Friday, March 5

Matthew 16:13-20: This text presents the definitive answer to one of the major questions of this gospel, the true identity of Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Because this confession of faith was (and still is) regarded as the foundation stone of the Christian Church, the nickname “Rock” (perhaps closer to “Rocky” in English) was given to the man who made it, Simon Bar Jonah (or, in English, “Simon Johnson”). It was in Simon’s fishing boat that Jesus was earlier confessed to be “truly the Son of God” (14:33), so that his boat becomes in the gospels a great symbol of the Church. The great prominence of this “Rocky Johnson”(Kephas in Aramaic and Petros in Greek) among the Twelve Apostles is indicated by the fact that his name appears first in every single New Testament list of the Twelve. Those early churches most closely associated with the Apostles Peter and Paul enjoyed a singular eminence and spiritual authority among all the early Christians. Chief among them were the churches at Antioch and Rome.

As we see by comparing this account to Mark 8:27-30, the early preaching and narrative tradition of the Church “fixed” this event at Caesarea Philippi. It is rare in the Gospels for an individual event to become so fixed in this way.

Caesarea Philippi is situated on the southern slope of Mount Hermon, which is the highest peak in Palestine. Near it are the pools of Benaias, one of the chief sources of the Jordan River. The name Benaias is derived from the god Pan, and the name of the city, Panion, was changed to Caesarea when Herod’s son, Philip, rebuilt it and dedicated it to Caesar Augustus. The name Caesarea Philippi thus refers to both men, Caesar and Philip.

The reader observes that the question of Jesus—“Who do you say that I am?”—is differently phrased among the three Synoptic Gospels. In Matthew the question is also a matter of auto-identification; there is the presumption that Jesus is the Son of Man.

Such is the determining inquiry—the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth—the proper determination of the Who that poses the question itself. The history of the seven Ecumenical Councils of the Christian Church illustrates that all other doctrinal questions are reducible to this one question: Just who is Jesus?

Earlier, Matthew had touched on the suspicion that Jesus was really John the Baptist returned to life (cf. 14:1-2). He returns to it now (verse 14). We should find it significant that some of the Lord’s contemporaries resorted to prophetic history as a way of explaining Jesus. He resembled the prophets more than anyone else they could think of. Elijah, after all, had never really died, and his return was still expected (cf. Malachi 3:1,23).

Matthew also includes Jeremiah, whom he regarded as a “type” of Christ. Besides here, Jeremiah is mentioned by name two other times in Matthew (cf. 2:17; 27:9). In addition, Matthew several times alludes to Jeremiah, who is clearly one of his favorites.

When Jesus addresses the view of the disciples themselves (verse 15), it becomes clear that what is sought is the identity of Jesus Himself. The “you” in this question is plural and emphatic. That is to say, the disciples are being contrasted with everyone else. The distinguishing mark of true discipleship is the perception of who Jesus is.

Although all the disciples are addressed, it is Simon who answers (verse 16), as the spokesman for all the apostles. Throughout the Gospels he is the only one who ever serves in this way.

Peter’s confession itself is far more ample, precise, and developed here than in Mark and Luke, and it corresponds more closely to the full Christological confession of the Christian Church. It confesses a great deal more than Jewish Messianism (Compare 21:37-38; Hebrews 1:1-2).

To appreciate the Matthean expansion (verse 17), it is useful to compare it to the Markan sequence. In Mark’s version, Peter’s confession leads directly, without interruption, to Jesus’ reprimand of Peter. In Matthew this sequence is completely abandoned, and Jesus first blesses Peter. What Peter confesses cannot be humanly known; it transcends “flesh and blood” (cf. 11:25-27—observing the same verb, “reveal”). What we have here is a description of the faith of the Church (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:6).

Such is Jesus’ assessment of the answer Peter gives to His question, “Who do you say that I am?” The orthodox answer to this question is the matter of divine revelation. The confession follows the vision. The Church testifies to what She knows.

