Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?XVIII.
(1) Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?—St. Mark records more fully that they had disputed about this in the way, that our Lord, knowing their thoughts (Luke 9:47), asked them what had been the, subject of their debate, and that they were then silent. We may well believe that the promise made to Peter, and the special choice of the Three for closer converse, as in the recent Transfiguration, had given occasion for the rival claims which thus asserted themselves. Those who were less distinguished looked on this preference, it may be, with jealousy, while, within the narrower circle, the ambition of the two sons of Zebedee to sit on their Lord’s right hand and on His left in His kingdom (Matthew 20:23), was ill-disposed to concede the primacy of Peter.
And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them,(2) Jesus called a little child unto him.—As the conversation was “in the house” (Mark 9:33), and that house probably was Peter’s, the child may have been one of his. As in other like incidents (Matthew 19:13; Matthew 21:15-16), we may recognise in our Lord’s act a recognition of the special beauty of childhood, a tender love for the gracious trust and freedom from rivalry which it shows when, as yet, the taint of egotism is undeveloped. St. Mark adds that He folded His arms round the child as in loving fondness, and, before He did so, uttered the warning words, “If any one will (wishes to) be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” A late tradition of the Eastern Church identified the child with Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, taking the name which he gave himself as passive, Θεοφόρος (Theo-phoros), “one who had been carried or borne by God.” Ignatius himself, however, uses it in its active sense, “one who carries God within him.”
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.(3) Except ye be converted.—The English word expresses the force of the Greek, but the “conversion” spoken of was not used in the definite, half-technical sense of later religious experiences. What was needed was that they should “turn” from their self-seeking ambition, and regain, in this respect, the relative blamelessness of children.
Ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.—The force of the words as spoken to the Twelve can hardly be exaggerated. They were disputing about precedence in the kingdom, and in that very dispute they were showing that they were not truly in it. It was essentially spiritual, and its first condition was abnegation of self. Even the chief of the Apostles was self-excluded when he gloried in his primacy. The words at least help us to understand the more mysterious language of John 3:3; John 3:5, as to the “new birth” of water and the Spirit, which one, at least, of the disputants must, in all likelihood, have heard.
Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.(4) Whosoever therefore shall humble himself.—This, then, was the answer to the question “Who shall be the greatest.” The secret of true greatness lay in that unconsciousness of being great, which takes the lowest position as that which of right belongs to it. For a man to “humble himself” with the purpose of attaining greatness would frustrate itself, and reduce humility to an hypocrisy. The “pride that apes humility,” the false lowliness of Colossians 2:18, is even more hateful and contemptible than open self-assertion.
As this little child.—That which was to be the result of a deliberate act in the disciples was found in the child’s nature as it was. They were to make themselves lowly as he was lowly. The transition from the plural to the singular gives an almost dramatic vividness to the form of our Lord’s teaching. We seem to see the child shrinking timidly, with blushing face and downcast eyes, from the notice thus drawn to him.
And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.(5) Whoso shall receive one such little child.—The words are memorable as the first utterance of the truth afterwards proclaimed as the law of final judgment in Matthew 25:40, and as giving to that law the widest possible range of universality. No child of man is excluded from those whom Christ calls His brethren.
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.(6) Whoso shall offend.—The words seem to indicate the thoughts which rise unbidden in the minds of men in proportion as they are Christ-like in character. We gaze on the innocent beauty of childhood with love and admiration. What if that beauty should be marred by the taint of evil? What if those who do the Tempter’s work should cause the “little one” to stumble and to fall?
That a millstone were hanged about his neck.—The word for “millstone” indicates the larger stone-mill, in working which an ass was commonly employed, as distinguished from the smaller handmill of Luke 17:35. The punishment was not recognised in the Jewish law, but it was in occasional use among the Greeks (Diod. Sic. xvi. 35), and had been inflicted by Augustus (Sueton. Aug. lxvii.) in cases of special infamy. Jerome states (in a note on this passage) that it was practised in Galilee, and it is not improbable that the Romans had inflicted it upon some of the ringleaders of the insurrection headed by Judas of Galilee. Our Lord’s words, on this assumption, would come home with a special vividness to the minds of those who heard them. The infamy of offending one of the “little ones” was as great as that of those whoso crimes brought upon them this exceptional punishment. It was obviously a form of death less cruel in itself than many others, and its chief horror, both for Jews and heathen, was, probably, that it deprived the dead of all rites of burial. St. Mark and St. Luke, it may be noted, insert here the complaint of St. John, that he had seen one casting out devils in the name of Jesus, and this must be taken into account as an element in the sequence of thought. He was unconsciously placing himself among those who were hindering the work of Christ, and so “offending” those who believed in him. (See Note on Mark 9:38.)
