Matthew 18:1-35 is a most important chapter for Christian Ethics, because it deals with those qualities which should characterize the personal relationships of the Christian. We shall be dealing in detail with these relationships as we study the chapter section by section; but before we do so, it will be well to look at the chapter as a whole. It singles out seven qualities which should mark the personal relationships of the Christian.
(i) First and foremost, there is the quality of humility ( Matthew 18:1-4 ). Only the person who has the humility of the child is a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. Personal ambition, personal prestige, personal publicity, personal profit are motives which can find no place in the life of the Christian. The Christian is the man who forgets self in his devotion to Jesus Christ and in his service of his fellow-men.
(ii) Second, there is the quality of responsibility ( Matthew 18:5-7 ). The greatest of all sins is to teach another to sin, especially if that other should be a weaker, a younger, and a less-experienced brother. God's sternest judgment is reserved for those who put a stumbing-block in the way of others. The Christian is constantly aware that he is responsible for the effect of his life, his deeds, his words, his example on other people.
(iii) There follows the quality of self-renunciation ( Matthew 18:8-10 ). The Christian is like an athlete for whom no training is too hard, if by it he may win the prize; he is like the student who will sacrifice pleasure and leisure to reach the crown. The Christian is ready surgically to excise from life everything which would keep him from rendering a perfect obedience to God.
(iv) There is individual care ( Matthew 18:11-14 ). The Christian realizes that God cares for him individually, and that he must reflect that individual care in his care for others. He never thinks in terms of crowds; he thinks in terms of persons. For God no man is unimportant and no one is lost in the crowd; for the Christian every man is important and is a child of God, who, if lost, must be found. The individual care of the Christian is in fact the motive and the dynamic of evangelism.
(v) There is the quality of discipline ( Matthew 18:15-20 ). Christian kindness and Christian forgiveness do not mean that a man who is in error is to be allowed to do as he likes. Such a man must be guided and corrected and, if need be, disciplined back into the right way. But that discipline is always to be given in humble love and not in self-righteous condemnation. It is always to be given with the desire for reconciliation and never with the desire for vengeance.
(vi) There is the quality of fellowship ( Matthew 18:19-20 ). It might even be put that Christians are people who pray together. They are people who in fellowship seek the will of God, who in fellowship listen and worship together. Individualism is the reverse of Christianity.
(vii) There is the spirit of forgiveness ( Matthew 18:23-35 ); and the Christian's forgiveness of his fellow-men is founded on the fact that he himself is a forgiven man. He forgives others even as God, for Christ's sake, has forgiven him.
The Mind Of A Child ( Matthew 18:1-4 )
18:1-4 On that day the disciples came to Jesus. "Who, then," they said, "is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?" Jesus called a little child and made him stand in the middle of them, and said, "This is the truth I tell you--unless you turn and become as children, you will not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Whoever humbles himself as this little child, he is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven."
Here is a very revealing question, followed by a very revealing answer. The disciples asked who was the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus took a child and said that unless they turned and became as this little child, they would not get into the Kingdom at all.
The question of the disciples was: "Who will be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?" and the very fact that they asked that question showed that they had no idea at all what the Kingdom of Heaven was. Jesus said, "Unless you turn." He was warning them that they were going in completely the wrong direction, away from the Kingdom of Heaven and not towards it. In life it is all a question of what a man is aiming at; if he is aiming at the fulfilment of personal ambition, the acquisition of personal power, the enjoyment of personal prestige, the exaltation of self, he is aiming at precisely the opposite of the Kingdom of Heaven; for to be a citizen of the Kingdom means the complete forgetting of self, the obliteration of self, the spending of self in a life which aims at service and not at power. So long as a man considers his own self as the most important thing in the world, his back is turned to the Kingdom; if he wants ever to reach the Kingdom, he must turn round and face in the opposite direction.
Jesus took a child. There is a tradition that the child grew to be Ignatius of Antioch, who in later days became a great servant of the Church, a great writer, and finally a martyr for Christ. Ignatius was surnamed Theophoros, which means God--carried, and the tradition grew up that he had received that name because Jesus carried him on his knee. It may be so. Maybe it is more likely that it was Peter who asked the question, and that it was Peter's little boy whom Jesus took and set in the midst, because we know that Peter was married ( Matthew 8:14 ; 1 Corinthians 9:5 ).
