Confraternity Bible: New Testament and Supplemental Commentary

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MATTHEW - Chapter 18

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Matthew 18

Supplemental Commentary:

I.  PUBLIC MINISTRY OF JESUS   3-25 (continued)

4.  Ministry Mostly in the Regions Bordering on Galilee  15, 21 -- 18, 35 (continued)

18, 1-4:  Against Ambition.  Parallels in Mark 9, 32-35 and Luke 9, 46 f.  Beginning with this incident our Lord gives an instruction to His disciples which covers various points but possesses a certain unity of subject-matter.  The stereotyped phrase at its end (19, 1a) shows that Matthew considers this the fourth of the five great discourses of Christ in his Gospel.  For a title we may call this an "Instruction on Fraternal Charity" or "Duties towards Believing Brethren."  Under such a heading all of its topics show a certain logical unity: Humility versus Ambition (1-4), the Evil of Giving Scandal to humble souls (5-9), The Great Value of Every Soul as shown by the parable of The Lost Sheep (10-14), Fraternal Correction (15-18), Prayer in Common (19-20), Forgiving Injuries as exemplified by the parable of The Unmerciful Servant (21-35).  Most of these sayings of Christ are found only in the First Gospel.  The scene is at their home in Capharnaum (cf. Mark).  Therefore this discourse was spoken to the disciples alone; Christ no longer taught the people publicly during His last short stay in Galilee.

1.  Actually the disciples were ashamed to ask Jesus about this question which they had discussed among themselves on the way to Capharnaum (cf. Mark and Luke).  "But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their heart" (Luke), of His own accord gave them the answer.  Matthew, as is his custom, summarizes the whole situation by representing the disciples as asking Christ the question.  The word then implies the previous discussion.  The reason for the argument was probably the promise of the primacy to Peter at Caesarea Philippi.  It could hardly have been the favor shown to the chosen three at the Transfiguration, for the rest of them did not know of this event.  For a similar discussion about the first place in the Kingdom, cf. 20, 20-28; Luke 22, 24-30.    2.  According to a ninth-century tradition this little child was St. Ignatius of Antioch.  But it is very improbable that St. Ignatius was a native of Capharnaum.  Since the event took place in Peter's house, the child was more likely a member of his household.    3.  Unless you turn: you are headed in the wrong direction; on the road of ambition you will not even reach the kingdom of heaven, to say nothing of being the first in it.  Christ's disciples must become like little children in humility and simplicity.    4.  The most probable sense of these words seems to be, "True greatness in the kingdom of heaven, i.e., in God's sight, consists in humility."  On the whole episode cf. the similar incident in 19, 13-15 and parallels.  According to Mark and Luke, St. John interrupted Christ's discourse with an entirely extraneous subject; see Commentary on Mark 9, 37-40.  Matthew omits this episode lest it spoil the unity of the discourse.

18, 5-9:  Avoiding Scandal.  Parallel in Mark 9, 36.41-47.  Luke 17, 1 f has a similar saying of Christ but in a different context.    5.  These little ones who believe in me should not be understood solely of children; it refer rather to the true disciples of Christ who are children in spirit, cf. also 11, 25; 1 Cor. 14, 20.  Receives me: see Commentary on 10, 40.    6.  Causes one . . . to sin: in Greek, "scandalizes one," i.e., causes one to trip up: according to the context the particular sin that is meant is to cause a humble disciple of Christ to lose this spirit of humility or to cause him to lose faith in Christ.  A great millstone: literally, "an ass-millstone," i.e., the large millstone turned by an ass, as distinct from the small stone turned by hand.  Death by drowning was not a common penalty among the Jews but it was inflicted by several of the surrounding nations for the most heinous crimes.  The terror of this punishment was due to the great importance attached by all ancient peoples to a decent burial.  But such a punishment is less an evil than scandalizing the innocent.    7.  Woe to the world: some take this to mean, "Alas, poor world which suffers so much because of scandals!"  But in keeping with the following sentence it means more probably, "Woe to the world, the cause of so much scandal!"  It must needs be, morally speaking, because of the wickedness of men, that scandals come.    7-9.  See Commentary on 5, 29 f.