When Peter identifies Jesus, Jesus identifies Peter (verse 18). This identification is very important, because it has to do with the foundation of the Church. We have already learned in Matthew (10:2) that Simon’s nickname was Kephas, meaning “rock.” This nickname comes into play as the foundation stone of the Church. Indeed, this is the first of only three times—all of them in Matthew—that the word “Church” is found in the Gospels. What Jesus says is, “You are the Rock, and on this Rock I will build My Church.” What does this mean?

First, the pronouncement is related to Peter’s Christological confession. The rock on which the Church is built is, first of all, the confession of Jesus’ true identity as Son of the Living God. The Lord’s pronouncement to Peter, therefore, must not be separated from Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Son of God. That confession is the foundation stone on which the Church is built. This was, it would seem, a common metaphor. Indeed, this is how St. Peter himself interpreted the Lord’s words here; cf. 1 Peter 2:4-8 (also 1 Corinthians 3:11).

The first meaning of the Rock, then, on which the Church is to be built, is Christological. It is the confession of Jesus as the Christ and the Son of God.

In addition to this meaning, does the identification of Simon as the rock of the Church have some reference to his specific ministry in the Church? Perhaps it does. While the first meaning of the rock has to do with Christology, the New Testament knows a secondary and dependent meaning—the apostolic and prophetic ministries (cf. Ephesians 2:19-22). We also observe an “apostolic” meaning for the image of the rock in Revelation 21:14. This is later reflected in the Creed’s description of the Church as “apostolic.”

This secondary meaning, if it is (as I believe) intended here, is inseparable from the Christological meaning. That is to say, the Apostles are the rock of the Church in the sense that they are the authoritative witnesses to, and proclaimers of, the true identity of Jesus.

This is the reason why some of the Church Fathers understood Peter, in this text, to represent the bishops of the Church, because the bishops were (and still are) regarded as the legitimate successors of the Apostles. It is well known that this was the interpretation of St. Cyprian, the 3rd century bishop of Carthage, for instance.

Even if we do not follow Cyprian’s lead in this interpretation, it is important to stress (because Matthew does) the ecclesiastical—the institutional—aspect of this verse. Peter’s confession is not an individual taking of Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior. Peter here is the spokesman for the Church and makes the Church’s profession of faith.

The words that follow (verses 18-19) indicate that this authority is not given to Peter solely. As St. Cyprian of Carthage observed with respect to this text, Peter speaks as the representative all of the apostles, so that what Jesus says to Peter He says to all of them. Likewise, the authority here conferred on Peter is conferred on all the Apostles. This is why, as Cyprian also observed, what is said here to Peter in the singular is later said to all the Apostles in the plural (18:18,27).

What, then, are the keys given to Peter? They are the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, which is to say that Jesus Himsel
f shares with the Apostles His own authority to bind and loose (cf. 9:8). This statement of Jesus indicates a very “high” view of ecclesiology and a very “high” view of apostolic authority.

The metaphor of the key comes from Isaiah 22:20-25, which describes the installation of Eliakim over David’s royal house. These words apply to the Apostles in God’s house, and the authority thus conferred indicates a wide discretion; making rules (canons) and making exceptions to them, imposing and absolving from excommunications, forgiving and not forgiving sins (cf. John 20:23). We observe an example of the exercise of such authority in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, a case involving elementary Church discipline. We note that Paul speaks with the serene sense of authority to bind and loose. This text in Matthew means, then, that the Lord will support and back up the authority exercised in His name in the Church.

Since this promise to Peter is not found in Mark and Luke, it is worth inquiring where it was preserved, so as to end up in the Gospel according to Matthew. It is interesting that these words of Jesus do not appear in Mark, which was the specifically Roman Gospel, reflecting the preaching of Peter at Rome. The promise appears, rather, in Matthew, associated with the Church in Syria, and perhaps more specifically with Antioch, where Peter was important in the founding of the local Church. If the promise to Peter is to be understood as applicable to one local church in particular, that church would seem to be the one at Antioch.