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!(7) Woe unto the world.—The interjection is one of sorrow as well as denunciation, and here the former meaning is predominant, as the latter is in the next clause of the verse. The true meaning of “offence,” as meaning not the mere transgression of a law, but such a transgression as causes the fall of others, must be carefully borne in mind throughout. The words, “It must needs be that offences come, but woe unto that man . . . ,” unite in strange contrast the two truths which all the history of human guilt brings before us. Crimes seem to recur with something like the inevitable regularity of a law, and yet in each single instance the will of the offender has been free to choose, and he is therefore rightly held responsible both by divine and human laws.
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.(8, 9) If thy hand or thy foot offend thee.—(See Notes on Matthew 5:29-30.) The disciples had heard the words before in the Sermon on the Mount, but their verbal reproduction, sharpened as by a special personal application addressed not to the multitude but to the Twelve, gave them a new and solemn emphasis.
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.(10) Take heed that ye despise not.—The words remind us of what we are apt to forget in the wider range of the preceding verses. The child was still there, perhaps still folded in the arms of Jesus, still the object of His care, even while He spake of the wider offences that “must needs come” upon the world at large. Looking to the frequency with which our Lord’s words were addressed to the thoughts of His hearers, it seems likely that the faces of some at least of the disciples betrayed, as they looked on the child, some touch of half-contemptuous wonder, that called for this prompt rebuke. The words have, however, as interpreted by what follows, a wider range, and include among the “little ones,” the child-like as well as children—all, indeed, whom Christ came to save.
In heaven their angels.—The words distinctly recognise the belief in guardian angels, entrusted each with a definite and special work. That guardianship is asserted in general terms in Psalm 34:7; Psalm 91:11, Hebrews 1:14, and elsewhere. What is added to the general fact here is, that those who have the guardianship of the little ones assigned to them are among the most noble of the heavenly host, and are as the angels of the Presence, who, like Gabriel, stand before the face of God, and rejoice in the beatific vision (Luke 1:19). The words “I say unto you” clothe what follows with the character of a new truth, as they do the like utterances of Luke 15:7; Luke 15:10. Whatever difficulties may connect themselves with the whole range of questions connected with the ministry of angels, they lie outside the work of the interpreter. There can be no question that our Lord adopts as His own the belief in the reality of that ministry, and this at a time when the Sadducees, as a leading sect, were calling it in question (Acts 23:8). The words are indirectly important as a witness to the fact that the Lord Jesus, while He proclaimed the universal Fatherhood of God as it had never been proclaimed before, also (almost, as it were, unconsciously, and when the assertion of the claim was not in view) claims a sonship nearer and higher than could have been claimed by any child of man.
For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.(11) For the Son of man is come.—The words are wanting in many of the best MSS. Assuming their genuineness, two points call for special notice. (1.) The work of the Son of Man in saving that which was lost is given as the ground of the assertion of the special glory of the angels of the little ones. They are, in their ministry, sharers in His work, and that work is the highest expression of the will of the Eternal Father. To one at least of the disciples the words that he now heard must have recalled words that had been addressed to him in the most solemn crisis of his life, when he had been told that he should one day “see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51). In that ascent and descent they were not only doing homage to His glory, but helping Him in His work. (2.) The words seem chosen to exclude the thought that there was any special grace or saintliness in the child round whom our Lord had folded His arms. To Him the child’s claim was simply his need and his capacity for all that is implied in salvation. The words which He spake were as true of any “wastrel” child of the streets as of the offspring of the holiest parents.
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?(12) If a man have an hundred sheep.—The parable is repeated more fully in Luke 15:4-6, and will best find its full explanation there. The fact that it reappears there is significant as to the prominence, in our Lord’s thoughts and teaching, of the whole cycle of imagery on which it rests. Here the opening words, “How think ye?” sharpen its personal application to the disciples, as an appeal to their own experience. Even in this shorter form the parable involves the claim on our Lord’s part to be the true Shepherd, and suggests the thought that the “ninety and nine” are (1) strictly, the unfallen creatures of God’s spiritual universe; and (2) relatively, those among men who are comparatively free from gross offences.
