Matthew 18 contains the fourth of the large blocks of Jesus’ teaching that Matthew has collected. The subject matter of this chapter is the life of the church. This reflects Matthew’s careful organization of his gospel. The word "church" appeared in the previous section in Matthew 16:18. Now, chapter 18 will answer the questions about the kind of life together one may expect in a community of disciples who follow a crucified Messiah. Whether the disciples (the audience mentioned in verse 1) understood the significance of these words at the time is impossible to answer. However, it is clear that Matthew, writing several decades later, understood how Jesus’ words applied to the church for which he had care. These "Church Instructions" are not a manual of procedure, nor regulations for worship and community life. Rather, they provide a guide to relationships in the church and are as valuable today as when they were written.
Kingdom Greatness - Matthew 18:1-4
Though some scholars see these verses as dealing with children, the real subject is discipleship. The disciples’ questions about greatness in the kingdom seem unspiritual and out of place. It is hard for most modern people to appreciate the temptation this issue presented Jesus’ first followers. The culture in which they lived highly emphasized status. The question about greatness reflects the hunger for a world in which their status would be elevated and they would finally be "somebody" for a change.
Jesus’ response shows how "counter-cultural" his message was. His very act of summoning a child would have been confusing to the disciples. Children ranked lowest on the honor/shame scales. His words were even more confusing. The text literally says, "Unless you turn and become as the little children, you will certainly not enter the kingdom." The ways of assigning value to people that we practice must be revised among the people of God. Who the world considers valuable and important must not influence decisions in the church. Even the lowest ranking person according to human standards is highly valued in the kingdom. The reference to being humble like a child is a call to embrace a position of low human evaluation.
Care for Others - Matthew 18:5-9
Verse 6 shifts from the language of child to "one of these little ones." The references to "little ones" will reappear in verses 10 and 14 as a way of picturing disciples (members of the church) who have made themselves vulnerable by accepting low status like that of a child. Verses 6-7 warn against placing a "stumbling block" before one of these little ones. Verse 6 warns the church ("if any of you") against damaging one of the believers who had become vulnerable. Verse 7 warns against the world doing the same thing. The warning about stumbling blocks was quite serious (the Greek word was skandalon from which our English word "scandal" comes.) To place a stumbling block before a person was to cause them to sin. God does not take it lightly that we or anyone else undermines the obedience of another disciple. The whole context of chapter 18 shows how easily such undermining can take place. France (p. 271) notes, "One can be ‘tripped up’ as much by a disparaging attitude, a lack of concern and pastoral care, or a refusal to forgive, as by a ‘temptation to sin’." Verses 8 and 9 show how important this issue was to Jesus.
The Lost Sheep - Matthew 18:10-14
To illustrate the importance of these little ones Jesus (and Matthew) inserts the parable of the lost sheep at this point. This parable also appears in Luke 15:3-7, but the teaching function of the parable is very different in the two gospels. The context of Luke makes it clear that the application in that Gospel is the evangelistic effort to seek and save sinners who are in need of repentance. The context and development here in Matthew make a very different point. Here the point is pastoral care for one of the little ones. Jesus has in mind a disciple, a member of the church, who has wandered away from the fold of the church. Such persons are worth so much that the shepherd would leave the ninety-nine still in the church in order to go and rescue the one who had wandered away. The goal is the restoration of that wanderer back to the fold, the church.
This direction of the parable is often less comfortable for the church. We are happy to acknowledge the need to reach out to bring sinners in as the parable teaches in Luke’s gospel. In such a perspective the fault lies with the sinner is who is lost with reference to relationship to God. However, in the Matthean version of the parable the fault may lie with the church rather than the lost sheep. Of course, a person makes their own choices about remaining faithful or leaving the church and Matthew does not deny individual responsibility. But the placement of this parable immediately following the teaching about placing stumbling blocks in verses 5-9 suggests that Matthew envisions a church that is also to blame for those who wander away and are never pursued. Matthew knows that there are times when nothing the church can do will restore the wanderer as the "if he finds it" in verse 13 shows. However, a church that is content to keep the majority of their members has not become genuine children of the heavenly Father who is not willing that any should perish. The least influential, indeed, the most problematic member is worth all the efforts the shepherd can exert to restore that one.
Of special interest in this paragraph is the comment in verse 10 that the angels of these little ones continually see the face of God. As is often the case in biblical references to angels, later interpreters understand much more than the text actually states. Despite the translation of the NEB ("guardian angels") this passages does not claim that every believer has a guardian angel whose ministry is to protect that believer from harm. This verse is not that specific. It indicates that there are angels whose tasks it is to intercede for the little ones. This reflects the Jewish belief that only certain angels were privileged to look at God face to face. In the status-conscious ancient world these angels obviously were more important. Thus, Jesus’ point is that though we might be tempted to disregard the people we regard as insignificant, in reality, the most important angels care for them. The point is simple. If the important angels care for such insignificant "little ones" so should we.