So Jesus said that in a child we see the characteristics which should mark the man of the Kingdom. There are many lovely characteristics in a child--the power to wonder, before he has become deadeningly used to the wonder of the world; the power to forgive and to forget, even when adults and parents treat him unjustly as they so often do; the innocence, which, as Richard Glover beautifully says, brings it about that the child has only to learn, not to unlearn; only to do, not to undo. No doubt Jesus was thinking of these things; but wonderful as they are they are not the main things in his mind. The child has three great qualities which make him the symbol of those who are citizens of the Kingdom.
(i) First and foremost, there is the quality which is the keynote of the whole passage, the child's humility. A child does not wish to push himself forward; rather, he wishes to fade into the background. He does not wish for prominence; he would rather be left in obscurity. It is only as he grows up, and begins to be initiated into a competitive world, with its fierce struggle and scramble for prizes and for first places, that his instinctive humility is left behind.
(ii) There is the child's dependence. To the child a state of dependence is perfectly natural. He never thinks that he can face life by himself. He is perfectly content to be utterly dependent on those who love him and care for him. If men would accept the fact of their dependence on God, a new strength and a new peace would enter their lives.
(iii) There is the child's trust. The child is instinctively dependent, and just as instinctively he trusts his parents that his needs will be met. When we are children, we cannot buy our own food or our own clothes, or maintain our own home; yet we never doubt that we will be clothed and fed, and that there will be shelter and warmth and comfort waiting for us when we come home. When we are children we set out on a journey with no means of paying the fare, and with no idea of how to get to our journey's end, and yet it never enters our heads to doubt that our parents will bring us safely there.
The child's humility is the pattern of the Christian's behaviour to his fellow-men, and the child's dependence and trust are the pattern of the Christian's attitude towards God, the Father of all.
Christ And The Child ( Matthew 18:5-7 ; Matthew 18:10 )
18:5-7,10 "Whoever receives one such little child in my name, receives me. But whoever puts a stumbling-block in the way of one of these little ones, who believe in me, it is better for him that a great millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned far out in the open sea. Alas for the world because of stumbling-blocks! Stumbling-blocks are bound to come; but alas for the man by whom the stumbling-block comes!
"See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my Father who is in heaven."
There is a certain difficulty of interpretation in this passage which must be borne in mind. As we have often seen, it is Matthew's consistent custom to gather together the teaching of Jesus under certain great heads; he arranges it systematically. In the early part of this chapter he is collecting Jesus' teaching about children; and we must remember that the Jews used the word child in a double sense. They used it literally of the young child; but regularly a teacher's disciples were called his sons or his children. Therefore a child also means a beginner in the faith, one who has just begun to believe, one who is not yet mature and established in the faith, one who has just begun on the right way and who may very easily be deflected from it. In this passage very often the child means both the young child and the beginner on the Christian way.
Jesus says that whoever receives one such little child in his name receives himself. The phrase in my name can mean one of two things. (i) It can mean for my sake. The care of children is something which is carried out for the sake of none other than Jesus Christ. To teach a child, to bring up a child in the way he ought to go, is something which is done not only for the sake of the child, but for the sake of Jesus himself. (ii) It can mean with a blessing. It can mean receiving the child, and, as it were, naming the name of Jesus over him. He who brings Jesus and the blessing of Jesus to a child is doing a Christlike work.
To receive the child is also a phrase which is capable of bearing more than one meaning. (i) It can mean, not so much to receive a child, as to receive a person who has this childlike quality of humility. In this highly competitive world it is very easy to pay most attention to the person who is pugnacious and aggressive and self-assertive and full of self-confidence. It is easy to pay most attention to the person who, in the worldly sense of the term, has made a success of life. Jesus may well be saying that the most important people are not the thrusters and those who have climbed to the top of the tree by pushing everyone else out of the way, but the quiet, humble, simple people, who have the heart of a child.
(ii) It can mean simply to welcome the child, to give him the care and the love and the teaching which he requires to make him into a good man. To help a child to live well and to know God better is to help Jesus Christ.
(iii) But this phrase can have another and very wonderful meaning. It can mean to see Christ in the child. To teach unruly, disobedient, restless little children can be a wearing job. To satisfy the physical needs of a child, to wash his clothes and bind his cuts and soothe his bruises and cook his meals may often seem a very unromantic task; the cooker and the sink and the work-basket have not much glamour; but there is no one in all this world who helps Jesus Christ more than the teacher of the little child and the harassed, hard-pressed mother in the home. All such will find a glory in the grey, if in the child they sometimes glimpse none other than Jesus himself.
The Terrible Responsibility ( Matthew 18:5-7 ; Matthew 18:10 Continued)
But the great keynote of this passage is the terrible weight of responsibility it leaves upon every one of us.
