From: Busy Person’s Guide to Matthew 15 to 28 Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2019
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Busy Person’s Guide to the New Testament:
Quickly Understanding Matthew
(Volume 2: Chapters 18 to 20)
The Apostles Ask Jesus to Settle Their Argument As To Which Is the Greatest of the Disciples (Matthew 18:1-5): 1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a child, had him stand among them, 3 and said, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn around and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven! 4 Whoever then humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And whoever welcomes a child like this in my name welcomes me.” --New English Translation (for comparison)
18:1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Pride is natural, but it is an instinct that can cause much needless confrontation and conflict. Since there were only twelve apostles chosen, that implied a role of importance and leadership over the disciple movement in general. But within this inner group, which one of them should be considered the greatest or most important?
18:2 Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them. Rather than directly and immediately answer the question, Jesus decides to provide a “visual illustration” to go with His answer. This way the answer becomes even more emphatic. As one commentator suggests, “As the conversation was ‘in the house’ (Mark ), and that house probably was Peter’s, the child may have been one of his.”
18:3 and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. An adult can never literally become a little child, but one can become “as” one (which is all this verse insists upon) by adopting the virtues and strengths characteristic of the young: vigor, enthusiasm, willingness to accept what they had not previously known. Jesus warns that the absence of desirable child like virtues will keep even the apostles out of the eternal kingdom of heaven--note carefully the “you” in Jesus’ words.
The apostles were already faithful Jews--the standard of religious excellence of the time--so they didn’t need to be told to be “converted” in the sense of undergoing a radical transformation of moral and religious behavior. They did need to do what the term literally meant, “to turn,” i.e., to turn and look back on the virtues of small children and learn from them the proper attitudes that even as adults they needed to re-embrace and make central to their lives. Both now and in the long term as well. Jesus has two particular virtues pre-eminently in His mind (the second is in verse 5). . . .
18:4 Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. The child typically doesn’t feel the need to always be the leader. There is always room for others. (Apostles, take note!) Furthermore, the child feels the need to exclude few if any from the fellowship of their friendship and games. Prejudice will only be learned later. Such are examples of humility that an adult can easily forget when we start concentrating on “appearances” and visible “status” in life. Things which, later, the apostles had to learn in regard to the Gentiles.
18:5 Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me. A second child like virtue is accepting other children. For children to do so is a natural, but adults have the inclination to look upon others as painful nuisances. Something that holds them back from recognizing their own true potential. Or takes too much of their time. Or asks embarrassing questions that they do not want to take time to answer in a constructive manner. Instead of such negativism, those who count themselves worthy of the kingdom will treat others in a constructive and respectful manner.
Although the principle applies to accepting fellow believers in general, the specific application is to youthful/new ones since they best fit the label of an adult “little child” in the kingdom. For them to spiritually grow as they should, we need to set the right examples for them and to be able to provide useful answers to their questions.
Temptations to Sin Will Arise from Both Outside and Inside of Ourselves (Matthew 18:6-9): 6 “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a huge millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the open sea. 7 Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! It is necessary that stumbling blocks come, but woe to the person through whom they come. 8 If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into fiery hell.” --New English Translation (for comparison)
18:6 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. These youth in the kingdom may be literally young in age, are recent converts, or simply do not yet know a whole lot on spiritual matters. All are characterized by the modest knowledge levels and inexperience expected in the young. It is easy for the “adult” who is knowledgeable and well versed to “roll” over them to get their way. Or to act in such a manner that the less mature stumble into sin (hatred, anger, even apostasy) because of our impatience and mistreatment. If we are responsible for such, the consequence of being dragged by a millstone to a drowning death would be minor punishment in comparison with God’s retribution.
on the use of this punishment: “The word for ‘millstone’ indicates the larger
stone-mill, in working which an ass was commonly employed, as distinguished
from the smaller hand mill of Luke 17:35.
The punishment was not recognized in the Jewish law, but it was in
occasional use among the Greeks (Diod. Sic. xvi. 35), and had been inflicted by Augustus (Suetonius Aug. lxvii.)
in cases of special infamy. Jerome
states (in a note on this passage) that it was practiced in
18:7 Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes! Actions that cause stumbling into sin are inevitably faced in this life. Far too many people are neither concerned with the welfare of others nor with how they conduct themselves--even an unholy number of “Christians” who have allowed their sense of right and wrong to be severely diluted. That does not make them right, however. And “woe” to that person that person who causes a believer to fall into sin since God’s wrath will come back to haunt them for their callousness and blindness.
