Matthew 18
Pulpit Commentary
At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
Verses 1-35. - Discourse concerning the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, and the mutual duties of Christians. (Mark 9:33-50; Luke 9:46-50.) Verses 1-4. - The greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Verse 1. - At the same time; literally, in that hour. The narrator connects the following important discourse with the circumstances just previously related. Peter had completed the business of the didrachma, and had rejoined the body of disciples. These, according to St. Mark, had disputed about precedency on the way to Capernaum. Fired with the notion that their Master would ere long publicly assert his Messianic claims, which, in their view, implied temporal sovereignty and secular power, they looked forward to becoming dignitaries in this new kingdom. Three of them had been honoured with special marks of favour; one of them had been pre-eminently distinguished: how would it be when the coming empire was established? This had been the subject of conversation, and had given rise to some contention among them. Christ had marked the dispute, but had said nothing at the time. Now he gives them a lesson in humility, and teaches the spiritual nature of his kingdom, in which earthly pride and ambition find no place. From St. Mark we learn that Jesus himself took the initiative in the discourse, asking the disciples concerning their disputation on the road; and, when they were ashamed to answer, he added, "If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all." Our Gospel here takes up the story. The paradox seemed incomprehensible; so they put the question, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? The Greek is, Τίς ἄρα μαίζων ἐστὶν κ.τ.λ.; who then is greater? Vulgate, Quis, putas, major est? The illative particle "then" refers to what is recorded in St. Mark (Mark 9:34), or to some such difficulty in the querists' mind. They make the inquiry in the present tense, as though Christ had already selected the one who was to preside; and by the kingdom of heaven they mean the Messianic kingdom on earth, concerning which their notions did not yet rise above those of their contemporaries (comp. Acts 1:6). The comparative in the original, "greater," is virtually equivalent to the superlative, as it is translated in the Authorized Version. Such a question as the above could not have been asked had the apostles at this time recognized any absolute pre-eminence in Peter or acknowledged his supremacy.
And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them,
Verse 2. - A little child. Our Lord teaches, not only by spoken parables, but by symbolical actions also. This was not a mere infant, as Christ is said to have called him unto him. A tradition, mentioned by Nicephorus ('Hist. Eccl.,' 2:35), asserts that this child was the famous martyr Ignatius. Set him in the midst of them. Taking him in his arms, as St. Mark tells. What a picture of Christ's tenderness and human love! From the boy's trustfulness and submission he draws a needed lesson for the ambitious apostles.
And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Verse 3. - Except ye be converted στραφῆτε); i.e. turned from proud, ambitious thoughts of worldly dignity. There is no question here about what is popularly known as conversion - the change from habitual sin to holiness. The conversion here spoken of is confined to a change in the present state of mind - to a new direction given to the thoughts and wishes. The apostles had shown rivalry, jealousy, ambition: they must turn away from such failings, and learn a different lesson. Become as little children. Christ points to little children as the model to which the members of his kingdom must assimilate themselves. The special attributes of children which he would recommend are humility, unworldliness, simplicity, teachableness, - the direct contraries of self-seeking, worldliness, distrust, conceit. Ye shall not enter. In the sermon on the mount Christ had said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3). To all who are not such the gate opens not. That virtue which was unknown to pagan antiquity, the opposite character to which was upholden as the acme of excellence, Christ here asserts to be the only passport to his ideal Church on earth or its eternal development in heaven. Not the self-esteeming, proud man (μεγαλόψυχος) of Aristotle's worship ('Eth. Nic.,' 4:3), but the humble (ταπεινὸς), the lowly, the self-depreciating, is the man who can realize his position in the spiritual world, and shall be admitted to its blessings and benefits. St. Paul has summarized the ideal character of the members of the kingdom in 1 Corinthians 13, especially vers. 4, 5, and 7.
Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Verse 4. - Whosoever therefore. This verse gives a direct application of the principle just enunciated, and supplies an answer to the apostles' question. Shall humble himself. Not that a child consciously humbles itself, but is humble by nature. The disciple must become that by deliberate choice which the child is by reason of his constitution and natural disposition. The same is greatest; rather, greater (μείζων), Christ using the same term as the questioners in ver. 1. The more a man annihilates self and casts away pride, conceit, obstinacy, the fitter is he to become a living member of Christ's kingdom. "Quanto humilior, tanto altior," says Thomas Aquinas. But this is a joint work. St. Gregory says well, "The good which a man doeth is both the work of God and the work of man: of God, as being the Author, in giving grace; of man, as being actor, in using grace, yet so that he cooperate with grace by grace" (quoted by Ford, in loc.).
And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.
Verses 5-14. - The treatment due to such. Verse 5. - Shall receive (ο{ς ἐὰν δέξηται). The word is pregnant with meaning. It includes not only the showing of tender affection and the giving of material succour, such as hospitality, shelter, etc., but also the bestowal of help and support in spiritual things, encouragement in holiness, instruction in Divine lore. One such little child. Primarily, Jesus refers to children, pure and confiding as the one he had placed in the midst; but his words are applicable to all who have the childlike spirit and character, the graces which he specially loves and rewards. The expressions here and in the next verse must be understood to belong in some cases to the symbol, and in others to the symbolized. In my Name (ἐπὶ τῷ ὀνόματί μου); for the sake of my Name; because he belongs to me; not merely from natural affection and pity, but from a higher motive, because the child has in him somewhat of Christ - is the child of God, and a member of Christ. Receiveth me. That which is done to his little ones Christ regards as done to himself (comp. Matthew 10:40-42). What a blessing waits on those who teach the young, working laboriously in schools, and training souls for heaven! This "receiving" Christ is a far higher and better thing than being "greatest" in an earthly kingdom.