(i) It stresses the terror of teaching another to sin. It is true to say that no man sins uninvited; and the bearer of the invitation is so often a fellow-man. A man must always be confronted with his first temptation to sin; he must always receive his first encouragement to do the wrong thing; he must always experience his first push along the way to the forbidden things. The Jews took the view that the most unforgivable of all sins is to teach another to sin; and for this reason--a man's own sins can be forgiven, for in a sense they are limited in their consequences; but if we teach another to sin, he in his turn may teach still another, and a train of sin is set in motion with no foreseeable end.
There is nothing in this world more terrible than to destroy someone's innocence. And, if a man has any conscience left, there is nothing which will haunt him more. Someone tells of an old man who was dying; he was obviously sorely troubled. At last they got him to tell why. "When we were boys at play," he said, "one day at a cross-roads we reversed a signpost so that its arms were pointing the opposite way, and I've never ceased to wonder how many people were sent in the wrong direction by what we did." The sin of all sins is to teach another to sin.
(ii) It stresses the terror of the punishment of those who teach another to sin. If a man teaches another to sin, it would be better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea.
The millstone in this case is a mulos ( Greek #3458 ), onikos ( Greek #3684 ). The Jews ground corn by crushing it between two circular stones. This was done at home; and in any cottage such a mill could be seen. The upper stone, which turned round upon the lower was equipped with a handle, and it was commonly of such a size that the housewife could easily turn it, for it was she who did the grinding of the corn for the household needs. But a mulos onikos ( Greek #3684 ) was a grinding-stone of such a size that it needed an ass pulling it (onos ( Greek #3688 ) is the Greek for an ass and mulos ( Greek #3458 ) is the Greek for a millstone) to turn it round at all. The very size of the millstone shows the awfulness of the condemnation.
Further, in the Greek it is said, not so much that the man would be better to be drowned in the depths of the sea, but that it would be better if he were drowned far out in the open sea. The Jew feared the sea; for him Heaven was a place where there would be no more sea ( Revelation 21:1 ). The man who taught another to sin would be better to be drowned far out in the most lonely of all waste places. Moreover, the very picture of drowning had its terror for the Jew. Drowning was sometimes a Roman punishment, but never Jewish. To the Jew it was the symbol of utter destruction. When the Rabbis taught that heathen and Gentile objects were to be utterly destroyed they said that they must be "cast into the salt sea." Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 14. 15. 10) has a terrible account of a Galilaean revolt in which the Galilaeans took the supporters of Herod and drowned them in the depths of the Sea of Galilee. The very phrase would paint to the Jew a picture of utter destruction. Jesus' words are carefully chosen to show the fate that awaits a man who teaches another to sin.
(iii) It has a warning to silence all evasion. This is a sin-stained world and a tempting world; no one can go out into it without meeting seductions to sin. That is specially so if he goes out from a protected home where no evil influence was ever allowed to play upon him. Jesus says, "That is perfectly true; this world is full of temptations; that is inevitable in a world into which sin has entered; but that does not lessen the responsibility of the man who is the cause of a stumbling-block being placed in the way of a younger person or of a beginner in the faith."
We know that this is a tempting world; it is therefore the Christian's duty to remove stumbling-blocks, never to be the cause of putting them in another's way. This means that it is not only a sin to put a stumbling-block in another's way; it is also a sin even to bring that person into any situation, or circumstance, or environment where he may meet with such a stumbling-block. No Christian can be satisfied to live complacently and lethargically in a civilization where there are conditions of living and housing and life in general where a young person has no chance of escaping the seductions of sin.
(iv) Finally it stresses the supreme importance of the child. "Their angels," said Jesus, "always behold the face of my Father who is in Heaven." In the time of Jesus the Jews had a very highly-developed angelology. Every nation had its angel; every natural force, such as the wind and the thunder and the lightning and the rain, had its angel. They even went the length of saying, very beautifully, that every blade of grass had its angel. So, then, they believed that every child had his guardian angel.
To say that these angels behold the face of God in heaven means that they always have the right of direct access to God. The picture is of a great royal court where only the most favoured courtiers and ministers and officials have direct access to the king. In the sight of God the children are so important that their guardian angels always have the right of direct access to the inner presence of God.
For us the great value of a child must always lie in the possibilities which are locked up within him. Everything depends on how he is taught and trained. The possibilities may never be realized; they may be stifled and stunted; that which might be used for good may be deflected to the purposes of evil; or they may be unleashed in such a way that a new tide of power floods the earth.
