Matthew quoted Jesus' words about the children of the kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount (5:9, 45). He now adds Jesus' warning against any kind of child abuse, and points out the Father's special concern for children.
18:1 The disciples are by now convinced about the kingdom of heaven, and they want to know how to obtain preferment (see the discussion in Mark 9:33-34). Later Matthew will record the request of the mother of James and John for the best places for her sons (20:20-21). This was obviously a sore point with the other disciples (20:24).
18:2-3 Jesus explains the childlike attitude needed for life in the kingdom. Some of the qualities of little children that Jesus might have had in mind include curiosity, trust, playfulness, creativity, quickly learn new languages, wanting to be loved, laughter, singing and dancing, enjoyment of stories, making up after a quarrel. Children often run to their parent for help. They want to be cuddled and comforted. They trust when they are taken on a long journey.
This is perhaps one reason among others why Nicodemus, the great rabbi, had to be born again. "You are too stuffy and serious and set in your mind to enter the kingdom of heaven" (John 3:3).
In children there are also bad qualities that suggest the need for radical change. They can be destructive, self-centered, miffed, cruel, mean to those they don't like. And similarly new disciples will have much to learn.
Nor is Jesus suggesting we should be childish. It is significant that the Son of God has to be defined by extreme paradoxes. He is Lord and Servant, Shepherd and Lamb, Rock and Tender Plant. He is both a little Child and as strong as a Lion. We should not confuse these opposites but learn to see where and how they apply in each situation.
18:4 Greatness in the kingdom is measured by childlike humility. Later Jesus will condemn the self-importance of those who "love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogue, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces" (23:6-8). Christ's example is very different (11:29). Although Moses was a very tough military and political leader, he was also the meekest person on earth (Numbers 12:3).
18:5-6 Welcoming a child into the world, or welcoming an orphan, or welcoming a fearful new believer into a church, is counted as welcoming the Son of God himself. But natural children and spiritual children are easily abused. So Jesus uses a terrifying metaphor to point up the awfulness of people who do this.
18:7 The world is made a very unhappy place by those who abuse others, and especially those who abuse children. We should not be surprised at the satanic depths of human behavior, nor at the wrath which God assigns. The word "woe" often occurs in the Old Testament prophets to announce God's inevitable wrath (e.g. Isaiah 3:9, 11; 5:18-22; 28:1; 29:15; Jeremiah 13:27; 48:46; Ezekiel 16:23; 24:6, 9; Amos 6:1; Micah 2:1; Habakkuk 2:6, 12, 15).
18:8-9 Plucking out the right eye or cutting off the right hand was used in the metaphor taken from archery (5:38-39). Here cutting off a hand or a foot, or tearing out an eye, is equally metaphorical of the need to take drastic action where there is any temptation to abuse children (17:6-7).
The hell of fire, or gehenna (margin) is the Valley of Hinnom, or Jerusalem garbage dump, which kept burning night and day, except in the rains when it was crawling with maggots (as in 5:22, 29; 10:28; 23:22; see Mark 9:48). It was a vivid metaphor of terrible wrath consequences in this life. But the metaphor used to convey the idea of eternal separation from the light and love of God is "loving the darkness" (John 3:19).
By combining these two metaphors we can say that child abuse has terrible wrath consequences in this life, which can include a jail sentence if the person is found guilty by a human court. Some abusers turn to God to be changed and filled with genuine love. But it is also terribly true that some might end up preferring the eternal darkness of totally rejecting the love of God.
18:10 The Sadducees rejected faith in angels (Acts 23:8). But Jesus quite clearly believed in guardian angels, and especially those appointed to care for our children. When Hagar had given up hope and her son Ishmael was dying of thirst, an angel came to announce that he would become the head of the great Arab nation (Genesis 21:15-19; compare Psalm 34:7; 91:11; Luke 1:19; 15:10; Acts 5:19; Hebrews 1:14).
There are the awful situations where a child we have entrusted to God's care is killed or maimed. No human explanation can be given in such cases, as when we pray for the sick and the person dies, or a leader in our church is martyred (Acts 7:58; 12:2). Admittedly from God's point of view the person is received sooner into the joys of heaven, but that is small comfort for the bereaved. Meanwhile the unexplained acts of God's providence must not obscure the fact that every day parents can entrust the care of their children to the ministry of angels.
18:11-14 The parable of the lost sheep is set by Luke in a chapter about three, or rather four lost things (Luke 15). No doubt this and all other parables were told again and again in many different situations. In this case the parable illustrates the length to which the heavenly shepherd is willing to care for us (18:14).
The remainder of the chapter refers to church membership. The children of the kingdom also function as members of a church. The word "church" (18:17) has come once before when Jesus said to Peter "on this rock I will build my church" (16:18). In the NRSV the Greek words "your brother" are translated as "member of your church" (as in 18:21) and the word "member" is added twice (18:15, 17). The reason is that we are not only adopted as children into the heavenly family of God, but on earth we already enjoy fellowship with our brothers and sisters wherever we are gathered in Jesus' name (see 18:20, 35).
Fellowship involves being able to forgive brothers and sisters who are as imperfect as we are. And this is illustrated by the parable of the unforgiving servant.
18:15 The word "member" does not occur in the Greek text of this passage (it is inserted twice in 18:15, and in 18:17, 21). The only definition of membership in the New Testament is where Paul speaks of members of the body (Romans 12:4; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27). This suggests that for Paul the members of a church were those who exercised one or more gifts of the Spirit in that church (each city seemed to have only one church which might meet in various homes, see Romans 16:5-15). It would be foolish to apply this text to all people who happen to be on a membership list either in our city or in our own congregation.