But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
Verse 6. - There is an opposite side to this picture. Shall offend; cause to stumble - give occasion for a fall, i.e. either in faith or morals. This is done by evil example, by teaching to sin, by sneers at piety, by giving soft names to gross offences. One of these little ones. Whether child or adult, a pure, simple soul, which has a certain faith it be not strong enough to resist all attack. Even the heathen recognized the respect due to the young: "Maxima debetur puero reverentia" (Juvenal, 'Sat.,' 14:47); and guilelessness and purity, wherever found, win some regard, even from worthless and careless observers. To wilfully lead one such astray is a deadly sin, which the Lord denounces in solemn terms. Christ affectionately calls his disciples "little ones" (Matthew 10:42). Believe in (εἰς) me. We must always distinguish between "believe in" (πιστεύειν εἰς, or ἐν: credo in) and "believe" with the simple dative; the former is applied to faith in God alone. Says St. Augustine, "Credimus Paulo, sed non credimus in Paulum." In the present passage the phrase implies the Divinity of Christ. It were better; literally, it is profitable. The crime specified is so heinous that a man had better incur the most certain death, if by this means he may avoid the sin and save the soul of his possible victim. A millstone; a great millstone - such a one as required an ass to inure. The upper, or movable, stone is meant, which was usually turned by the hand. Drowned. We do not know that the Jews punished criminals by drowning (καταποντισμὸς), though it is probable that it was practised in some cases; but by other nations this penalty was commonly exacted. Among the Romans, Greeks, and Syrians, it was certainly the practice. Commentators quote Suetonius, 'Aug.,' 67; Diod. Sic., 16:35; Livy, 1:51; Aristophanes, 'Schol. ad Equit.,' 1360. The punishment seems to have been reserved for the greatest criminals; and the size of the stone would prevent any chance of the body rising again to the surface and being buried by friends - a consideration which, in the minds of heathens, greatly increased the horror of this kind of death.
Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!
Verse 7. - This and the preceding verse occur in St. Luke (Luke 17:1, 2) in an inverted order. Woe unto the world! The Lord thinks of the deadly evil brought into the world by offences given, such as bad example, unholy lives of Christians, persecutions, scoffs, thoughtlessness - things which lead so many astray. For it must needs be. While men are what they are, such consequences must be expected. This is not an absolute, but a relative, necessity. Man's heart is evil, his tendencies are evil, temptation is strong. Satan is active; all these forces combine to bring about a fatal result. Thus St. Paul says (1 Corinthians 11:19), "There must be heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you." So these offences of which Christ speaks are overruled and permitted for wise purposes, that by them the righteous may be proved and purified, and the chaff separated from the wheat. But woe to that man! Because of this evil principle which is rife in the world, no man is exonerated from the guilt of giving offence. He has free will; he can choose good; he can use the means of grace; he can strengthen his natural weakness, control his perverseness, overcome corruption, by the help of God always ready to be given to them who seek. The first "woe" is a cry of pity for a world in danger; the second "woe" is a denunciation of the sinner as being responsible for the evil which he introduces. We are all in some sort our brothers' keepers, and are bound to help forward their salvation, and to do nothing which may tend to endanger their souls' health.
Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire.
Verse 8. - Wherefore. The Lord teaches how to avoid this sin of giving offence, repeating the solemn words already delivered in the sermon on the mount, though with some variation and a different context (Matthew 5:29, 30). The reference on the former occasion was especially to breaches of the seventh commandment; here the Lord speaks of offences in general, of that external corruption among mankind which is the fruitful source of temptation and sin. The only remedy for this is the sternest self-denial, the strictest watchfulness. Or thy foot. Christ did not name this member in his previous discourse. Literally, the hand or foot leads into sin, when it is directed to forbidden objects, moves towards the acquisition of things contrary to the Law of God. Metaphorically, the expression signifies all that is as dear and as necessary as these important members. Such occasions of sin we must at once and absolutely cast aside. It includes also persons as well as things. Friends the dearest must be parted from if their presence, or conversation, or habits cause evil thoughts or encourage evil acts. In the presence of such offences, ties the nearest must be snapped asunder. Loneliness, isolation, is better than companionship in wickedness. It has been well said by Olshausen that the hand and the foot may denote mental powers and dispositions; and the warning is given that their over-cultivation may prove an obstacle to the spiritual life, and must be accordingly checked. We may also descry in the paragraph an admonition against making too much of skill, dexterity, and adroitness in business and occupation. There is a subtle snare in them; they may draw the heart away from God, and must be restrained and modified, so as not to interfere with the cultivation of religion and the care of the soul. Enter into life. This is an addition not found in the sermon on the mount; it refers to the eternal life which, beginning on earth, is consummated in heaven. Everlasting fire (τὸ πῦρ τὸ αἰώνιον). This is the first time that this phrase occurs. Whatever these words may mean, there can be no doubt that they signify, and are intended to signify, some awful kind and extent of punishment, the fear of which may deter from such sins as incur it. It is not morally expedient to minimize the force of such terms by disputing about the exact connotation of "aeonian." When we remember that the words are spoken by the loving and pitiful Saviour, we must allow that they point to some dreadful reality, the import of which he knew, and which he thus mercifully veiled from us as not able to bear the full revelation (see on Matthew 25:46).
