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Discourse concerning the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, and the mutual duties of Christians. (Mark 9:33-50; Luke 9:46-50.)
The greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
At the same time; literally, in that hour. The narrator connects the following important discourse with the circumstances just previously related. Peter had completed the business of the didrachma, and had rejoined the body of disciples. These, according to St. Mark, had disputed about precedency on the way to Capernaum. Fired with the notion that their Master would ere long publicly assert his Messianic claims, which, in their view, implied temporal sovereignty and secular power, they looked forward to becoming dignitaries in this new kingdom. Three of them had been honoured with special marks of favour; one of them had been pre-eminently distinguished: how would it be when the coming empire was established? This had been the subject of conversation, and had given rise to some contention among them. Christ had marked the dispute, but had said nothing at the time. Now he gives them a lesson in humility, and teaches the spiritual nature of his kingdom, in which earthly pride and ambition find no place. From St. Mark we learn that Jesus himself took the initiative in the discourse, asking the disciples concerning their disputation on the road; and, when they were ashamed to answer, he added, "If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all." Our Gospel here takes up the story. The paradox seemed incomprehensible; so they put the question, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? The Greek is, Τιìς ἀìρα μαιìζων ἐστιÌν κ.τ.λ.; who then is greater? Vulgate, Quis, putas, major est? The illative particle "then" refers to what is recorded in St. Mark (Mark 9:34), or to some such difficulty in the querists' mind. They make the inquiry in the present tense, as though Christ had already selected the one who was to preside; and by the kingdom of heaven they mean the Messianic kingdom on earth, concerning which their notions did not yet rise above those of their contemporaries (comp. Acts 1:6). The comparative in the original, "greater," is virtually equivalent to the superlative, as it is translated in the Authorized Version. Such a question as the above could not have been asked had the apostles at this time recognized any absolute pre-eminence in Peter or acknowledged his supremacy.
A little child. Our Lord teaches, not only by spoken parables, but by symbolical actions also. This was not a mere infant, as Christ is said to have called him unto him. A tradition, mentioned by Nicephorus ('Hist. Eccl.,' 2.35), asserts that this child was the famous martyr Ignatius. Set him in the midst of them. Taking him in his arms, as St. Mark tells. What a picture of Christ's tenderness and human love! From the boy's trustfulness and submission he draws a needed lesson for the ambitious apostles.
Except ye be converted στραφῆτε); i.e. turned from proud, ambitious thoughts of worldly dignity. There is no question here about what is popularly known as conversion—the change from habitual sin to holiness. The conversion here spoken of is confined to a change in the present state of mind—to a new direction given to the thoughts and wishes. The apostles had shown rivalry, jealousy, ambition: they must turn away from such failings, and learn a different lesson. Become as little children. Christ points to little children as the model to which the members of his kingdom must assimilate themselves. The special attributes of children which he would recommend are humility, unworldliness, simplicity, teachableness,—the direct contraries of self-seeking, worldliness, distrust, conceit. Ye shall not enter. In the sermon on the mount Christ had said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3). To all who are not such the gate opens not. That virtue which was unknown to pagan antiquity, the opposite character to which was upholden as the acme of excellence, Christ here asserts to be the only passport to his ideal Church on earth or its eternal development in heaven. Not the self-esteeming, proud man (μεγαλοìψυχος) of Aristotle's worship ('Eth. Nic.,' 4.3), but the humble (ταπεινοÌς), the lowly, the self-depreciating, is the man who can realize his position in the spiritual world, and shall be admitted to its blessings and benefits. St. Paul has summarized the ideal character of the members of the kingdom in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, especially 1 Corinthians 13:4, 1 Corinthians 13:5, and 1 Corinthians 13:7.
Whosoever therefore. This verse gives a direct application of the principle just enunciated, and supplies an answer to the apostles' question. Shall humble himself. Not that a child consciously humbles itself, but is humble by nature. The disciple must become that by deliberate choice which the child is by reason of his constitution and natural disposition. The same is greatest; rather, greater (μειìζων), Christ using the same term as the questioners in Matthew 18:1. The more a man annihilates self and casts away pride, conceit, obstinacy, the fitter is he to become a living member of Christ's kingdom. "Quanto humilior, tanto altior," says Thomas Aquinas. But this is a joint work. St. Gregory says well, "The good which a man doeth is both the work of God and the work of man: of God, as being the Author, in giving grace; of man, as being actor, in using grace, yet so that he cooperate with grace by grace" (quoted by Ford, in loc.).
The treatment due to such.
Shall receive (ὁÌς ἐαÌν δεìξηται). The word is pregnant with meaning. It includes not only the showing of tender affection and the giving of material succour, such as hospitality, shelter, etc., but also the bestowal of help and support in spiritual things, encouragement in holiness, instruction in Divine lore. One such little child. Primarily, Jesus refers to children, pure and confiding as the one he had placed in the midst; but his words are applicable to all who have the childlike spirit and character, the graces which he specially loves and rewards. The expressions here and in the next verse must be understood to belong in some cases to the symbol, and in others to the symbolized. In my Name (ἐπιÌ τῷ ὀνοìματιì μου); for the sake of my Name; because he belongs to me; not merely from natural affection and pity, but from a higher motive, because the child has in him somewhat of Christ—is the child of God, and a member of Christ. Receiveth me. That which is done to his little ones Christ regards as done to himself (comp. Matthew 10:40-42). What a blessing waits on those who teach the young, working laboriously in schools, and training souls for heaven! This "receiving" Christ is a far higher and better thing than being "greatest" in an earthly kingdom.
There is an opposite side to this picture. Shall offend; cause to stumble—give occasion for a fall, i.e. either in faith or morals. This is done by evil example, by teaching to sin, by sneers at piety, by giving soft names to gross offences. One of these little ones. Whether child or adult, a pure, simple soul, which has a certain faith it be not strong enough to resist all attack. Even the heathen recognized the respect due to the young: "Maxima debetur puero reverentia" (Juvenal, 'Sat.,' 14:47); and guilelessness and purity, wherever found, win some regard, even from worthless and careless observers. To wilfully lead one such astray is a deadly sin, which the Lord denounces in solemn terms. Christ affectionately calls his disciples "little ones" (Matthew 10:42). Believe in (εἰς) me. We must always distinguish between "believe in" (πιστευìειν εἰς, or ἐν: credo in) and "believe" with the simple dative; the former is applied to faith in God alone. Says St. Augustine, "Credimus Paulo, sed non credimus in Paulum." In the present passage the phrase implies the Divinity of Christ. It were better; literally, it is profitable. The crime specified is so heinous that a man had better incur the most certain death, if by this means he may avoid the sin and save the soul of his possible victim. A millstone; a great millstone—such a one as required an ass to inure. The upper, or movable, stone is meant, which was usually turned by the hand. Drowned. We do not know that the Jews punished criminals by drowning (καταποντισμοÌς), though it is probable that it was practised in some cases; but by other nations this penalty was commonly exacted. Among the Romans, Greeks, and Syrians, it was certainly the practice. Commentators quote Suetonius, 'Aug.,' 67.; Diod. Sic., 16.35; Livy, 1.51; Aristophanes, 'Schol. ad Equit.,' 1360. The punishment seems to have been reserved for the greatest criminals; and the size of the stone would prevent any chance of the body rising again to the surface and being buried by friends—a consideration which, in the minds of heathens, greatly increased the horror of this kind of death.
This and the preceding verse occur in St. Luke (Luke 17:1, Luke 17:2) in an inverted order. Woe unto the world! The Lord thinks of the deadly evil brought into the world by offences given, such as bad example, unholy lives of Christians, persecutions, scoffs, thoughtlessness—things which lead so many astray. For it must needs be. While men are what they are, such consequences must be expected. This is not an absolute, but a relative, necessity. Man's heart is evil, his tendencies are evil, temptation is strong. Satan is active; all these forces combine to bring about a fatal result. Thus St. Paul says (1 Corinthians 11:19), "There must be heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you." So these offences of which Christ speaks are overruled and permitted for wise purposes, that by them the righteous may be proved and purified, and the chaff separated from the wheat. But woe to that man! Because of this evil principle which is rife in the world, no man is exonerated from the guilt of giving offence. He has free will; he can choose good; he can use the means of grace; he can strengthen his natural weakness, control his perverseness, overcome corruption, by the help of God always ready to be given to them who seek. The first "woe" is a cry of pity for a world in danger; the second "woe" is a denunciation of the sinner as being responsible for the evil which he introduces. We are all in some sort our brothers' keepers, and are bound to help forward their salvation, and to do nothing which may tend to endanger their souls' health.
Wherefore. The Lord teaches how to avoid this sin of giving offence, repeating the solemn words already delivered in the sermon on the mount, though with some variation and a different context (Matthew 5:29, Matthew 5:30). The reference on the former occasion was especially to breaches of the seventh commandment; here the Lord speaks of offences in general, of that external corruption among mankind which is the fruitful source of temptation and sin. The only remedy for this is the sternest self-denial, the strictest watchfulness. Or thy foot. Christ did not name this member in his previous discourse. Literally, the hand or foot leads into sin, when it is directed to forbidden objects, moves towards the acquisition of things contrary to the Law of God. Metaphorically, the expression signifies all that is as dear and as necessary as these important members. Such occasions of sin we must at once and absolutely cast aside. It includes also persons as well as things. Friends the dearest must be parted from if their presence, or conversation, or habits cause evil thoughts or encourage evil acts. In the presence of such offences, ties the nearest must be snapped asunder. Loneliness, isolation, is better than companionship in wickedness. It has been well said by Olshausen that the hand and the foot may denote mental powers and dispositions; and the warning is given that their over-cultivation may prove an obstacle to the spiritual life, and must be accordingly checked. We may also descry in the paragraph an admonition against making too much of skill, dexterity, and adroitness in business and occupation. There is a subtle snare in them; they may draw the heart away from God, and must be restrained and modified, so as not to interfere with the cultivation of religion and the care of the soul. Enter into life. This is an addition not found in the sermon on the mount; it refers to the eternal life which, beginning on earth, is consummated in heaven. Everlasting fire (τοÌ πῦρ τοÌ αἰωìνιον). This is the first time that this phrase occurs. Whatever these words may mean, there can be no doubt that they signify, and are intended to signify, some awful kind and extent of punishment, the fear of which may deter from such sins as incur it. It is not morally expedient to minimize the force of such terms by disputing about the exact connotation of "aeonian." When we remember that the words are spoken by the loving and pitiful Saviour, we must allow that they point to some dreadful reality, the import of which he knew, and which he thus mercifully veiled from us as not able to bear the full revelation (see on Matthew 25:46).
Hell fire. A synonym for the "everlasting fire" of the previous verse, and the "unquenchable fire" of the Baptist's warning (Matthew 3:12), and to be understood in the same sense. It is good to be saved even with the loss of all that makes earthly life happy and precious.
From this verse to the end of the chapter we find no parallel in the other evangelists. The Saviour here returns to the subject of children, whether literally or metaphorically so called, and proclaims the high appreciation which is their due. Take heed (ὁρᾶτε, see) that ye despise not one (ἑνοÌς) of these little ones. God's care is minute; it extends to each individual of the class. The contempt denounced might arise in various ways and from various considerations. The advanced believer might despise children as hot competent to enter into covenant with God or fit to receive Church privileges, whereas circumcision under the old dispensation and infant baptism under the gospel afford a very different view. Again, to say or do unseemly things in the presence of children is a mode of" despising" which may prove a deadly offence. Or the contempt may be on the side of the ambitious and self-seeking, who cannot understand the simple and childlike spirit which seeketh not its own. The Lord gives two proofs of the high consideration due to his little ones. The first proof is that which follows; the second is given in Matthew 18:11-14. Their angels. Not "their spirits after death," as some commentators erroneously interpret (for the term "angel" is not so used, and Christ speaks in the present tense, do always behold), but the angels especially appointed to watch and protect them—their guardian angels. This doctrine (which, as of very solemn import, the Lord introduces with his usual formula, I say unto you), that each soul has assigned to it by God a special angel is grounded on this, and supported by many other passages of Scripture (comp. Hebrews 1:14; Psalms 34:7; Psalms 91:11; Luke 15:7, Luke 15:10). It has been questioned how angels can be said to succour us on earth, while in heaven they are always looking on the face of the Father. The difficulty has been answered, among others, by St. Gregory, who writes, "They never so go forth apart from the vision of God, as to be deprived of the joys of interior contemplation. They are both sent from him, and stand by him too, since both in that they are circumscribed, they go forth, and in this that they are also entirely present, they never go away. Thus they at the same time always behold the Father's face, and yet come to us; because they both go forth to us in a spiritual presence, and yet keep themselves there, whence they had gone out, by virtue of interior contemplation" ('Moral.,' 2.3). It is probable that the highest order of angels is here signified, such as among the Jews was called, "the angels of the presence, or of the face." To behold the king's face means, in Eastern parlance, to be admitted to his immediate presence—to enjoy his special favour and confidence (see 2 Kings 25:19; Esther 1:14; Jeremiah 52:25). It is to these supreme beings, who draw their knowledge and love directly from Almighty God, and receive their commands from his mouth, that the tender lambs of Christ's flock are committed. This fact demonstrates their dignity and the great heinousness of setting a stumbling block in their way.
This verse is omitted by the Sinaitic and Vatican Manuscripts, and many modern editors, e.g. Lachmann, Tischendort, Tregelles, Westcott and Hort, and the Revised Version; but is retained in many good uncials, nearly all the cursives, the Vulgate, Syriac, etc. It is supposed to be an interpolation from Luke 19:10; but one does not see why, if this is the case, the inter-polater should have left out the striking verb "to seek," which would naturally have coincided with "seeketh" in Luke 19:12. For expository use, at any rate, we may consider the verse as genuine, and take it as the commencement of the second argument for the dignity of the little ones—the simple and humble, whether children or others. This proof is derived from the action of God towards them. The Son of man is come to save that which was lost (τοÌ ἀπολωλοìς). How can ye despise those whom Christ hath so loved and deemed so precious that he emptied himself of his glory and became man in order to save them? The general term, " that which was lost," is expressed by the neuter participle, to show that there is no exception to the wide scope of Christ's mercy. The race of man is lost; infants are born in sin; all need redemption. Everybody, poor, helpless, ignorant, tempted, comes under this category, and to save such Christ came down from heaven. Therefore their souls are very precious in his sight.
The parable that follows teaches the same lesson as the preceding verse. It is found in Luke 15:1-7, with some variations, delivered to a different audience and under different circumstances, as Jesus often repeated his instructions and teaching according to the occasion. How think ye? What say ye to the following case? Thus the Lord engages the disciples' attention. An hundred sheep. A round number, representing a considerable flock. If but one of these stray, the good Shepherd regards only the danger and possible destruction of this wanderer, and puts aside every other care in order to secure its safety. The ninety and nine. These must be left for a time, if he is to conduct the search in person. It may he that some idea of probation is here intended, as when Jesus let the disciples embark on the lake while he himself remained on the shore. Many of the Fathers interpret the ninety-nine as representing the sinless angels, the lost sheep as man, to seek and save whom Christ left heaven, i.e. became incarnate. This, indeed, may be a legitimate application of the parable, but is inexact as an exposition of the passage, which regards the whole flock as figuring the human race. The sheep that remained safe and true to their Master are the righteous; the errant are the sinners, which, however few, are the special care of the merciful Lord. Into the mountains (ἐπιÌ ταÌ ὐìρη). There is much doubt whether these words are to be joined with goeth (πορευθειÌς), as in both our versions, or with leave (ἀφειÌς), as in the Vulgate, Nonne relinquit nonaginta novem in montibus? In the former case we have a picture of the toil of the shepherd traversing the mountains in search of the lost. But this does not seem to be the particular point contemplated, nor is any special emphasis assigned to this part of the transaction. In the parable as recounted by St. Luke (Luke 15:4), we read, "Doth he not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go?" So here it is best to render, Doth he not leave the ninety and nine upon the mountains? The shepherd is not regardless of the safety and comfort of the flock during his temporary absence; he leaves them where they are sure to find pasture, as they roam over (ἐπιÌ with accusative) the hill tops, which, catching clouds and dew, are never without fresh grass. So Psalms 147:8, "Who covereth the heaven with clouds, who prepareth rain for the earth, who maketh grass to grow upon the mountains." Seeketh. The lost sheep would not return of itself. Such erring souls Jesus seeks by the inspiration of his Spirit, by allowing distress and sorrow, by awakening conscience and memory, by ways manifold which may lead the sinner to "come to himself."