Away back in the eleventh century Duke Robert of Burgundy was one of the great warrior and knightly figures. He was about to go off on a campaign. He had a baby son who was his heir; and, before he departed, he made his barons and nobles come and swear fealty to the little infant, in the event of anything happening to himself They came with their waving plumes and their clanking armour and knelt before the child. One great baron smiled and Duke Robert asked him why. He said, "The child is so little." "Yes," said Duke Robert, "he's little--but he'll grow." Indeed he grew, for that baby became William the Conqueror of England.
In every child there are infinite possibilities for good or ill. It is the supreme responsibility of the parent, of the teacher, of the Christian Church, to see that his dynamic possibilities for good are realized. To stifle them, to leave them untapped, to twist them into evil powers, is sin.
The Surgical Excision ( Matthew 18:8-9 )
18:8-9 "If your hand or your foot proves a stumbling-block to you, cut it off and throw it away from you. It is the fine thing for you to enter into life maimed or lame, rather than to be cast into everlasting fire with two hands or two feet. And if your eye proves a stumbling-block to you, pluck it out and throw it away from you. It is the fine thing for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than to be cast into the Gehenna of fire with two eyes."
There are two senses in which this passage may be taken. It may be taken purely personally. It may be saying that it is worth any sacrifice and any self-renunciation to escape the punishment of God.
We have to be clear what that punishment involves. It is here called everlasting and this word everlasting occurs frequently in Jewish ideas of punishment. The word is aionios ( Greek #166 ). The Book of Enoch speaks about eternal judgment, about judgment for ever, about punishment and torture for ever, about the fire which burns for ever. Josephus calls hell an everlasting prison. The Book of Jubilees speaks about an eternal curse. The Book of Baruch says that "there will be no opportunity of returning, nor a limit to the times." There is a Rabbinic tale of Rabbi Jochanan ben Zaccai who wept bitterly at the prospect of death. On being asked why, he answered. "All the more I weep now that they are about to lead me before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed is He, who lives and abides for ever and for ever and for ever; whose wrath, if he be wrathful, is an eternal wrath; and, if he bind me, his binding is an eternal binding; and if he kills me, his killing is an eternal killing; whom I cannot placate with words, nor bribe with wealth."
All these passages use the word aionios ( Greek #166 ); but we must be careful to remember what it means. It literally means belonging to the ages; there is only one person to whom the word aionios ( Greek #166 ) can properly be applied, and that is God. There is far more in aionios ( Greek #166 ) than simply a description of that which has no end. Punishment which is aionios ( Greek #166 ) is punishment which it befits God to give and punishment which only God can give. When we think of punishment, we can only say, "Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?" Our human pictures, and our human time-scheme, fail; this is in the hands of God.
But there is one clue which we do have. This passage speaks of the Gehenna ( Greek #1067 ) of fire. Gehenna ( Greek #1067 ) was the valley of Hinnom, a valley below the mountain of Jerusalem. It was for ever accursed, because it was the place where, in the days of the kingdom, the renegade Jews had sacrificed their children in the fire to the pagan god Moloch. Josiah had made it a place accursed. In later days it became the refuse dump of Jerusalem; a kind of vast incinerator. Always the refuse was burning there, and a pall of smoke and a glint of smouldering fire surrounded it.
Now, what was this Gehenna ( Greek #1067 ), this Valley of Hinnom? It was the place into which everything that was useless was cast and there destroyed. That is to say, God's punishment is for those who are useless, for those who make no contribution to life, for those who hold life back instead of urging life on, for those who drag life down instead of lifting life up, for those who are the handicaps of others and not their inspirations. It is again and again New Testament teaching that uselessness invites disaster. The man who is useless, the man who is an evil influence on others, the man who cannot justify the simple fact of his existence, is in danger of the punishment of God, unless he excises from his life those things which make him the handicap he is.
But it is just possible that this passage is not to be taken so much personally as in connection with the Church. Matthew has already used this saying of Jesus in a different context in Matthew 5:30 . Here there may be a difference. The whole passage is about children, and perhaps especially about children in the faith. This passage may be saying, "If in your Church there is someone who is an evil influence, if there is someone who is a bad example to those who are young in the faith, if there is someone whose life and conduct is damaging the body of the Church, he must be rooted out and cast away." That may well be the meaning. The Church is the Body of Christ; if that body is to be healthy and health-giving, that which has the seeds of cancerous and poisonous infection in it must be even surgically removed.