And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.
Verse 9. - Hell fire. A synonym for the "everlasting fire" of the previous verse, and the "unquenchable fire" of the Baptist's warning (Matthew 3:12), and to be understood in the same sense. It is good to be saved even with the loss of all that makes earthly life happy and precious.
Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.
Verse 10. - From this verse to the end of the chapter we find no parallel in the other evangelists. The Saviour here returns to the subject of children, whether literally or metaphorically so called, and proclaims the high appreciation which is their due. Take heed (ὁρᾶτε, see) that ye despise not one (ἑνὸς) of these little ones. God's care is minute; it extends to each individual of the class. The contempt denounced might arise in various ways and from various considerations. The advanced believer might despise children as hot competent to enter into covenant with God or fit to receive Church privileges, whereas circumcision under the old dispensation and infant baptism under the gospel afford a very different view. Again, to say or do unseemly things in the presence of children is a mode of" despising" which may prove a deadly offence. Or the contempt may be on the side of the ambitious and self-seeking, who cannot understand the simple and childlike spirit which seeketh not its own. The Lord gives two proofs of the high consideration due to his little ones. The first proof is that which follows; the second is given in vers. 11-14. Their angels. Not "their spirits after death," as some commentators erroneously interpret (for the term "angel" is not so used, and Christ speaks in the present tense, do always behold), but the angels especially appointed to watch and protect them - their guardian angels. This doctrine (which, as of very solemn import, the Lord introduces with his usual formula, I say unto you), that each soul has assigned to it by God a special angel is grounded on this, and supported by many other passages of Scripture (comp. Hebrews 1:14; Psalm 34:7; Psalm 91:11; Luke 15:7, 10). It has been questioned how angels can be said to succour us on earth, while in heaven they are always looking on the face of the Father. The difficulty has been answered, among others, by St. Gregory, who writes, "They never so go forth apart from the vision of God, as to be deprived of the joys of interior contemplation. They are both sent from him, and stand by him too, since both in that they are circumscribed, they go forth, and in this that they are also entirely present, they never go away. Thus they at the same time always behold the Father's face, and yet come to us; because they both go forth to us in a spiritual presence, and yet keep themselves there, whence they had gone out, by virtue of interior contemplation" ('Moral.,' 2:3). It is probable that the highest order of angels is here signified, such as among the Jews was called, "the angels of the presence, or of the face." To behold the king's face means, in Eastern parlance, to be admitted to his immediate presence - to enjoy his special favour and confidence (see 2 Kings 25:19; Esther 1:14; Jeremiah 52:25). It is to these supreme beings, who draw their knowledge and love directly from Almighty God, and receive their commands from his mouth, that the tender lambs of Christ's flock are committed. This fact demonstrates their dignity and the great heinousness of setting a stumbling block in their way.
For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.
Verse 11. - This verse is omitted by the Sinaitic and Vatican Manuscripts, and many modern editors, e.g., Lachmann, Tischendort, Tregelles, Westcott and Hort, and the Revised Version; but is retained in many good uncials, nearly all the cursives, the Vulgate, Syriac, etc. It is supposed to be an interpolation from Luke 19:10; but one does not see why, if this is the case, the inter-polater should have left out the striking verb "to seek," which would naturally have coincided with "seeketh" in ver. 12. For expository use, at any rate, we may consider the verse as genuine, and take it as the commencement of the second argument for the dignity of the little ones - the simple and humble, whether children or others. This proof is derived from the action of God towards them. The Son of man is come to save that which was lost (τὸ ἀπολωλός). How can ye despise those whom Christ hath so loved and deemed so precious that he emptied himself of his glory and became man in order to save them? The general term, " that which was lost," is expressed by the neuter participle, to show that there is no exception to the wide scope of Christ's mercy. The race of man is lost; infants are born in sin; all need redemption. Everybody, poor, helpless, ignorant, tempted, comes under this category, and to save such Christ came down from heaven. Therefore their souls are very precious in his sight.
How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?