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.(13) Rejoiceth more of that sheep.—More literally, over it.
Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.(14) Even so it is not the will . . .—The form of the proposition has all the force that belongs to the rhetorical use of the negative. “It is not the will” suggests the thought that the will of the Father is the very opposite of that, and so the words are identical in their teaching with those of St. Paul, “He will have all men to be saved” (1Timothy 2:4). The continued presence of the child is again emphasised in “one of these little ones.”
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.(15) Moreover if thy brother shall trespass.—Better, and if thy brother shall sin. A twofold train of thought is traceable in what follows. (1.) The presence of “offences” implies sin, and the question arises how each man is to deal with those sins which affect himself personally. (2.) The dispute in which the teaching recorded in this chapter had originated implied that the unity of the society which was then represented by the Twelve, had for the time been broken. Each of the disciples thought himself, in some sense, aggrieved by others. Sharp words, it may be, had been spoken among them, and the breach had to be healed.
Go and tell him his fault.—The Greek is somewhat stronger, convict him of his fault, press it home on him in such a way as to reach his reason and his conscience. (Comp. John 16:8.) But this is to be done “between thee and him alone.” Angry words spoken in the presence of others would fail of that result. It is significant that the substance of the precept is taken from the passage in Leviticus (Leviticus 19:17-18) which ends with “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”
Thou hast gained thy brother.—The words in part derive their force from the subtle use of a word in one sense which men associated commonly with another. “Gain” of some kind, aimed at, or wrongfully withheld, was commonly the origin of disputes and litigation. A man hoped to reap some profit by going to law. In the more excellent way which our Lord points out, he would by sacrificing the lower gain, attain the higher, and win for God (see 1Corinthians 9:19, 1Peter 3:1, for this aspect of the word) and for himself the brother with whom he had been at variance.
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.(16) Take with thee one or two more.—The principle of action is the same as before. The first point aimed at is the reformation of the offender without the scandal (here we may take the word both in its earlier and later senses) of publicity. If personal expostulation failed, then the “one or two” were to be called in. (Comp. 1Corinthians 6:5.) It is, of course, implied that they are not partisans, but disinterested representatives of what is likely to be the common estimate of the fault committed. If the end is attained through them, well; if not, then they are in reserve for the final stage as witnesses that every effort has been made in the spirit of a righteous friendship. As the previous verse implied a reference to Leviticus 19:17, so does this to Deuteronomy 19:15. This selection of all that was highest and most spiritual in the ethical teaching of the Law is one of the features of our Lord’s method, for the most part insufficiently recognised. (See John 8:17.)
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.(17) If he shall neglect to hear them.—Better, refuse, the word implying something more than mere negligence.
Tell it unto the church.—Here, and here only in our Lord’s teaching after the promise to Peter (Matthew 16:18), we have the word Ecclesia repeated. The passage takes its place among the most conspicuous instances of the power of a word. Theories of church authority, as exercised by the priesthood, or bishops, or councils, or the personal infallibility of the Bishop of Rome, have been built upon it. The last clause has been made the groundwork of the system of church discipline which loads the heretic with anathemas, excommunicates the evil-doer, places nations under an interdict. It can scarcely be doubted that the current thoughts and language of Englishmen as to ecclesiastical discipline would have been very different, if instead of “tell it unto the church,” “if he neglect to hear the church,” we had had the word “congregation.” And yet this, or some such word (say “assembly” or “society”), is confessedly the true meaning of the Greek, and was the rendering of all the English versions, from Tyndale onwards, till the Rhemish translators introduced “church,” and were followed by the Authorised version.