Saturday, March 6

Jeremiah 30: This chapter is the first of four which make up the section often called “the book of consolation.” Since it interrupts Baruch’s biographical sequence of Jeremiah’s prophetic vocation, it is reasonable to inquire why this “book of consolation,” the theme of which is hope, should be placed at exactly this point.

Two considerations are justified in this respect:

First, the emphasis on salvation and the divine promises, introduced in chapter 29, are continued in the “book of consolation.” This is an obvious link.

Second, the “book of consolation” is partly—in chapter 32—biographical; it recounts the sign of Jeremiah’s unflagging hope during the time of his confinement.

Matthew 16:21-28: Having made the defining proclamation of Christological faith in answer to the first great question of the Gospel (“Just who is Jesus?”), the Apostle Peter now starts to disgrace himself by resisting the correct answer to the second great question of the Gospel: “What does Jesus do?”

There is a massive contrast between verse 17 and verse 23: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. . . . “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” In the first case Peter sees what it is humanly impossible to see. In the second case he does not savor (phronein) the things of God, but the things of men.

In the first case he is a “rock” in the sense of a foundation stone. In the second he is a rock that a man may trip over, a rock of stumbling, a skandalon (cf. 13:41; 18:7). Jesus words are a warning and threat to Peter, because scandal is that which brings final judgment. Peter becomes Satan!

In spite of being reprimanded here by the Lord, and notwithstanding the solemn warning that Jesus will give him at the Last Supper, Peter will continue to resist this “word of the Cross” right through to the Lord’s Passion, finally denying Him three times under the pressure of questioning. It is no small thing for a man to be called “Satan” by the One whom he has just identified as “the Son of the living God.” Nor would this be the last occasion on which Peter would be obliged to suffer a public rebuke (cf. Galatians 2:11).

Sunday, March 7

Matthew 17:1-13: The Lord’s transfiguration repeats the revelation made at His baptism, where the Father’s voice identified His Son. This revelation of Jesus’ unique relationship to God is the primary substance of the Christian faith, as we have just seen in Peter’s confession. Matthew has already treated this matter in 11:25-27, and he continues the theme here. This relationship of Jesus to God is the source of the “authority” (exsousia) with which Jesus teaches and heals and forgives sins and sends forth the Church in mission at the end of this gospel. While Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration is substantially identical to that of Mark (and both are quite different from Luke’s in emphasis), he does omit Mark’s (9:9f) reference to the disciples’ lack of “understanding” with respect to the return of Elijah. This omission fits a preoccupation that we have already seen in Matthew.

Other features of Matthew’s account are likewise special to this gospel. The comparison of Jesus’ transfigured face to the sun, for example, is proper to Matthew (verse 2). Although it is possible that this detail has no particular theological significance, it is worth remarking that Matthew elsewhere mentions the sun in the context of glory.

We next observe that Matthew names Moses before Elijah (verse 3), thus toning down Mark’s emphasis on Elijah.

In verse 4 Peter calls Jesus “Lord”–Kyrios (contrast with Mark’s “Rabbi”), the technical post-Resurrection title of Jesus. That is to say, in Peter’s address here we are dealing with the fully articulated faith of the Church.

In Mark and John the disciples sometimes address Jesus as “Rabbi,” but in Matthew and Luke never. Indeed, in Matthew the only person to address Jesus as “Rabbi” is Judas Iscariot, who does so twice (26:25,49).

Peter prefaces his suggestion about building three tabernacles with the caveat “If you will.” This emphasis on the Lord’s will is important in Matthew’s approach to prayer (cf. 6:10, contrasted with Luke 11:2-4, where the clause is missing).

We observe also Matthew’s omission of Mark 9:6 (“he did not know what to say, for they were greatly afraid”). As we have had occasion to remark elsewhere in these comments, Matthew is reluctant to portray the disciples as dull or ignorant. Here again he strikes out the idea.