Verse 12. - The parable that follows teaches the same lesson as the preceding verse. It is found in Luke 15:1-7, with some variations, delivered to a different audience and under different circumstances, as Jesus often repeated his instructions and teaching according to the occasion. How think ye? What say ye to the following case? Thus the Lord engages the disciples' attention. An hundred sheep. A round number, representing a considerable flock. If but one of these stray, the good Shepherd regards only the danger and possible destruction of this wanderer, and puts aside every other care in order to secure its safety. The ninety and nine. These must be left for a time, if he is to conduct the search in person. It may he that some idea of probation is here intended, as when Jesus let the disciples embark on the lake while he himself remained on the shore. Many of the Fathers interpret the ninety-nine as representing the sinless angels, the lost sheep as man, to seek and save whom Christ left heaven, i.e. became incarnate. This, indeed, may be a legitimate application of the parable, but is inexact as an exposition of the passage, which regards the whole flock as figuring the human race. The sheep that remained safe and true to their Master are the righteous; the errant are the sinners, which, however few, are the special care of the merciful Lord. Into the mountains (ἐπὶ τὰ ὔρη). There is much doubt whether these words are to be joined with goeth (πορευθεὶς), as in both our versions, or with leave (ἀφεὶς), as in the Vulgate, Nonne relinquit nonaginta novem in montibus? In the former case we have a picture of the toil of the shepherd traversing the mountains in search of the lost. But this does not seem to be the particular point contemplated, nor is any special emphasis assigned to this part of the transaction. In the parable as recounted by St. Luke (Luke 15:4), we read, "Doth he not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go?" So here it is best to render, Doth he not leave the ninety and nine upon the mountains? The shepherd is not regardless of the safety and comfort of the flock during his temporary absence; he leaves them where they are sure to find pasture, as they roam over (ἐπὶ with accusative) the hill tops, which, catching clouds and dew, are never without fresh grass. So Psalm 147:8, "Who covereth the heaven with clouds, who prepareth rain for the earth, who maketh grass to grow upon the mountains." Seeketh. The lost sheep would not return of itself. Such erring souls Jesus seeks by the inspiration of his Spirit, by allowing distress and sorrow, by awakening conscience and memory, by ways manifold which may lead the sinner to "come to himself."
And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray.
Verse 13. - If so be that he find it. The quest is not sure to he rewarded. Man's perversity makes the result uncertain. No one may safely go on sinning, or living in careless unconcern, with the expectation of being finally found and saved. There is a limit to the patience of the Lord. If a man will not open his heart to good inspirations and cooperate with preventing grace, he will not be found and brought home. God forces no one to be saved against his will. Rejoiceth more. A natural feeling. Thus a mother loves better an afflicted child whom she has nursed through a long malady, than the strong and healthy children who have caused her no trouble and anxiety. The joy at the recovery of the strayed sheep is proportional to the sorrow occasioned by its loss and the pains and trouble expended in the search; and this pleasure would at the moment be greater than the satisfaction with which the other members of the flock are regarded.
Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.
Verse 14. - Even so. The teaching of the parable is summed up; the conduct of the earthly shepherd is a figure of that of the heavenly Shepherd. The will of your Father... perish. To scandalize one of these little ones, or lead him into sin (which is to cause to perish), is to fight against God's will, who would have all men to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). "When the dignity of the little ones was asserted, it was Πατρός μου, 'my Father;' now that a motive directly acting on the conscience of the Christian is urged, it is Πατρὸς ὑμῶν, your Father" (Alford). St. Paul teaches that Christ died for the weak brethren (Romans 14:15; 1 Corinthians 8:11). With this text (ver. 14) before him, it is inconceivable that any one can hold the doctrine of the eternal reprobation of certain souls. The whole passage is opposed to the theory of irrespective predestination and irresistible grace.
Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
Verses 15-20. - Correction of an offending brother. Verse 15. - Hitherto the discourse has warned against offending the young and weak; it now teaches how to behave when the offence is directed against one's self. Moreover (δὲ, "now," introducing a new subject) if thy brother shall trespass against thee (εἰς σέ). The brother is a brother in the faith, a fellow Christian. The words, "against thee," are omitted in the Sinaitic and Vatican Manuscripts, and by some modern editors, on the ground that it is a gloss derived from Peter's question (ver. 21). The words are retained by the Vulgate and other high authorities. Without them, the passage becomes one of a general nature, applying to all offences. Retaining them, we find a direction how to treat one who offers personal offence to ourselves - which seems to suit the context best. In the case of private quarrels between individual Christians, with the view of reconciliation, there are four steps to be taken. First, private remonstrance: Go. Do not wait for him to come to you; make the first advances yourself. This, as being the more difficult course, is expressly enjoined on one who is learning the lesson of humility. Tell him his fault; ἔλεγξον αὐτόν,: corripe eum. Put the fault plainly before him, show him how he has wronged you, and how he has offended God. This must be done in private, gently, mercifully. Such treatment may win the heart, while public rebuke, open denunciation, might only incense and harden. Plainly, the Lord primarily contemplates quarrels between individual Christians; though, indeed, the advice here and in the sequel is applicable to a wider sphere and to more important occasions. Thou hast gained thy brother. If he shall own his fault, and ask for pardon, thou hast won him for God and thyself. A quarrel is a loss to both parties; a reconciliation is a gain for both. The verb "to gain" (κερδαίνω) is used elsewhere in this high sense (see 1 Corinthians 9:19; 1 Peter 3:1).
But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
Verse 16. - This gives the second step or stage in discipline. Take with thee one or two more. If the offender is obdurate to secret remonstrance, do not yet resort to public measures, but make a fresh effort accompanied by a friend or two, who will support your view and confirm your expostulation, which might otherwise be considered partial or self-interested. In the mouth of two or three witnesses. The idea is derived from the requirement of the Jewish Law in a case of litigation (see Deuteronomy 19:15; John 8:17; 2 Corinthians 13:1). By the testimony of these witnesses, every word that has passed between you may be fully certified. There will be forthcoming, if necessary, the regular legal evidence, should the matter come to other ears.