So understood, the words point to the final measures for the reformation of the offender, and the vindication of the divine law of righteousness. When the two forms of private remonstrance have failed, the case is to be brought before the society at large. The appeal is to be made not to the rulers of the congregation, but to the congregation itself, and the public opinion of the Ecclesia is to be brought to bear upon the offender. Should he defy that opinion and persist in his evil doing, he practically excommunicates himself. All societies are justified in excluding from their communion one who repudiates the very conditions of membership; and his being regarded as “a heathen and a publican” is but the legitimate consequence of his own act. Even here, however, we can hardly think of our Lord as holding up the Pharisees’ way of acting towards “the heathen and the publican” as a pattern for imitation. They were to be made to feel that they were no longer within the inner circle of brotherhood, but they were still men, and, as such, entitled to courtesy and all kindly offices. St. Paul’s teaching as to the treatment of the incestuous adulterer in 1Corinthians 5:1-5, 2Corinthians 2:6-7, and of fornicators generally in 1Corinthians 6:1-7, may be referred to as a practical illustration of the meaning of our Lord’s words.
It is obvious that the rule, as such, presupposes a small society, in the midst of a greater outside world, able to deal thus minutely with the offences of individual members. With the extension of the society, so that the church and the world became conterminous and hardly distinguishable, it was natural, perhaps, that it should follow the course of other human societies, and transfer its jurisdiction from the “congregation,” or “assembly,” to individual judges as its representatives. And so it was that, in the long-run, the bishops took the place of the congregation, and exercised its functions. So long as they were really in harmony with the mind of the church at large, this might work well enough, but there was the risk of their “lording it over God’s heritage” (1Peter 5:3); and, in any case, there was the loss of that activity of the reason and conscience of the society which the original form of polity implied, and of which St. Paul’s appeal to its judgment as against the inconsistency of the chief of the Apostles, is a very striking instance (Galatians 2:11). How far that can be revived is one of the hard questions of our own time and, perhaps, of all times. The end may have to be attained by very different means. We cannot inform the Universal or the National Church of the misdeeds of each individual member. Practically, to submit them formally to the judgments even of the smaller society of the town or village to which the offender belonged, would not be workable. Possibly, the solution of the problem may be found in remembering that in a Christian nation the Church and the State, as far as morality is concerned, tend, in spite of doctrinal divisions, to be, as was said, conterminous, and hence that we are fulfilling the spirit of our Lord’s commands when, after all private remonstrances have failed to check the evil, we appeal to the public opinion of Christians in the neighbourhood, larger and smaller, which is affected by it. How this is to be done will vary with the varying circumstances of each individual case, but it is no idle paradox to say that as society is now constituted, the most effective way of “telling the church” may sometimes be to appeal to that public opinion as represented by lawful courts, or otherwise impartially expressed.
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.(18) Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth.—(See Note on Matthew 16:19.) The promise before made to Peter is now extended not only to the other Apostles, but to the whole society of which they were the representatives, and is, of course, to be understood as dependent on the same implied, though not expressed, condition. So far as the Ecclesia was true to its Lord, and guided by His Spirit, it was not to think that its decisions depended on any temporal power. They were clothed, as truth and righteousness are ever clothed, with a divine authority. As connected with the treatment of individual offenders, the words “bind” and “loose” may seem here to approximate more closely than in Matthew 16:19, to “condemning” and “absolving” in their force, but there is no ground for setting aside, even here, their received meaning in the language of the scribes. The Christian had to apply general laws to particular instances. The trial of each offender became a ruling case. It was binding or loosing, directly as interpreting the Law, only secondarily and indirectly as punishing or pardoning.
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.(19) Shall agree on earth.—The promise, as before, is dependent on implied conditions. Those who pray must be gathered together in the name of Christ (Matthew 18:20), i.e., as trusting to His intercession, asking a prayer which is not the utterance of the natural but the spiritual man, asking it in entire submission to the will of their Father in heaven. In the absence of those conditions, as in the prayer of the sons of Zebedee, asking they knew not what (Matthew 20:20), that which they desired might be withheld from them, or granted in quite another manner than that on which they had set their hearts.
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.(20) Where two or three . . .—The true meaning of the words is well embodied in the well-known patristic axiom, Ubi tres, ibi Ecclesia (“Where three are there is a church”). The strength of the Christian society was not to be measured by a numerical standard, but by its fulfilment of the true conditions of its life. The presence of Christ was as true and mighty, His communion with His Church as real, when His followers were but as a remnant, as when they were gathered in the great congregation. He would be with the “two or three” (there is, perhaps, a special reference to the self-same words in Matthew 18:16), to plead for them as the great High Priest, to impart Himself to them, to ratify their decisions.
Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?(21) How oft shall my brother sin . . .?—The words of Matthew 18:15 had obviously told on the minds of the disciples, and had roused them to question with themselves. But they could not, all at once, take in the truth that the “commandment” was “exceeding broad.” Surely, they thought, there must be some limit to this way of dealing with the brother who has sinned against us? And the sacred number suggested itself as the natural limit. Not, it may be conjectured, without a half-conscious reference to the words of the prophet (Amos 1:3), that “for three transgressions and for four” the punishment thereof should not be turned away, the Apostle made answer to his own question, “Until seven times?” as though the line must be drawn there.
Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.(22) Seventy times seven.—The use of the symbolic numbers that indicated completeness was obviously designed to lead the mind of the questioner altogether away from any specially numerical standard as such. As there was no such limit to the forgiveness of God, so there should be none to that of man. The very question as to the latter showed the inquirer had not rightly apprehended the nature and extent of the former.
Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants.(23) Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened . . .—Over and above the direct teaching of the parable it has the interest, as regards its form, of being, in some sense, an advance on those of chapter 13, i.e., as more fully bringing out human interests, and so more after the pattern of those that are characteristic of St. Luke.
And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents.(24) Ten thousand talents.—It is hardly necessary to discuss in detail the value in modern coinage of the sum thus described. Assuming the Greek “talent” to have been rightly used by the LXX. translators for the Hebrew kikar in Exodus 38:25-26, we have a basis of calculation which makes the talent equal to 3,000 shekels; and taking the shekel as equal to four drachmæ, this makes the 10,000 talents about £2,500,000 sterling. The sum is evidently named in its vague vastness to indicate the immensity of the debt which man owes to God, the absolute impossibility of his ever clearing off the aggregate, ever-accumulating, of sins of omission and commission which are brought home to his conscience when God “takes account” with him.
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.(25) His lord commanded him to be sold.—The framework of the parable was necessarily drawn from human laws, and, except as indicating the sentence of condemnation passed upon the sinner himself, there is no occasion of pressing the details as we unfold the spiritual meaning that lies below the imagery.
The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.(26) Fell down, and worshipped him.—The word implies simply the prostrate homage of a servant crouching before his master.
I will pay thee all.—The promise was, under such circumstances, an idle boast, but it describes with singular aptness the first natural impulse of one who is roused to a sense of the exceeding sinfulness of sin. He will try to balance the account as by a series of instalments; he will score righteous acts in the future as a set-off against the transgressions of the past. In theological language, he seeks to be “justified by works.”
Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt.(27) Was moved with compassion.—The teaching of the parable deals tenderly even with that impotent effort at justification. It touches the heart of the “lord of that servant,” and is met with more than it asked for—not with patience and long-suffering only, but with the pity that forgives freely. The sinner is absolved, and the vast debt which he could never pay is forgiven freely. So far as he believes his Lord’s assurance, he is now “justified by faith.”
Forgave him the debt.—The Greek noun in this case expresses a debt contracted through a loan, and in the interpretation of the parable suggests a thought like that in the parables of the Pounds, the Talents, and the Unjust Steward. What we call our own—life, with all its opportunities—is really lent to us, and God requires repayment with interest.
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.(28) Which owed him an hundred pence.—Here the calculation is simpler than in Matthew 18:24. The “hundred pence” are a hundred Roman denarii (the denarius being equal to sevenpence-halfpenny), a hundred days’ wages of the labourer and soldier, enough to provide a meal for 2,500 men (John 6:7). There is a considerable truthfulness in the choice of such a sum, which has, perhaps, been too little noticed. Had our Lord been seeking simply a rhetorical antithesis between the infinitely great and the infinitely little, it would have been easy to select some small coin, like the denarius, the as, or the quadrans, as the amount of the fellow-servant’s debt. But to the fishermen of Galilee the “hundred pence” would appear a really considerable sum, and when they came to interpret the parable they would thus be led to feel that it recognised that the offences which men commit against their brothers may, in themselves, be many and grievous enough. It is only when compared with their sins against God that they sink into absolute insignificance.