One thing is certain, in any person and in any Church, whatever is a seduction to sin must be removed, however painful the removal may be, for if we allow it to flourish a worse punishment will follow. In this passage there may well be stressed both the necessity of self-renunciation for the Christian individual and discipline for the Christian Church.
The Shepherd And The Lost Sheep ( Matthew 18:12-14 )
18:12-14 "What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine, and go out to the hills, and will he not seek the wandering one? And if he finds it--this is the truth I tell you--he rejoices more over it than over the ninety-nine who never wandered away. So it is not the will of your Father that one of these little ones should perish."
This is surely the simplest of all the parables of Jesus, for it is the simple story of a lost sheep and a seeking shepherd. In Judaea it was tragically easy for sheep to go astray. The pasture land is on the hill country which runs like a backbone down the middle of the land. This ridge-like plateau is narrow, only a few miles across. There are no restraining walls. At its best, the pasture is sparse. And, therefore, the sheep are ever liable to wander; and, if they stray from the grass of the plateau into the gullies and the ravines at each side, they have every chance of finishing up on some ledge from which they cannot get up or down, and of being marooned there until they die.
The Palestinian shepherds were experts at tracking down their lost sheep. They could follow their track for miles; and they would brave the cliffs and the precipice to bring them back.
In the time of Jesus the flocks were often communal flocks; they belonged, not to an individual, but to a village. There were, therefore, usually two or three shepherds with them. That is why the shepherd could leave the ninety-nine. If he had left them with no guardian he would have come back to find still more of them gone; but he could leave them in the care of his fellow-shepherds, while he sought the wanderer. The shepherds always made the most strenuous and the most sacrificial efforts to find a lost sheep. It was the rule that, if a sheep could not be brought back alive, then at least, if it was at all possible, its fleece or its bones must be brought back to prove that it was dead.
We can imagine how the other shepherds would return with their flocks to the village fold at evening time, and how they would tell that one shepherd was still out on the mountain-side seeking a wanderer. We can imagine how the eyes of the people would turn ever and again to the hillside watching for the shepherd who had not come home; and we can imagine the shout of joy when they saw him striding along the pathway with the weary wanderer slung across his shoulder, safe at last; and we can imagine how the whole village would welcome him, and gather round with gladness to hear the story of the sheep who was lost and found. Here we have what was Jesus' favourite picture of God and of God's love. This parable teaches us many things about that love.
(i) The love of God is an individual love. The ninety-and-nine were not enough; one sheep was out on the hillside and the shepherd could not rest until he had brought it home. However large a family a parent has, he cannot spare even one; there is not one who does not matter. God is like that; God cannot be happy until the last wanderer is gathered in.
(ii) The love of God is a patient love. Sheep are proverbially foolish creatures. The sheep has no one but itself to blame for the danger it had got itself into. Men are apt to have so little patience with the foolish ones. When they get into trouble, we are apt to say, "It's their own fault; they brought it on themselves; don't waste any sympathy on fools." God is not like that. The sheep might be foolish but the shepherd would still risk his life to save it. Men may be fools but God loves even the foolish man who has no one to blame but himself for his sin and his sorrow.
(iii) The love of God is a seeking love. The shepherd was not content to wait for the sheep to come back; he went out to search for it. That is what the Jew could not understand about the Christian idea Of God. The Jew would gladly agree that, if the sinner came crawling wretchedly home, God would forgive. But we know that God is far more wonderful than that, for in Jesus Christ, he came to seek for those who wander away. God is not content to wait until men come home; he goes out to search for them no matter what it costs him.
(iv) The love of God is a rejoicing love. Here there is nothing but joy. There are no recriminations; there is no receiving back with a grudge and a sense of superior contempt; it is all joy. So often we accept a man who is penitent with a moral lecture and a clear indication that he must regard himself as contemptible, and the practical statement that we have no further use for him and do not propose to trust him ever again. It is human never to forget a man's past and always to remember his sins against him. God puts our sins behind his back; and when we return to him, it is all joy.
(v) The love of God is a protecting love. It is the love which seeks and saves. There can be a love which ruins; there can be a love which softens; but the love of God is a protecting love which saves a man for the service of his fellow-men, a love which makes the wanderer wise, the weak strong, the sinner pure, the captive of sin the free man of holiness, and the vanquished by temptation its conqueror.
Seeking The Stubborn ( Matthew 18:15-18 )
18:15-18 "If your brother sins against you, go, and try to convince him of his error between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. If he will not listen to you, take with you one or two more, that the whole matter may be established in the mouth of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the Church. And if he refuses to listen to the Church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. This is the truth I tell you--all that you bind upon earth will remain bound in heaven; and all that you loose upon earth will remain loosed in heaven."