And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
Verse 17. - Tell it unto the Church (τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ). This is the third step to take. Our Lord is contemplating a visible society, possessed of certain powers of discipline and correction, such as we find in the history of the apostolic Church (see 1 Corinthians 5:1, etc.; 1 Corinthians 6:1, etc.; 1 Timothy 1:20). Christ had already spoken of his Ecclesia in his commendation of Peter's great confession (Matthew 16:18); so the twelve were prepared for this use of the word, and would not confound the body here signified with the Jewish synagogue. To the latter the expressions in vers. 18-20 could not apply. The custom and order of procedure in the synagogue would afford an idea of what the Lord meant; but the congregation intended was to be composed of Christians. the followers of Christ, who were delivered from the narrowness of rabbinical rules and definitions. The institution of ecclesiastical tribunals has been referred to this passage, but, as understood by the apostles, it would denote, not so much ecclesiastical rulers as the particular congregation to which the delinquent belonged; and the offence for which he is denounced is some private scandal or quarrel. The course of proceeding enjoined would be impracticable in a large and widely extended community, and could not be applied under our present circumstances. If he neglect to hear the Church. Now comes the final stage in corrective discipline. An heathen man (ὁ ἐθνικὸς, the Gentile) and a publican (ὁ τελώνης, the publican). The class, not the individual, is meant. If he turns a deaf ear to the authoritative reproof of the Church, let him be regarded no longer as a brother, but as a heathen and an outcast. Christ, without endorsing the Jews' treatment of Gentiles and publicans, acknowledges the fact, and uses it as an illustration. The obdurate offender must be deprived of Church membership, and treated as those without the Jewish pale were commonly treated. The traditional law enjoined that a Hebrew might not associate, eat, or travel with a heathen, and that if any Jew took the office of publicans, he was to be virtually excommunicated. In later times, there naturally arose in the Christian Church the punishment of offenders by means of exclusion from holy communion, and excommunication. But even in this extreme case charity will not regard the sinner as hopelessly lost; it will seek his salvation by prayer and entreaty.
Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Verse 18. - The following words are addressed, not, as the preceding verse, to the offended Christian, but to the apostles, as possessed of some superior powers above those of any individual congregation. Verily I say unto you. The Lord solemnly confers the grant made to Peter (Matthew 16:19) on the whole apostolate. The binding and loosing, in a restricted sense, and in logical connection with what precedes, refer to the confirmation and authorization of the sentence of the Ecclesia, which is not valid, so to speak, in the heavenly court till endorsed by Christ's representatives - the apostles. Whether the verdict was the excommunication of the offender ("bind") or his pardon and restoration ("loose"), the ratification of the apostles was required, and would be made good in heaven. The treatment of the incestuous Christian by St. Paul is a practical comment on this passage. The congregation decides on the man's guilt, but St. Paul "binds" him, retains his sins, and delivers him to Satan (1 Corinthians 5:1-5); and when on his repentance he is forgiven, it is the apostle who "looses" him, acting as the representative of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:10). In a general sense, the judicial and disciplinary powers of the Christian priesthood have been founded on this passage, which from early times has been used in the service of ordination. Each body of Christians has its own way of interpreting the promise. While some opine that, speaking in Christ's name and with his authority, the priest can pronounce or withhold pardon; others believe that external discipline is all that is intended; others again think that the terms are satisfied by the ministration of the Word and sacraments, as a physician gives health by prescribing remedies.
Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.
Verse 19. - Again I say unto you. The following paragraph has been thought by many to be addressed especially to the apostles in confirmation of the powers conferred on them above; but from ver. 20 we should judge the promise to be general. Herein is set forth the privilege of united prayer. God confirms the sentence of his authorized ambassadors; he gives special heed to the joint intercessions of all Christians. Two of you. Two of my followers, even the smallest number that could form an association. Shall agree (συμφωνήσωσιν). Be in complete accord, like the notes of a perfect strain of music. Here one man's infirmity is upheld by another's strength; one man's short-sightedness compensated by another's wider view; this man's little faith overpowered by that man's firm confidence. Anything. Of course, this is to be understood with some restriction. The thing asked must be reasonable, good in itself, expedient for the petitioner; the prayer must be earnest, faithful, persevering. If such conditions are satisfied, the desire will be granted in some form, though, perhaps, not in the way or at the time expected. Thus the Lord sanctions guilds or bodies of Christians united together to offer up supplications for special objects or with some definite intention in which all ere agreed.
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
Verse 20. - The promise is applied to the public prayer of the congregation, as we see in what is called "the prayer of St. Chrysostom" in the English Prayer book. Are gathered together. For the purpose of worship. It is a simpler form of the word used in Hebrews 10:25, "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together." In my Name (εἰς τὸ ἐμὸν ὄνομα); literally, into my Name; i.e. with love to me, yearning for union with me, and acting for my glory. This would imply decent and orderly meeting for the highest ends. There am I in the midst of them. Christ promises a real, actual presence, though invisible, as true as when he appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, as true as when the Shechinah shone in tabernacle or temple. The rabbis had a saying that if two sat at table and conversed about the Law of God, the Shechinah rested upon them. The promise in the text, of course, implies Christ's omnipresence and omniscience. This is his blessing on united, congregational prayer.
Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?
Verses 21-35. - The pardon of injuries, and the parable of the unmerciful servant. Verse 21. - Peter was greatly struck with what Christ had just said about reconciliation of enemies; and he wanted to know what limits were to be imposed on his generosity, especially, it might be, if the offender made no reparation for his offence, and acknowledged not his wrong doing. My brother. As ver. 15, fellow disciple, neighbour. Till seven times? Peter doubtless thought that he was unusually liberal and generous in proposing such a measure of forgiveness. Seven is the number of completeness and plurality, and our Lord had used it in giving his sentence about forgiveness: "If he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn to thee again," etc. (Luke 17:4). Some rabbis had fixed this limit from an erroneous interpretation of Amos 1:3; Amos 2:1. "For three transgressions, and for four," etc.; but the usual precept enjoined forgiveness of three offences only, drawing the line here, and having no pity for a fourth offence. Ben-Sira bids a man admonish an offending neighbour twice, but is silent as to any further forgiveness (Ecclus. 19:13-17). The Jews were very fond of defining and limiting moral obligations, as if they could be accurately prescribed by number. Christ demolishes this attempt to define by law the measure of grace.
Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.
Verse 22. - I say not unto thee. Jesus gives the full weight of his authority to his precept, in distinction from Peter's suggestion and rabbinical glosses. Seventy times seven. No specific number, but practically unlimited. There is no measure to forgiveness; it must be practised whenever occasion arises. Some translate, "seventy-seven times," making an allusion to the retribution exacted from Lamech: "If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold" (Genesis 4:24). Christian forgiveness must be extended as far as old-world vengeance. Mercy rejoices against judgment. But the genius of the language supports the rendering of the Authorized Version. St. Paul has caught the spirit of his Master when he writes, "Forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you" (Ephesians 4:32). In the Mosaic dispensation there was some foreshadowing of the doctrine of forgiveness in the enactments which enjoined tender treatment of debtors, and in the terms of the jubilee law; but there were no rules concerning the pardon of personal injuries; the tendency of many prominent injunctions was to encourage retaliation. Herein is seen an important distinction between the Law and the gospel, the institutions antecedent to the death and atonement of Christ, and those subsequent thereto.
Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants.
Verses 23-35. - Christ illustrates his precept by the parable of the unmerciful servant, and the stern lesson which he himself enunciates at its close. Verse 23. - Therefore; i.e. because such is the infinite nature of the pardon to be meted out to an offending brother. The kingdom of heaven. The rule observed in the government of Christ's kingdom with regard to forgiveness is represented by the procedure of a certain earthly king. The picture supposes some great Oriental potentate, with numerous viceroys or satraps, who have to render to him an account of revenues received. These are called servants in the sense that, though they are high officials, they are the monarch's subordinates and dependents. Both Herodotus and Xenophon apply the term "slave" (δοῦλος) to the great officers of state. Immense sums of money would pass through their hands. This accounts for the enormous debt of the officer in the parable. Webster and Wilkinson compare the East India Company's collectors, who are high civil servants of the company, that is, now, of the government. If we regard the parable in a general light, as illustrating God's dealings with sinful man, we must see in the "taking account of his servants," not the judgment of the last day, but those many occasions when God makes a man turn his eyes inward and learn how he stands in the sight of his Lord. Such occasions are sickness, misfortune, great change of circumstances, a new year, reproach of conscience, however aroused, - these and such like incidents awaken a man to his true position, show him his delinquencies and misery.
And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents.
Verse 24. - When he had begun to reckon. This is the same word which is rendered "take account" in the previous verse, and means to compare receipts, expenditure, and balance. One was brought unto him. The defaulter did not come of himself and own his delinquency, but was brought into his lord's presence, probably by some who had discovered his defalcations, and desired to see him punished. Otherwise the phrase may refer merely to Oriental etiquette, according to which no one can cuter the royal presence without being formally allowed the interview, and ceremoniously introduced. Ten thousand talents. It is uncertain what is here meant by a talent, whether of silver or gold, of Jewish, or Attic, or Syriac standard; and, of course, the amount intended is variously understood. We must refer to the Bible dictionaries for an explanation of the term "talent," merely remarking here that the highest estimate would give six millions of our pounds, and the lowest more than half that amount. This huge stun must represent the total revenues of a province, and the debtor must have been a high and much-trusted official. It is used by our Lord to signify the infinite debt the sinner owes to God. Thus in the Lord's Prayer we have, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6:12).
But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.