18, 10-14:  The Lost Sheep.  Luke 15, 4-7 presents the same parable but with a somewhat different application.  In the Third Gospel this parable illustrates the truth that "there will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, more than over ninety-nine just who have no need of repentance."  Here the parable shows the great care that the Son of Man, "the Good Shepherd" (cf. John 10, 11-18), has for the soul of even one of His least disciples that goes astray.    10.  The first argument for the importance of every human soul: God "has given his angels charge over" them (cf. Ps. 90, 11).  This text can rightly be cited as a proof for the doctrine of the guardian angels, a doctrine which was held by the Jews at that time and is simply taken for granted in the New Testament (cf. Act 12, 15).  Their angels in heaven always behold the face of my Father in heaven: these words are intended to show the great dignity of the guardian angels who are not deprived of the beatific vision, even though they are fulfilling their office on earth.  Others take these words to mean, "Do not bring evil to these little ones, for their angels will avenge them before God's throne."    11-14.  The second argument for the importance of every soul: Christ's zeal in seeking even one soul that goes astray.    11.  This verse is missing in the best Greek manuscripts, and is generally considered to be taken over from Luke 19, 10 (cf. also Matt. 9, 13).  Yet it seems to form a natural and almost necessary introduction here to the parable.    12.  This is certainly not intended to show the proportion of the just and sinners as ninety-nine to one: it merely emphasizes Christ's care for each individual soul as well as for the flock taken as a whole.

18, 15-18:  Fraternal Correction.  Only in Matthew; but cf. Luke 17, 3.  If administered from a purely unselfish motive for the good of an erring brother or for the common good, fraternal correction is a form of fraternal charity.  But the good name of the sinner must be preserved as far as possible.  Therefore correction has three progressive stages: private (15), before a few witnesses (16), and finally before the whole congregation (17).    15.  The words against thee are missing in the best Greek manuscripts, and rightly so, for they give an entirely false idea of the matter that is treated here.  Personal offenses are considered in 21 ff.  Here there is a question of sin in general, which from the context (cf. 17), is presumed to be of a very serious nature.  Thou hast won thy brother: i.e., thou hast brought him back to the brotherhood, as the Good Shepherd brings back the erring sheep into the fold.    16.  On the word of two or three witnesses every word may be confirmed: a quotation from Deut. 19, 15, cited also in 2 Cor. 13, 1; 1 Tim. 5, 19; Heb. 10, 28.    17.  The Church cannot mean here the entire group of all Christ's disciples as in 16, 18.  On the other hand this word in itself does not mean "the authorities of the Church."  Christ is no doubt referring to contemporary Jewish customs, so that the word is used here in its original meaning of the "assembly, congregation," i.e., the local Christian community.  But since the context presupposes that the Church gives some decision in the matter (if he refuse to hear even the Church), and since the community as a whole cannot well do this, implicitly the word here signifies "the authorities of the Church."  As the heathen and the publican are to the Jews, i.e., excommunicated.  For certain forms of excommunication as a means of fraternal correction in the Apostolic Church, cf. 1 Cor. 5, 9-13; 2 Thess. 3, 6; Titus 3, 10; 2 John 10.    18.  The same power that was given to Peter as Christ's vicar on earth (16, 19) is here given to all the Apostles, to be exercised in harmony with his supreme authority.  On the meaning of "to bind" and "to loose" see Commentary on 16, 19.  See also note to the text.

18, 19-20:  The Power of United Prayer.  Only in Matthew.  This passage fits well with the general theme of the whole discourse, the relation of the brethren towards each other.  But I say to you further implies a more intimate connection with the preceding, i.e., just as the decisions of the Church are ratified in heaven (18), so also the united prayer of the Church has special efficacy before the throne of God.  The ultimate source of both powers is due to the presence of Christ Himself in His Church (cf. 28, 20).  The presence of Christ is felt in the Church through the influence of the Holy Sprit, to whom are directly due both the infallibility of the Church and the efficacy of its prayers (cf. John 14-16; Rom. 8, 26 f).  The prayers of the Mystical Body of Christ are the prayers of Christ Himself, who is our great Intercessor (cf. Rom. 8, 34; Heb. 7, 25).    20.  Our Lord may be alluding to the well-known saying found in the Talmud, "When two or three are gathered together to study the Law, the Shekinah is in their midst."  It so, He identifies His own presence with the divine presence.

18, 21-35:  The Unmerciful Servant.    21 f.  Luke 17, 3 f has similar words of Christ on the frequency of forgiving injuries; but these words were probably spoken on a different occasion.    21.  Sin against me: a personal offense as distinct from the sin considered in 15-17; but Peter's question was probably prompted by our Lord's words in 15.  Seven times: Peter thought he was generous.  Seven is here a symbolic number meaning "often."    22.  Seventy times seven is also symbolic and signifies "without limit."  Cf. the same symbolic numbers in Gen. 4, 24 in regard to vengeance.

