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Offending the Little Ones. The Unmerciful Servant
1-14. Ambition reproved, and humility taught by the example of a little child (Mark 9:33-37; Luke 9:46-48).
1. Who is the greatest?] RV ’Who then is greatest?’ The ’then’is explained from St. Mark’s statement that on the way to Capernaum the disciples had been disputing who was the greatest. The Transfiguration had revived the hopes of the three leading apostles that the Kingdom of Christ was about to be established, and the Twelve were divided into three parties advocating the rival claims of Peter, James, and John to the office of prime minister. Others were perhaps jealous of all three, and favoured other candidates. They, therefore, came to Christ. ’Who then,’ said they (’since we cannot settle it ourselves), is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?’ According to St. Mark and St. Luke, when they came into Christ’s presence, they were ashamed to speak, but Jesus understood the question they desired to ask: cp. Matthew 20:20; Luke 22:24. The incident is well placed by St. Matthew after the incident of the half-shekel in which Jesus had shown His own humility by paying the tax. The kingdom of heaven] here the Kingdom of the Messiah wrongly conceived of as an earthly empire.
2. A little child] Perhaps, as He was in Peter’s house, one of Peter’s children. Tradition, however, says that it was Ignatius, the martyr, afterwards bishop of Antioch.
3. Except ye be converted] RV ’Except ye turn.’ A sharp rebuke. The disciples were disputing their rank and precedence in the Kingdom. Jesus denies that they are in it at all. They have turned their backs on it altogether. Only by reversing their course and embracing humility, can they hope even to enter it. Here Jesus uses the ’Kingdom of Heaven’ to express the inward character of the true members of His Church.
4. Shall humble himself as this little child] A little child has no pride, knows nothing of worldly rank or position, and is simple, teachable, and loving. In using such an objectlesson, Jesus showed His greatness as a teacher. According to St. Mark, He took the little child in His arms to teach the lesson of love that follows. St. Bernard’s definition of humility is true and deep. ’It is the virtue by which a man from the most true knowledge of himself is vile (i.e. of little worth) in his own eyes; the esteeming of ourselves small, inasmuch as we are so, the thinking truly, and because truly, therefore lowlily, of ourselves’: see also on Matthew 5:5.
5. Shall receive] i.e. with affection, honour, and respect, and with the design of learning from them the special lesson, which they have to teach, viz. humility: cp. Matthew 10:40, where ’receiveth you’ means ’receiveth your teaching.’ One such little child] Not a literal child, but a childlike, humble person of any age. This is the meaning even in St. Luke, who writes, ’this little child,’ because the child is taken as representing a class. In my name] i.e. for my sake. Receiveth me] Christ is honoured when His saints are honoured for their likeness to Him. St. Mark (cp. also St. Luke) adds, ’and whosoever receiveth me, receiveth not me, but him that sent me.’ Between Matthew 18:5 and Matthew 18:6 St. Mark and St. Luke insert a saying of John’s about a man who was casting out devils in Christ’s name.
6-9. Mark 9:42-48:; cp. also Luke 17:1-2
6. But whoso shall offend (RV ’shall cause to stumble’) one of these little ones] i.e. whosoever shall bring about the ruin of the soul of a true believer, by depriving him of the childlike characteristics of humility and love.
It were better for him] RV ’it is profitable for him.’ Why better? Because the penalty for ruining the soul of another is eternal death, and it is better to suffer the worst earthly penalty, than to do anything which will incur that awful doom.
A millstone] lit. ’a millstone turned by an ass,’ as opposed to one turned by hand, i.e. ’a great millstone’ (RV). Were hanged.. were drowned] more exactly, ’had been hanged.. had been drowned,’ viz. before he did the deed. Drowning was a Roman and Greek punishment, reserved for crimes of peculiar enormity. It is not known to have been practised by the Jews.
7-9. A short digression. Jesus passes from the case of ’these little ones,’ to temptations to sin in the world at large (Matthew 18:7), and in individual cases (Matthew 18:8-9).