Responding to Sin - Matthew 18:15-20
Verses 15-20 push the question of relationships within the church further. Here the issue directly addresses "a brother who commits a sin." The oldest and best Greek manuscripts do not include the words "against you." Thus the nature of the sin is undefined in this passage. These verses set forth a procedure that the church should follow in cases of sin on the part of a member. This procedure sounds extremely strange to most modern Christians. We have become so accustomed to the modern idea that religion is a personal, individual matter that it does not occur to us to confront sin. The assumption of Scripture is that the church’s purity and thus reputation is at stake anytime there is sin that is tolerated among the members. In the ancient world it would have been unthinkable to fail to challenge a person who claimed to be part of the church, but did not live up to the expectations that go with being part of the church.
It is also important to remember the context that precedes this section. The call to "enforce church discipline" is directed to believers who have been challenged to become a lowly in status as a child. It is directed to those who have been warned that the little ones have angels pleading their cause before God. This is no invitation arrogantly to take over the process of determining who is right with God and who is not. A destructive judgmental spirit runs contrary to the whole thrust of Matthew 18.
The first step is to confront the person alone. If it is possible for restoration to take place without the knowledge of anyone else in the church, that is the best procedure. It is only if that method fails that the scope of the effort is to be broadened. It is safe to say that the church has yet to see what could be accomplished for good if the first one we talked to after a suspected sin was the person who committed it. The resistance to gossip continues in the second step. Failure to resolve the matter privately leads to the involvement of two or three others. The point of this is the establishment of truth by two or three witnesses according to the Old Testament. These witnesses can confirm the truth of the conversation that will ensue, but their primary purpose is to help convince the offender to repent.
It is only when these attempts at private mediation fail that the issue is to become known to the whole church. Though verse 17 passes over it quickly, it is clear that the whole church is to be engaged in an effort to regain the offending brother or sister. The church’s function is not to serve as judge and jury but to redeem.
The response of the church should that attempt fail has been interpreted in two major ways. The traditional understanding of Jesus’ remark to let the offender become "as a gentile and tax-collector" is that Christ was calling for the excommunication of the sinning brother. Such a view is consistent with the scenario of 1 Corinthians 5:1-5. In recent years, another interpretation has been advanced. It points out that Jesus’ ministry was directed in large measure toward sinners and tax-collectors. Following his death the disciples were sent to the gentiles. Proponents of the second view argue that when a church member sins and refuses all the attempts to bring repentance, the church should then treat him once more as an object of evangelism and direct our greatest love and best efforts at winning him to Christ [again].
The Unforgiving Servant -Matthew 18:21-35
The issue in verses 15-18 was the sin of a fellow church member. Whether or not it was against another specific believer there is a procedure that the church must use to regain the offending member. However, if that sin is "against" a specific believer that believer must also forgive. How one responds when sinned against is the subject of verses 21-35. The question of how often a person could sin, repent, and be forgiven of the same sin was the subject of frequent debate among Jewish rabbis. Their concern was (legitimately) to establish the genuineness of repentance. The generally agreed answer among them was three times. Thus Peter’s offer of forgiving an offending brother up to seven times would have seemed quite gracious and generous from the perspective of Jewish discussion at the time. Jesus’ reply puts an end to all limits on forgiveness and all calculations about how much we are to forgive.
The question of whether the Greek phrase should be translated seventy-seven times (77) or seventy times seven (490) falls into the trap of doing what Jesus was trying to stop - keeping track of forgiveness. The point of seventy-seven times is mostly a point of contrast with Genesis 4:24 where the violent Lamech boasted of avenging himself seventy-seven fold. Forgiveness that keeps track is not forgiveness at all. The following parable attempts to make the same point in parabolic style.
The parable of the unforgiving servant deserves a reputation like that of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. It is an intriguing story, well developed from a literary point of view, and drives home a significant theological truth. No doubt, it suffers less popularity because of the great demand it places on us to forgive without questions and limits. The operating principle for the parable is the principle of contrast.
The debt of the first (unforgiving) servant is huge beyond imagination. A talent was the highest denomination of currency known in the Greco-Roman world. Estimates of its value range from six thousand to ten thousand denarii. A denarius was the standard one-day’s wage. Thus the debt of the first servant is somewhere between sixty and a hundred billion days’ wages. Even if one assumed the ability to work 365 days per year it would require between 164, 000 and 274,000 years to earn the money needed to repay the debt! The plea of the servant for mercy so he could repay is clearly ludicrous. There is no way he could ever repay such a debt. Yet, that debt was forgiven him. The contrast arises when this first servant finds a fellow servant who owed him a hundred denarii. This is just over three months’ worth of daily wages. This debt could be repaid. The refusal of the first servant to forgive this infinitely smaller debt shows that he had no comprehension of the grace that had been extended to him.
