and probably more. I mentioned this earlier, but this section of the gospel does read like a pastiche of sayings that were collected without any thematic relationship. I say that this is going to be an issue because part of the argument used by proponents of the Two Source Hypothesis (2SH) is that these three chapters of Matthew are so tightly constructed and well-written that only a numbskull or a chucklehead would even dream of breaking all of this up. And since Luke was neither a numbskull or a chucklehead, he had obviously never read Matthew before composing his own gospel. If they want to use Matthew’s organization as an argument, it seems more compelling to me to say that much of the content of these three chapters seems so disjointed that the material obviously came from a collection of mostly-unrelated sayings.

Per Wikipedia, “mammon” may ultimately derive from a Mishnaic Hebrew word for “money”. But there are other theories, too. IOW, no one really knows what this word means. It’s so easy to read it as “money” because, well, because that’s how it’s been read for centuries. Apparently, it does not refer to any sort of Canaanite or Syriac deity, which is how this would make the most sense. In which case, this would be a deity with qualities overlapping Ploutos, which is “wealth”. But there is no evidence (still per Wikipedia) for such a god.

Given that, I think it’s time to face the fact that we really do not understand exactly the distinction Matthew is trying to make here. We simply don’t know. That this is meant as a distinction, of course, is perfectly clear. But one cannot serve God and…what? Because, if you skim back, we have not been discussing wealth at all in the last dozen verses. IMO, it would make more sense if this were to represent a generalized “wickedness”, since that is what the previous set of verses is discussing. But that assumes that this is related to those verses, and there is no real indication of that, especially if this is meant to be understood as “money”. So if there is no connection between the verses, we have no context to use as a basis for understanding this as “money”, or anything else. And that also strikes a blow against this being such a tightly-constructed piece of religious writing; but that argues for the possibility of a Q-type document. 

I actually am hatching a pet theory, under which understanding “Mammon” as “money” would make a lot of sense. But, that’s for a later date.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on January 15, 2015, in gospel commentary, gospels, Historical Jesus, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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