7. Woe unto the world] Jesus has been dealing with ’offences,’ i.e. temptations to sin, within the Church. He now applies the same principle to the world at large. It is in every case, He says, a greater sin to lead others into sin than to be led. There is a greater punishment, or ’woe,’ for the tempter than for the tempted. It must needs be] A broad statement of the results of human experience, not a definition of the doctrine of fatalism or determinism. God does not compel men to sin, any more than He compels them to be virtuous. Perhaps Jesus had in His mind the case of His own death. The death of Jesus was (the religious state of the nation being what it was) practically certain, yet the human agent, Judas, through whom the offence came, acted freely, and was held responsible for his act.
8, 9. How each man is to deal with his own individual temptations: see on Matthew 5:29, Matthew 5:30.
10-14. Two reasons are given why we are not to despise ’one of these little ones,’ i.e. any humble Christian. One is, that God Himself shows them honour, by appointing angels to be their guardians. The other is, that He cares so much for them, that He has sent His own Son to redeem them (Matthew 18:11).
10. Their angels] Though the general ministry of angels to those who are heirs of salvation is generally assumed in the NT. (Hebrews 1:14, etc.), only this passage and Acts 12:15 teach that a special guardian angel is assigned to each individual. It is implied that the angels entrusted with this ministry are of the highest rank, because in an Oriental court only the highest officials see the king’s face: cp. 2 Kings 25:19.
11. The RV, following many ancient authorities, omits this v. It is, however, difficult to account for its insertion, if it is not genuine. It is certainly not inserted from Luke 19:10.
12-14. Parable of the Lost Sheep, ’which is intended to show that it would be in direct opposition to God’s desire for human salvation to lead astray one of those little ones, and to cause him to be lost, like a strayed sheep. Luke 15:4 records the same beautiful parable, though in a different connexion ’(see the notes there). The practical lesson is that we must not only be kind to, and honour Christ’s little ones (i. e. members of His Church), but, if they go astray, must show our love by seeking to reclaim them, like the Good Shepherd.
15-20. Treatment of an erring brother (peculiar to St. Matthew). The connexion with what precedes is as follows: ’Despise not one of the “little ones” (Matthew 18:10-14); if, however, one “offends against thee,” then proceed thus.’ The subject changes from that of doing injury to the ’little ones,’ against which Jesus has been warning (Matthew 18:10-14), to that of suffering injury, in view of which He prescribes the proper method of brotherly visitation. A ’little one’ is now defined as a Christian brother in general. Previously he was not only a Christian, but a humble Christian.
15. If thy brother shall trespass against thee] so RV. Westcott and Hort, however, omit ’against thee,’ considerably altering the sense of the passage, which then applies to sin in general. Hast gained thy brother] viz. ’back to God, and to thyself.’ While he was in his sin, he was lost to both.
17. Tell it unto the church] i.e. the Christian Church, as in Matthew 16:18, not the Jewish synagogue, as some have supposed. Jesus uses Jewish expressions, because those only were then intelligible, but He is plainly legislating for His own society. In dealing with offenders the Church is to use, (1) admonition, (2) if that be unsuccessful, excommunication. This was also the Jewish method of procedure. As an heathen man (RV ’gentile’) and a publican] Social intercourse with the sinner, while unrepentant, is forbidden. But Jesus does not authorise the more severe forms of excommunication in use among the Jews, which involved cursing and anathematising. The discipline of. His Church is to be mild and gentle.
18. Bind.. loose] see on Matthew 16:19. Here the binding and loosing refer specially to judicial decisions, which Jesus says will be ratified in heaven.
19. Again I say] Having promised the ratification in heaven of the judicial decisions of the Church, Jesus proceeds to say the same thing about the prayers of Christians. He lays stress on united prayer. The way to obtain a request, is to call in the aid of a Christian brother and to pray with him. Still more, therefore, will the united prayer of the whole Church prove effectual.