Verse 25. - He had not to pay. He was absolutely bankrupt, and had no means whatever of meeting the deficit. To be sold. The Jewish Law ordered such process in the case of an impecunious debtor (see Exodus 22:3; Leviticus 25:39, 41; and the concrete case in 2 Kings 4:1; comp. also Isaiah 50:1; Psalm 44:12). But this law was mitigated by the enactment of the jubilee, which in the course of time restored the bondman to liberty. The instance in the parable appertains rather to Oriental depotism than to the proceedings under Mosaic legislation (see ver. 34, which is not in accordance with Jewish practice). The king, by this severity, may have desired to make the defaulter feel the weight of his debt, and to bring him to repentance, as we see that he was ready to accept the submission of the debtor, and to grant him forgiveness (St. Chrysostom). Payment to be made. The verb is put impersonally. Of course, the sale of himself, wife, family, possessions, would not produce enough to satisfy the debt; but the command is to the effect that the proceeds should be taken on account of the debt. The parable; must not be pressed in all its details; a false impression is often produced by fixing spiritual or allegorical meaning upon the unimportant accessories, which, in fact, merely give vividness to the offered picture. The sale of wife and children is of this character, though it may be said generally and experimentally that a man's sins react on his family in some sort, lowering position and reputation, and reducing to poverty etc.; but this result has no bearing on the lessening of the original debt.
The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.
Verse 26. - Worshipped him. Prostrated himself before the monarch, and in this abject attitude sued for mercy. Have patience with me. Be long suffering in my case; give me time. And I will pay thee all. In his terror and anguish, he promises impossible things; even the revenues of a province would not in any convenient time supply this deficiency. The scene is very true to life. To save himself from a present difficulty, a debtor will make any promise that occurs to him, without considering whether he will ever be in a position to fulfil it. The defaulter in the parable must have thought well of the king's generosity and tenderheartedness to make such a proposition at this extreme moment. If we take the spiritual sense of the parable, we see that no sinner could offer to pay, much less pay, the debt due from him to his Lord, "so that must be let alone forever" (Psalm 49:8).
Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt.
Verse 27. - Was moved with compassion. The earthly circumstance has its counterpart in God's dealings with sinners. Humility, confession, prayer, are accepted by him as payment of the debt. Loosed him from arrest, from being sold as a slave. This was the first favour accorded. The second was even greater. Forgave him the debt. The servant had asked only for time; he receives acquittance of the enormous sum which he owed. The king's severity had brought home to the debtor his full guilt did its consequences; when he realizes these, and throws himself on his lord's mercy, he receives more than he had asked or hoped for. But (to revert to the spiritual interpretation) the pardoned sinner must not forget the past; he must live as one forgiven. Says the penitent psalmist, "I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me" (Psalm 51:3).
But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest.
Verse 28. - Went out - straightway from his lord's presence, where he had been so mercifully treated, while the remembrance of his free and undeserved forgiveness must have been still fresh. Found. Lighted upon by chance, as it were. Here, rather, was providentially offered an opportunity of showing that his lord's goodness was not thrown away, but had entered his heart and controlled his conduct towards others. One of his fellow servants. An official of the king, but probably in an inferior position to that which he himself occupied. Seeing this man, he is reminded of a paltry debt which this person owed him. He remembers this fact; he forgets his late experience. An hundred pence (denarii; see on Matthew 20:2); equivalent to some £3 of our money, and a sum not a millionth part of his own debt to his master; the proportion, as some say, may be stated more accurately as 1 to 1,250,000. The enormous difference between these two amounts represents the disproportion between the offences of our neighbours against us and those of which we are guilty towards God; and how small is the forgiveness on our side compared with that which God freely accords to our infinite debt to him! We must consider also the parties to whom these debts are owing - on one side, the worm man; on the other, Almighty God. Took him by the throat (ἔπνιγε); was throttling him. Thus precluding all prayer and remonstrance. Such brutal treatment was not what he himself had experienced. Pay me that thou owest; ὅτι ὀφείλεις: quod debes. Many manuscripts and late editors (e.g., Lachmann, Tregelles, Tischendorf, Alford, Westcott and Hort) soften the demand by reading εἴ τι ὀφείλεις, si quid debes, "if thou owest aught," as though the creditor were ashamed of mentioning the paltry sum due; or else it is simply a fashion of speaking, not to be pressed as if any doubt was intimated concerning the debt. It might almost be rendered, "Pay, since thou owest something." Not thus had his lord addressed him in the first instance.
And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.
Verse 29. - Fell down at his feet. The fellow servant repeated the action and the very plea which he himself had but now used so successfully. Besought. Not "worshipped," as in the former case, where the superiority was more marked.
And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt.
Verse 30. - And he would not. The piteous appeal made no impression on his hard heart. "He did not even regard the words by which he himself had been saved (for on saying these same words he had been delivered from the ten thousand talents), nor recognize the port by which he had escaped shipwreck; neither did the attitude of supplication remind him of his master's kindness; but putting aside all such considerations by reason of covetousness, cruelty, and revenge, he was fiercer than any wild beast" (St. Chrysostom, in loc.). He went and cast him into prison. He either himself dragged the wretched debtor to prison, or was not satisfied till he had seen the door of the gaol close upon him. Far from forgiving the debt, he would not even grant an extension of time; he must have payment immediately, or he will exact the utmost punishment till the debt is fully discharged.
So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done.