In many ways this is one of the most difficult passages to interpret in the whole of Matthew's gospel. Its difficulty lies in the undoubted fact that it does not ring true; it does not sound like Jesus; it sounds much more like the regulations of an ecclesiastical committee.
We may go further. It is not possible that Jesus said this in its present form. Jesus could not have told his disciples to take things to the Church, for it did not exist; and the passage implies a fully developed and organized Church with a system of ecclesiastical discipline. What is more, it speaks of tax-collectors and Gentiles as irreclaimable outsiders. Yet Jesus was accused of being the friend of tax-gatherers and sinners; and he never spoke of them as hopeless outsiders, but always with sympathy and love, and even with praise (compare Matthew 9:10 ff; Matthew 11:19 ; Luke 18:10 ff; and especially Matthew 21:31 ff, where it is actually said that the tax-gatherers and harlots will go into the Kingdom before the orthodox religious people of the time). Further, the whole tone of the passage is that there is a limit to forgiveness, that there comes a time when a man may be abandoned as beyond hope, counsel which it is impossible to think of Jesus giving. And the last verse actually seems to give the Church the power to retain and to forgive sins. There are many reasons to make us think that this, as it stands, cannot be a correct report of the words of Jesus, but an adaptation made by the Church in later days, when Church discipline was rather a thing of rules and regulations than of love and forgiveness.
Although this passage is certainly not a correct report of what Jesus said, it is equally certain that it goes back to something he did say. Can we press behind it and come to the actual commandment of Jesus? At its widest what Jesus was saying was, "If anyone sins against you, spare no effort to make that man admit his fault, and to get things right again between you and him." Basically it means that we must never tolerate any situation in which there is a breach of personal relationships between us and another member of the Christian community.
Suppose something does go wrong, what are we to do to put it right? This passage presents us with a whole scheme of action for the mending of broken relationships within the Christian fellowship.
(i) If we feel that someone has wronged us, we should immediately put our complaint into words. The worst thing that we can do about a wrong is to brood about it. That is fatal. It can poison the whole mind and life, until we can think of nothing else but our sense of personal injury. Any such feeling should be brought out into the open, faced, and stated, and often the very stating of it will show how unimportant and trivial the whole thing is.
(ii) If we feel that someone has wronged us, we should go to see him personally. More trouble has been caused by the writing of letters than by almost anything else. A letter may be misread and misunderstood; it may quite unconsciously convey a tone it was never meant to convey. If we have a difference with someone, there is only one way to settle it--and that is face to face. The spoken word can often settle a difference which the written word would only have exacerbated.
(iii) If a private and personal meeting fails of its purpose, we should take some wise person or persons with us. Deuteronomy 19:15 has it: "A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offence that he has committed; only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained." That is the saying which Matthew has in mind. But in this case the taking of the witnesses is not meant to be a way of proving to a man that he has committed an offence. It is meant to help the process of reconciliation. A man often hates those whom he has injured most of all; and it may well be that nothing we can say can win him back. But to talk matters over with some wise and kindly and gracious people present is to create a new atmosphere in which there is at least a chance that we should see ourselves "as others see us." The Rabbis had a wise saying, "Judge not alone, for none may judge alone save One (that is God)."
(iv) If that still fails, we must take our personal troubles to the Christian fellowship. Why? Because troubles are never settled by going to law, or by Christless argument. Legalism merely produces further trouble. It is in an atmosphere of Christian prayer, Christian love and Christian fellowship that personal relationships may be righted. The clear assumption is that the Church fellowship is Christian, and seeks to judge everything, not in the light of a book of practice and procedure, but in the light of love.
(v) It is now we come to the difficult part. Matthew says that, if even that does not succeed, then the man who has wronged us is to be regarded as a Gentile and a tax-collector. The first impression is that the man must be abandoned as hopeless and irreclaimable, but that is precisely what Jesus cannot have meant. He never set limits to human forgiveness. What then did he mean?
We have seen that when he speaks of tax-gatherers and sinners he always does so with sympathy and gentleness and an appreciation of their good qualities. It may be that what Jesus said was something like this: "When you have done all this, when you have given the sinner every chance, and when he remains stubborn and obdurate, you may think that he is no better than a renegade tax-collector, or even a godless Gentile. Well, you may be right. But I have not found the tax-gatherers and the Gentiles hopeless. My experience of them is that they, too, have a heart to be touched; and there are many of them, like Matthew and Zacchaeus, who have become my best friends. Even if the stubborn sinner is like a tax-collector or a Gentile, you may still win him, as I have done."