If so be that he find it. The quest is not sure to he rewarded. Man's perversity makes the result uncertain. No one may safely go on sinning, or living in careless unconcern, with the expectation of being finally found and saved. There is a limit to the patience of the Lord. If a man will not open his heart to good inspirations and cooperate with preventing grace, he will not be found and brought home. God forces no one to be saved against his will. Rejoiceth more. A natural feeling. Thus a mother loves better an afflicted child whom she has nursed through a long malady, than the strong and healthy children who have caused her no trouble and anxiety. The joy at the recovery of the strayed sheep is proportional to the sorrow occasioned by its loss and the pains and trouble expended in the search; and this pleasure would at the moment be greater than the satisfaction with which the other members of the flock are regarded.
Even so. The teaching of the parable is summed up; the conduct of the earthly shepherd is a figure of that of the heavenly Shepherd. The will of your Father … perish. To scandalize one of these little ones, or lead him into sin (which is to cause to perish), is to fight against God's will, who would have all men to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). "When the dignity of the little ones was asserted, it was Πατροìς μου, 'my Father;' now that a motive directly acting on the conscience of the Christian is urged, it is ΠατροÌς ὑμῶν, your Father" (Alford). St. Paul teaches that Christ died for the weak brethren (Romans 14:15; 1 Corinthians 8:11). With this text (Matthew 18:14) before him, it is inconceivable that any one can hold the doctrine of the eternal reprobation of certain souls. The whole passage is opposed to the theory of irrespective predestination and irresistible grace.
Correction of an offending brother.
Hitherto the discourse has warned against offending the young and weak; it now teaches how to behave when the offence is directed against one's self. Moreover (δεÌ, "now," introducing a new subject) if thy brother shall trespass against thee (εἰς σεì). The brother is a brother in the faith, a fellow Christian. The words, "against thee," are omitted in the Sinaitic and Vatican Manuscripts, and by some modern editors, on the ground that it is a gloss derived from Peter's question (Matthew 18:21). The words are retained by the Vulgate and other high authorities. Without them, the passage becomes one of a general nature, applying to all offences. Retaining them, we find a direction how to treat one who offers personal offence to ourselves—which seems to suit the context best. In the case of private quarrels between individual Christians, with the view of reconciliation, there are four steps to be taken. First, private remonstrance: Go. Do not wait for him to come to you; make the first advances yourself. This, as being the more difficult course, is expressly enjoined on one who is learning the lesson of humility. Tell him his fault; ἐìλεγξον αὐτοìν,: corripe eum. Put the fault plainly before him, show him how he has wronged you, and how he has offended God. This must be done in private, gently, mercifully. Such treatment may win the heart, while public rebuke, open denunciation, might only incense and harden. Plainly, the Lord primarily contemplates quarrels between individual Christians; though, indeed, the advice here and in the sequel is applicable to a wider sphere and to more important occasions. Thou hast gained thy brother. If he shall own his fault, and ask for pardon, thou hast won him for God and thyself. A quarrel is a loss to both parties; a reconciliation is a gain for both. The verb "to gain" (κερδαιìνω) is used elsewhere in this high sense (see 1 Corinthians 9:19; 1 Peter 3:1).
This gives the second step or stage in discipline. Take with thee one or two more. If the offender is obdurate to secret remonstrance, do not yet resort to public measures, but make a fresh effort accompanied by a friend or two, who will support your view and confirm your expostulation, which might otherwise be considered partial or self-interested. In the mouth of two or three witnesses. The idea is derived from the requirement of the Jewish Law in a case of litigation (see Deuteronomy 19:15; John 8:17; 2 Corinthians 13:1). By the testimony of these witnesses, every word that has passed between you may be fully certified. There will be forthcoming, if necessary, the regular legal evidence, should the matter come to other ears.
Tell it unto the Church (τῇ ἐκκλησιìᾳ). This is the third step to take. Our Lord is contemplating a visible society, possessed of certain powers of discipline and correction, such as we find in the history of the apostolic Church (see 1 Corinthians 5:1, etc.; 1 Corinthians 6:1, etc.; 1 Timothy 1:20). Christ had already spoken of his Ecclesia in his commendation of Peter's great confession (Matthew 16:18); so the twelve were prepared for this use of the word, and would not confound the body here signified with the Jewish synagogue. To the latter the expressions in Matthew 18:18-20 could not apply. The custom and order of procedure in the synagogue would afford an idea of what the Lord meant; but the congregation intended was to be composed of Christians. the followers of Christ, who were delivered from the narrowness of rabbinical rules and definitions. The institution of ecclesiastical tribunals has been referred to this passage, but, as understood by the apostles, it would denote, not so much ecclesiastical rulers as the particular congregation to which the delinquent belonged; and the offence for which he is denounced is some private scandal or quarrel. The course of proceeding enjoined would be impracticable in a large and widely extended community, and could not be applied under our present circumstances. If he neglect to hear the Church. Now comes the final stage in corrective discipline. An heathen man (ὁἐθνικοÌς, the Gentile) and a publican (ὁτελωìνης, the publican). The class, not the individual, is meant. If he turns a deaf ear to the authoritative reproof of the Church, let him be regarded no longer as a brother, but as a heathen and an outcast. Christ, without endorsing the Jews' treatment of Gentiles and publicans, acknowledges the fact, and uses it as an illustration. The obdurate offender must be deprived of Church membership, and treated as those without the Jewish pale were commonly treated. The traditional law enjoined that a Hebrew might not associate, eat, or travel with a heathen, and that if any Jew took the office of publicans, he was to be virtually excommunicated. In later times, there naturally arose in the Christian Church the punishment of offenders by means of exclusion from holy communion, and excommunication. But even in this extreme case charity will not regard the sinner as hopelessly lost; it will seek his salvation by prayer and entreaty.
The following words are addressed, not, as the preceding verse, to the offended Christian, but to the apostles, as possessed of some superior powers above those of any individual congregation. Verily I say unto you. The Lord solemnly confers the grant made to Peter (Matthew 16:19) on the whole apostolate. The binding and loosing, in a restricted sense, and in logical connection with what precedes, refer to the confirmation and authorization of the sentence of the Ecclesia, which is not valid, so to speak, in the heavenly court till endorsed by Christ's representatives—the apostles. Whether the verdict was the excommunication of the offender ("bind") or his pardon and restoration ("loose"), the ratification of the apostles was required, and would be made good in heaven. The treatment of the incestuous Christian by St. Paul is a practical comment on this passage. The congregation decides on the man's guilt, but St. Paul "binds" him, retains his sins, and delivers him to Satan (1 Corinthians 5:1-5); and when on his repentance he is forgiven, it is the apostle who "looses" him, acting as the representative of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:10). In a general sense, the judicial and disciplinary powers of the Christian priesthood have been founded on this passage, which from early times has been used in the service of ordination. Each body of Christians has its own way of interpreting the promise. While some opine that, speaking in Christ's name and with his authority, the priest can pronounce or withhold pardon; others believe that external discipline is all that is intended; others again think that the terms are satisfied by the ministration of the Word and sacraments, as a physician gives health by prescribing remedies.
Again I say unto you. The following paragraph has been thought by many to be addressed especially to the apostles in confirmation of the powers conferred on them above; but from Matthew 18:20 we should judge the promise to be general. Herein is set forth the privilege of united prayer. God confirms the sentence of his authorized ambassadors; he gives special heed to the joint intercessions of all Christians. Two of you. Two of my followers, even the smallest number that could form an association. Shall agree (συμφωνηìσωσιν). Be in complete accord, like the notes of a perfect strain of music. Here one man's infirmity is upheld by another's strength; one man's short-sightedness compensated by another's wider view; this man's little faith overpowered by that man's firm confidence. Anything. Of course, this is to be understood with some restriction. The thing asked must be reasonable, good in itself, expedient for the petitioner; the prayer must be earnest, faithful, persevering. If such conditions are satisfied, the desire will be granted in some form, though, perhaps, not in the way or at the time expected. Thus the Lord sanctions guilds or bodies of Christians united together to offer up supplications for special objects or with some definite intention in which all ere agreed.
The promise is applied to the public prayer of the congregation, as we see in what is called "the prayer of St. Chrysostom" in the English Prayer book. Are gathered together. For the purpose of worship. It is a simpler form of the word used in Hebrews 10:25, "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together." In my Name (εἰς τοÌ ἐμοÌν ὀìνομα); literally, into my Name; i.e. with love to me, yearning for union with me, and acting for my glory. This would imply decent and orderly meeting for the highest ends. There am I in the midst of them. Christ promises a real, actual presence, though invisible, as true as when he appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, as true as when the Shechinah shone in tabernacle or temple. The rabbis had a saying that if two sat at table and conversed about the Law of God, the Shechinah rested upon them. The promise in the text, of course, implies Christ's omnipresence and omniscience. This is his blessing on united, congregational prayer.
The pardon of injuries, and the parable of the unmerciful servant.
Peter was greatly struck with what Christ had just said about reconciliation of enemies; and he wanted to know what limits were to be imposed on his generosity, especially, it might be, if the offender made no reparation for his offence, and acknowledged not his wrong doing. My brother. As Matthew 18:15, fellow disciple, neighbour. Till seven times? Peter doubtless thought that he was unusually liberal and generous in proposing such a measure of forgiveness. Seven is the number of completeness and plurality, and our Lord had used it in giving his sentence about forgiveness: "If he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn to thee again," etc. (Luke 17:4). Some rabbis had fixed this limit from an erroneous interpretation of Amos 1:3; Amos 2:1. "For three transgressions, and for four," etc.; but the usual precept enjoined forgiveness of three offences only, drawing the line here, and having no pity for a fourth offence. Ben-Sira bids a man admonish an offending neighbour twice, but is silent as to any further forgiveness (Ecclesiasticus 19:13-17). The Jews were very fond of defining and limiting moral obligations, as if they could be accurately prescribed by number. Christ demolishes this attempt to define by law the measure of grace.
I say not unto thee. Jesus gives the full weight of his authority to his precept, in distinction from Peter's suggestion and rabbinical glosses. Seventy times seven. No specific number, but practically unlimited. There is no measure to forgiveness; it must be practised whenever occasion arises. Some translate, "seventy-seven times," making an allusion to the retribution exacted from Lamech: "If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold" (Genesis 4:24). Christian forgiveness must be extended as far as old-world vengeance. Mercy rejoices against judgment. But the genius of the language supports the rendering of the Authorized Version. St. Paul has caught the spirit of his Master when he writes, "Forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you" (Ephesians 4:32). In the Mosaic dispensation there was some foreshadowing of the doctrine of forgiveness in the enactments which enjoined tender treatment of debtors, and in the terms of the jubilee law; but there were no rules concerning the pardon of personal injuries; the tendency of many prominent injunctions was to encourage retaliation. Herein is seen an important distinction between the Law and the gospel, the institutions antecedent to the death and atonement of Christ, and those subsequent thereto.
Christ illustrates his precept by the parable of the unmerciful servant, and the stern lesson which he himself enunciates at its close.
Therefore; i.e. because such is the infinite nature of the pardon to be meted out to an offending brother. The kingdom of heaven. The rule observed in the government of Christ's kingdom with regard to forgiveness is represented by the procedure of a certain earthly king. The picture supposes some great Oriental potentate, with numerous viceroys or satraps, who have to render to him an account of revenues received. These are called servants in the sense that, though they are high officials, they are the monarch's subordinates and dependents. Both Herodotus and Xenophon apply the term "slave" (δοῦλος) to the great officers of state. Immense sums of money would pass through their hands. This accounts for the enormous debt of the officer in the parable. Webster and Wilkinson compare the East India Company's collectors, who are high civil servants of the company, that is, now, of the government. If we regard the parable in a general light, as illustrating God's dealings with sinful man, we must see in the "taking account of his servants," not the judgment of the last day, but those many occasions when God makes a man turn his eyes inward and learn how he stands in the sight of his Lord. Such occasions are sickness, misfortune, great change of circumstances, a new year, reproach of conscience, however aroused,—these and such like incidents awaken a man to his true position, show him his delinquencies and misery.
When he had begun to reckon. This is the same word which is rendered "take account" in the previous verse, and means to compare receipts, expenditure, and balance. One was brought unto him. The defaulter did not come of himself and own his delinquency, but was brought into his lord's presence, probably by some who had discovered his defalcations, and desired to see him punished. Otherwise the phrase may refer merely to Oriental etiquette, according to which no one can cuter the royal presence without being formally allowed the interview, and ceremoniously introduced. Ten thousand talents. It is uncertain what is here meant by a talent, whether of silver or gold, of Jewish, or Attic, or Syriac standard; and, of course, the amount intended is variously understood. We must refer to the Bible dictionaries for an explanation of the term "talent," merely remarking here that the highest estimate would give six millions of our pounds, and the lowest more than half that amount. This huge stun must represent the total revenues of a province, and the debtor must have been a high and much-trusted official. It is used by our Lord to signify the infinite debt the sinner owes to God. Thus in the Lord's Prayer we have, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6:12).
He had not to pay. He was absolutely bankrupt, and had no means whatever of meeting the deficit. To be sold. The Jewish Law ordered such process in the case of an impecunious debtor (see Exodus 22:3; Le Exodus 25:39, 41; and the concrete case in 2 Kings 4:1; comp. also Isaiah 50:1; Psalms 44:12). But this law was mitigated by the enactment of the jubilee, which in the course of time restored the bondman to liberty. The instance in the parable appertains rather to Oriental depotism than to the proceedings under Mosaic legislation (see Matthew 18:34, which is not in accordance with Jewish practice). The king, by this severity, may have desired to make the defaulter feel the weight of his debt, and to bring him to repentance, as we see that he was ready to accept the submission of the debtor, and to grant him forgiveness (St. Chrysostom). Payment to be made. The verb is put impersonally. Of course, the sale of himself, wife, family, possessions, would not produce enough to satisfy the debt; but the command is to the effect that the proceeds should be taken on account of the debt. The parable; must not be pressed in all its details; a false impression is often produced by fixing spiritual or allegorical meaning upon the unimportant accessories, which, in fact, merely give vividness to the offered picture. The sale of wife and children is of this character, though it may be said generally and experimentally that a man's sins react on his family in some sort, lowering position and reputation, and reducing to poverty etc.; but this result has no bearing on the lessening of the original debt.
Worshipped him. Prostrated himself before the monarch, and in this abject attitude sued for mercy. Have patience with me. Be long suffering in my case; give me time. And I will pay thee all. In his terror and anguish, he promises impossible things; even the revenues of a province would not in any convenient time supply this deficiency. The scene is very true to life. To save himself from a present difficulty, a debtor will make any promise that occurs to him, without considering whether he will ever be in a position to fulfil it. The defaulter in the parable must have thought well of the king's generosity and tenderheartedness to make such a proposition at this extreme moment. If we take the spiritual sense of the parable, we see that no sinner could offer to pay, much less pay, the debt due from him to his Lord, "so that must be let alone forever" (Psalms 49:8).
Was moved with compassion. The earthly circumstance has its counterpart in God's dealings with sinners. Humility, confession, prayer, are accepted by him as payment of the debt. Loosed him from arrest, from being sold as a slave. This was the first favour accorded. The second was even greater. Forgave him the debt. The servant had asked only for time; he receives acquittance of the enormous sum which he owed. The king's severity had brought home to the debtor his full guilt did its consequences; when he realizes these, and throws himself on his lord's mercy, he receives more than he had asked or hoped for. But (to revert to the spiritual interpretation) the pardoned sinner must not forget the past; he must live as one forgiven. Says the penitent psalmist, "I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me" (Psalms 51:3).
Went out—straightway from his lord's presence, where he had been so mercifully treated, while the remembrance of his free and undeserved forgiveness must have been still fresh. Found. Lighted upon by chance, as it were. Here, rather, was providentially offered an opportunity of showing that his lord's goodness was not thrown away, but had entered his heart and controlled his conduct towards others. One of his fellow servants. An official of the king, but probably in an inferior position to that which he himself occupied. Seeing this man, he is reminded of a paltry debt which this person owed him. He remembers this fact; he forgets his late experience. An hundred pence (denarii; see on Matthew 20:2); equivalent to some £3 of our money, and a sum not a millionth part of his own debt to his master; the proportion, as some say, may be stated more accurately as 1 to 1,250,1 Timothy 1:0. The enormous difference between these two amounts represents the disproportion between the offences of our neighbours against us and those of which we are guilty towards God; and how small is the forgiveness on our side compared with that which God freely accords to our infinite debt to him! We must consider also the parties to whom these debts are owing—on one side, the worm man; on the other, Almighty God. Took him by the throat (ἐìπνιγε); was throttling him. Thus precluding all prayer and remonstrance. Such brutal treatment was not what he himself had experienced. Pay me that thou owest; ὁìτι ὀφειìλεις: quod debes. Many manuscripts and late editors (e.g. Lachmann, Tregelles, Tischendorf, Alford, Westcott and Hort) soften the demand by reading εἰì τι ὀφειìλεις, si quid debes, "if thou owest aught," as though the creditor were ashamed of mentioning the paltry sum due; or else it is simply a fashion of speaking, not to be pressed as if any doubt was intimated concerning the debt. It might almost be rendered, "Pay, since thou owest something." Not thus had his lord addressed him in the first instance.