All of verses 6 and 7 are proper to Matthew, and the detail about prostration is especially dear to this evangelist (cf. 2:11; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 20:20; 29:9—all of these instances found only in Matthew). It is obvious that Matthew is writing for Christians whose normal attitude toward Jesus Christ is summed up in the act of adoration. This says much of his Christology.

In this place, moreover, the intimacy of verse 7 presents a strong contrast to the transcendence of verse, both of them paradoxical components of the disciples’ relation to Christ.

Once again Matthew (verses 9-13) omits a verse from Mark (9:10: “So they kept this word to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant”), a line indicating ignorance on the part of the disciples. As we have observed, Matthew tends to leave out such indications, because he regards correct understanding as part of discipleship itself.

Since, as it appears, Matthew is reliant on Mark for much of his material, and since Mark often portrays the disciples speaking in ignorance, Matthew is often obliged to adjust the narratives in order to make the point he wants. We may note this development by contrasting Mark 4 with Matthew 13. Thus, Mark 4:10 (“But when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable”) becomes Matthew 13:10 (“Why do You speak to them in parables?”). That is to say, the disciples in Matthew do not ask Jesus to explain the parable. Then, Mark’s line “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” (4:13) is completely omitted in Matthew.

These differences carry over to the explanation of the p
arable. In Mark 10:15 we read “When they hear, Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts,” whereas in Matthew’s version (13:19) we read, “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart.”

Similarly, Mark 10:20 says simply, “these are the ones sown on good ground, those who hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit,” while the parallel text in Matthew (13:23) says, “he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces.”

Finally, only Matthew, not Mark, finishes the chapter on the parables of the Kingdom with the following question and answer: “Jesus said to them, ‘Have you understood all these things?’ They said to Him, “Yes, Lord” (13:51).

Monday, March 8

1 Corinthians 3:12-23: The Church is portrayed as a building. In fact, we are accustomed to thinking of the Church as a building. We are perhaps too accustomed to thinking of the Church as a building. We are so accustomed to it that we forget that Paul is here using a metaphor. He is not saying the Church is a building. He is saying that it is like a building.

“You are God’s building,” he says; “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? 1 If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which you are.” There are three points to be made in this respect:

First, Paul is talking about an historical institution, not some abstract, invisible reality. The Church that Paul is talking about is a real body, a religious organization, in the sense of a living organism. This church is composed of actual people who live and worship together in a common faith. Specifically, it is the Church at Corinth. This church at Corinth is composed of real people. Paul would not countenance for one minute the idea that the real Church is something distinguishable from the Church at Corinth.

Paul did not write his epistles for some invisible, trans-historical reality. He wrote for specific groups of people who were joined together in organic, institutional ways. Later on in this epistle he refers to the joints and ligaments that hold the body together. These are the organizations of communion, without which there is no such thing as Church. The visible, organized Church is the only Church recognized in the New Testament. Like any other historical institution, it has an invisible life and being, but that invisible life and being cannot be separated from the visible, social institution itself.

Like any other visible, organized group of people, the Church has its problems, and it was to address these problems that Paul wrote this epistle. Paul specifically addresses problems associated with strife and bickering among the Corinthian Christians. This is significant, because there is no strife or bickering in an invisible, trans-historical reality. One must not attempt to escape from the concrete problems of the visible church by joining some imaginary invisible church. That is simply an exercise in religious fantasy.

On the contrary, it is imperative that believers stay in the communion of the visible, social, institutional Church founded by Jesus Christ. It is imperative, furthermore, that they strive together to work out their salvation.. Paul tells the Philippians, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” This is a very important mandate, deserving of careful inspection. The command reads in the original Greek, ten heaovton soerian katergasthesthe. The noun is singular, and the verb is plural. That is to say, Christians all have the identical salvation, and they work it out together.