This, in fact, is not an injunction to abandon a man; it is a challenge to win him with the love which can touch even the hardest heart. It is not a statement that some men are hopeless; it is a statement that Jesus Christ has found no man hopeless--and neither must we.
(vi) Finally, there is the saying about loosing and binding. It is a difficult saying. It cannot mean that the Church can remit or forgive sins, and so settle a man's destiny in time or in eternity. What it may well mean is that the relationships which we establish with our fellow-men last not only through time but into eternity--therefore we must get them right.
The Power Of The Presence ( Matthew 18:19-20 )
18:19-20 "Again, I tell you, that if two of you agree upon earth upon any matter for which you are praying, you will receive it from my Father who is in Heaven. Where two or three are assembled together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."
Here is one of these sayings of Jesus, whose meaning we need to probe or we will be left with heartbreak and great disappointment. Jesus says that, if two upon earth agree upon any matter for which they are praying, they will receive it from God. If that is to be taken literally, and without any qualification, it is manifestly untrue. Times without number two people have agreed to pray for the physical or the spiritual welfare of a loved one and their prayer has not, in the literal sense, been answered. Times without number God's people have agreed to pray for the conversion of their own land or the conversion of the heathen and the coming of the Kingdom, and even yet that prayer is far from being fully answered. People agree to pray--and pray desperately--and do not receive that for which they pray. There is no point in refusing to face the facts of the situation, and nothing but harm can result from teaching people to expect what does not happen. But when we come to see what this saying means, there is a precious depth in it.
(i) First and foremost, it means that prayer must never be selfish and that selfish prayer cannot find an answer. We are not meant to pray only for our own needs, thinking of nothing and no one but ourselves; we are meant to pray as members of a fellowship, in agreement, remembering that life and the world are not arranged for us as individuals but for the fellowship as a whole. It would often happen that, if our prayers were answered, the prayers of someone else would be disappointed. Often our prayers for our success would necessarily involve someone else's failure. Effective prayer must be the prayer of agreement, from which the element of selfish concentration on our own needs and desires has been quite cleansed away.
(ii) When prayer is unselfish, it is always answered. But here as everywhere we must remember the basic law of prayer; that law is that in prayer we receive, not the answer which we desire, but the answer which God in his wisdom and his love knows to be best. Simply because we are human beings, with human hearts and fears and hopes and desires, most of our prayers are prayers for escape. We pray to be saved from some trial, some sorrow, some disappointment, some hurting and difficult situation. And always God's answer is the offer not of escape, but of victory. God does not give us escape from a human situation; he enables us to accept what we cannot understand; he enables us to endure what without him would be unendurable; he enables us to face what without him would be beyond all facing. The perfect example of all this is Jesus in Gethsemane. He prayed to be released from the dread situation which confronted him, he was not released from it; but he was given power to meet it, to endure it, and to conquer it. When we pray unselfishly, God sends his answer--but the answer is always his answer and not necessarily ours.
(iii) Jesus goes on to say that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is there in the midst of them. The Jews themselves had a saying, "Where two sit and are occupied with the study of the Law, the glory of God is among them." We may take this great promise of Jesus into two spheres.
(a) We may take it into the sphere of the Church. Jesus is just as much present in the little congregation as in the great mass meeting. He is just as much present at the Prayer Meeting or the Bible Study Circle with their handful of people as in the crowded arena. He is not the slave of numbers. He is there wherever faithful hearts meet, however few they may be, for he gives all of himself to each individual person.
(b) We may take it into the sphere of the home. One of the earliest interpretations of this saying of Jesus was that the two or three are father, mother, and child, and that it means that Jesus is there, the unseen guest in every home.
There are those who never give of their best except on the so-called great occasion; but for Jesus Christ every occasion where even two or three are gathered in his name is a great occasion.
How To Forgive ( Matthew 18:21-35 )
18:21-35 Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I tell you not up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. That is why the Kingdom of Heaven can be likened to what happened when a king wished to make a reckoning with his servants. When he began to make a reckoning one debtor was brought to him who owed him 2,400,000 British pounds. Since he was quite unable to pay, his master ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children, and all his possessions, and payment to be made. The servant fell on his face and besought him: 'Sir, have patience with me, and I will pay you in full.' The master of the servant was moved with compassion, and let him go, and forgave him the debt. When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow-servants, who owed him L5. He caught hold of him and seized him by the throat: 'Pay what you owe,' he said. The fellow-servant fell down and besought him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you in full.' But he refused. Rather, he went away and flung him into prison, until he should pay what was due. So, when his fellow-servants saw what had happened, they were very distressed; and they went and informed their master of all that had happened. Then the master summoned him, and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt when you besought me to do so. Ought you not to have had pity on your fellow-servant, as I had pity on you?' And his master was angry with him and handed him over to the torturers, until he should pay all that was due.
