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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 18

Orchard's Catholic Commentary on Holy ScriptureOrchard's Catholic Commentary

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Verses 1-35

XVIII 1-35 Instructions on the Kingdom: Its Spirit and Organization— Our Lord addresses himself principally to those who were to carry on his work. His discourse is far from being a systematic and exhaustive charter for the Church’s leaders, but it inculcates certain fundamental dispositions: childlike spirit, 1-4; care for the simplest of the faithful, 5-9; for the wayward zeal, 10-14, but salutary firmness and exercise of full authority, 15-20; and all this without personal rancour, 21-35.

1-4 Importance of Simplicity (Mark 9:32-36; Luke 9:46-48)—Despite (or even because of?) the promise to. Peter of primacy in the Kingdom, 16:19, the Apostles debate, not without personal interest, the question of precedence. The dispute takes place on the way Capharnaum (Mk) and the Apostles are ashamed to tell our Lord (Mk, Lk) who, however, knows their thoughts. Mt characteristically ignores these details and summarily presents the incident in the form of Jesus’ own question and answer.

1. The question concerns present dignity, not degrees of reward in heaven (cf.Mark 9:33: ’which of them was greatest’ WV). The ’kingdom of heaven’ is, therefore, the kingdom in its earthly stage. This is shown also by the theme of the whole chapter which deals with mutual relations of the disciples on earth.

2. The child is a flesh-and-blood parable. Ambition is not a common trait of childhood. See Chrysostom’s further developments in the moving homily 62 in Mt, Roman Breviary, July 20.

3. Our Lord’s words are particularly stern in Mt ’Unless you become like little children again’ (KNT; st?aF?+?te not ’be converted’ but ’turn back’), far from achieving eminence in the Kingdom you cannot even qualify for entrance. Ambition in this matter defeats itself; cf. 20:20 ff. with note.

4. The greatest stature in the Kingdom (i.e. true dignity before God) is paradoxically that of the man who ’makes himself small’ (Joüon; tape????,cf.Luke 3:5). High function in the Kingdom absolves no one from personal humility.

5-7 Obligations towards the ’Little Ones’ (Mark 9:37, Mark 9:42; Luke 9:48; Luke 17:1-2)—5. The ’child’ suggests all, young or old, who have simple faith in our Lord. He therefore passes to the duties of the Twelve towards the least sophisticated of the faithful. Care devoted to such, if it be given because they belong to Christ (?p? t?+? ???µat?) as his chosen ones, becomes an act of devotion to our Lord himself.

6. The care for the ’little ones’ demanded in 5 is explained by its opposite vice—the providing of a snare (’scandal’) in the moral order by one’s own conduct—bad example or direct seduction. This is a danger for those destined to occupy high place in the community. Better that those who so seduce should be securely out of the way of doing harm— weighed down in the depth of the sea. The ’millstone’ (lit. ’ass-mill’) in question is the lower of two stones which is ’like a hollow inverted cone with a wide hole at the narrower end allowing the flour to fall through when the grain has been crushed against its sides by the upper millstone’ ( Lagrange, L’Evangile, 269). The mill is set in motion by an ass harnessed to a beam. This hollow cone could be put on a man collar-fashion.

7. Human nature being what it is, ’scandal’, given and received, is inevitable, but woe to the giver because he takes the evil initiative!

8-9 Ruthless Elimination of Moral Obstacles (Mark 9:42-18)—The transition to this new idea is made, in Semitic fashion, by means, rather of a word (’scandal’) than by a direct logical connexion with 5-7. A similar thought has been expressed in 5:29-30, but here the context (dealing with mutual relations in a society) suggests that the ’hand, foot, eve’ further represent those dear to us who may prove occasions of sin. Our Lord’s words are severe because so much is at stake: Life or Everlasting Fire. The ’life’ is the unending life of the world to come (cf.Wis 5:15 f.; 2 Mac 7:9, 36; Bonsirven 1, 517-26) where sacrifice of mortal life and limb will be repaired. Everlasting fire or the hell (gehenna) of fire (5:22, note) is proposed as the one alternative without prospect of end, and this was the prevailing Jewish belief, but cf. Bonsirven 1, 538-41 for its more exact description.