Fell down at his feet. The fellow servant repeated the action and the very plea which he himself had but now used so successfully. Besought. Not "worshipped," as in the former case, where the superiority was more marked.
And he would not. The piteous appeal made no impression on his hard heart. "He did not even regard the words by which he himself had been saved (for on saying these same words he had been delivered from the ten thousand talents), nor recognize the port by which he had escaped shipwreck; neither did the attitude of supplication remind him of his master's kindness; but putting aside all such considerations by reason of covetousness, cruelty, and revenge, he was fiercer than any wild beast" (St. Chrysostom, in loc.). He went and cast him into prison. He either himself dragged the wretched debtor to prison, or was not satisfied till he had seen the door of the gaol close upon him. Far from forgiving the debt, he would not even grant an extension of time; he must have payment immediately, or he will exact the utmost punishment till the debt is fully discharged.
Fellow servants. Those in the same condition of life as the incarcerated debtor. Mystically, they would be the angels, who, like those in the parable of the tares, tell the Lord what was done; or the saints who plead with God against oppression and injustice. They were very sorry. It is well remarked that anger against sin is God's attribute (Matthew 18:34), sorrow appertains to men. These have a fellow feeling for the sinner, in that they are conscious that in their own heart there are germs of evil which, unchecked, may develop into similar wickedness. Told (διεσαìφησαν); told clearly. They took the part of their comrade, and, not in revenge or malice, but as an act of justice, gave their lord full information of what had happened. The just cannot hold their peace at the sight of oppression and wrong, and God confirms their judgment.
After that he had called him. A second time he is brought before his lord, not now to receive forgiveness, but to have the enormity of his guilt exhibited to him, and to suffer well deserved punishment. In a mystical sense this call is the summons of death, which is virtually judgment. O thou wicked servant. The lord had not so addressed him when he had come cringing into his presence on the former occasion; he had spoken no words of reproach, but simply left him in the hands of justice. Now he calls him "wicked," because he is unmerciful; he deserves the epithet, because he has been guilty of a crime as heinous as theft or murder. Then the lord places in strong contrast the mercy which he had received and the unmercifulness which he had shown. All that debt. Great as it was. Thou desiredst me (παρεκαìλεσας); besoughtest me; calledst on me for aid. The debtor had not asked or hoped for remission of his debt, and had been largely and most unexpectedly blessed.
Compassion...pity. The same verb is used in both places. Shouldest not thou also have had mercy on thy fellow servant, even as I had mercy on thee? (Revised Version). The man's guilt lies in his unmercifulness in the face of mercy received. The fact is patent; it stands for itself; it needs no amplification or enforcement. The king says no more, and the delinquent is equally silent; he has no excuse to offer. Convicted by his own conscience, he knows it is useless to sue for pardon or to expect further leniency. So in the day of judgment no excuse can be admitted; it is too late to plead or argue when the sentence is past.
Was wroth. This, as we said above, is the prerogative of God. Man is pained and grieved at sin; God is angry. Tormentors; βασανισταῖς: tortoribus. These are not the gaolers, prison keepers, but persons who put prisoners to the torture. Neither Jewish nor Roman law at that time recognized any such officials; neither were those in confinement treated thus in either community. The idea is taken from the practice of Oriental despotism, which might thus punish an offence considered supremely detestable. In a mystical sense these are the ministers of Divine vengeance who carry out the behests of the King. Till he should pay; until he should have paid (ἑìως οὗ ἀποδῷ). Some editors omit or bracket οὗ, but the sense is the same with or without the relative. The debt never could be paid, so practically the punishment would last forever. Commentators, mediaeval and modern, see here an argument for the eternity of future punishment; others see in the clause an intimation that sin may be forgiven in the other world, though not repented of or pardoned in this present life. The words give no support to the latter interpretation. Until, etc., does not necessarily signify that the condition specified is certain to be fulfilled. As Bengel says, on Matthew 1:25, "Non sequitur ergo post." And in the present case there could be no possibility of payment. A criminal delivered to the tormentors would have no opportunity or means of raising the necessary funds. If this is a picture of the final judgment, it is parallel to our Lord's statement in Matthew 5:26, "Thou shalt by no means come out thence till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing;" for, as the Preacher says, "There is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave whither thou goest" (Ecclesiastes 9:10). All that was due [unto him] (πᾶν τοÌ ὀφειλοìμενον αὐτῷ). Modern editors reject αὐτῷ: Vulgate, universum debitum. This is more general than "all that debt" in Matthew 5:32. It is usually taken to refer to the old debt now redemanded. But a difficulty has been found in the fact that this old debt had been freely forgiven and utterly done away, and therefore could not, in equity, be again exacted. Hence some commentators have explained the clause as referring not at all to the former debt, but to a new debt incurred by a new offence, viz. ingratitude and unmercifulness. But the spiritual truth seems to be that, although sins once absolutely forgiven are not again imputed, they make subsequent sins more heinous, as in a human law court previous conviction increases the penalty of a fresh transgression. Falling from grace, a man passes into enmity with God, and so far cancels his pardon, and is in a state of condemnation (see Ezekiel 18:24, Ezekiel 18:26).
So likewise. This points to the moral of the parable intended by Christ. It is not a lesson against ingratitude, but against unmercifulness. "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy." But want of charity makes a man incapable of retaining God's pardon; the Holy Spirit cannot abide in an unforgiving soul. My heavenly Father. He says, not "your" (Matthew 6:14, Matthew 6:26), nor "our," but "my heavenly Father," the Father of Christ, the God of all mercies. He cannot join himself in mention with such as are not children of God. From your hearts. Forgiveness must be real, sincere, not pretended, nor merely outward. There must not only be no outward act of revenge, but no malice in tile heart, no storing up of evil passions for future outlet, as occasion may arise. The heart must be in harmony with the conduct, and both must evidence a true spirit of charity. This alone enables one to continue in a state of grace and in reconciliation with God; this alone makes prayer acceptable; and we are assured that, as our heavenly Father requires us to forgive without limit, so his mercy is infinite and will be extended to us in measure unbounded. Their trespasses. These words are omitted by many manuscripts, the Vulgate, and most modern editors; and they are not required by the sense. They have been, perhaps, added to obviate a certain abruptness in the conclusion of the parable.
The little ones.
I. THEIR EXAMPLE.
1. The question of the apostles. They had not yet learned the great lesson of humility. Perhaps the favour shown to Peter, James, and John had excited jealousies among them. On their way to Capernaum they had disputed who should be the greatest. After all the Lord's teaching they did not yet understand the spiritual nature of his kingdom. There are rivalries and animosities in earthly states; there should be none in that kingdom where the lowliest are the highest. But this is a hard lesson to learn, and the apostles were long in learning it. At Capernaum they asked Christ, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" Who should be greater (the words literally mean) than others? Who should stand above others in the hierarchy of the Church that should be built upon the Rock? Who should be nearer than others to the King in the kingdom which Christ had come to establish?
2. The little child. The Lord's estimate of greatness differed wholly from that current among men. He had said once before that of all that had been born of women there had never risen a greater than John the Baptist. He put the holy martyr above all the monarchs, warriors, and statesmen of ancient times. But he had then said, "He that is the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he." And now, in answer to the question who should be greater than others in that kingdom, he called a little child unto him. The little one came willingly, drawn by the gentle words, the loving looks, of the Master. The Lord set him in the midst, in the place of honour; he took him in his arms, St. Mark tells us. The Lord always loved the little children; he bade them come to him; he watched their innocent play with kindly interest, and drew spiritual lessons from it (Matthew 11:16, Matthew 11:17). Now the little one lay, restful and happy, in the Lord's embrace, Thither we would lead our children—to the Lord, to share his love and tenderness. And, ah! if he should call them away from our sight, we must learn to trust them in faith, though it cannot be without tears, to those everlasting arms. "He shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom." Happy child! we know not whether he grew up, as a late and doubtful tradition says, to be the famous Bishop Ignatius. That holy martyr bore God in his heart, as the name Theophorus imports; doubtless he was borne up in his sufferings by the gracious help of God. We know not whether in his infancy he was borne in the arms of Christ. That child was greatly blessed. He would never forget, one thinks, the encircling arms of Christ. But doth not the Scripture say to us, "The eternal God is thy Refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms"? and, alas! how often we forget the gracious presence of God in our unbelief and selfish fears! Now, the Lord called the attention of the apostles to the little one.
3. The Lord's answer: the lowliest are the greatest.
(1) The necessity of conversion. The deep and awful question which we ought to put, each one to his own soul, is not—Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? but—Are we ourselves true loyal members of that kingdom? We cannot be in the kingdom at all except in the sense in which the withered fruitless branches still for a short time hang on to the vine; we cannot be in the kingdom in any holy and blessed sense unless we are converted; we cannot enter into the kingdom of glory at the last unless we are converted. The word "conversion" occurs only once in the New Testament; the verb, in its various forms, nine times; but four of those passages are quotations of Isaiah 6:10. Sometimes the passive form of the verb is used, sometimes the active. And it is to be noted that in the four quotations of Isaiah 6:10, the active ἐπιστρεìψωσιν is used three times, the passive στραφῶσιν once. God sometimes commands his people, "Turn ye even to me with all your hearts;" and sometimes we pray to God, "Turn thou us unto thee, O Lord, and we shall be turned." There are two aspects of the great change—the human and the Divine. Both are real and true; neither excludes the other. What we need is the actual knowledge of that blessed change from our own inward experience; if we have that, we need not distress ourselves about the deep things of God, the relations between the human and the Divine, between the sovereignty of God and the free will of man. We must turn with all our hearts unto the Lord, praying earnestly and humbly, "Turn thou us, O Lord." The apostles must turn, the Lord said, from their earthly ambition, from their rivalries and jealousies. We must turn, each one, from his besetting sin, or we cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven. We must all turn away from the world to God, away from self to Christ. We must look, not to the things which are seen, but to the things which are not seen; the line of vision, so to speak, must be changed; the eye of the soul must be directed, not to the earth, but to heaven. The circumstances of this great change vary in different individuals; in some it is sudden, in others slow and gradual. Some, like St. Paul, can point to a great startling crisis in their spiritual life; some few, like Samuel, have lived from childhood in the felt presence of God, growing continually in grace,—not without many sins, not without continual repentance, but without any strong boundary line marking the decisive change from evil to good. But in some form or other, in some way or other, that change must take place in every true Christian life. We may not be able to describe it exactly, to fix its exact moment, its circumstances. "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth." But the change must be felt in its results ("thou hearest the sound thereof"), if we cannot define its action. We must be conscious that our heart is turned towards God, that our thoughts, desires, motives, hopes, point towards heavenly things. If we have that happy consciousness, we may humbly hope that he which hath begun a good work in us will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ. If we have it not, let us not rest until by God's grace we gain it; for, except we be converted, we cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven; and oh! what must be the misery of those who lose that great reward!
(2) The necessity of childlike humility. There is no true conversion without humility; a man whose thoughts are filled with self cannot turn to Christ. Pride concentrates the regards of the soul on self; and while the soul is occupied with self it cannot see the surpassing beauty of the Lord, it cannot turn to him. Those who would follow Christ must become as little children; they must be like the little ones in their simplicity, their trustfulness, their humility. The little child is simple; it shows its true nature; it has no hypocrisy, no desire to seem other than it is; it is humble and modest; it does not aim at display and show; it is full of affectionate trustfulness in those whom it loves. And, the Lord Jesus says, they shall be greater than others, they shall have the higher places in the kingdom of heaven, who humble themselves as that little child who then lay in his arms was humble; that is, with an unaffected humility, with a simple and genuine lowliness. Then the Christian must not set his heart upon gaining the high places of life; if God puts him there he must do his duty simply and humbly; if others are set above him he must be willing to take the lowest place, content and happy, remembering the blessed Master's words.
II. THE DIGNITY OF CHRIST'S LITTLE ONES.
1. The blessing of receiving them. Christ loved the little children; he proposes their character to his followers as a model for imitation. His words shed a new dignity, a new glory, on innocent childhood. He was thinking probably not only of children in years, but also of the childlike in heart and mind. He deigns to regard such as, in some sense, representatives of himself. Those who care for little children because Christ cared for them, in his name and for his sake, care for Christ. These words give a very holy meaning to single-hearted work in Sunday schools; they shed a blessing upon orphanages, upon all Christian work done for children's sake, all Christian love and thought for little children. And they pronounce a blessing upon all those who in Christ's name receive into their affections or into their homes true Christian men who have learned of Christ the childlike simplicity and lowliness which he exalts so highly. These who receive such receive Christ, as Abraham received angels unawares. Let us love and cherish Christian-minded friends; they bring a precious blessing to our houses, for they bring the gracious presence of Christ.
2. The guilt of causing them to stumble. A heathen poet tells us that the greatest reverence is due to childhood; he bids us exclude carefully from the sight of children everything that is coarse and evil. The Lord enforces the same duty under more awful sanctions. The simplicity, the receptivity, of little children expose them to evil influences. In Christian homes they are taught to believe in Christ. Among their companions, in their schools, they are sometimes exposed to manifold temptations. But woe to those who purposely set stumbling blocks in their way! Woe to those, schoolfellows or others, who try to entrap the innocent and simple hearted into profanity and neglect of their souls! Such are acting the part of the devil; they are doing his work; they are the enemies of Christ, the murderers of souls for which Christ died. Better that they had died before they came to this pitch of guilt. For souls are very precious in the sight of Christ; he shed his precious blood for them. How must he regard those who entice them to ruin and death?
3. There must be offences. Human nature being what it is, the power of the devil being what it is, there must be always in the world men who set an evil example, who are as stumbling blocks, as snares. It is a necessity, part of the great mystery of the existence of evil. This necessity is not absolute; it follows from the existence of sin; and sin is voluntary, or it would not be sin. Sin is voluntary in individuals; but while the world remains as it is, there must, as a fact, be sin in the world, as there must be heresies (1 Corinthians 11:19); and where there is sin there must be offences. But woe to that man by whom the offence cometh! The guilt of sin is increased by its contagious character. The sinner sins against his own soul; he sins also against the souls of others; for his sin becomes a centre of evil influence, spreading its foul attractions among hearts rendered only too susceptible by the inherited corruption of human nature. None can tell the mass of moral disease which may spring from one source of infection. Then woe to that man by whom the offence cometh! He knows not what fearful mischief may follow from his wicked or thoughtless act. He may repent, thank God; but his repentance must be deep, his sorrow great; he may be saved, yet so as by fire. "The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin."
4. They must be avoided at all costs. Those who ensnare others, who cause them to stumble, have first been ensnared, have stumbled themselves. The first occasion of stumbling must be avoided. The danger is great, the consequences are fearful; better any sacrifice, any self-denial. Self-denial leads to heaven, self-indulgence to hell. We must cut off the causes, the occasions of sin, though they be as closely bound up with our life as the hand, or foot, or eye. The Lord repeats the lesson which he had already given in the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:29, Matthew 5:30). There are some cautions which must be given again and again—enforced with all manner of illustrations, "precept upon precept, line upon line." And surely this warning of the deep necessity of real self-denial is one which needs the most constant repetition, one which must be urged again and again, even unto weariness. And it must be urged very strongly and forcibly. The hand, the foot, the eye, are very valuable to us. The loss of one such member would be very serious. To cut it off or to pluck it out would be a great sacrifice, involving much pain, requiring very stern self-denial. But any self-denial, the Lord himself tells us, is better than the risk of suffering that eternal fire which must be the end of sin and self-indulgence. Eternal fire! soften the awful words as far as you dare; say that there is a possibility, a bare possibility, that the word "eternal" may not necessarily involve that endlessness which is the proper meaning of the less correct rendering "everlasting;" say that the word "fire" is figurative, that the Lord did not mean a material fire, corporeal torments;—after all, there remains enough of most fearful meaning in the words of Christ (and let us remember that it was Christ, the most genie, the most loving Saviour, who used those words) to make us feel what must he the dreadful danger of those who entice others into sin, to make thoughtful, believing Christians willing to deny themselves in every way, if so be they may escape from the wrath to come, and save their souls alive in the great day of God.