Verse 31. - Fellow servants. Those in the same condition of life as the incarcerated debtor. Mystically, they would be the angels, who, like those in the parable of the tares, tell the Lord what was done; or the saints who plead with God against oppression and injustice. They were very sorry. It is well remarked that anger against sin is God's attribute (ver. 34), sorrow appertains to men. These have a fellow feeling for the sinner, in that they are conscious that in their own heart there are germs of evil which, unchecked, may develop into similar wickedness. Told (διεσάφησαν); told clearly. They took the part of their comrade, and, not in revenge or malice, but as an act of justice, gave their lord full information of what had happened. The just cannot hold their peace at the sight of oppression and wrong, and God confirms their judgment.
Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me:
Verse 32. - After that he had called him. A second time he is brought before his lord, not now to receive forgiveness, but to have the enormity of his guilt exhibited to him, and to suffer well deserved punishment. In a mystical sense this call is the summons of death, which is virtually judgment. O thou wicked servant. The lord had not so addressed him when he had come cringing into his presence on the former occasion; he had spoken no words of reproach, but simply left him in the hands of justice. Now he calls him "wicked," because he is unmerciful; he deserves the epithet, because he has been guilty of a crime as heinous as theft or murder. Then the lord places in strong contrast the mercy which he had received and the unmercifulness which he had shown. All that debt. Great as it was. Thou desiredst me (παρεκάλεσας); besoughtest me; calledst on me for aid. The debtor had not asked or hoped for remission of his debt, and had been largely and most unexpectedly blessed.
Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?
Verse 33. - Compassion...pity. The same verb is used in both places. Shouldest not thou also have had mercy on thy fellow servant, even as I had mercy on thee? (Revised Version). The man's guilt lies in his unmercifulness in the face of mercy received. The fact is patent; it stands for itself; it needs no amplification or enforcement. The king says no more, and the delinquent is equally silent; he has no excuse to offer. Convicted by his own conscience, he knows it is useless to sue for pardon or to expect further leniency. So in the day of judgment no excuse can be admitted; it is too late to plead or argue when the sentence is past.
And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.
Verse 34. - Was wroth. This, as we said above, is the prerogative of God. Man is pained and grieved at sin; God is angry. Tormentors; βασανισταῖς: tortoribus. These are not the gaolers, prison keepers, but persons who put prisoners to the torture. Neither Jewish nor Roman law at that time recognized any such officials; neither were those in confinement treated thus in either community. The idea is taken from the practice of Oriental despotism, which might thus punish an offence considered supremely detestable. In a mystical sense these are the ministers of Divine vengeance who carry out the behests of the King. Till he should pay; until he should have paid (ἕως οῦ ἀποδῷ). Some editors omit or bracket οῦ, but the sense is the same with or without the relative. The debt never could be paid, so practically the punishment would last forever. Commentators, mediaeval and modern, see here an argument for the eternity of future punishment; others see in the clause an intimation that sin may be forgiven in the other world, though not repented of or pardoned in this present life. The words give no support to the latter interpretation. Until, etc., does not necessarily signify that the condition specified is certain to be fulfilled. As Bengel says, on Matthew 1:25, "Non sequitur ergo post." And in the present case there could be no possibility of payment. A criminal delivered to the tormentors would have no opportunity or means of raising the necessary funds. If this is a picture of the final judgment, it is parallel to our Lord's statement in Matthew 5:26, "Thou shalt by no means come out thence till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing;" for, as the Preacher says, "There is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave whither thou goest" (Ecclesiastes 9:10). All that was due [unto him] (πᾶν τὸ ὀφειλόμενον αὐτῷ). Modern editors reject αὐτῷ: Vulgate, universum debitum. This is more general than "all that debt" in ver. 32. It is usually taken to refer to the old debt now redemanded. But a difficulty has been found in the fact that this old debt had been freely forgiven and utterly done away, and therefore could not, in equity, be again exacted. Hence some commentators have explained the clause as referring not at all to the former debt, but to a new debt incurred by a new offence, viz. ingratitude and unmercifulness. But the spiritual truth seems to be that, although sins once absolutely forgiven are not again imputed, they make subsequent sins more heinous, as in a human law court previous conviction increases the penalty of a fresh transgression. Falling from grace, a man passes into enmity with God, and so far cancels his pardon, and is in a state of condemnation (see Ezekiel 18:24, 26).
So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.
Verse 35. - So likewise. This points to the moral of the parable intended by Christ. It is not a lesson against ingratitude, but against unmercifulness. "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy." But want of charity makes a man incapable of retaining God's pardon; the Holy Spirit cannot abide in an unforgiving soul. My heavenly Father. He says, not "your" (Matthew 6:14, 26), nor "our," but "my heavenly Father," the Father of Christ, the God of all mercies. He cannot join himself in mention with such as are not children of God. From your hearts. Forgiveness must be real, sincere, not pretended, nor merely outward. There must not only be no outward act of revenge, but no malice in the heart, no storing up of evil passions for future outlet, as occasion may arise. The heart must be in harmony with the conduct, and both must evidence a true spirit of charity. This alone enables one to continue in a state of grace and in reconciliation with God; this alone makes prayer acceptable; and we are assured that, as our heavenly Father requires us to forgive without limit, so his mercy is infinite and will be extended to us in measure unbounded. Their trespasses. These words are omitted by many manuscripts, the Vulgate, and most modern editors; and they are not required by the sense. They have been, perhaps, added to obviate a certain abruptness in the conclusion of the parable.

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