The point of the parable is painfully clear. The debt that we owe God because of our sin compares to the ten thousand talent debt. It is so great that we could never, ever, repay it. But God graciously forgives that impossible debt. For us to fail to forgive someone who has sinned against us simply reveals that we have not comprehended the forgiveness offered to us in Christ. It shows that we are still playing the "keeping track game." As long as we do, we forfeit God’s forgiveness which is founded on not keeping track of our sins anymore (see Romans 3:25). Strangely, this has been an extremely difficult lesson for the church to learn.
Teaching on Divorce - Matthew 19:1-12
Matthew 19 returns to a narrative form after the teaching block of chapter 18. However, the narrative now begins to include significant teaching materials. This fact is often used by those who reject the idea that Matthew consciously created "five books" of narrative and teaching blocks.
Though narrative is the form, the first subject becomes Jesus’ teaching on divorce. Matthew has already touched on Jesus’ view on this subject in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:31-32). The subject was no light matter. A strong biblical stand on divorce had cost John the Baptist his life (Matthew 14:1-12). The subject was also a point of controversy between the so-called schools of Hillel and Shammai. The Hillelite school had a very loose interpretation of Old Testament instructions on divorce and argued that divorce was permitted for almost any cause. Writings reflecting their legal arguments include references to finding a prettier woman and a wife burning food while cooking as legitimate biblical grounds for divorce. The school of Shammai was more conservative. Only something unseemly such as public flirting, exposing her bare arms in public, and flagrant disobedience to the law was considered a legitimate grounds for divorce. While this difficult subject is "touchy" today, it was even more so in Jesus’ time.
The scene begins with the Pharisees trying to entrap Jesus on the question of divorce. They knew his high standards on the question and saw this issue as an easy way to alienate people from him. The form of their question suggests they followed the Hillelite school of interpretation on this matter. Jesus immediately turned the question on its head by refusing answer the "legality" of causes for divorce. He appealed to an earlier (and thus in that culture more important) passage of Scripture that affirmed God’s will for marriage. Working from the Creation Story in Genesis 2, he affirmed in verse 6 that divorce was a human attempt to break apart a union instituted by God. Here we see the same process that was at work in the Great Antitheses in Matthew 5:21-48. For Jesus the first issue is not divorce but the meaning of marriage.
The Pharisees countered by appealing to their chief proof text on divorce, Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Most interestingly, they describe that passage as a command of Moses. Jesus’ response does not accept their term "command." Rather, he describes Deuteronomy 24:1-4 as Moses’ permission "because of the hardness of your hearts." Several points are important. First, Jesus does not forbid divorce. He simply refuses to call it the will of God. God’s will is a successful marriage. (Marriages that stay together legally, but never achieve the emotional as well physical bonding implied in "one flesh" also fall short of God’s will.) Second, Jesus contends that divorce and remarriage (as a violation of God’s will and as a result of the hardness of human hearts) is sin, though he does not attempt to assign guilt to one party over against the other. Third, the implication of Jesus’ teaching is that the church should give more attention to nurturing successful marriages than to falling into a Jewish-type debate over when divorce is permissible.
In verses 10-12, the disciples reflect how stringent Jesus’ teaching sounded in that culture by wondering if marriage was even worth the risk. The very question showed their failure to understand and accept Jesus’ teaching on the primacy of successful marriages. They were still in a self-protection mode. Jesus’ reply opens the door to celibacy as an acceptable life for followers of Christ, but it does not require celibacy for the clergy as Roman Catholic teaching demands. The ability to be successfully married or to be successfully celibate is described as gifts of grace from God.
The Blessing of Children - Matthew 19:13-15
It was a Jewish custom to bring children to the elders on the evening of the Day of Atonement for a blessing and a prayer. The incident described in verses 13-15 appears to be of this nature. The objection of the disciples may be over whether "elder" was an appropriate title for Jesus. It is more likely that their objection was that Jesus was too busy and too important to be bothered by children since (as noted in the comments on chapter 18) children were generally regarded as insignificant. Jesus’ response affirms the value of children and requires his followers both to value them and to take account of them in the development of the life of the church. His laying hands on the children was partly the means by which blessings were conveyed in Judaism and partly the natural expression of affection and acceptance.