5. Offences come from contempt; contempt of the little ones is a grievous sin. To despise others was characteristic of the Pharisees; it is very sinful in Christians. The Lord is loving unto every man; the Saviour died for all. Christians may not dare to despise those whom the Lord loved, for whom he gave himself to die. To speak contemptuously of those whom we think beneath us in rank, in riches, in intellect, in refinement, is sinful in the sight of God. "Honour all men," is the lesson of Holy Scripture; for all were made by God the Father; all were redeemed by God the Son; all may, if they will, come to God in faith and prayer, be sanctified by God the Holy Ghost. Men think that there is no harm in contemptuous thoughts and words; but these things are sins against the law of love, sins against God, who bids us love our neighbour as ourselves; they greatly injure the soul. Then honour all men; especially take heed that ye despise not one of the little ones, the little children whom the Lord loves, or the childlike in heart whom he commends. Despise them not, for they are dear to Almighty God; he cares for them; he giveth his angels charge over them; he assigns to them their angel guardians; "their angels," the Lord says, the angels appointed to watch over them, whose special duty it is to keep them in all their ways, who are sent forth to minister for their sake. Men may despise these little ones; but holy angels tend them—angels great in power and might, angels who are near to the throne, who stand in the presence of God, who in heaven do always behold the face of God. The Lord's words, "I say unto you," give an emphatic sanction to this sweet and blessed doctrine of the ministry of angels. As the angel Gabriel watched by God's appointment over the holy Child Jesus, so surely do the angels of God watch over the little children now; so surely do they watch over us, if we are childlike in heart, if we are among those little ones who believe in Christ. To the believer this world is still a Bethel, the house of God, the gate of heaven. The ladder which Jacob saw in the vision of the night is still set on the earth, and the top reacheth to heaven; and still do the angels of God ascend and descend, bringing help and strength, messages of peace and love to the little ones of Christ, bearing the prayers of the saints into the Divine presence, carrying the souls of the holy dead into the paradise of God.
6. The little ones are precious in the sight of God. They must be so, for the Son of man came to save them. None are so small, so insignificant, as to be left out of the Lord's loving care; for it was to save the lost that he came—to save that which seemed utterly lost, lost beyond the power of saving (τοÌ ἀπολωλοìς). (See Luke 19:10, where the words are certainly genuine; they are of doubtful authority in this place.) It was an evil time when the Saviour came into the world. All flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth; the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life were everywhere dominant. The world seemed lost to all that was good—a mass of corruption. But to save that lost world the Son of God came down from heaven and became the Son of man. His incarnation, his sacrifice of himself upon the cross, has given a new value, a higher dignity, to human nature. None may dare to despise those souls of men which the Lord Jesus loved so dearly. The blessed angels care for Christ's little ones; they encamp around them to protect them, because they are his angels, his messengers (Matthew 13:41), and they must care for those who are so very precious in the sight of their blessed Lord.
7. Parable of the hundred sheep. One is gone astray. The shepherd leaves the ninety and nine upon the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray. Does it mean that the Lord leaves the countless host of angels on the heavenly heights, and goeth after the one lost sheep of humanity (comp. Hebrew Isaiah 2:16)? So many have understood it. But it seems more natural to interpret the parable as intended mainly to teach the deep love of God for each individual soul. "The Son of man came to save that which was lost." His great love was not merely a general love for sinful humanity as a mass; it was an individual love for each perishing soul. If all but one had been gathered in, be would have gone after that one lost sheep, seeking on and on until he found it. Human love is limited in its range. We cannot love all mankind as we love one who is very dear to us. It is not so with the infinite Love. The love of God is all-embracing in its extent and fulness, perfect and complete in its individual affection. He loves all and each. "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." The shepherd if so be that he finds the lost sheep, rejoiceth more of that one than of the ninety and nine which went not astray. The ninety and nine are precious to the shepherd; in some sense they must be more precious than one. But they are safe. They do not awaken the same emotion, the same intense longing, as the one that went astray. The joy of recovery is proportioned to the sorrow of the loss. Such would be the feelings of a human shepherd. It is an illustration (as far as Divine truths can be shadowed by human things) of the love of God for each separate human soul. It is not his will that one should perish; he willeth that all men should be saved. Then let not any Christian man dare to despise one of those whom God so greatly loved. The Lord repeats this precious parable in Luke 15:1-32. under different circumstances, with a somewhat different application. It cannot be repeated too often or studied too deeply.
1. Even apostles had their rivalries: how earnestly we ought to strive against envy and jealousy!
2. A true conversion is of all blessings the greatest; seek it with all your might.
3. There is no true conversion without a humble, childlike spirit.
4. An evil example involves fearful guilt; avoid it at any cost.
5. Honour all men, especially believers; each one is precious in the sight of God.
The method of dealing with offences.
I. THE DUTY OF PRIVATE CHRISTIANS.
1. Secret admonition. The Lord had warned the apostles that offences must come; he had urged the necessity of exceeding carefulness against giving offence to others; now he tells us how to act when others put a stumbling block in our way by their trespasses. Go and tell thy brother his fault, he says; speak to him secretly, do not publish his transgression, do not make a talk of it; charity endureth all things, charity hideth a multitude of sins. Speak to him; it is better to tell him his fault than to brood over it. But speak to him gently for his own soul's sake. If he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother—gained him to Christ, gained his soul; for he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins. And oh! what is the exceeding great privilege of gaining a soul which Christ loved, for which he came down from heaven that he might seek it!
2. The second step, admonition before two or three witnesses. If the first attempt fails, still publicity should be avoided as far as possible; a second should be made with the help of one or two Christian friends. They may bring the erring brother to a sense of his own guilt, of the offence which he is causing to others, of the, wrong which he is doing to the Church of which he is a member by his wilfulness and obstinacy.
II. THE OFFICE OF THE CHURCH.
1. Its discipline. If the sinful brother again and again refuses to listen to Christian reproof in private, the sin which is causing offence to the brethren must be brought before the Church. By the word "Church" the Lord must mean the Christian Church, that Church of which he had spoken for the first time at Caesarea Philippi, which he was building upon the Rock. He was speaking prophetically, looking forward to the growth and increase of the Church. "Tell it unto the Church." This is the last resort; if he neglect to heal the Church he must be regarded as a heathen man and a publican, no longer a brother in the full Christian sense of the word. But we must remember that the Lord's mercy extended to heathen and publicans. He came to call sinners to repentance. The sinful brother may repent, he may be forgiven and saved. The censure itself is inflicted not only for example's sake, not only that the cause of offence may be removed, but also for the sake of the offender, "that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (1 Corinthians 5:5).
2. Its authority. The Lord here confers upon all the apostles as representatives of the Church that authority which he had already (Matthew 16:19) given to St. Peter as the representative of the apostolic college. The Church, then, hath authority in controversies of faith—authority to declare what is of faith and what is not, what is of obligation and what is indifferent, what is allowed and what is forbidden. Christians are bound to regard the decisions of the Church with respect and reverence, for if rightly made they are ratified in heaven. Yet St. Peter certainly erred (Galatians 2:11); Churches may err, and alas! have erred. It is only while the Church stands firm upon the Rock, which is Christ; only when the two or three are gathered together in the name of Christ, and he himself according to his promise is in the midst of them; when those two or three are men who have turned to God in the simplicity and lowliness of little children; it is only then that the conditions are fulfilled on which this promise depends. What a tremendous responsibility rests upon those who are called to guide and rule the Church of God! All Christian men should feel for them in the many difficulties of their arduous work, should pray for them constantly and earnestly.
3. The strength of the Church. That strength lies in prayer. The power of united prayer is such that if any two true believers agree as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them. They pray on earth, our Father hears in heaven. United prayer brings to their help the almighty power of God. That union of human wills into concordance with the holy will of God must be the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the suppliants; and when the Holy Spirit prompts the prayer, the prayer is always heard, the petition is always granted. Only let us not misunderstand the Lord's promise, as perhaps the sons of Zebedee did at the time. Instructed Christians will ask for spiritual blessings, which alone are blessings always and under all conditions; or, if they sometimes ask for earthly things (and they are encouraged to do so in the Lord's Prayer itself), it will always be with the Lord's own condition, "Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done." The strength of the Church lies in prayer, and the strength of prayer lies in the presence of Christ. The union of only two Christians in real earnest prayer represents the Church. For Christ himself is present wherever two or three are gathered together in his name, or rather, as the literal rendering is, into his Name. Christians are united by the one Spirit into one body, into that spiritual unity which is called by the one name (1 Corinthians 12:12). Believers are gathered together into that name, into that spiritual fellowship which can only be realized by those who walk in the light as he is in the light (1 John 1:7). And wherever that fellowship is, there is Christ the Lord manifesting himself to those who meet in his name and are gathered together into his name. He is in the midst of that little gathering, for he is God, omnipresent, ready to hear his servants in whatever corner of the world they lift up their prayers to him, ready to grant their petitions, to guide their counsels, to ratify the decisions, to give effect to the sentence issued in his name by those who met together in his name in the simple earnestness of childlike Christians, in the energy of that faith which has turned wholly to the Lord.
1. It is a difficult task to reprove a sinful brother; it is sometimes our duty; it must be done with gentleness and wisdom.
2. To gain a brother's soul is an exceeding great reward; it is worth much prayer, much thought, much time.
3. The Lord bids us hear the Church; the Christian must respect the authority of the Church.
The law of forgiveness.
I. THE CONVERSATION WITH ST. PETER.
1. Peter's question. The Lord had intimated the duty of gentleness in dealing with offences. Every effort was to be used to reconcile the offending brother; he was to be approached with all gentleness, with all Christian tact, if so be that he might be won back to Christ and to the Church. Peter wished for a definite rule to guide him in carrying out the Lord's directions. According to the rabbis, an erring brother should be forgiven three times. Peter suggested a larger number, the sacred number seven, as the limit of Christian forgiveness.
2. The Lord's answer. "I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven." There seems to be a reference to the words of Lamech (Genesis 4:24). Lamech desired a seventy and sevenfold vengeance. The Lord commands a seventy and sevenfold forgiveness. There is some doubt as to the numerical value of the words. But it is of little importance which rendering we adopt, "seventy times seven," or "seventy-seven times," for the Lord certainly means that acts of forgiveness are not to be counted. It is a question not to be settled by arithmetic, but by Christian love and by the grace of God. "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us."
II. THE PARABLE OF THE KING AND THE UNMERCIFUL SERVANT.
1. The account. The Lord illustrates the duty of forgiveness by the parable of a human king and his servants. The king would take account of his servants. God takes account from time to time. There are preliminary reckonings preparatory for the great day of account. In the visitations of his providence, in dangerous sickness, in the hour of deep and heartfelt penitence, the Lord brings home to our hearts the exceeding guilt of our sins, the greatness of our debt. A servant was brought who owed ten thousand talents. The reckoning had only just begun; there may have been other even greater debts to come. It was a terrible beginning. The servant was brought; he would not have come of his own will. The sinner shrinks in terror from the awful presence of the Judge. Adam and Eve hid themselves when first the King came to take account. But he was brought. We cannot escape, we must come, when he requires our presence. The debt was enormous, far more than we can even represent to our imagination. Such is the awful debt of sin; we may well say every day, and many times every day, "Forgive us our debts."
2. The mercy of the king. The servant was to be sold, he and his family, and all that he had. In his agony he fell down before his lord and worshipped him; "Lord," he said, "have patience with me, and I will pay thee all." He could not pay, he never could have paid, that vast debt. But in his presumption, or in his deceitfulness, or, it may be, in the frenzy of his abject terror, he promised the impossible. The king was moved with compassion; he loosed him, and forgave him the debt. It is a parable of the infinite compassion of the heavenly King; "he pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent." "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
3. The cruelty of the servant. He went out from the king's presence. We are only safe while we abide in union with the Lord. He is the Source and Fountain of love, and apart from him there is no true and holy love. When men go out from his presence, from the sphere of his influence, they cease to love; they become selfish, hard, unfeeling. That forgiven servant found a fellow servant who owed him a hundred pence, a trifling sum compared with his own enormous debt. He caught him by the throat; he would not listen to his prayer (though the prayer was that very same prayer which he himself had just before poured forth in the bitterness of his soul); he cast him into prison till he should pay the debt. So now men forget their own guilt, their own danger; they are hard and unforgiving to others, forgetting their own deep need of mercy and forgiveness.
4. The condemnation. His fellow servants were very sorry. The sins of others will cause real sorrow to the true Christian; he will grieve over the hard hearted and impenitent, as the Lord wept over Jerusalem. "Rivers of waters run down mine eyes," said the psalmist, "because men keep not thy Law." They told their lord. The all-seeing God needs no information from men or angels; yet in their prayers his saints lay before him the oppression and sufferings of his people, as Hezekiah laid the letter of Sennacherib before the Lord, as the disciples "went and told Jesus" of the death of the holy Baptist. The king was wroth: "O thou wicked servant," he said. He had not called him wicked because he owed the ten thousand talents; he pitied him then; now he upbraids him. His want of mercy showed the utter hardness and selfishness of his heart; it showed that his own cry for mercy implied no sense of the greatness of his debt, but only fear of punishment. The king was wroth; he delivered him to the tormentors till he should pay all that was due to him. His cruelty cancelled the forgiveness which had been granted him. His last state was worse than the first. Those who, having been once enlightened, fall away from grace are in awful danger. "It had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them." The unhappy man could never pay that tremendous debt; he could not had he remained free, how much less when he was in the hands of the tormentors! Those words are very awful; they represent awful possibilities; they sound in our ears in tones of awful warning. "So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses." The unloving cannot abide in Christ, who is Love; the hardhearted and unmerciful cannot continue in union with him who, though he was rich, yet for our sakes became poor; the unforgiving cannot dare to use the prayer which the Lord himself hath taught us, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us." "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." There is no mercy for the merciless. We may repeat again and again the words of prayer, "Lord, have mercy upon us!" but countless repetitions will not win mercy for those who have not mercy in their hearts. And oh! we shall need mercy in the great day. Then let us be merciful now: "Be ye kind one to another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you."
1. Let us always remember the great account; God has given us work to do, let us work out our own salvation in fear and trembling.
2. Our debt is immense; let the remembrance of our sins keep us humble.
3. God's mercy is infinite; let us trust in his forgiving love.
4. He is wroth with the unforgiving; let us learn mercy of the most Merciful.
5. We say the Lord's Prayer daily; let us ever strive by God's grace to translate that prayer into practice, to live as we pray, to forgive, as we hope for forgiveness.
HOMILIES BY W.F. ADENEY
The kingdom of type childlike.
Jesus Christ not only resorted to parables in order to make his teaching vivid; sometimes he made use of object lessons. Thus he answered the question as to who was greatest in the kingdom of heaven by pointing to the little child whom he had called to himself, and set up in the midst of his disciples. The child himself was a visible embodiment of the reply our Lord wished his questioners to receive.
I. THE TYPE OF THE KINGDOM. The kingdom of heaven is the kingdom of the childlike. When we look on a little child we see a typical citizen of that glorious kingdom. Let us consider what there is in childlikeness to be thus representative. We must approach this subject from the ground from which Christ and his disciples came to it. The question of primacy being in the minds of the disciples some contrast to their feelings and dispositions is vividly suggested by the sight of the simple, unconscious, unworldly child.
1. Unambitious simplicity. This would be the first impression produced by the sight of the child, when suddenly he was called by Jesus to confront self-seeking ambition. Even if we may believe that there was no self-seeking in the minds of the disciples, and that their inquiry was general, not personal, still the spirit of ambition was roused by it. But the little child does not possess ambition. The subtle calculations by which men scheme for pre-eminence are all unknown to him. He is pre-eminent without knowing it They are the least of their own sanctity
2. Unworldliness highest saints who think The little child is quite unconventional. He knows nothing of the ways of the world. Of course, it is not desirable to imitate his defects, to go back to childish ignorance. But knowledge is dearly bought when it is acquired at the cost of spirituality. Wordsworth tells us that heaven lies about us in our childhood.
3. Trustfulness. The child came to Jesus as soon as he was called. A look of the Saviour was enough to dispel fear. We need the innocent confidence of the child to come into right relations with Christ.
II. THE DOOR TO THE KINGDOM.
1. The entrance. The disciples had forgotten this. Busying themselves about the rank of those who were in the kingdom, they neglected to consider how to enter it. Yet this is the first question, and all else is unpractical till this step has been taken. But when it has been taken, all else becomes unimportant. It is everything to be privileged to enter the kingdom, even though in its lowest region. Moreover, the true citizen of the kingdom will have lost the ambition that busies itself about questions of pre-eminence.