20. For where two or three] Christ proceeds to give the reason why God will grant such prayers. It is that He Himself, the great Intercessor, is personally present in every worshipful assembly of Christians, and presents their prayers to the Father. The passage applies to private prayer-meetings, but is particularly true of assemblies of the Church. The small numbers (two or three) are mentioned to encourage the Christians of the first ages, who would often consist of a mere handful in the midst of a great heathen population. A convincing proof of Christ’s divinity may be drawn from this promise, which is rendered all the more evident by a comparison with the Jewish sayings from which it is adapted, e.g. ’Whence is it certain that the Holy and Blessed God is present in the synagogue?’ (From Psalms 82:1.) ’Whence is it certain that when ten persons are praying, the Divine Majesty is present?’ (From the same passage.) ’Whence is it certain that the Divine Majesty is present when two are sitting and studying the law?’ (From Malachi 3:16.)
21, 22. How often a brother is to be forgiven. A favourite subject for discussion among the rabbis. They taught generally that three offences were to be pardoned.
21. Seven times] Peter thought himself more than twice as liberal as the rabbis. Our Lord’s reply (Matthew 18:22) teaches that there must be no limit to human pardon, as there is none to Gods: see on Matthew 6:12, Matthew 6:14-15 and cp. Luke 17:3.
23-35. The unmerciful servant (peculiar to St. Matthew). The lesson is that, inasmuch as God has forgiven us the great and unpayable debt which as sinners we owe to Him, so we also must forgive our brethren the comparatively trifling debts which they have incurred by sinning against us. The parable concerns the Kingdom of Heaven, i.e. it illustrates God’s dealing with Christians, not with the world.
23. A certain king] i.e. God. Which would take account] RV ’would make a reckoning with his servants.’ ’We are the servants with whom He takes account. This account, as is plain, is not the final reckoning, but rather such as that of Luke 16:2. To this He brings us by the preaching of the law—by the setting of our sins before our face—by awakening and alarming our conscience that was asleep before—by bringing us into adversities—by casting us into sore sicknesses, into perils of death. Thus David was summoned before God by the word of Nathan the prophet; thus the Ninevites by the preaching of Jonah; thus the Jews by John the Baptist’ (Trench).
24. Ten thousand talents] An enormous sum (£2,500,000 of our money, if the Attic silver talent of £240 is meant, and still more if the Hebrew silver talent of £410, or gold talent of £6,150, is meant), indicating the absolute impossibility of a man making atonement for his own sin. Only Christ Himself could pay the ransom price of man’s redemption and set the debtor free. For sin regarded as a debt, see on Matthew 6:12.
25. To be sold] The Mosaic Law allowed the sale of a debtor with his wife and children, these being regarded as his property (Leviticus 25:39; 2 Kings 4:1), but the rabbis disapproved this severity, except in the case of a thief. The reference is to Gentile customs, probably to the Roman law. Spiritually the selling is ’the expression of God’s right and power altogether to alienate from Himself, reject, and deliver into bondage all those who have come short of His glory.’
26. Worshipped] i.e. prostrated himself.
I will pay thee all] a sign that his repentance was very superficial, as indeed his subsequent conduct showed. Yet the merciful God accepted even this imperfect repentance, hoping for better things in the future. ’The slave,’ says Euthymius, ’asked not for full remission but for time, but the lovingkindness of God granted full remission of the debt. Learn from this that God gives more even than we ask.’
28. An hundred pence] (denarii), i.e. about £2 15s. Od., an insignificant sum, representing the trifling character of offences against man, compared with those against God.
34. To the tormentors] Torture was not a Jewish or Roman punishment for debtors, but it would naturally be applied by an Eastern despot to make the debtor disclose where he had hidden his treasures.
Till he should pay all that was due] ’i.e. (says St. Chrysostom) for ever; for he can never possibly pay.’ Others more plausibly see in the ’till,’ a hope, or at least a possibility, of final release: see on Matthew 12:32.
35. See Matthew 6:15.
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Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Matthew 18". "Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent