THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Lesson 19, Chapter 18
Discourse #4: The Sermon on the Life of the Community

Heavenly Father,
At the mountain top experience of the Transfiguration of the Christ, You spoke to the Apostles declaring Your pleasure in Your beloved Son and commanded Jesus' Apostles to "Listen to Him." At the mountain top experience of every Eucharistic sacrifice, let us hear your Divine Voice in our hearts, Lord, as we share our pleasure in the life of Your Divine Son and our Savior in the Eucharistic banquet. Open our ears, Lord, in the Liturgy of the Word and in our private study of Sacred Scripture that we might "Listen to Him" and conform our lives to His teaching. Send us Your Spirit to guide us as we "Listen to Him" in today's study of Jesus' teaching on living in faith and love within the Christian community. We pray in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

+ + +

To become a child in relation to God is the condition for entering the kingdom. For this, we must humble ourselves and become little. Even more: to become "children of God" we must be "born from above" or "born of God." Only when Christ is formed in us will the mystery of Christmas be fulfilled in us. Christmas is the mystery of this "marvelous exchange"...
Catechism of the Catholic Church 526 (quoting Mt 18:3-4 and Jn 3:5)

It may even be ... that the Kingdom of God means Christ Himself, whom we daily desire to come, and whose coming we wish to be manifested quickly to us. For as His is our resurrection, since in Him we rise, so He can also be understood as the Kingdom of God, for in Him we shall reign.
St. Cyprian of Carthage, De Dominica oratione, 13

Chapter 18 ~ The Ecclesial Discourse (Jesus' sermon on the life of the Community)

At Caesarea Philippi, the site that had once been the northern border of the Kingdom of Israel, Jesus confirmed St. Peter's profession of faith that Jesus is the promised Messiah and divine Son when He established the physical presence of His Kingdom manifested in His "called out" ones, Peter and the Apostles, as the leaders of His Church (ekklesia = Greek; ecclesia = Latin). The revelation of His true identity was followed Peter's elevation as the Vicar of Christ's Kingdom with the same power and authority of other vicars of the Davidic kings of Judah (Is 22:20-24). This event was followed by the first prediction of Jesus' Passion "a prediction that Peter, as the spokesman of the twelve, attempted to deny. Divine confirmation of Peter's confession of faith was experienced by Sts. Peter, James and John Zebedee in the event of the transfiguration of the Christ. In that event the Apostles heard the Divine Voice speak from heaven, confirming Jesus' true identity and warning them to "Listen to Him," a possible rebuke of their failure to grasp Jesus' first prediction of the events of His Passion and Resurrection.

While three of the Apostles were privileged to witness Jesus in His divine glory, the others were left behind in Capernaum trying to unsuccessfully heal a demon possessed boy. After Jesus' successfully healed the boy, He gave the second prediction of His Passion. This time the Apostles believed Him and were filled with grief. The fourth narrative ended with Jesus performing another miracle, defining the privileges of the sons of the Kingdom and paying the Temple tax for Himself and for His Vicar.

Chapter 18 is Jesus fourth discourse. It is His sermon on the life of the Community of the faithful that is also known as the "Ecclesial (Church) Discourse." The discourse is divided into two sections with each section ending in a parable teaching. The discourse ends, like the others, with an eschatological/judgment teaching. The first section of the Ecclesial Discourse in 18:1-14 is divided three parts:

Section I:

  1. Greatness in the Kingdom defined as humility (verses 1-5)
  2. Temptations to sin (verses 6-9)
  3. Parable of the Lost Sheep (verses 10-14)

Each of the three parts of verses 1-14 has significantly repeated words:
Part I: "child/children" (verses 2, 3, 4 and 5)
Part II: "causes sin" (six times in verses 6, 7 three times, 8 and 9)*
Part III: "little ones" and "heavenly Father;" both occur twice "once at the beginning and again at the end of the passage but in reverse order in verses 10 and 14; ("little ones," referring to believers, is used in verses 6, 10, and 14).

* the verb is scandalizo and the noun is scandolon, meaning "to stumble," "cause to stumble," "cause to offend", or "stumbling block, "an offense." The noun is the same word Jesus used in 16:23 when He rebuked Peter, saying: Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle [skandalon] to me.

Matthew 18:1-5 ~ Greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven
1 At that time [in that hour] the disciples approached Jesus and said, "[So then] Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" 2 He called a child over, place it in their midst, 3 and said, "Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me." [..] = literal translation (The New Interlinear Bible: Greek-English, vol. IV, pages 51-52).

The opening words in verse 1 "At that time," literally, "in that hour," links this passage to the previous passage and action in 17:24-27 when Jesus spoke of the privileges of the sons of the Kingdom and paid the Temple tax for Himself and Peter. The Catholic Commentary on Scripture's study on the Gospel of Matthew suggests that the elevation of Peter as leader of the Apostles at Caesarea Philippi, the special authority he was given, the separation of the three from the others and their privilege of witnessing Jesus in His glory in the Transfiguration experience has made the other Apostles uneasy about where they stand in the Kingdom of the Messiah. Jesus has even paid Peter's tax, but He has not paid theirs, and so they have come to Jesus with a question about rank in the Kingdom (Mitch and Sri, The Gospel of Matthew, page 226). This argument is supported by the Greek word that begins their question. The Greek word ara means "so then" or "well then" (Mitch and Sri, page 226, footnote 1) and serves to link what follows with the statement that preceded it. It is the same Greek word that preceded Jesus' statement in 17:26 when He said "So then [ara] the sons are exempt" (literal translation). It is also significant that as He speaks to them, Jesus uses "you" in the singular "addressing His comments to each one of them. In His question to the Apostles in 16:15 at Caesarea Philippi He asked But who do you say that I am? Jesus used "you" plural, referring the question to the Apostles as a group but used the second person singular when He blessed Peter, saying "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah ...."

Question: In the secular world, what was greatness based on?
Answer: In the secular world greatness was based on social rank, wealth, or a special ability.

It is Jesus' teaching in this passage that those standards of greatness in the world are not what count in His Kingdom. Jesus uses the visible metaphor of a little child as His teaching point. The Greek word in the biblical text is paidion, a word used to refer to a child under the age of twelve (Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, page 264).

Question: Why does Jesus use a little child to illustrate His teaching point? What differentiates a little child from adults?
Answer: Adults are for the most part self-sufficient, but little children are completely dependant on someone else for their care or they cannot survive.

Question: How does Jesus say greatness is measured in the Kingdom of Heaven unlike "greatness" is measured on earth?
Answer: Jesus says that greatness in heaven is measured by child-like humility, obedience, self-emptying and total dependence on God. Whoever is more child-like in this way is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Notice the repetition of the word "child/children" in the passage. Jesus' teaching is an expansion of His teaching in on the conditions of discipleship in 16:24-26 where He said that self-denial was a condition of true discipleship (verse 24). A little child has no concern for rank or status and only seeks to please his parent.

Matthew 18:4 ~ Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Question: In verse 4 Jesus emphasizes the importance of the necessity child-like humility in the Kingdom. Jesus links this desired behavior to what event? See verse 3.
Answer: He links child-like humility to one's eternal salvation.

As we have mentioned previously, Matthew continually links Jesus' teachings back to the first discourse in the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7).

Question: In this discourse He has promised inheritance in the Kingdom to those of child-like humility. To who was that same promised made in the Beatitudes?
Answer: The Kingdom is promised to those who have the humility of poverty of spirit in the first Beatitude.

Question: What three key declarations does Jesus make in this passage?
Answer: Jesus makes three key declarations in verses 3, 4 and 5:

  1. Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven (verse 3).
  2. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (verse 4).
  3. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me (verse 5).

Verse 3: Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven is perhaps an echo of God's judgment against the Israelites of the Exodus generation who were not child-like but were disobedient and rebellious and therefore were barred from entering into the Promised Land (Num 14:22-23). Those disciples of Jesus who fail to achieve child-like obedience and faith will not only fail in being "great" in the kingdom (verse 4), they will also fail to enter into the Promised Land of heaven!

With Jesus' declaration in verse 5: And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me, there is a shift in His visible metaphor of the child. Previously the child only served as a model to imitate (verses 2-4). Now the child becomes the center of the action with "one child such as this" referring not to children in general but to those who declare themselves as Jesus' disciples who in humility accept the non-status of a little child and are therefore living in imitation of Jesus (one's "name" expresses the complete essence of that person). Those who receive such a Christ-like disciple as an emissary (meaning of the word "apostle") of the Lord receive Christ. Also see 10:40 where Jesus told the disciples "Whoever receives you receives me and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me" and Jesus' teaching on humility and service in Mark 10:35-45.

Matthew 18:6-9 ~ Temptations to Sin
6 "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin [skandalizo = stumble/offend], it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of things that cause sin [skandolon]! Such things [skandolon] must come, but woe to the one through whom they [skandolon] come! 8 If your hand or foot causes you to sin [skandolon], cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life maimed or crippled than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin [skandolon], tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into fiery Gehenna. [..] = literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Greek-English, vol. IV, page 52; Harrington, Gospel of Matthew, page 264).

In this passage the Greek verb skandalizo and the noun skandolon refer to what causes one to stumble into sin. These are Greek words from which we get our words "scandalize" and "scandal."

Question: How does the image of the child change to the "little ones who believe in me" in verse 6? Who are the "little ones"? See 10:42; 13:38; 18:10 and 14.
Answer: Jesus is no longer talking about the child on His lap; He is referring to those who believe in Him, His disciples who are the "children of the Kingdom."

In verses 2-5 the Greek word paidion (child under twelve) referred to a real child. But now the metaphor functions as a synonym for the disciples who are the "little ones" who believe.

The judgment Jesus pronounces against those who cause His believers to "stumble" into sin or to lose their faith is found in all three Synoptic Gospels (see Mk 9:42 and Lk 17:2). The judgment imagery of a millstone being thrown into the sea is also found in Revelation 18:21-22. The sinner being drowned in the sea recalls the fate of the pigs possessed by the demons in 8:32. Such ultimate destruction is the judgment awaiting all unrepentant sinners who add to human suffering.

In verse 7 a "woe" [in Greek = ouai] is an expression of grief that is often used in Scripture in curse judgments (see Jesus' use of this same word in the judgments against the three Galilean cities in 11:21-24 and later in chapter 23). In verse 7 Jesus admits there will be sin within the community and laments that because there is sin in the world scandal/suffering from must follow.

Question: In verses 8-9 what literary form does Jesus use to make His point and what is Jesus' point in verses 7-9?
Answer: Jesus is not speaking literally; he uses hyperbole to make His point that one must do whatever it takes to avoid sin and therefore to avoid eternal damnation and that even if scandal must come, the person or persons who are the agent/agents of the sin will not be able to avoid bearing responsibility for their actions.

Question: Where have you heard Jesus use similar hyperbole and the same warning of eternal judgment in the Sermon on the Mount?
Answer: He expressed the same teaching in 5:29-30 and also speaks of Gehenna as the place of ultimate and eternal judgment.

In verses 8-9 Jesus describes Gehenna as a place of fire ("eternal fire" and "fiery Gehenna"). In Mark 9:43 it is called a place of "unquenchable fire." For other references to Gehenna in Matthew see 5:22, 29, 30, 10:28; 23:15 and 33. Jesus uses the word Gehenna as a metaphor for the place or state where the wicked are doomed to an eternal fiery punishment which we refer to as the Hell of the damned (see CCC 1033-36, 1861 and the study entitled: "The Eight Last Things").(1)

Question In this passage what are three serious statements Jesus makes about sin and its impact on the "little ones" of His kingdom and on the world? See verses 6, 7 and 8-9.
Answer:

  1. Jesus says that anyone who causes one of His disciples to sin will face divine judgment (verse 6).
  2. Jesus expresses grief over sin that brings suffering to the world and grief over the consequences for those who tempt others to sin (verse 7).
  3. Jesus sums up His comments on sin by saying that sin not only causes others to stumble into sin and brings suffering to the world but one must avoid sin at all costs because sin can ultimately lead to eternal death in Gehenna (verses 8- 9).

Matthew 18:10-14 ~ The Parable of the Lost Sheep
10 "See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father. 11 [For the Son of Man has come to save what was lost]. 12 What is your opinion? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the stray? 13 And if he finds it, amen, I say to you, he rejoices more over it than over the ninety-nine that did not stray. 14 In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost." [..] = this phrase is not in all the ancient manuscripts of Matthew's Gospel but is nearly identical with Luke 19:10.

Notice that this passage begins with "little ones" and "heavenly Father" in verse 10 and ends with the same words in reverse order in "heavenly Father" and "little ones" in verse 14. The words "little ones" and "little child/children" are also used for believers in the Gospels of Mark and Luke (Mk 9:42; 10:14, 15; Lk 17:2; 18:16, 17). "Little children" is the term that St. John uses for believers spoken by Jesus in his Gospel and is a favorite term St. John uses for believers in his first letter to the Church (Jn 13:33; 1 Jn 2:1, 12, 13, 18, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21).

Matthew 18:10 ~ See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father.

Children were completely without status in society in the ancient world and were even referred to as the "servants" of their father. Jesus states that this is not the case in His Kingdom and links the status of the disciples, the sons and daughters of the Kingdom, to their guardian angels in heaven.(2)

Question: What do you know about guardian angels from Scripture and what does the Catholic Church teach about guardian angels? See Tobit 5:4-8; 12:12-15; Job 33:23-24; Ps 34:7/8; 91:10-13; Dan 8:15-17; 9:20-23; 10:4-14, 20-21; 12:1; Zech 1:7-11; Lk 16:22; Acts 12:15 and CCC 336.
Answer: In Scripture angels appear as guardians of people and nations. The Church teaches that each person is given a guardian angel at birth who continues watch over and to intercede for that person throughout his or her entire life.

In the parable the shepherd searches for the lost sheep and when he has "saved" the lost sheep from perishing he rejoices that the saved one has been returned to the flock. It is interesting to note that verse 13 suggests the lost are not always returned to the flock when Jesus says And if he finds it.

Question: Who is the shepherd and who are the sheep? What is the flock
Answer: In verse 11 the shepherd is Jesus and in verse 14 the shepherd is God the Father. The sheep are those members of the community who have gone astray either because of sin or because they were lured away by false prophets. In any event the shepherd/God looks for them and the faith community/flock must welcome them if they come back.

Verse 14 is similar to St. Peter's encouraging statement concerning the delay in Jesus' return in 2 Peter 3:9: The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard delay, but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

Question: The parable of the lost sheep recalls what prophecy of the prophet Ezekiel?
Answer: It recalls Ezekiel chapter 34 in which God promises that He will come to shepherd His flock, seeking the lost sheep that have gone astray and bringing them home.

Question: What significant points does Jesus make about His community of believers "His flock?
Answer:

  1. Every believer is precious to Him and should be precious to the community.
  2. Christians should care about each other "even about those members of the community who have been drawn away. Every effort should be made to bring them back.

Jesus is using a metaphor common to the Old Testament prophets in the symbolic imagery of domesticated animals. See the chart on the "Symbolic Images of the Old Testament Prophets." The most common of such metaphors was a shepherd and his sheep (for some Old Testament passages depicting God as the shepherd and Israel as the flock of His sheep see Ps 23; 95:7; Jer 23:1-4; and especially Ez 34). Jesus will use this same imagery in His discourse on the Last Judgment (Mt 25:32-33); in warning the Apostles of their crisis when He is arrested (Mt 26:31); and in His Good Shepherd discourse (Jn 10:1-18).

Matthew 18:15-35 ~ Section two of the Ecclesial Discourse

The second section of Jesus' homily in 18:15-35 is also divided into three parts:

  1. Brotherly correction within the faith community (verses 15-20)
  2. Forgiveness of Christian brothers/sisters who have expressed sorrow for sins (verses 21-22)
  3. Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (verses 23-35)

Matthew 18:15-20 ~ Brotherly correction within the Christian community
15 If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. 16 If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.' 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church [ekklesia]. If he refuses to listen even to the church [ekklesia], then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. 18 Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, [amen], I say to you, of two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. 20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I [I AM] in the midst of them." [..] = literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Greek-English, vol. IV, page 53).

The discourse that began with the description of the model disciple, warnings concerning the temptation to sin, and the Christian's duty toward brothers and sisters who have strayed from their community now turns to the subject of brothers or sisters who are engaged in sin but remain in the fellowship of the community.

Question: In Matthew 18:15-20 what four steps are we to follow within each faith community when a "brother" or "sister" has fallen into error?
Answer:

  1. Go to the person within the community who is in error or who has wronged you and privately tell him his fault.
  2. If he listens be reconciled with him, but if he does not listen take others along and speak to him a second time so that you have witnesses to the discussion.
  3. If he refuses to listen or mend his ways take the problem to the Church (first the priest or possibly the Bishop).
  4. If he refuses to listen even to the Church, then the person is to be considered outside the fellowship of the community.

The first step in the process of brotherly correction is based on the Holiness Code in Leviticus 19:17~ You shall not bear hatred for your brother in your heart.

The second step is based on Deuteronomy 19:15: One witness alone shall not take the stand against a man in regard to any crime of any offense of which he may be guilty; a judicial fact shall be established only on the testimony of two or three witnesses.

In the third step, if the person refuses to listen or repent, the offense becomes a judicial case under the jurisdiction of the leadership of the Church.

In the 4th and final step, the Church may impose the redemptive judgment of excommunication. To separate a covenant believer from the Sacraments is a last measure to attempt to bring that person back into communion with God and fellowship with his covenant brothers and sisters (CCC 1444-45).

In 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, St. Paul makes a similar demand for excommunication of an unrepentant member of the faith community in the hopes that expulsion will be a redemptive remedy that will bring about repentance. In his letter to the Church in Rome and in his letter to the Church in Thessalonica he warns the faithful concerning members of the community who have gone astray into false teaching or immoral behavior:

Matthew 18:17 ~ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church [ekklesia]. If he refuses to listen even to the church [ekklesia], then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Gentiles were outside of the community of the faithful prior to the birth of the New Covenant Church at Pentecost (Acts 2), and "tax collectors" is a metaphor for sinners in general.

Question: We have responsibilities to those within the Christian family of our faith communities who are in sin but do we have a responsibility to correct those who are not Christians? See Mt 18:17; 28:19-20; Acts 1:8; Mk 4:11-12; 1 Cor 5:12-13; Col 4:5; 1 Thes 4:12; 1 Tim 3:7.
Answer: We are responsible for the conduct of those within the Church, and we have the responsibility to preach the Gospel of salvation to those outside the Church, but as for those who choose to live steeped in sin outside the Church, we are to avoid them (Mt 18:17) and they are to be disciplined by God (1 Cor 5:13a) and by the civil authorities.

Matthew 18:18 ~ Amen, I say to you [plural], whatever you-bind [plural]on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you-loose [plural] on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Question: What is the significance of Matthew 18:18? Compare this verse to Matthew 16:19b where Jesus gives His authority to Peter, asking "What do you (singular) say" and using singular verbs for to bind and loose: "Whatever you-bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you-loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." Like many modern languages, Greek has singular and plural pronoun that we translated as "you." Both verbs in the 16:19b are also singular.
Answer: With the exception of the plural form of the pronoun "you" and the plural verbs "bind" and "loose," this passage is almost identical with Matthew 16:19b. In verse 18 Jesus is giving the same authoritative power to bind and loose that he gave to Simon-Peter, the Vicar (chief minister) of His earthly Kingdom, to His other ministers who are with Peter the hierarchy of the New Covenant Church.

This interpretation is supported by the fact that the Greek word ekklesia, or the "called out ones," k(q)ahal in Hebrew, which we translate into English as "church," only occurs in the Gospels in these two passages in Matthew 16:18 and in 18:17. There are many examples in Jewish literature of this same binding and loosing imagery and in those cases the references are to the giving of authoritative teaching and the imposition of the ban of exile from the community (excommunication) or the lifting of such a ban. Jesus will repeat the declaration of this power and authority in John's Gospel on Resurrection Sunday to the Apostles assembled in the Upper Room in John 20:22-23.

It is clear from these three passages (Mt 16:19; 18:18 and Jn 20:22-23) that the hierarchy of the Church has the authority of heaven itself in passing verdicts on what kinds of behavior are considered acceptable within the community of believers. This is an authority that did not end with the deaths of the Apostles. In Acts 1:15-26 the eleven chose a twelfth Apostle to take the place of Judas. It was their understanding that the hierarchy of Jesus' Kingdom was intended to continue.

Question: What authority from heaven does the hierarchy of the Church exercise then and now? See CCC 553.
Answer: The hierarchy of the Church, established by Jesus through Peter and the Apostles and continued through their successors in the Universal Magisterium composed of the Pope and the council of Bishops, has the authority of heaven itself in passing verdicts on:

Matthew 18:19-20 ~ Again, [amen], I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. 20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."

Jesus' statement in verse 20 recalls the judicial ruling of calling two or three witnesses in Deuteronomy 19:15, but in this case when believers gather together to pray in one accord in the name of Jesus He is their witness, standing in their midst and receiving their petition.(3) In the context of this passage, the united prayer is a petition for the Lord's intervention in the life of a brother or sister whose soul is in peril because of sin. Bible scholar John Nolland notes that "behind the binding and losing of verse 18 stands the prayer of verse 19" (Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, page 749).

Question: What does Jesus' statement in verse 20 confirm? See CCC 1088 and 1373 and what Jesus told the paralytic in 9:2 (also see Mk 2:3-5) concerning the faith of his friends.
Answer: Jesus encouraged both private and public prayer, but here He confirms the power of faith expressed in communal prayer with the promise of His presence.

Question: Jesus' promise "there I AM in the midst of them" recalls what prophecy about the Messiah from Matthew 1:23 quoting Isaiah 7:14 and what promise Jesus will make in Matthew 28:20?
Answer: His promise in 18:20 recalls the title Emmanuel (meaning "God with us") given in Isaiah 7:14 and repeated in Matthew 1:23 as well as Jesus promise after His resurrection when He told the disciples And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.

Matthew 18:21-22 ~ The Necessity of Forgiving a Covenant Brother
21Then Peter approaching asked him, "Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?" 22Jesus answered, "I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times."

The last two sections of the discourse (Mt 18:21-35) concerns the obligation of disciples to forgive brothers and sisters in the covenant family who have wronged them. The number Jesus gives Peter is significant. This is a number that is not to be taken literally but is a number that has a symbolic value. The Greek number can be read either seven times ten plus seven times = 77 times or of seven times ten times seven = 490 times. In both cases seven is the number of perfection, fulfillment and completion; it is also the number of the Holy Spirit. Ten is the number of divine government. Taken together the numbers symbolize the spiritual perfection and fulfillment of divine government.

There may also be a connection to Genesis 4:24 where Cain's descendant Lamech demands limitless vengeance against a man who has wronged him: If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold [seven times seventy-fold] (see Gen 4:15). In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the number in Genesis 4:24 is the same as in Matthew 18:22 where the emphasis is on limitless forgiveness.

What generates Peter's question may be an exchange not recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. In Luke 17:3-4 Jesus is teaching the disciples about forgiveness and says: Be on your guard! If your brother sins rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, I am sorry,' you should forgive him." If you approach Matthew 18:21-22 in light of the Luke passage, the interpretation is quite different. In Luke Jesus is speaking about the forgiveness between brothers/sisters within the community of believers and the command is to forgive seven times, using one of the numbers which symbolically expresses fullness and completion. Perhaps Peter, as the spokesman of the disciples is asking the question because he is looking for clarification since the rabbis considered three times forgiveness to be sufficient (Mishnah: Yoma, 86b-87a). In any event Jesus tells Peter he must forgive not seven times but seventy-seven times or seventy times seven times "exercising the spiritual perfection and fulfillment of the Church's divine government.

Question: When Peter asks for clarification on the perfection of brotherly forgiveness, why is Jesus' answer to Peter such a greater symbolic number than what was given to the other disciples in Luke 17:3-4?
Answer: The simply answer is that forgiveness to the repentant brother should have no limit. However, considering Peter's status as the Vicar of Christ, Jesus' demand may be greater because the Church must be unlimited in offering forgiveness for sins even to the greatest sinner who seeks mercy "a requirement beyond the mere human capacity for forgiveness.

Matthew 18:23-35 ~ The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
23 "That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount [a myriad of talents]. 25 Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property in payment of the debt. 26 At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.' 27 Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. 28 When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount [one hundred denarii]. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, Pay back what you owe.' 29 Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.' 30 But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt. 31 Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. 32 His maser summoned him and said to him, You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. 33 Should you not have pity on your fellow servant, as I have had pity on you?' 34 Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. 35 So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart."

Jesus continues His teaching about forgiveness within the covenant community of His kingdom in a parable that is an extension of His exchange with Peter. In verse 24 the first servant owed the Master an incredibly large amount of money. In ancient Greek a "myriad of talents" is equal to ten thousand talents and a single talent is worth six thousand denarii. A single denarius was equal to a day's wage for the typical laborer. The money owed the Master was an impossible sum for the servant to repay. In contrast the money the second servant owed was one hundred denarii which is equivalent to about 100 days of labor "not an impossible sum to repay (Mitch and Sri, The Gospel of Matthew, page 234).

Question: Keeping in mind that this is an allegory about the Church, who is the Master, who are the first servant, the second servant, the household of fellow servants and what is the prison?
Answer:

  1. The Master is God.
  2. The servant who was deeply in debt to the Master is every Christian who comes to God in repentance asking for His mercy and forgiveness.
  3. The second servant who owed the first servant is any Christian who seeks forgiveness for having wronged a fellow Christian.
  4. The fellow servants of the household are the community of believers.
  5. The place where the debt is paid is Sheol/Purgatory.

Both servants/Christians begged for mercy "the first asking God for mercy on account of his huge debt and the second asking the servant to whom God had granted His mercy and forgiveness for the same compassion and mercy for his debt to his fellow servant. The Master's anger is justified since he offered the first servant/Christian sinner His bountiful forgiveness "more than the servant/Christian deserved and yet the first servant/Christian sinner was not willing to extend even a small portion of the forgiveness he received from God to his brother servant/Christian of the Master/God. God the Master judges the Christian who refuses to forgive "his lack of forgiveness has cut him off from God's forgiveness.

Question: When did Jesus give this same teaching about being shown God's mercy and when we should extend the same mercy to others three times in the Sermon on the Mount?
Answer:

  1. In the Beatitudes Jesus said "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy" (Mt 5:7).
  2. In the Lord's Prayer Jesus said "... and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors..." (6:12).
  3. In the summation of the Lord's Prayer Jesus said "If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will you Father forgive your transgressions" (Mt 6:14-15).

The prison cannot be Hell/Gehenna as some have suggested. Prison is temporary but Hell/Gehenna is forever. In the ancient world prison was always a temporary confinement for someone who broke the law. Criminals were either executed or they were condemned to confinement until the debt/crime was "paid in full." Jesus is very direct when He is talking about eternal punishment. He either refers directly to Gehenna (Mt 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33) or indirectly to Gehenna as the place of "wailing and grinding of teeth" (Mt 13:42, 50), or the place of fire (Mt 7:19; 13:40, 42; 18:8, 9; 25:41). None of those descriptions are used in this passage. Verse 34 states the debt can be paid and when the whole debt is paid the servant can be released. There is no release from the Hell of the damned, but there is release from Sheol/Purgatory once one is purified of one's sins.

Jesus uses the metaphor of prison and debt payment in referring to Sheol/Purgatory in His teaching about forgiveness in 5:25-26: Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court with him. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny (emphasis added; also see Lk 12:58-9). St. Peter also refers to Sheol as prison in 1 Peter 3:19: In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient while God patiently waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark ... (also see 1 Cor 3:10-15 and CCC 1030-35). The prison imagery for Sheol/Purgatory in 5:25-26 and the judicial imagery in both 5:25-26 and in 18:34-35 connect these passages to the Church's judicial power to bind and loose sins in holding the keys to Hades/Sheol and heaven (16:18-19 and 18:18). Withholding our forgiveness from those who seek it will not cost us our eternal salvation, but it will cost us the fiery purifying love of God in our penance owed for our sin-debt in Sheol/Purgatory.