2. The turning. We are all selfish and self-seeking until we learn to repent and take a better course. No one can enter the kingdom of lleaven while he remains worldly and ambitious. The very spirit which seeks a first place in the kingdom excludes from the kingdom. We need grace to turn back to childlikeness. We must be converted into little children. The greed and ambition must be taken out of our hearts, and the simplicity, unworldliness, and trust of the child received in place of those ugly attributes.—W.F.A.
Matthew 18:8, Matthew 18:9
The offending member.
A moment's reflection will convince us that these stern sentences of Christ's are unanswerable. If the alternative lay between losing a limb and losing his life, who would hesitate with his decision? "All that a man hath will he give for his life."
I. IT IS POSSIBLE FOR WHAT IS VERY NEAR TO US TO BE FATALLY HURTFUL TO US. It would be a mistake to suppose that our Lord meant that under any circumstances self-mutilation would be a duty. The causes of stumbling are not bodily, although the body may be the instrument of temptation; they are in the thoughts and desires of the heart (James 1:14, James 1:15). But there may be things precious as parts of our very selves, or friends dear as the apple of the eye, or useful as the right hand, and yet spiritually hurtful to us. Our own daily occupation, to which we have grown until it has become as a part of ourselves, may be a source of temptation and danger. Our habits, which are our second nature, may be a very bad second nature.
II. IT IS IMPORTANT NOT TO LET LOWER INTERESTS BLIND US TO OUR HIGHEST GOOD. Eyes, hands, and feet are good and useful things in themselves. A maimed creature who has lost any of these valuable organs and limbs is certainly a pitiable object. Naturally and rightly we desire to keep our body sound and whole. Many possessions, though less intimately connected with our persons, are still justly valued when considered by themselves. But this valuation only touches a part of life, and that the lower part. If the enemy can seize the outworks and turn them against the citadel, it is desirable to demolish them, excellent as they may be in form and structure, because the principal object is to keep the citadel. The great necessity in spiritual things is to guard the very life of God within. If anything threatens this it threatens our highest interest. Selfish people are their own worst enemies, because, while pandering to the outer self, they starve and poison the true self.
III. IT IS WISE TO MAKE ANY SACRIFICE TO SAVE THE TRUE LIFE. We admit this in bodily disease. The shattered limb must be amputated to preserve the patient's life. The same principle applies in spiritual regions. The pain of losing what is very near and dear to us may be great. But we dare not be cowardly. A greater evil is the alternative. We may spare our friendship, our wealth, our pleasure, and yet destroy our souls. Then at best these things can but decorate the tomb of the dead spiritual nature. We have to rise to the stern severity of life. Sin is so terrible that it cannot be laid aside as one would put off a superfluous garment. It has eaten its way like a cancer into our very being. We shrink from the knife, but we must submit to it if we would live. Desperate efforts are needed—or rather a patient submission to the great Deliverer of souls who sometimes saves by terrible means. Yet he does save!—W.F.A.
Matthew 18:12, Matthew 18:13
The lost sheep and the good shepherd.
This parable is here associated with Christ's care for little children (see Matthew 18:10-14). But in St. Luke it is applied to the recovery of publicans and sinners (Luke 15:1, Luke 15:4-7). There can be no doubt that St. Luke connects it with its most evident and general lesson. Still, there is an a fortiori argument in the use of the parable in St. Matthew. If Christ cares for the most abandoned sinners, much more will he save little children when they begin to wander, especially as this is too often the case just because the negligence or evil example of older people causes them "to stumble."
I. THE SHEEP.
1. The hundred. We start with the picture of a complete flock. All men belong by nature to God. We begin life with God. If we sin we fall. Sin is losing our first estate, wandering from the fold.
2. The ninety and nine. Many are here represented as faithful. We might think of many worlds of angelic beings in contrast of our own fallen world, or of many members of a Church or family when contrasted with a single defaulter. A parable cannot be pressed in all its details in order to extort from it the exact statistics of a religious census. It is enough that under certain circumstances one is seen to fall away from the fidelity preserved by his companions. Now the ninety and nine are left. Absolutely Christ does not leave his true sheep. But a special care is needed to find the lost one. There is a common selfishness in religious people who would enjoy the luxuries of devotion in such a way as to hinder the work of saving the lost. Churches are filled with worshippers, who in some eases hold their pews as private possessions, so that the wayfaring man and the stranger feel that they are not welcome. Yet if the gospel is for any one, it is for them.
3. The lost sheep. There is but one. Yet it is a great trouble that one should go astray.
(1) This shows the value of an individual soul.
(2) It reveals the awful evil of sin. The lapse of but one man into so fearful a fall is enough to disarrange the whole order of the community.
II. THE SHEPHERD.
1. His departure. He leaves the flock; but they are safe; for they are in the fold. Moreover, the sight of his departure to save the lost is a warning to those left at home of the evil of straying.
2. His journey. He must travel far in a waste and difficult country. Sin leads its votaries into hungry solitudes and among fearful dangers. Christ follows the wandering soul. His advent to this world was his following, and his hard life and death his journeying over wild mountains, he follows each one now. He will not leave the lost to their fate.
3. His success. He finds the lost sheep. He is a good Shepherd—energetic, persevering, self-sacrificing. Therefore he succeeds. Christ brings back souls who have wandered into the lowest abysses of sin.
4. His joy. This is proportionate
(1) to his love for the lost sheep;
(2) to its distress, danger, evil condition;
(3) to the toil and difficulty involved in finding it. The joy of Christ is the joy of saving the lost.—W.F.A.
The offending brother.
The wise advice which our Lord here gives is rarely followed, and yet it is not at all impracticable, and if obeyed it would prevent an immense amount of distress and ill feeling. Let us consider, first the general principles of his advice, and then its special details.
I. GENERAL PRINCIPLES.
1. The fact of the brother's offence is admitted. This is very important. Too often men quarrel and accuse one another without justly apportioning the faults. The innocent man is blamed by his guilty brother. We must not put in force the process indicated by Christ until we have discovered that our brother is really in the wrong.
2. The aim must be to recover the offending brother. It is not to crush and humiliate him. It is not to have our revenge on him. It is to restore him to a better condition of mind, and to bring about a reconciliation.
3. The method must be kind and generous. The slowly advancing stages show a reluctance to proceed to extreme measures. Inasmuch as our end is not to vindicate our own rights, but to recover our brother, our method must be tender and considerate.
II. SPECIAL DETAILS. It is important to observe that Christ is treating of the relation of true Christian people to one another. If either party does not recognize the claims of Christian brotherhood, the process must be different, although the generous spirit of Christ's method must be observed with all men. Let us now note the successive steps.
1. We are to see the offending brother alone. This is just the very last thing some people will do. In pride or fear they shun the very person they should seek. They refuse to speak to him, when it is their duty to be frank with him. Yet too often they spread the tale of their wrong among their neighbours. Thus a train of idle gossip is started, and vast mischief originated. He who so behaves reveals himself in an unchristian light; he becomes an offending brother, and gives the man who has offended him a just cause of complaint. Immense mischief would be stayed if Christ s method were pursued. We have to seek out the person who has wronged us, and be simple and frank with him; then very often a little quiet talk will bring us to a mutual understanding and end the quarrel.
2. If the first step fails, we are to call in the help of two or three other Christians. This is also to be private. The calm impartiality of outsiders may settle the dispute. The gravity of their advice may convince the offending brother that he is in the wrong.
3. If this process fails, we are to appeal to the Church. Christ assumes the exercise of Church discipline. With us this has fallen very much into abeyance. It can only be restored in a Christ-like spirit.
4. Finally, if all these processes fail, we must cease to regard the offender as a Christian brother. He has excommunicated himself. God does not forgive the impenitent, and he does not expect us to do so. Yet we should never hate the offender, but always desire to restore him—as we should desire to convert "the Gentile and the publican."—W.F.A.
Matthew 18:19, Matthew 18:20
The power of united prayer.
The point of this verse is in the idea of the association of two people in prayer. Elsewhere we often read of the value of prayer in general. Here a special efficacy is ascribed to the united prayer of two Christian people. Let us consider the meaning of this. Why is Christ most present to help in united prayer?
I. IT IS UNSELFISH. Two people might be plotting together for some mutual advantage of a low order. But we cannot conceive of their having a prayer meeting about it. Many of our personal prayers are shamefully selfish. They do not seek that God's will may be done; they simply demand a concession to our own will. The same fatal evil may be found in a united prayer, but it is less likely there.
II. IT IS BROTHERLY. We must be on friendly, even on brotherly terms before we can really pray together. The union of two alone in prayer implies very deep mutual confidence. They must agree together. The reason why earth is so cut off from heaven is that earth is too often a scene of discord. When there is agreement on earth, earth is more like heaven, and the wish expressed on earth may be granted in heaven.
III. IT IS DELIBERATE. The conference and agreement of the two imply a careful consideration of the subject of the prayer. Many prayers are too hasty and inconsiderate to deserve any attention. But the grave conference in prayer here described by our Lord would give the weight of deliberation to the petition. Probably it would be less foolish than many private prayers.
IV. IT HONORS THE IDEA OF THE CHURCH. Christ encouraged secret prayer in private devotion (Matthew 6:6). This should be a daily practice. But there are reasons when more is required, viz. in general public worship and in prayer for special objects. Now, while Christ deals with individual souls in the first instance, he is also interested in social religion. He did not found an order of hermits, he founded a Church. He is present in his Church in a peculiar way. This is the real secret of the answer to united prayer. It is difficult to break through the reserve which too often keeps us back from the prayer which our Lord here encourages. But it is our duty to do so.
V. IT SHOWS THE POWER OF THE PEW. We are not heard for our much speaking, our many words; neither are we heard on account of our numerical strength. In listening to prayer God does not count heads; he weighs hearts. One Elijah stands for more in prayer than a cathedral full of listless worshippers. The ideal Church is not the large Church, but the Christ-like Church. Religious statistics encourage a most unspiritual way of valuing Christian work and estimating Church progress. The Church of but two members cannot be a weak Church, if those two members are united in prayer. Further, it is to be noted that the value of a prayer meeting cannot be measured by the numbers that attend it. A small meeting may be a very real one, and if it is truly united it must have power with God. It is foolish, therefore, to despair of such a meeting because it is sparsely attended. The prayer meeting of but two is here commended by Christ. If it be a meeting at all, though reduced to the numerical minimum, it may issue in incalculable results.—W.F.A.
Matthew 18:21, Matthew 18:22
The duty of unlimited forgiveness.
Jesus once required forgiveness to be repeated seven times (Luke 17:4). St. Peter now asks what is to be done when these seven times of pardon are passed. Our Lord simply multiplies them by seventy. There is to be no arithmetic in the matter; there is to be no limit to forgiveness.
I. IT IS A MISTAKE TO SEARCH FOR THE MINIMUM OF DUTY. Why should St. Peter want to know what to do when he had forgiven seven times? Was there any law which he might transgress if he went too far in the generosity of pardon? His question was one that should never have been asked. It savours of rabbinical casuistry. Now, one of the great defects of casuistry is that it is too often pursued in the interest of those who wish to do no more good than is absolutely required of them. But the spirit of such a desire is immoral. He who seeks a limit to forgiveness has not really a forgiving spirit at all. He only forgives under compulsion, that is to say, he does not really forgive in his heart. So it is with all other duties. When we ask how far must we go, with how little will God be satisfied, we betray a spirit out of sympathy with our duty. If we loved it we should not anxiously search for the line of obligation, we should rather press on to the utmost with an enthusiastic desire to do our best.
II. FORGIVENESS CANNOT HAVE A LIMIT. Some duties are limited, although we are free to exceed the limit. This is the case with honesty. We have simply to pay what we owe, to give a just price for what we buy, to refrain from stealing, and we have discharged the whole of our obligation in this direction. Thus, at all events in the pecuniary world, it is possible to be absolutely honest, and hosts of people have reached the stage of absoluteness in regard to this duty. But there are other duties that run out to the infinite; we can never entirely compress them. All our spiritual education only enables us to reach towards a little more of their boundless possibilities. Of such a nature is forgiveness. We may be called at any moment to carry this further than we have yet gone.
III. THE LIMITLESS CHARACTER OF FORGIVENESS SPRINGS FROM ITS DIVINE ORIGIN. Forgiveness is God-like. It belongs to the ethics of heaven. It cannot be enforced in the law courts of earth, where Shylock is awarded his pound of flesh. In strict right and law, forgiveness cannot be enacted. Forgiveness is above law, as the sovereign who pardons in clemency is above the judge who is compelled to condemn in justice. God forgives without limit. He requires the condition of repentance, and this we have a right to demand also (see Luke 17:3). But when that is present he forgives hardened old offenders, who have grieved his Spirit many and many a time before. It is only the limitless forgiveness of God that makes it possible for us to be pardoned by him. Then it is incumbent on us to show the same spirit towards our fellow men.—W.F.A.
The hard debtor.
This parable follows our Lord's answer to St. Peter's question about the limits of forgiveness. The great reason why we should forgive freely is that we have been freely forgiven much more than any men owe to us.
I. THE GREAT DEBT. This represents what the sinner owes to God. We pray that God will forgive us our debts (Matthew 6:12). Deficiencies of duty are like debts considered as arrears of payments. Positive transgressions are like debts, through our having wilfully appropriated what was not our own without paying for it. The accumulated omissions and offences make up the one consolidated debt of guilt.
1. Its immense size. Christ names a fabulous sum. There is no counting the accumulated sins of a lifetime.
2. Its full exposure. The miserable debtor had been postponing the evil day. Perhaps, as he had been left long to himself, he had begun to hope that he would never be called to account. But the day of reckoning came. That day will come forevery soul. Long delay means an aggravated debt.
II. THE DREADFUL PUNISHMENT. It was according to the stern legislation of antiquity, and Christ bases his parables on familiar aspects of life without thereby justifying the facts and usages that he describes. In the spiritual world great punishment is the due of great sin. A reaction against the physical horrors of the mediaeval hell has blinded our age to this fearful truth. Yet Christ frequently affirms it in calm, terrible language.
III. THE GENEROUS FORGIVENESS. In his dismay the debtor grovels at the feet of his lord, and foolishly offers to repay all if only the king will be patient and give him time. That is impossible, and the king knows it. We can never repay what we owe to God. If his mercy only took the form of staying execution, at best it would only lead to a postponement of our doom. But the king forgave the debtor—forgave him completely. God forgives freely and fully. He acts royally. He does not spoil his gift by making it hut half a pardon. The great debt is completely cancelled to the penitent soul.
IV. THE SUBSEQUENT CRUELTY. The debtor's conduct was doubly odious. He had just been forgiven himself, and his debt was vastly greater than his fellow servant's. Yet he treated the poor man with brutal insistence, with cruel harshness. Nothing could be more odious than this conduct. But is it not just the conduct of every Christian who will not forgive his brother? The Christian should be melted by the sight of God's boundless clemency, by his own reception of it, and by the knowledge that God has forgiven him far more than anything he can ever have to forgive his brother.
V. THE FINAL DOOM. The king is justly angry. He recalls the pardon. He even has his wretched debtor put to torture. There are degrees of punishment in the future world, and the worse torment is reserved for those who, having accepted the mercy of God for themselves, have had no mercy on their brother-men.—W.F.A.
HOMILIES BY MARCUS DODS
Necessity of becoming like little children.
To discuss in the abstract the question who shall be greatest in the kingdom of heaven, is a profitable employment. But when discussed with personal reference, and in view of present competing claims, there must inevitably be jealousies and rivalries, vanity and hatred. That his reply might lodge in their minds, and be audible to all generations, our Lord gives it dramatically. He calls a little child to him, perhaps one of Peter's children. "Here," says he, "is the one excellence on which my kingdom is founded, and by which alone it can be extended—the excellence of not knowing you have any excellence at all." It was, in short, a true humility—an humility that did not know itself to be humility, and. was thereby humble. To become humble is a change that must be wrought upon you while yourself unconscious; it is like a new birth. A man feels that of all things this is beyond him. We cannot humble ourselves to serve a purpose; if we do so our humility cannot be genuine. Look at one or two instructive features of childhood.
1. What delights us in children is very much their inability to conceal their thoughts, their artless love, their general simplicity. "They are naked, and not ashamed;" assume no disguise, because they are unconscious of the need of any.
2. Their ready belief in everything they are told. The child hears of the world and its wonders with a reverential awe. As we grow older we clothe ourselves in scepticism, and guard ourselves against deception, till, as the climax of wisdom and safety, we believe nothing, and are like the heavy-mailed knights of old, stifled in our own armour. We train our spirits to believe in nothing but the most obvious commonplace physical things, which by their own nature are destined to decay. And the end is, we cannot, if we would, believe in the most tremendous realities. Well may we pray that God would dip us in the waters of his regeneration, that so the hard, foul crust in which this world encases us may drop off, and our flesh become soft and fresh as a child's again.