10-14 The Sheep Astray (cf.Luke 15:3-7)—After the short digression on ’taking scandal’, 8-9, our Lord returns to the care for the ’little ones’, 5-7, with a parable to which Luke (Luke 15:3-7, note) gives a different emphasis.

10. These ’little ones’ (5, note) are not contemptible; they have their representatives at the court of God to plead vindication of their wrongs or neglect. That these angel-representatives are also companions of the just on earth (cf.Psalms 90:11) is a doctrine found in rabbinic writings ( Bonsirven 1, 233; Edersheim 2, 752): the just man on his journey is accompanied by two good angels, the wicked by two evil spirits. Later Rabbis speak of angels assigned to the permanent care of each individual ( SB 3, 437 f.). Here our Lord clearly speaks of angelic advocates in Heaven and, if we take into account the background of Jewish angelology, implies that they accompany their charges on earth. This doctrine of’ guardian angels’, based on our text (and cf.Acts 12:15), is not defined by the Church, but is consecrated in her practice and is held to be proxima fidei. On the manuscript evidence editors rightly omit 11 as an importation from Luke 19:10.

12-14. The parable speaks for itself. The lesson is implicit: if the Father thinks so much of these ’little ones’, how far should the disciple be from despising them! The shepherd is, of course, not a perfect image of God; his impetuosity in leaving the ninety-nine, his disproportionate joy in finding the one, are very human qualities. Yet, by their very excess they serve admirably to illustrate the Father’s concern for his ’little ones’. The disciples’ duty is clear: not only the negative obligation of averting scandal, but the positive one of leading the ’little ones’ back to the fold when they stray.

15-18 Exercise of Correction (Mt only)—This duty of seeking the straying Christian (’brother’) is to be exercised with discretion. 15. The sinner (prob. omit ’against thee’, WV, and cf. Lagrange ad loc) must be won back to God (’gained’) as sweetly as may be. If there be no need for public reprimand, charity forbids it: one must show him his fault (WV) privately.

16. In juridical matters the old Law required at least two witnesses: ’it is by the deposition of two or three witnesses that the case is to be established’, Deuteronomy 19:15. The principle is transferred to this affair which is not yet juridical. The persons called are therefore not witnesses of the fault but are called in as independent opinions helping not to convict but to convince the sinner of his fault.

17. Only in the last resort must the matter be brought to official notice—this for the sake of the individual and of the community. Our Lord prudently and naturally provides for the future (as in 16:17-19, notes) when he will be no longer at hand to settle difficulties. His ’Church’ appears as a compact, defined body with powers to exclude the recalcitrant from its society. Afer such a sentence the sinner stands outside the Society as the pagans and the Jewish taxgatherers (’publicans’; cf. 9:10 f., note) are beyond the pale of the Synagogue. For Jewish ideas on fraternal correction, cf. Bonsirven 2, 231. 18.

15-17 were addressed, in the singular, to any Christian; now our Lord addresses the Apostles (’you’; cf. 18:1), not the members of the Church at large. He associates their powers with Peter’s without prejudice to Peter’s exclusive custodianship of the keys or to his function as the one foundation, 16:17-19. The apostolic body, with Peter, is given wide powers which include that of formal excommunication or reconciliation.

19-20 Mystical Presence of Jesus (Mt only)—Though the connexion with the preceding may be loose (cf. ’again I say to you’) it seems probable that the words, in Mt’s context, still have reference to the Apostles. They appear to guarantee efficacious help for any agreed course of action (p?a+??µa) concerning which the Apostles ask divine assistance. Most commentators, however, refer our Lord’s promise to the prayer of the faithful in general and refuse any close connexion with 18. 20. In any case, the reason why the Father’s help is certain is based on a general principle: the beloved Son himself whom the Father always hears, John 11:42, is mystically present in the tiniest gathering convoked to do him honour (’in my name’; e?? t? ?µ?? ???µa, not ?? t?+? ?µ?+? ???µat?, suggests the idea of appurtenance, consecration, devotion to). We may compare the words with the rabbinic saying (c a.d. 135): ’When two are together and discussing the Law, the Glory [i.e. God himself] is in the midst of them’. Our Lord takes the place of the Law as the purpose of the gathering and assumes the role of the Glory itself.

21-35 On Forgiveness (cf.Luke 17:3b-4)—21-22. The instruction on reconciliation of erring brethren, 15-18, has said nothing of repeated faults. It is Peter (naturally enough, in view of his position, 16:17 ff.) who seeks precision on this matter, though he introduces a personal note (’against me’) hitherto absent; cf. 15, note. Seven is a round (Semitic) number and therefore, Peter thinks, generous. It is not generous enough for the spirit of the Kingdom. Our Lord multiplies and multiplies the sacred number to leave the impression of limitless pardon. Repeat them as he will, our neighbour’s offences against us can never compare with ours against God—and still God forgives. Nevertheless, our forgiveness of neighbour is the condition of God’s pardon of us. This is the lesson of the parable which follows.

23-35 The Heartless Debtor (Mt only)—The parable is a drama in three scenes: Mercy, 22-27, Cruelty,

28-30, Justice, 31-34, with an epilogue, 35. 23. Because this notion of pardon is so indispensable it is possible to represent the Kingdom in terms of Mercy and Justice. The time has come for the king’s officials (provincial governors or financial administrators) to settle their account with the Treasury.

24. At the very outset one is brought to the king’s presence who owes nearly three million pounds (10,000 talents; one talent is a weight of silver equivalent to 6,000 Greek drachmas—more than a labourer could earn in fifteen years; cf. 17:23, note). The sum is fantastic even for a highly-placed official; its choice has in view the application of the parable to our debt towards God.

25-27. The king, using his royal prerogative, orders the man and his family to be sold into slavery and a small percentage of the debt to be paid for the sale of his person and possessions. The king, though he knows the absurdity of the man’s wild promises, relents; he remits the whole debt—a kingly gesture.

28-30. The contrast that follows is emphatic and detailed. The forgiven debtor meets his equal, not his subject; he is owed a paltry sum—one six hundred thousandth of his own forgiven debt; he assails his fellow-debtor with violence, not giving time to speak; he spurns him when his attitude and words (ironically the image and echo of his own) must have recalled the recent interview with the merciful king. Finally he throws his debtor into prison to force him to raise the money by some means (selling-up, borrowing, etc.).

31-34. The shocking contrast between the king’s conduct and his servant’s is made explicit in this third tableau. The matter is reported to the king who exacts the rigorous justice which the merciless servant has just demanded. The unhappy man is handed over to the torturers who will force him perhaps to disclose some hidden reserves. He is handed over ’until he should pay’. There is no likelihood that he will be able.

35. The epilogue is on a threatening note, but it plainly identifies the Father with the king whose first characteristic is limitless mercy, 23-27. The enormity of our debt to the Father is immeasurable: it is represented arithmetically only because a parable in human terms demands it and because the figure serves to dwarf our neighbour’s ’debt’ to us. But’the Father lays down two firm conditions, and only two: that we ask for forgiveness; that we exercise it ourselves. The first condition is implicit in the parable, the second explicit. The parable is the graphic development of the pregnant and sobering prayer ’Forgive us as we forgive’, 6:12. And the forgiveness must be ’from our hearts’, profound and absolute. ’I forgive but I cannot forget’ is not a Christian saying.

Bibliographical Information
Orchard, Bernard, "Commentary on Matthew 18". Orchard's Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/boc/matthew-18.html. 1951.
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