He laid hands on him.—We are shocked, and are meant to be shocked, by the brutal outrage with which the creditor enforces his claim, but it doubtless was but too faithful a picture of what the disciples had often witnessed, or, it may be, even practised. We are tempted to ask whether this really represents any phenomena of the spiritual life. Can a man who has really been justified and pardoned become thus merciless? The experience of every age, almost of every household, shows that the inconsistency is but too fatally common. The man is not consciously a hypocrite, but he is as yet “double minded” (James 1:8), and the baser self is not conquered. In the language of the later teaching of the New Testament the man’s faith is not one which “worketh by love” (Galatians 5:6). He is justified, but not as yet sanctified.
And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.(29) Have patience with me.—No one can fail to note the dramatic force of the utterance of the selfsame words as had been used before by the debtor, who now appears as creditor. And in this case the promise was not a vain pretence. A few weeks or months of labour would have enabled the debtor to pay what he thus owed. Man can atone for his offences as against man, though not as against God.
And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt.(30) Till he should pay the debt.—Neither the memory of his lord’s mercy, nor any touch of pity, restrains the man who broods over the memory of wrong. But the course which he takes is, it may be noted, as unwise as it is ungenerous. He, as a slave, cannot command his fellow-slave to be sold. He can cast him into prison; but in so doing he cuts the debtor off from all opportunities of gaining the money by which he might pay his debt. His vindictiveness is so far suicidal. This surely is not without its analogue in the interpretation of the parable. Whatever be the nature of the offence, patience and forbearance at once encourage and enable the offender to make restitution. Harshness shuts him up as in the prison of a sullen defiance.
So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done.(31) They were very sorry.—The fellow-servants are, of course, in the inner meaning of the parable, those who are members of the same spiritual society. Our Lord appeals as by anticipation to the judgment which Christians in general, perhaps even to that which mankind at large, would pass upon such conduct. It is suggestive that He describes them, not as being angry or indignant (though such feelings would have been natural enough), but as “exceeding sorry.” Sorrow, rather than anger, is the mood of the true disciple of Christ as he witnesses the sins against love which are the scandals of the Christian society. Anger, the righteous wrath against evil, belongs rather, as in Matthew 18:32, to the Lord and Judge.
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:(32) Desiredst me.—Better, entreatedst me. In the story of the parable, the man had not specifically asked for this. His general prayer for forbearance had been answered above all that he could ask or think.
Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?(33) Even as I had pity on thee.—The comparison of the two acts, the implied assumption that the pity of the one act would be after the pattern of the other, was, we may believe, designed to lead the disciples to the true meaning of the prayer they had been taught to use, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.(34) Delivered him to the tormentors.—The words seem deliberately vague. We dare not say that the “tormentors” are avenging angels, or demons, though in the hell of mediæval poetry and art these latter are almost exclusively represented as the instruments of punishment. More truly, we may see in them the symbols of whatever agencies God employs in the work of righteous retribution, the stings of remorse, the scourge of conscience, the scorn and reproach of men, not excluding, of course, whatever elements of suffering lie behind the veil, in the life beyond the grave.
Till he should pay all that was due unto him.—As in Matthew 5:26 (where see Note), the words suggest at once the possibility of a limit, and the difficulty, if not impossibility, of ever reaching it. How could the man in the hands of the tormentors obtain the means of paying the ten thousand talents? And the parable excludes the thought of the debt being, as it were, taken out in torments, a quantitative punishment being accepted as the discharge of what could not otherwise be paid. The imagery of the parable leaves us in silent awe, and we only find refuge from our questionings in the thought that “the things that are impossible with man are possible with God” (Matthew 19:26).
So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.(35) My heavenly Father.—The adjective is slightly different in form from that commonly used, suggesting rather the thought of the “Father in heaven.”
Do also unto you.—The words cut through the meshes of many theological systems by which men have deceived themselves. Men have trusted in the self-assurance of justification, in the absolving words of the priest, as though they were final and irreversible. The parable teaches that the debt may come back. If faith does not work by love, it ceases to justify. If the man bind himself once again to his old evil nature, the absolution is annulled. The characters of the discharge are traced (to use another similitude) as in sympathetic ink, and appear or disappear according to the greater or less glow of the faith and love of the pardoned debtor.
From your hearts.—A verbal, formal forgiveness does not satisfy the demands of the divine righteousness. God does not so forgive, neither should man.
Every one his brother their trespasses.—The two last words are not in some of the best MSS., and have probably been added to make the verse correspond with Matthew 6:14-15.