3. Their readiness to receive instruction, information, gifts. The whole life of a child is reception. He takes gifts naturally, and without distressing himself as to his right to them. He is to be fed because he is hungry, made happy because his nature craves it. Whereas we must ever be trying to give to God what will satisfy him. But God sells nothing. The highest and best things he has to give we must accept at his hand, simply because we need them, and he is willing to give. In Christ's own life we see this childlike dependence beautifully exemplified. Clearly apprehending his own position and work, he was yet as one under age. Carrying into manhood the faith of the child, he lived as one who was well cared for, and on whom the care of providing for himself did not rest.
4. It is, above all, the child's unconsciousness that he has anything to commend him that makes him our model. The production of this humility is an invariable and essential accompaniment of conversion. Formerly a man lived on his own strength and for himself. Now he feels he is not his own, but God's; born of God, kept by God, for God's uses, beginning from God and ending in God. In presence of that Being, glorious in holiness and love, he abhors his own sensual and selfish life, and abases himself utterly. He has no claims to urge, no promises to make, no pretensions, nothing at all to show. What this child seemed to say to these helpless disciples, he says to all—You must turn, you must strive with your whole souls, you must pray, but convert yourselves you cannot; it is God only can give you a new heart. Have you been brought to a true dependence on God, so feeling the guilt of your past life and the evil of your natural character that you can but leave yourself in the hand of God and his grace for pardon and renewal?—D.
The unmerciful servant.
The form of Peter's question shows that he still considered that to forgive was not the law of the kingdom, but a tentative measure which might at any moment be revoked, that underneath the forgiveness there lies the right to revenge. We also know this feeling of Peter's, that in forgiving we are doing something more than could be demanded of us. And this feeling, wherever it exists, shows that we are living with retaliation for the law, forgiveness for the exception. It is to mark with reprobation the unforgiving and self seeking spirit that our Lord utters this parable.
I. The first result of this spirit is that IT LEADS TO DISHONOURABLE OUTLAY UPON OURSELVES OF WHAT GOD HAS GIVEN US FOR BETTER USES. The man whose great motive in life is the desire to get all the good out of it he can for himself will contract debt to God, that is, will contract real guilt, exactly in proportion to his opportunities of doing good and playing a high part in life. Whether the power be great or little, the guilt contracted is the same, if we lay out on ourselves what should in simple honesty have been laid out on God, if we habitually divert from God the revenues which truly belong to him.
II. But still more strongly does the parable point to THE HATEFULNESS OF AN UNFORGIVING SPIRIT. The man was not softened by the remission of his own great debt. So it often is with the sinner deadened by long sin. There is no deep contrition in his cry for pardon, only a desire to escape, as selfish as the desire to sin was. If the forgiving love of God does not humble, it hardens us. If we take it as a mere trifle, and are not thoroughly humbled by it, we are only too apt to show our zeal in exposing and reproving the faults of other men, or by violent and unrelenting condemnation of those who offend us. The hatefulness of this spirit is signalized by one or two added particulars.
1. The petty amount of the debt he exacts as set over against the enormity of that which had been remitted to himself. There is something almost incredibly mean as well as savage in this man's quick remembrance of the pence that are due to himself, while he so easily puts from his mind the ten thousand talents he owes. But our incredulity gives way when we think of the debt we owe God and the trifles committed against us which we find it so hard to forget. What are the causes of quarrel among men? Often a word, a look, an expression unwittingly dropped. Or measure even the deepest injury that has ever been done to you; the wrong that has darkened or obstructed your whole life with that for which you yourself need to ask forgiveness of God, and say whether you ought still to be implacable. No doubt you may detect in the injuries done to you more malice and intention to wound than in your own sins against God; but you will certainly not find more dishonoring neglect, more culpable repudiation of what was due. And what was the harm done in comparison with giving false impressions about God or counterworking his will? Is our shame for sin against God as intense and as real as our indignation at injuries done to ourselves?
2. But the chief aggravation of this man's conduct lay in the tact that he had just been forgives. He thought mercy a good thing so long as he was the object of it, but in the presence of a debtor he is deaf to the reasons that filled his own mouth immediately before. And how hard do we all find it to deal with others as God has dealt with us! We go from his presence, where we have felt it is mercy, which is the most needful gift in a world like this—it is mercy which gives us hope at all—and we go straight to our fellow servant and exact all our due. Here, then, our Lord enounces the law of unlimited forgiveness as one of the essential laws of his kingdom. Men are to be held together, not by external compulsion, but by the inward disposition of each member of the society to forgive and be on terms of brotherly kindness with every other member. We lose much of the power and practical benefit of Christ's teaching by refusing to listen to what he says about his kingdom as cordially as to what he says about individuals. We are not, perhaps, too much, but too exclusively taken up with the saving of our own souls, neglecting to consider that the Bible throughout takes to do with the Church and people of God, with the kingdom; and with the individual only as a member of the kingdom of God. And so it is not for the individual Christ legislates. To unite us individually to God he recgonizes as only half his work. Our salvation consists, not only in being brought into reconciliation with God, but in our becoming reconciled to men. The man who is content if he is sure his own soul is safe has great cause to believe it in danger, for in Christ we are knit one to another. But how are we to get into a right state of feeling towards other men; to find it natural to forgive always, not to stand on our rights and exact our dues, but to be moved by the desire to promote the interests of others? The true way to a forgiving spirit is to be forgiven, to go back again and again to God, and count over our debt to him, though the man, whose mind is filled with a true view of his own wrong doing, always feels how much more he has been forgiven than he can ever be called on to forgive. We must begin, therefore, with the truth about ourselves.—D.
HOMILIES BY J.A. MACDONALD
As they journeyed to Capernaum the disciples of Jesus, like their countrymen, ever disposed to regard the kingdom of Messiah as secular, reasoned and disputed together as to which of them should be the greater in that kingdom. The knowledge of this contention probably influenced the conduct of Jesus in the matter of the tribute, in which he astonished them with an exemplification of supreme greatness in submission (see Matthew 17:22-27). A similar lesson is embodied in the discourse now before us. Note—
I. THE DISCIPLES KNEW THAT THERE ARE GRADES OF HEAVENLY GREATNESS.
1. This was assumed in their reasoning.
(1) It was the basis of that reasoning and the stimulus of the ambition which prompted it.
(2) It was itself based upon the analogy of secular kingdoms in general, in which there are princes and nobles, ministers of state and civic magnates.
2. The fact was not disputed by the Lord.
(1) He did not say they were mistaken, much less assert that all saints in light stand upon an equal platform.
(2) The arguments urged in favour of this view are far from being satisfactory. There is no relevancy in the inference from the fact that every Hebrew gathered an omer of manna, neither more nor less. Every labourer receiving exactly a penny, whether he had worked one hour or had borne the burden and heat of the day, looks more like an argument; yet this element was introduced into the parable for another purpose, viz. to evince the absolute sovereignty of God.
3. On the contrary, he recognized it.
(1) For he asserted it, though in a sense very different from that in which the disciples had conceived of it.
(2) It is the very doctrine of the parable of the talents. Christ, like David, his type, has worthies of various grades of merit.
(3) The anticipations of the great judgment make this very clear (cf. Daniel 12:3; 1 Corinthians 15:41, 1 Corinthians 15:42).
II. THEY HAD TO LEARN THAT THE HIGHER GRADES OF GREATNESS ARE REWARDS OF CHILDLIKENESS.
1. They were influenced by secular ideas, in which goodness has little to do with greatness.
(1) In the kingdoms of this world some are born to greatness. So Simon and Jude may have based their hopes of future distinction upon their near relationship to Christ.
(2) Some have promotion through length of service. So Andrew, the first called to the discipleship of the kingdom, might have hoped for precedency on the ground of that priority.
(3) Some have greatness thrust upon them. So the natural covetousness of Judas may have led him to exaggerate the importance of his money trust, as keeper of the bag. Much of the greatness of this world is imaginary. Peter had the keys, and may have rested his contention for greatness upon that distinction. His fellows, however, were unwilling to accept that as conferring permanent dignity, much less supremacy.
(4) James and John sought the chief place in the kingdom by petition and influence, after the custom of the world. The ten were displeased with them, probably because they cherished the same desire to be superior (see Matthew 20:20-24). It is unworthy in those to contend for privileges who shrink from work and suffering.
2. Jesus humbled them before the greatness of a little child.
(1) Jesus taught, like the ancient prophets, impressively by signs. His lesson here was the greatness of humility. The lesson was difficult, for the world sees no greatness in lowliness. The teaching must be impressive.
(2) The great Teacher sought not his symbol of greatness in the warrior, like Caesar, to make whom great millions of men must die. His sign was not the statesman, the philosopher, the poet, or even the theologian. It was the infant. How original was his teaching!
(3) Great men should not disdain the company of children. They may receive instruction from infants. Whenever we look upon a little child we may remember the teaching of Jesus.
3. He preached an impressive sermon from his text.
(1) He insisted upon the necessity of conversion: "Except ye turn," etc. (verse 3). Note: Conversion makes men like little children.
(a) Not foolish, nor fickle, nor sportive, but
(b) innocent, humble, and docile.
(2) To become like little children, sinners must be born anew. The love of dominion, which led the disciples to contend for the higher places in the kingdom, unfitted them even for the lower. The new man is exalted upon the humiliation of the old.
(3) Heaven most intimately dwells in innocency. All heavenly virtues crystallize round innocency.. The Lord so dwells in innocency that whoever receives a little child receives him.
(4) As innocency is the essence, so is humility the soil of every grace. True humility is the only way to advancement in the kingdom of Christ (cf. Luke 14:11). "Climbing is performed in the same posture as creeping" (Swift).
(5) As the world sees no greatness in lowliness, so are those who do see it greater than the world. The humble are therefore fittingly honoured with the rewards of greatness.
(6) They have the special care of Christ. The best men have often the worst treatment from the world. But Christ promises recompense to those who show kindness to him in his humble followers, and retribution to those who refuse it.—J.A.M.
Occasions of stumbling.
To stumble is so to trip as to be hindered in faith or to be turned out of the way (cf. Matthew 5:29, Matthew 5:30; Matthew 11:6; Matthew 13:21; Matthew 15:12; Matthew 24:10; Matthew 26:31, Matthew 26:33; John 6:61, John 6:62, John 6:66; John 16:1). Occasions of stumbling are evil influences—allurements, persuasions, temptations, bad example, calumnies, insults, persecutions. The text teaches—
I. THAT CHRIST HOLDS THE WICKED RESPONSIBLE FOR THE INJURY THEY MAY OCCASION TO THE GOOD. The addition of the words, "which believe on me," shows that Christ is here speaking, not of "little ones" in age. but of his disciples, who are of a humble spirit. Observe:
1. There is no infallible final perseverance of the saints.
(1) The recognition of this truth is the very inspiration of this pathetic discourse. These woes would never have been denounced upon men for the doing of what, otherwise, would be impossible.
(2) Let not the believer in Christ be high-minded. Let him fear. Let him watch. Let him pray.
2. "It must needs be that the occasions come."
(1) They are permitted as part of the necessary discipline of our probation. They come from the abuse of free agency.
(2) To the faithful they prove blessed means of grace. They educate passive virtues. The habit of resisting temptation makes a strong character.
3. The instigator to evil is still responsible.
(1) Where he succeeds in causing the saint to stumble he will have to answer for the soul damaged or ruined. There is no impunity for those who turn the simple from their integrity by teaching them to imbibe sentiments subversive of the doctrines of genuine truth, or to indulge in evil practices which destroy or injure the capacity for receiving the graces of the kingdom.
(2) Where the tempter fails he is still responsible for his wickedness.
4. These things need to be emphasized.
(1) Because the wicked are too apt to transfer the blame of their irreligion to the account of the good, by accusing them of apathy and negligence. The good are undoubtedly responsible for the faithfulness of their testimony. They are not, however, beyond this, responsible for results. Noah's testimony was at once his own justification and the condemnation of the world.
(2) Because the wicked are too slow to recognize their responsibility, not only for their own non-reception of Christ, but for the injury they do in hindering others, and especially for damaging the good. To offend the innocent is to offend innocence.
II. THAT SUCH OFFENDERS ARE WARNED BY THE TERROR OF FORMIDABLE PUNISHMENT.
1. The sufferings of antichristian nations are admonitory. "Woe unto the world because of occasions of stumbling!"
(1) The Jews filled up the measure of their iniquity in crucifying Christ and persecuting his disciples, and wrath came upon them to the uttermost.
(2) Degradation and ruin have overtaken or are pursuing those nations which have persecuted the witnesses for Christ. The atheism of France, with its horrors and the decadence of that nation, are the reaction of the superstition and wickedness of earlier persecutions. Prosperity smiles upon the nations that have accepted the Reformation. They have been enriched by industries brought to them by Protestant refugees.
(3) All antichristian nations are doomed in the anticipations of prophecy. "Woe" hangs over "the world" in the larger sense.
2. Individuals also are admonished. "Woe to that man through whom the occasion cometh!"
(1) The retribution upon those who offend the disciples of Christ is worse than death. Jerome says that Christ here speaks according to the custom of the province in punishing the greatest criminals with drowning. The woe here denounced is worse (Matthew 18:6).
(2) The retribution is as crushing as it is sudden. The culprit had no strength to release himself from the weight of the "great millstone," to turn which, supported in position, required the strength of an ass. "It seems to have grown into a proverb with the Jews for total ruin" (Doddridge).
(3) The more terrible punishment is described as a "Gehenna of fire," in allusion to the sufferings of the victims of Moloch (cf. 2 Chronicles 33:6). Burning there is more dreadful than drowning in the Lake of Galilee hard by (cf. Revelation 19:20). Those who play the devil in tempting saints may tremble with the devils.
3. But there is yet space for repentance.
(1) The offending hand must be cut off. Wrong doing must cease. However useful as the right hand. However dear.
(2) The offending foot must be cut off. Wrong going must cease. However natural it may have become through habit as the use of the right foot.
(3) The offending eye must be plucked out. Illicit desire must cease, whether instigated by covetousness, envy, pride, or passion.
(4) These must be cast away. The hand or foot or eye refer to those sins of honour, interest, or pleasure, which men are prone to spare. The godly in this world are lame, deaf, dumb, blind, both to themselves and to others (see Psalms 38:14). The members most mortified here will shine with the greater lustre hereafter.—J.A.M.
Warning for the contemptuous.
The "little ones" here are childlike followers of Christ (cf. Matthew 18:6). Reference to the infants to whom humble Christians are likened is not excluded. The infant seed of the faithful are of the family of Jesus. Neither the disciple nor the infant must be despised.
I. THEY ARE THE REVERSE OF DESPICABLE WHO ARE THE SPECIAL CHARGE OF HOLY ANGELS.
1. The universe is dual, having material and spiritual complements.
(1) Matter has characteristic properties. The properties of spirit are no less characteristic and distinct.
(2) Between the complements subsist mutual relations and interactions. The conflicts of the moral and invisible are propagated outward into the physical and visible. So contrariwise.
2. In this system holy angels have special relations to good men.
(1) Angels have a commission of guardianship (cf. Psalms 34:7; Psalms 91:11; Hebrews 1:14). Probably they see the countenance of the Father in the countenance of the children. Note: Evil angels sustain corresponding relations to bad men.
(2) The ancient notion may have countenance here, viz. that each individual has a peculiar guardian angel. Corresponding to the holy guardian is the "familiar spirit" of the wicked.
3. They cannot with impunity be despised whose guardians are so influential.
(1) Special favourites only, according to Oriental custom, came into a monarch's presence (cf. 1 Kings 10:8; 1 Kings 12:6; Esther 1:14; Psalms 103:21; Jeremiah 2:15; Tobit 12:15; Luke 1:19).
(2) It is perilous to be at enmity with those who are so attended. "Angels that excel in strength." The stronger angels have charge of the weaker saints. Those who would not offend the holy angels should imitate them in their care of little ones.
II. THEY ARE THE REVERSE OF DESPICABLE WHO ENJOY THE SPECIAL FAVOUR OF GOD.
1. Those who have the angels of God for their angels have the God of angels for their God. This honour is superlative.
2. Some interpret the "angels" of the "little ones" to be the disembodied spirits of the sailors, which "do always behold the face of the Father which is in heaven."
(1) They argue that guardian angels cannot" always" be "in heaven" and yet ministering to their charge on earth.
(2) What the disciples in John Mark's prayer meeting thought to be Peter's spirit, they called "his angel" (Acts 12:15).