None of us works out his salvation on his own. It is a shared effort for a shared goal, and not one of us must dare to try to go it alone without the others. This is why Paul says it must be done “in fear and trembling.” The mandate to strive together is a mandate based on a healthy measure of fear. Salvation belongs to none of us as a private enterprise that we can somehow take away on his own. On this matter Paul gives us a solemn warning about fear and trembling. We must not divide the social, corporate institution for which Christ shed His blood. Paul saw exactly that danger at Corinth, and this is why he wrote this epistle, to insist that:

Second, the foundation for this building is Christ Himself: “For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” The rest of us are living stones built on top of that foundation stone, as St. Peter tells us: “Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

That is to say, the only way to “come” to Christ is by incorporation into Him, becoming a living stone joined to the other living stones that make up the edifice of which He is the foundation stone. We do not “come to Christ” simply by receiving Him, invisibly, into our hearts. We come to Christ by visibly and audibly confessing His Lordship in the Sacraments by which we are incorporated into Him.

Third, because this stone is not what the world has in mind, this Temple is not what the world has in mind. This stone, let us recall, was rejected by men, as St. Peter tells us. Peter actually changes the word from “the builders” to “men.” That is to say, Jesus was rejected not only by the Jews but by humanity in general. The human race has made a concerted decision that Jesus Christ is not to be the foundation stone of its history. He has been declared unfit to serve that purpose in human history.

And this is what we, who are His temple, must expect. We are not of this world. The decision was not ours. It was the decision of the world itself, and it is imperative that we join ourselves to Christ in the world’s rejection of Him. We do not want to be part of anything founded on the deliberate rejection of Christ. Only thus can He become the foundation stone of our lives.

Tuesday, March 9

Matthew 17:14-27: Before commenting on this text, it is worth mentioning that verse 21 does appear to belong here. This is not to say that the words are inauthentic, or that Jesus never said them. It means only that this verse seems not to have been part of the original writing of Matthew. I am drawing this conclusion chiefly from the fact that it is missing the two earliest codices of Matthew (the manuscripts Sinaiticus and Vaticanus). It seems to have found its way into the text early, however, being taken over from Mark 9:29.

Whereas Matthew greatly simplifies and shortens Mark’s version of this story in the narrative parts, he actually amplifies the “saying” part of it in verse 20. He does this in two ways: (1) He inserts here the Lord’s reference to faith as a mustard seed, a dominical saying found in quite another context in Luke 17:6; (2) Jesus here speaks of the disciples’ “small faith” (oligopistia). We saw earlier that this New Testament expression, “small faith,” either as a noun (here only) or an adjective, is found almost exclusively in Matthew; cf. 6:6; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8 (otherwise only in Luke 12:28). Faith, according to Matthew, is understood as trust in the authority (exsousia) of Jesus (8:9-13; 9:2). Miracles are said to be worked by faith (9:20-22, 28f). In three scenes where Mark and Luke do not do so, Matthew portrays Jesus as saying, “as you have believed, so be it done to you” (8:13; 9:29; 15:8).

We may look at some other features of Matthew’s version of this event.

First, when the man approaches Jesus (verse 14), he kneels down—gonypeton, literally “bending the k
nee”—before Jesus. That is to say, he assumes before Jesus the posture of prayer (contrast Mark 9:14-17). Like Solomon at the dedication of the Temple, he kneels before Jesus in prayer. This is the second time in two consecutive scenes in Matthew where kneeling is the proper posture in the presence of Jesus. In Matthew, then, the scene is one of worship and prayerful petition. And what does the man say to Jesus when he kneels down? Kyrie, eleison! — “Lord, have mercy!”

Like Solomon at the dedication of the Temple, then, the man kneels before Jesus in prayer. Here we have the second of two consecutive scenes in Matthew (the first being the Transfiguration in 17:6) that portray the believers before Jesus on bended knee.

This kneeling down, or prostration, in prayer is not simply a generic act of worship. It is specified by its Christological reference. Indeed, in the former scene, the Transfiguration, the disciples fall into this posture when they hear the voice of the Father identifying Jesus as His Son. Their posture is a theophanic response (cf. Revelation 1:16-17). Here in Matthew (verse 15) bends the knee Avton–“towards Him.”