Questions for group discussion:

Question: Jesus calls His disciples to child-like faith and obedience. What is the difference between childish behavior and child-like behavior? How does childish behavior hurt the spiritual health of the individual and the faith community?

Question: How does the Catechism define true forgiveness in CCC 2842-43?

Does forgiving mean forgetting?

Question: Jesus' 4th discourse concerns right behavior within the Catholic [universal] communities of the Church founded by Jesus Christ through His Apostles. Does "Catholic" only mean "Roman Catholic"? How many "Catholic" rites are there in addition to the Roman/Latin Rite? See the Chart on "Rites of the Catholic Church."

Question: Why should one be Catholic, when much less is expected in the way of commands and obligations for Protestant Christians? See the 5 Precepts that are the minimum obligations that bind Catholic Christians to the Church in CCC 2041-43.
Answer: With greater obligations come greater blessings. Jesus only gave the power to bind and loose and the keys of the Kingdom to the Apostles and the successors of the Apostles who are the ordained Bishops (including the Bishop of Rome who is St. Peter's successor) and priests of the Catholic Church. Our Protestant brothers and sisters who have come to Christ in a valid Christian baptism are members of the New Covenant; however, without a valid ministerial priesthood they have no one in authority to administer the Sacraments including to forgive sins. They believe sins can be forgiven in private confession "a practice never mentioned or condoned in Sacred Scripture (in the Old or New Testament) and a practice that does not impose the justice of penance (accountability) for the sin committed. In the Old Covenant and in the New, sins are confessed to and are forgiven by God through His representative the validly ordained priestly minister of the Church. Because we have this great blessing, we have the hope of going directly to heaven or to at least spending less time being purified in Purgatory of unconfessed venial sins and purified of penance still owed for mortal sins that were already forgiven through a valid confession in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In addition to the forgiveness of sins through the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and the Sacrament of Anointing, we Catholics receive the gift of grace to strengthen us on our faith journey through the other sacraments Christ gave as His gift to His Bride, the Catholic (universal) Church founded upon the Peter and the Apostles.

For information on the Sacrament of Reconciliation and forgiveness of sins see CCC 1441-1467 "especially 1441-42, 1444, 1446, 1448, 1456, 1459-60.

Endnotes:

1. Gehenna was the Valley of Hinnom, beginning west of Jerusalem and curving around to the south to join the Kidron Valley on the east side of the city across from the Mount of Olives. The valley of Hinnom was a site associated with great evil in the Old Testament. It was where children had been offered in sacrifice to pagan gods in the mid 8th " mid 7th century BC during the reigns of kings Ahaz and Manasseh and during the 6th century BC in the time of the prophet Jeremiah (2 Kng 23:10; also 16:2-3; 17:17; 21:6; 2 Chr 28:3; 33:6; Jer 7:30-34; 32:35). Since the site was associated with great evil, it was not settled but was used as a place to burn garbage "hence the image of fire.

2. The Greek word angelos means "messenger;" the Hebrew word mal'ak has the same meaning. Even the Apostles and disciples can be referred to as "messengers/angelos" (see Lk 7:24 where John's disciples are called angelos and Rev. chapters 2-3 where the leaders of the seven churches are called angelos) but in this passage the reference is to spiritual beings who are God's messengers sent from the spiritual realm of heaven.

3. According to the Jewish rabbis who later wrote the Talmud, the minimum for a prayer group was a minyon, a quorum of ten men but certain prayers, like the prayer after meals, could be recited in a mezuman, a quorum of three men or three women "not mixed (The Jewish Book of Why, vol. II, pages 217, 297, 357). Jesus has promised His presence and intercession whenever two or three are united in His name praying for a cause/petition.

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2012 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.

Catechism references for this lesson:

Mt 18:3-4

526*

Mt 18:16

2472*

Mt 18:3

2785

Mt 18:18

553*, 1444*

Mt 18:6

2285

Mt 18:20

1088, 1373

Mt 18:10

329, 336*

Mt 18:21-22

982*, 2227*, 2845*

Mt 18:14

605, 2822*

Mt 18:23-35

633, 1030-32, 2843*-45