(3) The reason why we should not despise the little ones, viz. that their angels see God, reminds us that the pure in heart alone can see God.
(4) In this view the" angels of God," in whose presence" there is joy over one sinner that repenteth" (Luke 15:10), will be "the spirits of just men made perfect." For the context in Luke shows that this is a parallel case.
3. Those whose disembodied spirits would be honoured with the vision of God cannot be despised with impunity.
(1) The little ones of Christ are despised by corrupting them. By failing to edify them. They are despised when innocency and simplicity are treated as weaknesses.
(2) Those guilty of despising them will encounter the resistance of the will of God. "It is not the will," etc. (cf. verse 14; Ezekiel 18:23). If there be joy in heaven for the finding of one of the little ones turned out of the way, there is wrath in heaven for the offending of them.
(3) "As God wilt be displeased with the enemies of his Church if they wrong any of the members of it, so he is displeased with the great ones of the Church if they despise the little ones" (Henry).
III. THEY ARE THE REVERSE OF DESPICABLE WHO ARE THE SPECIAL SOLICITUDE OF CHRIST. In the parable of the sheep we have:
1. The flock.
(1) Holy angels are included in its unity (cf. Hebrews 12:22). These are by some accounted to be the "ninety and nine who went not astray."
(2) The ministration of angels is founded on the mediation of Christ. This is expressed in the words, "For the Son of man," etc., relegated, however, to the margin in the Revised Version. So in the vision of Jacob's ladder (cf. Genesis 28:12; John 1:51). Through Christ the holy angels are reconciled to us.
(3) The ninety and nine who went not astray may be such as the scribes and Pharisees of the better sort; not the hypocrites, but those who, like the elder brother, never left their Father's house—those whose respect for the Law kept them from committing gross offences.
2. The wanderer.
(1) The sheep sees better herbage at a distance, and wanders after it; then discovers more yet farther off; wanders by degrees further and further; mistakes the way back, and is lost in the wilderness. So the soul wanders from pleasure to pleasure, and gets lost.
(2) Now the sheep is exposed to the dangers of the lion or the wolf, the ditch or the precipice, and is in wretchedness and terror.
3. The Shepherd.
(1) He cares for those in the fold. They have his care in the provision of food, as well as shelter and protection. We should sympathize with Christ in striving to keep his sheep (see Romans 14:15; 1 Corinthians 8:11, 1 Corinthians 8:12). As he is the great Shepherd, having many sheep, so is he the good Shepherd, knowing each lamb.
(2) He cares especially for the wanderer. It is the shepherd's duty to look more particularly after the stray sheep than after those abiding in the fold. Jesus, who came to save a world, makes special efforts to save even one. The whole flock suffers when one sheep wanders.
(3) "if so be that he find it." The finding of a sinner is a contingent event. Grace is not irresistible. Yet the wanderer should know that the Shepherd is very near him. Are we as anxiously seeking Jesus as he is seeking us?
(4) The tender sheep is not driven, but carried by Christ. "And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders" (see Luke 15:5). He carries us and our sins.
(5) Jesus rejoices over the conversion of a sinner, as a shepherd over a recovered sheep; as a woman over a recovered piece of silver; as a father over a recovered son. The rejoicing affects heaven as well as the Church on earth. It is natural to feel uncommon joy at the fortunate accomplishment of an unexpected event.
4. The enemy. Those who would injure the sheep of Christ are special objects of his displeasure.
(1) The nations that injured Israel of old were severely reckoned with.
(2) The antichristian nations who persecuted his people are doomed to a fearful retribution.
(3) Every contemptuous son of pride will be confronted at the judgment of the last day.—J.A.M.
From dealing with the offended, our Lord here passes on to the offending, and he shows us how we should deal with a guilty brother, for our own sake, for his sake, for the sake of the Church, and ultimately for the sake of the world. Christian judgment should be faithful, loving, spiritual.
1. The Christian will tell his brother his fault.
(1) "If thy brother sin against thee." By fraud, defamation, affront, contempt (see Le Matthew 6:1-7).
(2) "If thy brother sin." Some ancient authorities omit "against thee".
(3) "Tell him his fault." This is fidelity to thyself, also to thy brother. How salutary to David was the reproof of Nathan!
2. He will tell it him before witnesses.
(1) Not in the first case. But he will not consider his soul clear it the offending brother be not gained by the private reproof without proceeding further.
(2) The witnesses chosen should be persons of credit and reputation. True men will not refuse to serve as witnesses in the interests of justice.
(3) This precaution is due to the Church. The courts of the Church should not be trifled with by moving them with cases which are not ripe.
3. He will tell it to the Church. This when the minor means have been tried and failed.
(1) But what is the Church? Amongst the Jews ten men were deemed sufficient to constitute a synagogue. Any number of persons met in the name or by the authority of Christ will constitute a Christian Church (see Matthew 18:20). Tell it to the wise among the Church. Paul speaks ironically when he says, "Set them to judge who are]east esteemed in the Church."
(2) Tell it to the Church in justice to the Church, that its purity may be preserved. Scandalous persons must be separated from the Church on earth, which is the type of the purer Church in heaven.
(3) Tell it to the Church in justice to the obstinate offender, that he may be reproved before many and repent.
(4) That if he be excommunicated he may be treated as a heathen and publican. Those cast out of the kingdom of Christ belong to the kingdom of Satan. Church discipline is for Church members. The Christian is not forbidden to use civil courts against outsiders.
1. Love's reason for telling a brother his fault is to gain him.
(1) This is love's reason for going to the offender rather than waiting for him to come. "Go and tell him." It will give him opportunity for explanation. The sense of injury is often the result of sensitive self-love.
(2) This is love's reason for going to him privately. It will save him the exasperation of an unnecessary public reproach.
(3) The manner will accord with the object. The truth is told in love. The fault is not unduly magnified. There is no resentment.
2. Love's reason for calling witnesses is still to gain the brother.
(1) "Take with thee one or two more." To avoid unnecessary publicity, the smallest number required to attest evidence is called in (cf. Deuteronomy 19:15; John 8:17; 2 Corinthians 13:1).
(2) The witnesses may add persuasion. The offender may listen to the pleadings of disinterested persons.
(3) The witnesses have the double function of seeing that the reproof is administered without malignity, and that, in rejecting it, the reproved is incorrigible.
3. Love also has reasons for then telling it to the Church.
(1) The offender may hear the Church and be gained.
(2) Church courts are preferred to those of the world, as more competent to deal with offences against Christian law. The more so when civil rulers were notoriously enemies of the saints.
(3) The purity of the Christian brotherhood must be preserved, The Church that condones things scandalous transgresses the reason for its existence.
(4) A scandalous Church can be of little service to the world.
1. It recognizes the presence of God.
(1) The sanctuary of God is the assembly of his saints (cf. Exodus 40:24; 2 Chronicles 5:14; Psalms 132:14; Matthew 28:20; Revelation 2:1).
(2) That presence is here promised in relation to maintenance of discipline. God is with his Church to quicken prayer, to answer petition, to guide in counsel.
(3) "If two of you shall agree," etc. "God sometimes stands upon a number of voices for the carrying of some public mercy, because he delighteth in the harmony of many praying souls, and also because he loves to gratify and oblige many in the answer" (Flavel).
2. It recognizes his ratification.
(1) "Binding and loosing." When the Jews set apart any to be a preacher, they said, "Take thou liberty to teach what is bound and what is loose," i.e. what is binding or obligatory and what is not.
(2) Here the question has relation to discipline rather than to doctrine. It is concerned also with things rather than persons. "Whatsoever," etc. "In the primitive Church absolution meant no more than a discharge from Church censure" (Wesley, in loc.).
(3) The ratification in heaven of the decisions of the Church, in the strict sense, applied to apostolic times when plenary inspiration was with it (see John 16:24-26; Acts 9:29-31).
(4) In a qualified sense it still holds good, viz. when the rules laid down in Scripture are observed.
(5) If through error or envy any be east out of the Church, Christ will find that soul in mercy (cf. John 9:34, John 9:35). The instructions of the text come to us with the force of law. We have no option to pursue any different course with an offender, or any different order to that here prescribed. In the whole compass of pagan ethics there is no rule at once so manly, so benevolent, so wise, so practical.—J.A.M.
The limits of mercy.
Peter's question here was suggested by his Lord's doctrine concerning Christian judgment (Matthew 18:15-20). "Then came Peter," etc. The form of Peter's question may have been suggested by the custom of the rabbins who from Amos 1:3—"For three transgressions, and for four, I will not turn away wrath"—held that three offences were to be forgiven, and not the fourth; or, uniting the two numbers, made "seven times" the extreme limit of their forgiveness. The Lord's reply teaches us—
I. THAT THE CLAIMS OF BROTHERHOOD ARE THE LIMITS OF MERCY.
1. Forgiveness should never be refused when sought with repentance.
(1) That repentance is understood here is evident from the illustrative parable of the two debtors (verses 26, 29). Also from the parallel place (see Luke 17:4).
(2) To gain a brother is more noble than to ruin him. Mercy is nobler than sacrifice.
(3) The gaining of a brother is greater than the recovery of property. Life is more than meat. How much is a man better than a sheep?
2. Forgiveness is no mercy to the impenitent.
(1) It leaves his evil nature still unchanged.
(2) It encourages and hardens him in his perversity.
(3) It offends public justice. The fellow servants of the oppressor were "exceeding sorry." They looked to their lord for his judgment upon the tyrant.
II. THAT THE MERCIFULNESS OF THE LORD IS OUR INCITANT TO MERCY.
1. God's mercy is boundless.
(1) Offences against God, as compared with offences against our fellows, are as "ten thousand talents" to "one hundred pence." We should regard ourselves as debtors to God in all we have and all we are.
(2) It is folly in us to say to him, "I will pay thee all." He that goes about to establish his own righteousness is guilty of this folly of attempting with nothing to pay all (cf. verse 25; Romans 10:3).
(3) The parable teaches that the only way to forgiveness is to acknowledge our debt and appeal only to mercy. The promise to pay may express the desire of the contrite heart to make amends.
(4) The Lord does not exact; he forgives (cf. Psalms 78:38, Psalms 78:40). His mercy is limited neither to "seven times" nor to "seventy times seven."
2. We must forgive as we are forgiven.
(1) This is required. It was at the close of the great Day of Atonement that the jubilee trumpet sounded a release from debts (see Leviticus 25:9).
(2) To the merciless God will show no mercy. A claim pushed to an extremity becomes a wrong. Mercilessness is great wickedness. "Thou wicked servant!" "To be beggars to God and tyrants to our brethren is the height of depravity" (Helfrich).
3. Forgiveness must be "from the heart."
(1) God's reasons of mercy are from himself. "He will have mercy upon whom he will have mercy;" "He was moved with compassion."
(2) So the wisdom which is from above, true religion, is "easy to be entreated." The returning prodigal child will find a relenting heart. The insolvent debtor, a compassionate creditor. The distressed tenant, a lenient landlord. Gratitude to God will make it so. "I am thy servant; for thou hast loosed my bonds."
(3) This is a forgiveness which leaves no pique behind, no refusal of friendship. We should keep no account of the offences of a brother, but pass them over, and so forgive and forget until it becomes a habit to do so.
III. THAT THE MAGNITUDE OF GOD'S MERCY IS ALSO THE MEASURE OF HIS WRATH,
1. There is a time for reckoning with the King.
(1) The King reckons with his servants when their regeneration commences. Then they reflect upon their spiritual state, and upon their liability to ruin.
(2) There are retributions and rewards in the order of God's providence in this world.
(3) The grand reckoning will be in the day of judgment at the end of the age. To this end God keeps account (see Deuteronomy 32:34). Every sin we commit is a debt to God. The aggregate is the "ten thousand talents"
2. His pardons will be retracted from the unmerciful.
(1) The same servant went out and throttled his fellow servant. "Went out." How different may be our conduct when we go out into the world from what it is when we go into our closet! Went out; not immediately, perhaps, but when by degrees the spirit of the world replaced the grateful emotion.
(2) Those who have experienced God's mercy have the greater reason to deprecate his wrath. They will find the "seventy times seven" of the mercy transformed into wrath (cf. Genesis 4:24). How serious, then, may be the consequences of the difference between the attitude of the closet and that of the world!
3. How fearful are the treasures of wrath!
(1) There are the sufferings of loss. The debtor is sold up. He forfeits wife, children, property. All ennobling excellences of his nature are removed. His talents, his trusts, are taken away (cf. Matthew 25:15, Matthew 25:28). "Those who sell themselves to work wickedness must be sold to make satisfaction" (Henry).
(2) The sufferings of reproach. "Thou wicked servant." This expresses a perception which God will give to the sinner of the enormity of his conduct. "I forgave thee all that debt." It is terrible to be upbraided with the mercy we have abused. "Shouldst not thou also," etc.? What a contrast is here with the mercy that is given liberally without upbraiding (James 1:5)!
(3) Torment. Eastern prisons were places of torment (cf. Matthew 25:46; 2Pe 2:4, 2 Peter 2:17; Jud 2 Peter 1:6). The prison keepers are the tormentors (cf. Revelation 14:10-12). The tortures are the worm that dieth not and the fire that is not quenched.
(4) The sufferer has no voice to reply.—J.A.M.
HOMILIES BY R. TUCK
Christ's type of the truly great.
We treat this as an abstract question. What is true greatness? Who is the truly great man? But the disciples asked a practical question, bearing immediate relation to their temporal expectations. They, and their conversations, can never be understood unless we keep in mind their earthly ideas of their Lord's mission. Judas, with the grasping disposition, was anticipating his chances in the new kingdom; and even James and John were scheming to secure a promise of the right and left hand places in the new court. Over the expected offices in the new kingdom those disciples quarrelled, until at last they brought their dispute to Jesus, for him to decide it by his authority. When they asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" they meant, "Who is to have the principal office in the new Davidic kingdom which thou art about to set up?" Their question was childish; it would have been framed very differently if it had been childlike. As Christ corrected false notions, we h)ok at those false notions first.
I. MEN'S IDEAS OF GREATNESS. "The things that men deem glorious were of no account with Christ. He did not measure a man's eminence by the height of the pedestal on which he stood, nor by the stars that shone on his breast; he had no admiration for purple and gold, for the flash of jewels, for lofty titles, or any of the thousand things that dazzle the eye and impose on the carnal heart." "Does true greatness belong to the lion hearted, to the righteous, to the martyr, to the ascetic, to the saint? Is Thomas on the way to it, with his strong, logical intellect that will take nothing on credit without evidence and his sturdy fidelity of purpose?;' Greatness must associate either with
(5) genius; or
(6) success, in order to be appreciated by men.
II. CHRIST'S IDEA OF GREATNESS. Here our Lord is not dealing with all greatness; only with that greatness which is relative to the ideas then in the minds of disciples. Their greatness meant "being served," guilefully watching for the attention conceived to be their due; self-assertion. His greatness meant "serving", guilelessly watching for the opportunity of doing something kind; meekness that is the opposite of self-assertion. Of this a chill is the type. A man ought not to be in everything like a child. Experience of life makes it impossible for hint to be a child. What was needed by the disciples, and what is needed by us, is that "they should turn from their self-seeking ambition, and regain, in this respect, the relative blamelessness of children."—R.T.
True dignity gained by humbling the stiff
"As this little child." "We shall miss Christ's meaning if we set about thinking of children in general—of their trustfulness, teachableness, humility, unassuming disposition, 'sweet simplicity,' and kindred things. The truth is, there is human nature (and a good deal of it too) in children as well as in men and women. Winsome as childhood is, and often rarely beautiful, with many a wile and witchery, even the fondest mother cannot help seeing in the child she loves best some tokens of waywardness, self-will, temper, caprice, and other things prophetic of ill. Jesus did not mean the disciples to think of children in general; it was not any child, taken indiscriminately and at random, that would have suited his purpose." It is this child, one who left his play, and came forward at once when Jesus called, this child who could put self aside, who illustrates the true dignity.
I. HUMBLING THE SELF IS NOT MAKING FALSE ESTIMATES OF OUR CHARACTER. Good people often think that it is. Saying, thinking, and writing bitter things against themselves, that are untrue and unfelt, is often confounded with humility. True "humility" always goes hand in hand with "truth;" and demands expression which precisely represents feeling. Two schools of religion are in special peril of failing into this mistake.
1. Those who make much of "experiences." There is always a tendency towards the manufacture of experiences.
2. Those who make much of "confessions." There is always the peril of getting credit for humility by exaggerating the confession. What is true of false estimates is in measure true of all imperfect estimates.