And in kneeling down he addresses Jesus as “Lord”–Kyrios. We should contrast this with Mark’s account, which addresses Jesus here as “Teacher”–Didaskalos. Matthew, that is to say, uses the full confessional word of the Christian faith (cf. Philippians 2:11; 1 Corinthians 8:6; 12:3).

And just what is wrong with the man’s son? He is “moonstruck”–seleniatai, from the Greek noun selene, which means “moon.” This original sense is preserved in the ancient Latin form of this verse, lunaticus est.

“Lunatic” is the way that the ancients described someone mentally or emotionally unstable, meaning that such a person waxed and waned like the moon (luna), up one day, down the next. Such a person was given to radical changes of mood, like the moon. He changed shapes, as it were, even to the point of disappearing sometimes. Such a person showed the instability of the moon, going through cycles. (The Old Testament’s description of Saul is a useful example to recall.) In the present case the little boy seemed sometimes to attempt to kill himself, flinging himself into fire or water.

If we compare Matthew’s account with that of Mark, we easily see that the latter is longer and much more colorful and dramatic. Matthew’s version is not only shorter; it is greatly simplified. Although the father tells of the boy’s violent behavior, in Matthew this behavior does not take place in Jesus’ presence. In Matthew this is a scene of worship, as we have observed, and the tone is one of serenity, prayer, and divine grace.

The father remarks, however, that Jesus’ disciples were unable to effect a cure–therapevsai, and when Jesus does drive out the demon, Matthew says that the boy was “cured”–etherapevthe.

The second story here (verses 22-27), found only in Matthew, once again shows a special solidarity between Jesus and Peter, inasmuch as the taxes of both are paid by the same coin.

In spite of his being called “Satan” by the Lord, then, Peter did not really fall from the Lord’s favor; the Apostle was warned and reprimanded, not rejected. Indeed, even after those stern words in chapter 16, Peter was still chosen as one of the three disciples who witnessed the Lord’s transfiguration at the beginning of this chapter.

In the present text, as in every other New Testament text that speaks of his fishing, we may wonder about Peter’s skills as a fisherman. In every single gospel account, whenever Peter catches a fish, the event is regarded as a miracle.

This text also serves to instruct on the obligation of believers to pay taxes to the government.

Wednesday, March 10

Matthew 18:1-9: Matthew (but not Mark and Luke) begins the section on scandal (verses 6-9) immediately after the appearance of the child. It starts with a solemn warning not to scandalize the “little believers” (micros pistevon).

Here we have some of the toughest, harshest verses in the New Testament: images of being drowned with a millstone around one’s neck, the cutting off of a hand, the gouging out of an eye—all suggesting the difficulty of getting into the Kingdom of Heaven.

To give scandal, in the biblical sense, does not mean to shock. It means to cause spiritual harm, even though shock does sometimes accompany scandal. Scandal means to hurt someone spiritually, to cause someone to sin, to degrade someone’s conscience. In the present text the word is found six times, whether as a verb or a noun.

In the first instance it refers to the spiritual harm done to a child or young person. The Lord’s mind in this case is the reverse side of His love and preference for children. The punishment that He threatens to those who cause spiritual harm to children is an expression of His own love for children.

Those who would imitate Christ, then, must be protectors of children (born or unborn!); this is not an option for Christians, but the obligation rests more clearly on parents and those with responsibility in loco parentum, such as teachers, and counselors. For this reason, the spiritual protection of children is an essential feature of those with a responsibility of spiritual fatherhood in the Church, namely, bishops and priests. It is bishops and priests, perhaps, who are most threatened with this millstone around the neck.

What, then, is a skandalon? The word means a “trap” or “snare,” a device to trip someone. Therefore it is of the nature of a skandalon that it takes someone by surprise; he is caught before he knows it.

In the case of children, then, a scandal is caused by those whom the child trusts, those whom the child is supposed to trust, those whom the child has been taught to trust. Understood thus, a scandal is the violation of a trust; it preys on the vulnerability of the child. Clearly, in the way that the New Testament speaks of this sin, it is especially heinous. The one who does it will be drowned, says the Sacred Text, en to pelagei tes thalasses. He will sink to the very bottom, because this is the worst of sins.

Thursday, March 11

Matthew 18:10-20: The parable of the lost sheep, found both here (verses 10-14) and in Luke 15:3-7, carries a very different emphasis in each setting.

In Luke’s setting the parable comes first in a series of thee parables about objects lost-and-found , serves to illustrate God’s compassion toward sinners, and answers the challenge thrown at Jesus in Luke 15:2: “This man receives sinners: ” Accordingly, in Luke the parable of the lost sheep is followed by two other parables illustrating the identical theme of the divine compassion, the account of the woman and her lost coin and the story of the father and his lost son. In Matthew the parable tells us directly about Jesus and the mercy of God.

Since Jesus’ compassionate regard for and merciful behavior toward sinners is the root of what theologians call soteriology (“the study of salvation”), the major point and burden of this story of the lost-and-found sheep in Matthew is Christological and soteriological. That is to say, it is directed toward the questions, “Who is Jesus?” and “What does He do?”

In Matthew, on the other hand, the parable of the lost sheep is placed in an ecclesiological setting. It pertains to Matthew’s fourth great discourse, which is concerned with the Church. Bear in mind that in this chapter we have two of the three times that the word “Church” appears in the Gospels.

The link verse in this story is verse 10, a negative command that ties the parable back to the section on scandal (verses 6-9). The “little one” in this context–henos ton micron–can be a child, but it can also include any “little person,” whom we are tem
pted to overlook, to neglect, perhaps even to despise.

Here is Matthew’s difference from Luke’s version of the parable. In Luke this is a story of Jesus’ regard and behavior with respect to the sinner, whereas here in Matthew it is concerned with the attitude and behavior of Christians.

Let us further observe that this ecclesiological and moral accent in Matthew’s version is muted or even lost in the manuscript tradition by a copyist’s insertion of verse 11, which is missing in the older, more reliable manuscripts of Matthew. Some later copyist evidently borrowed it from Luke’s story of Jesus and the publican Zacchaeus. The insertion of this verse significantly alters the flavor and nuance of the text, changing it into a Christological story rather than an ecclesiological and moral exhortation. The text, then, should be read without verse 11.

Thus read, then, the parable is not about Jesus seeking the sheep that was lost. It is an illustration of the command not to despise one of these little ones. It is an exhortation to the Church to let no one “fall between the cracks.’ It is an order to seek and find that which was lost.

Each of these little ones, who (we observe) are no longer just children, has a guardian angel that contemplates the face of God. This is one of the “proof texts” for the Church’s belief in the guardian angels (cf. Acts 12:15).

The Church must exercise, then, a certain stewardship over the sheep, a theme that follows the prophetic criticism (cf. Ezekiel 34:6,15-16 for instance) of the shepherds of Israel, who neglected to go out and bring back the sheep that were lost.

These sheep have not only “strayed”; they have been “led astray” or “deceived” (planao), an expression that Matthew sees as a sign of the last times (cf. 24:5). They have separated themselves from the flock, because they have followed a “deceiver” (24:11). In Matthew’s context, then, to stray means to be led astray by a false teacher (24:24). In these texts it is evident that the danger of straying is great, because the false teachers are described as numerous.

We are not, says our parable, to despise those who have been led astray. They still have their guardian angels, and the Father still loves them. Hence, the people of God are never to despise those that wander and become lost, to treat such persons as negligible and beyond the solicitude of the Church

Nonetheless, Matthew phrases the admonition in such a way as to suggest that the stray sheep may not be found (verse 13). Such searches for the wandering are not invariably successful.

Still, the loss of such a sheep is never God’s will (verse 14). No sheep is predestined to be lost. The Bible knows nothing about predestination to hell; indeed, the very concept is contrary to the mind of the God who wills all men to be saved.

The “wandering” in Matthew, in short has to do with becoming separated from the flock, the Church. There are no insignificant sheep in this flock. There are no “nobodies” in the Church, no unimportant souls for whom Christ died.

In Matthew, then, this is a parable about life in the Church. Reconciliation in Matthew always means reconciliation with the Church. There is no such thing as reconciliation with God apart from the Church. Reconciliation always means restoration to the flock, and the Church is to go after the “stray.”

This parable will be followed by instructions on how to do this—how to bring back the erring brother.

Friday, March 12

Matthew 18:21-35: The foregoing theme of forgiveness by the Church now introduces the subject of personal forgiveness by members within the Church (verses 21-35). This latter aspect is introduced by Peter’s use of the word “brother.” The question still has to do with family relationships in the Holy Spirit. The Church, then, is still the context.

This passage also has to do with real offenses, such theft, cheating, or lying. Peter does not ask, “How many times must I permit my brother to annoy me or get on my nerves.” Some more serious offense is envisioned in this mandate to forgive.

The response of Jesus can be translated as either “seventy-seven” or seventy times seven.” The point of the mandate is not the precise number, whether 77 or 490. It means, rather, that there must be no limit to our forgiveness. Forgiveness cannot be allowed to become a quantitative commodity in limited supply.

After all, how does God forgive? He does not limit His mercy to our first seven offenses. He forgives us at our repentance, no matter how often we fall. We too, then, are called to forgive in the same measure. Such abundance of mercy will become the burden of the parable that follows (verses 23-35).

Jesus’ response to Peter alludes to Genesis 4:24—“ If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” This line from Lamech is a sort of culmination of the growing violence that followed man’s fall in the Garden. That fall led immediately to the murder of Abel (4:8), which led immediately to the prospect of vengeance (4:14) and then greater vengeance (4:15), leading in Lamech’s case to the equivalent of total warfare. Jesus’ response to Peter indicates that the Gospel must go in the opposite direction, placing no limits on forgiveness.

The parable that follows, which is proper to Matthew, does not exactly illustrate the mandate to forgive without limits. It indicates, rather, that we are to forgive in the measure that our heavenly Father forgives us. Thus, the parable advances the Lord’s argument with a new consideration—the massive disproportion between the debt that one man may owe to another and the incomparable debt that every man owes to God. This ridiculous disproportion is the basis of the parable’s irony.

The debt that the servant owes to the master is calculated at ten thousand talents, a figure that would amount to billions of dollars in today’s money. Consequently, the payment of the debt was beyond the servant’s ability to repay; the debtor would be in debtors’ prison forever. This is an image of eternal loss.

The proposed selling of the wife and children is a metaphor. This could not happen in Jewish Law in Jesus’ time. Even if it could, the sale price would not pay the debt. Hence, the servant’s resolve to pay the whole debt (verse 26) was futile on its face.

In this parable, then, we discern two aspects of God. The first is His mercy, His compassion for man’s distress. God forgives the repentant. The debt is absolved because of the master’s compassion (splangchnistheis–verse 27).

The second aspect is God’s anger (orgistheis–verse 34), prompted by man’s refusal to copy the divine compassion. The servant is condemned for not imitating his master’s mercy. Instead he declines to forgive the piddling liability of a fellow servant.

In this parable Matthew returns to the message already contained in the Lord’s Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount (6:14-15).

It is important likewise to observe the intervention of the “fellow servants,” an act that continues this chapter’s theme of the Church. We remark that the master reacts to the situation at the behest of the Church, the two or three fellow servants who are gathered in his name. Indeed, the irony of the story is disclosed by the intervention of the Church. The master in the parable listens to the case made by the Church. What was retained on earth was retained in heaven.

The wicked servant’s condemnation to torture (basanisais–verse 34) is eternal, because his debt is beyond payment. No one can pay it. This is an image of eternal damnation (cf. 25:41,46).

In short, it should be easy for a Christian to forgive seventy times seven times, knowing that God has forgiven him so much more.