23-35.  The parable of the Unmerciful Servant is found only in the First Gospel.    24.  Ten thousand talents, the equivalent of about nineteen million, two hundred thousand dollars in U. S. A. currency, an enormous sum at that time.    25.  In ancient times a man's wife and children were regarded as his property and were therefore forfeited by a defaulting debtor.  This was the common practice among the pagan nations and was not unknown among the Israelites (cf. 4 Kgs. 4, 1), although among the latter the Mosaic Law endeavored to mitigate its evils (cf. Lev. 25, 39).    26 f.  Note that the servant, not trusting the goodness of his master, asks only for a moratorium on this debt which he could not possible pay; but the master overlooks this insincerity and remits the whole debt of the unworthy servant.    28.  A hundred denarii, about sixteen or seventeen dollars, an insignificant amount compared with the other debt.  He throttled him, whereas the master had used no physical violence.    29.  The first servant had made exactly the same petition (26), but here it was spoken with evident sincerity.    34.  Tyrants, especially in the Orient, made use of torture in order to wring from their victims the confession of a hidden source of wealth or to have their relatives and friends pay the required money out of compassion.  Here, however, the master is entirely justified in inflicting torture as a punishment on the wicked servant.  This torture is without end, for the immense debt can never be paid.    35.  The application of the parable is perfectly clear.  On the necessity of forgiving our fellowmen, cf. 6, 12 (where sin is also considered a "debt"); 6, 14 f; Mark 11, 25 f.  The parable likewise teaches that our offenses against God are infinitely greater than the offenses we receive from our neighbor (24.28).  If we refuse to forgive our brother, we not only make God angry (humanly speaking), but also make our fellow-Christians very much saddened, and it is their prayers to God to redress this wrong that will bring God's vengeance upon us (31).  From your heart: our forgiveness of injuries must be sincere.


Confraternity Bible:

Against Ambition  1* At that hour the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"  2* And Jesus called a little child to him, set him in their midst, 3* and said, "Amen I say to you, unless you turn and become like little children, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.  4* Whoever, therefore, humbles himself as this little child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Avoiding Scandal  5* "And whoever receives one such little child for my sake, receives me.  6* But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it were better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck, and be drowned in the depths of the sea.

7* "Woe to the world because of scandals!  For it must needs be that scandals come, but woe to the man through whom scandal does come!  8* And if thy hand or thy foot is an occasion of sin to thee, cut it off and cast it from thee!  It is better for thee to enter life maimed or lame, than, have two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire.  9* And if thy eye is an occasion of sin to thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee!  It is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell-fire.

The Lost Sheep  10* "See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you, their angels in heaven always behold the face of my Father in heaven.  11* For the Son of Man came to save what was lost.  12* What do you think?  If a man have a hundred sheep, and one of them stray, will he not leave the ninety-nine in the mountains, and go in search of the one that has strayed?  13* And if he happens to find it, amen I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray.  14* Even so, it is not the will of your Father in heaven that a single one of these little ones should perish.

Fraternal Correction  15 "But if thy brother sin against thee, go and show him his fault, between thee and him alone.  If he listen to thee, thou hast won thy brother.  16 But if he do not listen to thee, take with thee one or two more so that on the word of two or three witnesses every word may be confirmed.  17 And if he refuse to hear them, appeal to the Church, but if he refuse to hear even the Church, let him be to thee as the heathen and the publican.  18* Amen I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven.

The Power of United Prayer  19 "I say to you further, that if two of you shall agree on earth about anything at all for which they ask, it shall be done for them by my Father in heaven.  20 For where two or three are gathered together for my sake, there am I in the midst of them."  21 Then Peter came up to him and said, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?  Up to seven times?"  22* Jesus said to him, "I do not say to thee seven times, but seventy times seven.

The Unmerciful Servant  23 "This is why the kingdom of heaven is likened to a king who desired to settle accounts with his servants.  24 And when he had begun the settlement, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.  25 And as he had no means of paying, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.  26 But the servant fell down and besought him, saying, 'Have patience with me and I will pay thee all!'  27 And moved with compassion, the master of that servant released him, and forgave  him the debt.

28 "But as that servant went out, he met one of his fellow-servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and he laid hold of him and throttled him, saying, 'Pay what thou owest.'  29 His fellow-servant therefore fell down and began to entreat him, saying, 'Have patience with me and I will pay thee all.'  30 But he would not; but went away and cast him into prison until he should pay what was due.

31 "His fellow-servants therefore, seeing what had happened, were very much saddened, and they went and informed their master of what had taken place.  32 Then his master called him, and said to him, 'Wicked servant!  I forgave thee all the debt, because thou didst entreat me.  33 Shouldst not thou also have had pity on thy fellow-servant, even as I had pity on thee?"  34 And his master, being angry, handed him over to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.  35 So also my heavenly Father will do to you, if you do not each forgive your brothers from your heart."
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1-14: In the Church, our Lord's disciples must avoid scandal and practice humility; they must have zeal for the conversion of sinners.

18: To the Apostles as a body is given a part of the power granted to Peter (16, 19).  There will be no conflict of authority, since Peter is the head of the Church, including the Apostles, he alone having received "the keys of the kingdom of heaven."

22: A sinner must be forgiven as often as he repents.  The expression seventy times seven is for an indefinite number.