II. HUMBLING THE SELF IS REFUSING TO ALLOW OUR LIFE TO BE GUIDED BY SELF-PLEASING CONSIDERATIONS. This is the point in our text. The disciples were scheming to advance their self-interests. The little child promptly and cheerfully gave up his self-interests when Jesus called him. Those disciples had been called by Jesus, but they could not put away the self. In this sense, "humbling the self" will include
(1) giving up your personal opinion in order to accept Christ's revealed truth;
(2) putting aside your own preferences when they conflict with Christ's will;
(3) giving up what may mean your own profit or advantage, when you are called to engage in Christ's work. Self-humbling means Christ-exalting.—R.T.
The severity of spiritual discipline.
Cutting off a right hand and plucking out a right eye are extreme measures, types of the severest dealing with one's self. They bring into thought those cases of disease in which signs of mortification are shown, and the limb must be promptly surrendered or the life will be lost. Our Lord's counsel rests upon the recognized fact that bodily organs are the agents of sin. The palate is the agency of drunkenness and gluttony, the eye of sensuality, and the hand of dishonesty. We do not really cure a moral evil by merely removing the agency through which, it gains expression, but resolute dealing with the organ that is the agent shows that we are dealing with the inner evil, weakening it by taking away its food and exercise. See some of the things which account for spiritual discipline taking such severe forms.
I. BIAS TO SPECIAL EVILS IN NATURAL DISPOSITIONS. This bias belongs to the mystery of hereditary influences. Through a deteriorated bodily organization, a man is born with a bias in favour of drink, cheating, pride, sensuality. The members of one royal family are all born gluttons. Possibly, some bias to evil is found in every disposition, and the life problem is—What will the man do with just that tendency influencing all relations? Acquired evils may be effectually dealt with. Evils that belong to our bodily constitution make the moral struggle of a whole life.
II. WEAKNESS OF WILL IN NATURAL DISPOSITIONS. This is the real cause of the necessary severity of spiritual discipline. The man is not strong enough to get and to hold the mastery over his evil self, and so he is worried and worn by a struggle which has to be continually kept up, because he is not strong enough to make any victory decisive. The hardest moral lives are lived by the weak willed.
III. INDULGENCE OF THE EVIL BIAS UNTIL IT GROWS MASTERFUL. This may be illustrated by the difference in the tone of the moral struggle in the case of a man converted in youth, and of a man converted in advanced life. In the one case the bias is a mere tendency, and can be easily checked; in the other it has become a fixed habit, and must be dug out. When a man in middle life has vigorously taken in hand his conduct and relations, and wisely reshaped them, he often has the bitter lesson to learn that the evil in him remains untouched.—R.T.
Despising the little ones.
We may well assume that our Lord included in his term "little ones," both children and childlike disciples. "Looking to the frequency with which our Lord's words were addressed to the thoughts of his hearers, it seems likely that the faces of some at least of the disciples betrayed, as they looked on the child, some touch of half-contemptuous wonder, that called for this prompt rebuke." Limiting the reference of the expression to the children, we may notice some of the ways in which we may come to despise them.
I. WE MAY UNDERESTIMATE THEIR VARIED INFLUENCE FOR GOOD. It is a small, almost silent, influence; one that cannot be put in common earth scales and measured, or laid out on a bank counter and checked. Man is interested in big things and noisy things; but the really great forces are pervasive gravitation and silent light.
1. The child exerts a high moral and educational influence on its father and mother. Every child is a Divine testing of parental character; and may be a Divine culture of it.
2. The child is a moral power in a home. Illustrate from times of strain and sorrow.
3. The child often proves to be a minister of Christ in a neighbourhood. Illustrate from Norman McLeod's "Wee Davie;" or the more recent clever tale entitled "Bootle's Baby."
II. WE MAY FAIL TO RECOGNIZE WHAT TRAINING THEM DOES FOR US. No man who is resolutely set upon soul culture will ever make the mistake of "despising the little ones." Think of the self-restraints which training children demands. Think of the examples that must be set. Think of the practical wisdom that must be gained. Think of the perseverance that may be called for. Many a man and many a woman have been ennobled by having family life and claims grow up around them.
III. WE MAY, ONLY TOO EASILY, DO INJUSTICE TO THE LITTLE ONES. If we "despise them" we shall fail to observe or meet their peculiarities. We shall repress their strange thoughts and questionings. We shall overestimate their failings. We shall be out of sympathy with their play. Injustice to the little ones means spoiling the chances of their manhood and womanhood. It is bad if the despising takes the form of "neglect;" it is far worse if it is "moral hindering."
IV. WE MAY PUT OFF, UNTIL THE BY AND BY THAT NEVER COMES, THE INFLUENCE ON THE CHILDREN WHICH IS THE NEED OF THEIR CHILD TIME. That kind of despising the little ones is perhaps one of the grave sins of the family life of the day.—R.T.
The joy of recovering lost things.
Dr. M. Dods, writing on the parable of Luke 15:1-32., has the following suggestive passage. Each of the three parables "illustrates the fact that a more active interest in any possession is aroused by the very circumstance that it is lost. The sheep that is lost is not on that account disregarded by the shepherd, but receives for the time greater attention than those which remain in the fold. The piece of money that has gone amissing becomes on that very account of greater immediate importance to the woman than all she has safe in her jar in the cupboard. If one of a family turns out ill, it is a small mitigation that all the rest turn out well; it is after the lost the parent's heart persistently goes. So is it with God. The very circumstance that men have strayed from him evokes in him a more manifest and active solicitude in their behalf. The attitude of God and of Christ towards sinners is reduced to the great principle that anything which is lost and may be regained exercises our thought more, and calls out a more solicitous regard than a thing of equal value which rests securely in our possession."
I. MAN AS LOST. The word as applied to men is a figure. A lost sheep is one beyond the shepherd's control. A lost piece of money is one that has got out of the woman's reach. This suggests that a lost man is one who has got himself out of the Divine hands, and has taken the ordering of life into his own hands. As the sheep is the shepherd's; as the coin is the woman's; so man is God's. The sheep is lost through animal perversity; the coin is lost through accident; man is lost through moral wilfulness.
II. MAN AS RECOVERABLE. There would be no effort of shepherd, or woman, if they had no reasonable hope of regaining their lost things. And we may never conceive of men as lost in any sense that puts them beyond moral reach. There is a hardening through wilfulness; but we must never think of that save as a process. In the case of no brother-man may it be thought of as complete. The man beyond recovery does not exist.
III. MAN AS RECOVERED. That is the work of God in Christ; it is accomplished for the race, and it is an infinite joy to the Recoverer. That is the work of the Christ-man and of the Christian Church. They should prove what joy is found in saving the lost.—R.T.
Christian ways with trespassers.
This counsel seems to indicate that the dispute among the disciples as to who should be the greatest had gone a considerable length, had led to hard words, and even heart divisions. Our Lord made this the occasion for advice in relation to misunderstandings among Christians. It should be distinctly seen that his advice concerns cases of Christians, each party professing strict loyalty to Christ.
I. TALK TOGETHER. Not just at once, while there is heat of feeling; but presently, when both have had time to grow calm, and give room to those regretful feelings which are sure to come when the more difficult passages of life are reviewed. When offence is given, the evil to dread is the disposition of each to stand aloof from the other. This can soon widen into hopeless separation. In common life it is the work of friends to bring such separated ones together; in the Christian life we find Christ expects both the offended and the offender to be seeking each other. Talk in a Christian spirit will often correct misunderstandings, smooth difficulties, and put things straight. But Christ puts the chief burden of seeking reconciliation on the injured one. The one against whom the trespass is committed is to act.
II. BRING PRIVATE CHRISTIAN FRIENDS IN. There arise cases in which the judgment of one party may be blinded; and the correction may be beyond the power of the other party interested. Then it is wise to bring in independent and unprejudiced persons, who may help to unite the disputing parties. This will lead on to a consideration of the principle of "arbitration," and its possible adaptation, not only to Christian, but also to social and national disputes. For such arbitration the men of character and weight are sought. They gain power, in all phases of life, who culture character.
III. LET THE CHURCH DEAL WITH THE MATTER. The point is this—do not make a public thing of private disputes save as a last extremity. There will be different opinions as to what is referred to by the term "Church." Most probably our Lord was thinking of the recognized officials of the synagogue, who formed an "ecclesia," or Church, and acted, on consultation, representatively and authoritatively. Christ says, "Do everything by brotherliness; bring in the officials only as a last resort."—R.T.
Power gained by agreement in prayer.
This verse is part of a digression from our Lord's point. Perhaps it is suggested by the disunion occasioned by the disputing of the disciples, and our Lord takes the opportunity of pressing the importance and value of preserving mutual agreement. The disunited feeling spoils everything in Christian life; it spoils even prayer. Harmony, unity, mutual trustfulness, make up the atmosphere in which everything Christian can thrive. Our Lord. makes prayer a representative of every phase of Christian life and relation. This text is, with Matthew 18:20, a very familiar promise, often used in acts of public prayer, but almost always misquoted. (It is remarkable how many scriptural texts have non-scriptural ideas attached to them, through misquotation.) It is always right, and always best, to take God's Word as it precisely is. Matthew 18:19 appears to be an unconditional promise, but it is not. What we ask shall be done for us, but only if two of you, my disciples, join to ask; and only if you two are really agreed in the matter about which you ask. It will at once be seen that, simple as these conditions sound, they really are searching conditions, and were especially searching to those disputatious disciples.
I. THE AGREEMENT OF CHRISTIAN DISCIPLES. This suggests what is the primary foundation principle of Christ's Church. We know what it has developed to; it is well to see what it has sprung from. it is the voluntary union, for worship, fellowship, and prayer, of two or three. They must be disciples; they must meet together; then we may apply the term "Church" to them. They must agree on some special points of interest, if they allow large liberty of opinion in other matters. The real uniting bond must be their common love to Christ, and purpose to secure the honour of his Name. And the Divine seal set upon their fellowship will be the spiritual presence of Jesus, and all that for them, and by means of them, which his spiritual presence involves.
II. THE PRAYER POWER WHICH COMES OUT OF SUCH AGREEMENTS. It is a meeting of necessary conditions. It is a persuasion with God. Such agreement differs from personal prayer in two things:
1. It represents interest in others.
2. It indicates thoughtful consideration. Many a private prayer cannot be answered because it is only the utterance of a passing impulse, and had better not be answered. What we consult; over becomes intelligent. Well-considered prayer cannot fail to gain the Divine regard.—R.T.
The conditions of Christ's sensible presence.
"There am I in the midst of them." Familiarity with this sentence, and a circle of fixed associations gathering round it, prevent our observing what a striking and revealing sentence it is. He who spoke the words was standing in the midst of the disciples, in the necessary limitations of a human body. And vet he says to them that wherever two or three are gathered together in his name, he is actually with them; in the midst of them; and this seems to imply that his presence might actually be realized and felt by them. This was a hopelessly extravagant declaration for any mere limited man to make. Already Christ could present himself as he really was, and soon manifestly would be—an unlimited spiritual presence.
I. THE FIRST CONDITION IS SINCERITY. The two or three must meet in Christ's name, distinctly as his disciples, to whom his honour is the supreme interest. The one thing that our Lord most severely rebuked was "hypocrisy." The one thing from which he turned away was "insincerity." Poverty of means or mind was no hindrance to him; but he could only show himself to the true hearted. It is the ever-working law of Christ. He comes only to the sincere.
II. THE NEXT CONDITION IS CULTURE. Precisely, the culture of the spiritual faculties and susceptibilities. This is not adequately apprehended. Our Lord put it very strongly to his select disciples, when he said to them, "The world shall not see me, but ye see me." Their spiritual culture enabled them to see. The higher faculties of the soul are quickened by personal relation to Christ "who is our Life;" but those quickened faculties need culture, then the soul breathes in a spiritual atmosphere, sees spiritual things, handles spiritual realities, and recognizes the presence of the spiritual Lord. It is suggested that the gathering together of the disciples involves their helping one another to secure this spiritual culture; those of the fuller and higher attainments inspiring and aiding their brethren.
III. THE NEXT CONDITION IS UNITY. It might seem as if unity in request were all that was necessary; but the true unity lies in the soul conditions of which the request is but an expression and illustration. And it will be found that the true unity lies in the spiritual growth and culture of each one; just as the health of a tree is found by the growth and enterprise of all the branches.—R.T.
The Christian limit of forgiveness,
"Until seventy times seven." This is no fixed number. It is a figurative way of saying that there is, and there can be, no limit to Christian forgiveness. To understand the point and force of St. Peter's question, it is necessary to know the rabbinical rules of forgiveness with which he would be familiar. It was a settled rule of the rabbis that forgiveness should not be extended more than three times. Edersheim says, "It was a principle of rabbinism that, even if the wrong doer had made full restoration, he would not obtain forgiveness till he had asked it of him whom he had wronged, but that it was cruelty in such circumstances to refuse pardon." It says much for St. Peter's apprehension of his Master that he was sure he would not limit forgiveness to the rabbinical "three times." From his point of view, making the three times into seven times was a splendid piece of liberality. But he could not measure the generosity and nobility of his Lord, who took the "three times" and made it "seventy times seven." "It did not occur to St. Peter that the very act of numbering offences marked an externalism which had never entered into, nor comprehended, the spirit of Christ. He had yet to learn, what we, alas! too often forget, that as Christ's forgiveness, so that of the Christian, must not be computed by numbers. It is qualitative, not quantitative. Christ forgives sin, not sins; and he who has experienced it follows in his footsteps."
I. THE ULTIMATE LIMIT IS THE DIVINE EXAMPLE OF FORGIVENESS. "As Christ forgave you, so also do ye." What do we expect from God? Can we conceive of a limit to the times when we may hope for the mercy of God? What would life be worth if we could? The fear of outstretching the limit would fill us with misery. Man can never lose the hope in God. If he does he becomes fixed in sin. "There is forgiveness with thee;" a man must be able to say that in full view of the provocations of a long life, when he comes to his dying day. To the Divine forgiveness there is no qualification of degrees or numbers.
II. THE PRACTICAL LIMIT IS OUR CHRISTLY LOVE FOR OUR BROTHER. If we are Christly, we want to do him good. It does not matter about ourselves, and injury done to us. It does matter to a Christly man that a brother has done a wrong. The Christly man is set upon his recovery from the wrong; and if that means his forgiveness over and over again, until patience is tried unto the uttermost, the Christly man will forgive and bear, if only he may win back his erring brother at last.—R.T.
Moral fitness for receiving Divine forgiveness.
Upon his earnest petition, the man gains a full and free forgiveness; but the question arises—Did he deserve it? Was he in a state of mind fit to receive it? Was the forgiveness any real moral good to him? This is soon answered. The man, fresh from his great forgiveness, finds a fellow servant who owes him but a trifling sum, and his severity with him shows clearly enough that his heart was untouched. The unforgiving manifest that they are unfitted to receive God's forgiveness. The Christian limit of forgiveness is—Forgive your fellow men as freely and as fully as God has forgiven you. The Christian law of forgiveness is—Expect God to forgive you only when you are in such a penitent, humble, and sympathetic frame of mind that you can easily forgive your fellows.
I. SEE WHAT A MARVEL OF GRACE THAT DIVINE FORGIVENESS IS. Estimate it aright, and you will feel that there must be some preparedness for receiving such a blessing.
1. Think of the greatness of the sin to be forgiven us. Take Christ's figure of the immense debt. See sin as ingratitude; and as disobedience.
2. Think of the aggravations of sin. The witfulness of many sins. They are sins against light and knowledge. They are even committed after forgiveness.
3. Think what love is shown in the conditions of forgiveness. The objective ground of remission is the gift and sacrifice of God's well beloved Son.
4. Think of the freeness and fulness of God's forgiveness. There is no possibility of purchasing it; it must come to us as a gift of infinite love. It is no limited blessing. God blots out the record utterly, as a cloud is blotted from the sky, and flings our sins away into the depths of the sea.
II. SEE WHAT IS THE STATE OF MIND BEFITTING THE RECIPIENTS OF THE DIVINE FORGIVENESS. We can see plainly enough that the man introduced by our Lord was wholly unworthy of the forgiveness of that debt. It did him no sort of moral good. He was in no sense ready for the forgiveness. So there are many who cannot be forgiven because they are not in such moral states as would make forgiveness any blessing to them. A humbled, regretful, gracious spirit is necessary. Such a spirit would be tested at once by an opportunity of showing a forgiving mind. Tender, melted, kind. The feeling of being undeserving, unworthy. Christ's teaching on this point has even a severe side—even his forgiveness may be revoked, if he finds, by our behaviour after forgiveness, that we were morally unfitted to receive it.—R.T.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Matthew 18". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11