Riches and the Kingdom -Matthew 19:16-30
Jesus’ teaching on divorce gives one picture of the way he understood the demands of the kingdom and the role of Scripture. This paragraph introduces another example. The young man poses the question in terms of some good deed or religious act that he might perform to guarantee his participation in the kingdom and the life to come. Jesus turns the question of good back to the young man and calls on him to keep the commandments. The young man counters by demanding that Jesus reveal which commandments he considered most important. Jesus responded with a quotation of several of the Ten Commandments and the command of Leviticus 19:18 to love one’s neighbor as oneself. When the young man claimed obedience to all such demands of the Old Testament Jesus tested him with a call to perfection that required selling all, giving to the poor, and entering a life of itinerant discipleship with Christ. The young man regretfully declined.
The following verses point out that Jesus perceived wealth as an obstacle to entry into the kingdom. This is not a popular view today among so many of us who aspire after wealth. It was incomprehensible in Jesus’ time because the folk theology of that era believed that wealth was the key evidence of being blessed by God. The little parable about a camel passing through the eye of needle is designed to show how utterly difficult wealth makes it for a person to enter the kingdom. The passage concludes with a reminder that kingdom values completely reverse the value systems of our world. The sooner the disciples then (and the church now) come to understand that truth the sooner we will be able to make a significant impact on the world in which we live.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to help you understand the Scriptures and to apply its meaning to your own heart and life.
First Day: Read the notes on Matthew 18:10-19:30. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Why are they important?
2. Is there a spiritual truth in this section that is especially significant for you? Write it down and explain why it is important for you.
3. Write a brief prayer asking God to create a heart for forgiveness in you. If there is a person that you have never forgiven, ask God to begin to work in your life to see how much he wants to forgive you.
Second Day: Read Matthew 20:1-28. Now focus on Matthew 20:1-16.
1. How do you feel about the justice of the landowner who paid everyone the same regardless of how long they had worked? What are some of the problems that could arise from this kind of "generosity?"
2. If this is a parable about God what does it teach us about his generosity? Would you prefer that God judge on the basis of justice or the basis of grace? Why?
3. How does verse 16 fit in with the parable? Is it a principle that the parable illustrates or what? What is the significance of it appearing at the end of this parable.
Third Day: Read Matthew 20:1-28. Focus in on Matthew 20:17-28.
1. How does the request of the mother of the sons of Zebedee "fit" with verses 17-19? How does her request "fit" with the parable found in verses 1-16? Does a request like hers ever "fit" in a Christian context? Why? Or why not?
2. What do you think Jesus meant when he spoke of the sons of Zebedee "drinking the cup" which he would drink? Compare this passage with the similar passage in Mark 10:35-40. What does the Marcan passage add to your understanding?
3. Do you think the ten disciples were justified in their response to the sons of Zebedee? Did Jesus think they were justified? What do you think caused their anger? What is an adequate basis for anger against a fellow disciple?
Fourth Day: Read Matthew 20:17-34. Focus your attention on Matthew 20:24-34.
1. How does Jesus’ description of the attitudes and actions of the rulers of the Gentiles and their great ones compare with our culture’s view of status, power, and leadership? Would Jesus re-phrase verse 26 if he were speaking to us today? If so, how? If not, why not?
2. Study verses 26-28. Now write a profile for leadership in the Christian community based on these verses. Verse 28 appears to be based on Isaiah 53. How does Isaiah 53 contribute to a Christian view of leadership?
3. How does the miracle of verses 29-34 "fit" with verses 20-28? In this context who is in greatest need of having their eyes opened? What is area of Christian life in which you need your eyes opened?
Fifth Day: Read Matthew 21:1-17. Now focus in on Matthew 21:1-11.
1. Verse 5 appears to quote from Zechariah 9:9. Read all of Zechariah 9. What phrases in that chapter seem to be significant background for the triumphal entry of Christ? How do they fit into the picture of Jesus?
2. Verse 9 draws from the language of Psalm 118:25-26. Read all of Psalm 118. What phrases of that Psalm seem to "fit" the picture of Jesus that is emerging in the triumphal entry?
3. In verse 11 the crowds describe Jesus as the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee. What word pictures of Jesus come to you from the triumphal entry? What does the triumphal entry contribute to your faith?
Sixth Day: Read Matthew 21:1-17. Now focus on Matthew 21:12-17.
1. Why do you think Jesus "cleansed" the temple? If Christ were to come to your church today, would there be things that you think he would need to cleanse? If so, ask God to help you have the wisdom to change those things before judgment comes.
2. Reflect on the meaning of the phrase "a den of robbers." It appears to come from Jeremiah 7:11. Read Jeremiah 7:1-15 and identify the things that needed cleansed at that time. What did God do about those things?
3. What caused the anger of the chief priests and scribes in these verses? Is there a lack of praise in your church? What can you do so see to it that God receives appropriate praise?