When a brother or sister in our fellowship has wronged us, we first talk to the person alone (as in Proverbs 25:9) . "When the two of you are alone" would also exclude passing on gossip. And it is important that the complaint is not about the other's life-style, but concerns some action that has clearly injured the complainer personally. This principle would prevent a huge amount of unpleasantness in church life.
18:16 If the other is totally unwilling to find a solution, the next stage limits the complaint to a maximum of five persons. We do not immediately involve the whole church (see Leviticus 19:17-18). The principle of having witnesses goes back to the Old Testament legal system (Deuteronomy 19:15).
18:17 If the matter cannot be arranged by the individuals alone or by four or five people, the complaint can be brought to a church gathering, presumably for that purpose. If the one who has wronged the other still refused to listen to reason, he or she is then no longer viewed as a brother or sister in the Christian community. The ordinary process of litigation in the courts might then become necessary (but see 5:24-26). Paul applies this same principle in the early churches (1 Corinthians 6:1-8).
18:18 For the meaning of binding and loosing, see the comment on 16:19. This makes it clear that Jesus is not suggesting that Peter becomes the supreme judge of church complaints. Rather each grouping of Christian brothers and sisters, or functioning members of the body of Christ in that place, are to deal with complaints before they are ever taken to a civil court.
18:19 There is also a reminder that many problems and quarrels can be settled by prayer. If two or three can agree that God wants us to love one another and find a solution, we can be assured of the presence of the Messiah himself uniting us in his kind of love.
18:20 We often use this text to remind ourselves that we do not need a huge congregation for the Messiah to be present among his people. It is also true that the effective prayer of the previous verse is only possible in the intimacy of two or three persons. We might add that the joys of worshipping with a large number must be fueled by the close intimate fellowship of a small group.
Merely adding "in Jesus' name" to a prayer does not make it a Messianic prayer. We noted the paradoxical names that are needed to capture the different facets of the Son of God (18:2-3). He is Lord and Servant, Lion and Little Child, Shepherd and Lamb, Rock and Tender Plant, Body and Blood, and much else. Effective prayer in his name will look to him in these various ways, and claim each facet of his power for the situation that concerns us.
18:21-22 Peter wonders how many times he should be prepared to forgive a brother who has wronged him. Jesus' answer is seventy-seven times, which suggests that there is really no limit to forgiveness (the reading 70 x 7 = 490 in the King James Version looks like a copyist's too enthusiastic emendation).
Jesus' words are not be taken as a call to get walked over, for the abused to accept abuse, or for the acceptance of being robbed by the unscrupulous. We must distinguish rights from grace. Our rights can be established by a judge in a fair trial. But grace involves going the extra mile and loving the enemy at our own cost. In peace making (5:9) we may turn our own cheek to absorb an insult (see 5:39), but we cannot turn another person's cheek or demand the giving up of his or her rights. In each case there are consequences to be assigned, as God does, but forgiveness and love are still possible.
18:23 The lesson is driven home by a parable. Again the translation "servants," or even "courtiers," seems more appropriate than "slaves." Compare the parable in Luke where the servant is a manager appointed to run an estate in his Lord's absence (Luke 16:1-2).
18:24 A talent was more than fifteen years' wages (NRSV margin). So at $30,000 a year ten thousand talents would come to 4.5 billion dollars. In the story this represents the vastness of God's total forgiveness for all that we have done and failed to do (18:27). If this seems an excessive evaluation of all that we are forgiven we might consider all the faults we note in the character and behavior of others, which we never note in our own.
18:25 This pictures a country where debtors are sold into slavery with their family members to cover the debts which they owe.
18:26 The idea of anyone working to pay off 4.5 billion dollars is as ridiculous as the idea of people who hope to earn their own forgiveness. Christian faith begins when we realize we are bankrupt, turn to God for forgiveness, and find we can begin again with a clean slate.
18:27 God is love, and God's kind of love forgives totally and unconditionally.
18:28-30 Having been totally and unconditionally forgiven, this member of the messianic kingdom (18:23) grabs a brother and demands payment for a hundred days' wages (see 20:2 margin). He then insists on the punishment for the other which he himself deserved.
18:31 One of the most upsetting things in a loving fellowship is to see someone viciously refusing to forgive a brother or sister. We notice anger, pride, selfishness, a complaining spirit, unkindness, worry, lack of joy, and other faults in others. And inevitably such behavior is brought to God as a prayer concern.
18:32-33 On the one hand forgiveness is total and unconditional, but the consequences of a refusal to forgive are very severe. This unforgiving servant has forgotten the petition in the Lord's prayer, "Forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors" (5:12).
18:34 The Greek text says the man was handed over to the torturers. This is not a picture of being tortured by red suited devils with pitchforks in eternal damnation. But it is a vivid picture of the torture we suffer when we refuse to forgive a brother or sister in our fellowship.
A refusal to forgive makes us very ugly. It is written all over our face, and people don't like those who can't forgive. It also damages our mind, so that we become frustrated, miserable persons. It then eats into our body, and can give us ulcers, heart problems, upsetting skin conditions, drug and alcohol addiction, and even come out as cancer (we also know that all these can have other causes such as the polluted world in which we live).
But these are not eternal consequences at this stage. They are "until" the person comes to his or her senses, and accepts both forgiveness and the joy of forgiving and loving the other. As soon as this happens the face becomes radiant, and the torture changes to healing. The pain and previous bad consequences may continue, but the heart will be at peace.
The bad consequences of refusing to forgive are therefore here on earth. But if there is a refusal to turn to the light of God for healing, a person could finally move out into the eternal darkness of rejecting the love of God (John 3:19-20).
18:35 This suggests that God is very tough in assigning consequences (18:35), but it is always in the context of unconditional forgiveness, love and grace. An essential part of the ministry of healing is helping the person turn to God, and seek the power of the Holy Spirit to forgive and begin loving the way God loves.