"Even so shall my heavenly Father do to you, if you do not each one forgive his brother from your hearts."
We owe a very great deal to the fact that Peter had a quick tongue. Again and again he rushed into speech in such a way that his impetuosity drew from Jesus teaching which is immortal. On this occasion Peter thought that he was being very generous. He asked Jesus how often he ought to forgive his brother, and then answered his own question by suggesting that he should forgive seven times.
Peter was not without warrant for this suggestion. It was Rabbinic teaching that a man must forgive his brother three times. Rabbi Jose ben Hanina said, "He who begs forgiveness from his neighbour must not do so more than three times." Rabbi Jose ben Jehuda said, "If a man commits an offence once, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a second time, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a third time, they forgive him; the fourth time they do not forgive." The Biblical proof that this was correct was taken from Amos. In the opening chapters of Amos there is a series of condemnations on the various nations for three transgressions and for four ( Amos 1:3 ; Amos 1:6 ; Amos 1:9 ; Amos 1:11 ; Amos 1:13 ; Amos 2:1 ; Amos 2:4 ; Amos 2:6 ). From this it was deduced that God's forgiveness extends to three offences and that he visits the sinner with punishment at the fourth. It was not to be thought that a man could be more gracious than God, so forgiveness was limited to three times.
Peter thought that he was going very far, for he takes the Rabbinic three times, multiplies it by two for good measure adds one, and suggests, with eager self-satisfaction, that it will be enough if he forgives seven times. Peter expected to be warmly commended; but Jesus's answer was that the Christian must forgive seventy times seven. In other words there is no reckonable limit to forgiveness.
Jesus then told the story of the servant forgiven a great debt who went out and dealt mercilessly with a fellow-servant who owed him a debt that was an infinitesimal fraction of what he himself had owed; and who for his mercilessness was utterly condemned. This parable teaches certain lessons which Jesus never tired of teaching.
(i) It teaches that lesson which runs through all the New Testament--a man must forgive in order to be forgiven. He who will not forgive his fellow-men cannot hope that God will forgive him. "Blessed are the merciful," said Jesus, "for they shall obtain mercy" ( Matthew 5:7 ). No sooner had Jesus taught his men his own prayer, than he went on to expand and explain one petition in it: "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" ( Matthew 6:14-15 ). As James had it, "For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy" ( James 2:13 ). Divine and human forgiveness go hand in hand.
(ii) Why should that be so? One of the great points in this parable is the contrast between the two debts.
The first servant owed his master 10,000 talents; a talent was the equivalent of 240 British pounds; therefore 10,000 talents is 2,400,000 British pounds. That is an incredible debt. It was more than the total budget of the ordinary province. The total revenue of the province which contained Idumaea, Judaea and Samaria was only 600 talents; the total revenue of even a wealthy province like Galilee was only 300 talents. Here was a debt which was greater than a king's ransom. It was this that the servant was forgiven.
The debt which a fellow-servant owed him was a trifling thing; it was 100 denarii ( Greek #1220 ); a denarius ( Greek #1220 ) was worth about 4 pence in value; and therefore the total debt was less than 5 British pounds. It was approximately one five-hundred-thousandth of his own debt.
A. R. S. Kennedy drew this vivid picture to contrast the debts. Suppose they were paid in sixpences. The 100 denarii debt could be carried in one pocket. The ten thousand talent debt would take to carry it an army of about 8,600 carriers, each carrying a sack of sixpences 60 lbs. in weight; and they would form, at a distance of a yard apart, a line five miles long! The contrast between the debts is staggering. The point is that nothing men can do to us can in any way compare with what we have done to God; and if God has forgiven us the debt we owe to him, we must forgive our fellow-men the debts they owe to us. Nothing that we have to forgive can even faintly or remotely compare with what we have been forgiven.
"Not the labours of my hands
Can fulfil thy law's demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone."
We have been forgiven a debt which is beyond all paying--for the sin of man brought about the death of God's own Son--and, if that is so, we must forgive others as God has forgiven us, or we can hope to find no mercy.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)