18:8 “If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. If it would really cure the problem (and it won’t) it would be better to cut off a hand or foot rather than to face the punishment of “everlasting fire” due to our mistreatment of others (verse 6)--or any other sin for that matter. Jesus had earlier used this kind of illustration of “self-prevention” of sin in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew -30).
The principle here is equally logically applied to any area of special skill and ability that we possess. If we, through our superb scholarship, needlessly wreck another’s faith, should we be praised or condemned for the abuse of our talents? If we are superb leaders and use our power to crush like an ant those “little people” who want a scriptural explanation for our course, should we take pride of having maintained “face” or recoil in horror at the damage we have done? We need repudiate neither our intelligence nor our leadership, but we need to “cut off and cast from you” their abuse.
18:9 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire. In a similar manner to the hands and feet of the previous verse, if it would really solve the problem (and, again, it won’t) it would be more constructive to pull out the eye than to retain all our bodily functions and face the Divine wrath of “hell fire.” “Fire” inevitably implies pain: “hell” is the place and “everlasting” (verse 8) the duration. (John the Baptist had called it “unquenchable fire,” which conveys the same concept). In other words, indulgence in evil results in severe consequences that don't end with this life--indeed, does not even begin in its fullness until this life ends.
Those Who Are Spiritually Lost to God, He Still Works to Recover (Matthew -14): 10 “See that you do not disdain one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. 12 What do you think? If someone owns a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go look for the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he will rejoice more over it than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray. 14 In the same way, your Father in heaven is not willing that one of these little ones be lost.” --New English Translation (for comparison)
“Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven. Not only must one avoid causing those less knowledgeable than we are to stumble in their faith, we must also have the right attitude toward them. We must not “despise” them because of their immaturity and limitations. After all, they, too, have angels in heaven who know how they are being treated.
The point is not so much whether there are “guardian angels” assigned to every single human being, but the broader fact that they are fully aware of what is happening to all individuals on earth. In other words, that heaven is always attentive and alert as to what is happening here--not just the broad course of events but as to specific individuals as well. No one is too “insignificant” not to be noticed. When we think we have “gotten away” with something, we should seriously ponder this reality.
For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost. The bottom line is that Jesus has come to save and redeem all the “lost” and not merely the educated and elite or those who are “naturally inclined” toward religion. All are of central importance to Him. Skin color doesn't matter. Nationality doesn't matter. What matters is what we are “inside” and whether we follow the teachings of Jesus in our everyday life.
“What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying? He illustrates the point of individual value by the story of a shepherd with a large flock. In a sense one sheep is of little importance, a mere 1% of the total. Yet the shepherd, after first assuring the continued safe well being of the ninety-nine, will then persistently seek out the missing one. Hence it is “of no importance” in only the most literalistic of senses--but it is to the shepherd. It represents investment, time, and work. And is inherently something of value for the wool it produces.
Sidebar: Essentially the same parable is devoted to a different purpose in Luke 15:4-7. Here the emphasis is on the obligation to search out the lost and the joy that results from the success; in Luke 15:7 the joy over the sinner having repented is explicitly added to the reasons for the joy rather than just strongly implied (verse 14). Here Jesus is addressing the disciples; there He is teaching the Pharisees and their scribal allies. This illustrates the fact that Jesus--like any successful preacher of today--is quite willing to “recycle” and adapt His illustrations to the current audience and what immediately needs to be stressed.
It also warns us that sometimes very similar teaching may reflect a totally different occasion rather than the same one. An obvious place where such should be most carefully considered is found in the similarities and differences between the “Sermon on the Mount” and the “Sermon on the Plain.” Need they really be drastically different variants of the same sermon?
18:13 And if he should find it, assuredly, I say to you, he rejoices more over that sheep than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray. The shepherd has gone through a lot to find the sheep. He’s had to divert time from the rest of the flock. He’s had to go away from where they were into “the mountains” (verse 12). It’s caused him worry and concern. It’s even taken from what free time he may have had. Yet all these negatives do not stop him from “rejoic[ing]” when the sheep is found. He “rejoices” more over this one sheep than all the others--not because it was more important than the others--but because it was the one in immediate need. And the need has been now met.
Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. Just as a physical shepherd manifests concern for all his flock, the spiritual shepherd has the same mind frame. So far as is within that leader’s ability not even a “little” (= “insignificant,” “unimportant,” “societally unrecognized”) member will be lost. Truth be told, it is also an admirable characteristic for Christians in general as well.
Treatment of a Non-Repentant Believer Who Has Done Wrong to a Fellow Believer (Matthew -20): 15 “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, so that at the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector.
18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven. 19 Again, I tell you the truth, if two of you on earth agree about whatever you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three are assembled in my name, I am there among them.” --New English Translation (for comparison)
“Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. What if you are the adult victim of mistreatment? What is the individual to do to avoid drifting away in alienation and anger? Often relationships and behavior is the key. If one has a dispute with a coreligionist one is not to let it fester. Instead you are to tell him your grievance in the hope that the two of you can be reconciled. Don't let it grow ever bitterer. Don't allow it to grow into hatred. In Leviticus 19:17-18 such direct interaction is commanded to avoid hatred and to preserve love.
The Mosaical command did not require this, but anyone not wishing to create a public falling out would virtually have to do it in this manner: do it in private--“You and him alone,” Jesus tells us. Don’t let it become a public spectacle where “saving face” in front of others can easily make one far more stubborn and mule-headed. To admit you are wrong in the presence of one person is vastly less embarrassing than doing it in the presence of a larger number!
But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ If the attempt at reconciliation does not settle the matter, there is another step that could keep it from becoming a public controversy. Jesus tells us that in that situation it is time to take two or more individuals to act as witnesses, a principle firmly rooted in the Old Testament as a means of establishing truth (Deuteronomy 19:15; cf. the same point in 2 Corinthians 13:1). Perhaps the presence of uninvolved individuals will be enough to help work out the conflict. If not, they will have heard all that was said and be able to provide evidence both as to the words exchanged and how the two parties had interacted. It is no longer a “he said/she said” situation.
And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. If all else fails, the congregation as a collective body can be appealed to--note that its not just the leadership. If a person is unwilling to heed the group's decision, then the person is to be rejected and treated as an outsider. Not merely an outsider but as a deplorable one such as the “heathen” and “tax collectors” were regarded. They were still entitled to courtesy and kindness just like everyone else, but there was to be no pretending that they were acceptable to God.
“Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. The apostles would have even greater authority than the local church. It could expel but the apostles (due to their gift of inspiration) would be able to bind and loose. Whatever they required (“bound”) would be mandatory and whatever they permitted (“loosed”) no one would have any business prohibiting. The shift from “the church” (vs. 17) to “you” (verse 18) argues that this is what is in mind. The same promise was spoken of Peter in particular in Matthew 16:19.
Alternatively, if we regard this as a continuation of what has just been said, then the idea would be that God would recognize the decision of the church in its disciplinary practices. The assumption, of course, being that the practices had been fairly and justly carried out. The conditions they had set for reconciliation would be fully recognized by God: what the church had “bound” the disputants to do they must do and what it had “loosed” (not required them to do) would not be required by God either.
18:19-20 “Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” If these two verses be regarded as a description of the church, then the idea is that God will concur in their decisions on church discipline (vs. 18) and, the broadness of the wording would seem to suggest, other relevant matters as well. This is true even if it be but a small group of a handful who constitute the congregation and have had to make that decision: the accused, the aggrieved, the two witnesses, and the few other members. Such decisions had to be made even when the group was small and was not to be avoided due to their size limitations.
If we read this as a reference to the apostles, then the idea would be that apostolic authority could not be imposed arbitrarily. Even though inspired, their decisions had to be concurred in by at least one or more other apostles to assure everyone else that it was not some delusion or misguided decision by one person alone. It was a “fail safe” so the church members could be absolutely assured that the right things were being done.
A Parable: The Hypocrisy and Consequences of Treating Others Harshly When We Ourselves Have Been Kindly Treated When We Were in the Wrong (Matthew 18:21-35): 23 “For this reason, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 As he began settling his accounts, a man who owed ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 Because he was not able to repay it, the lord ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, children, and whatever he possessed, and repayment to be made. 26 Then the slave threw himself to the ground before him, saying, ‘Be patient with me, and I will repay you everything.’ 27 The lord had compassion on that slave and released him, and forgave him the debt.
28 “After he went out, that same slave found one of his fellow slaves who owed him one hundred silver coins. So he grabbed him by the throat and started to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ 29 Then his fellow slave threw himself down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will repay you.’ 30 But he refused. Instead, he went out and threw him in prison until he repaid the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were very upset and went and told their lord everything that had taken place.
32 Then his lord called the first slave and said to him, ‘Evil slave! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me! 33 Should you not have shown mercy to your fellow slave, just as I showed it to you?’ 34 And in anger his lord turned him over to the prison guards to torture him until he repaid all he owed. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to you, if each of you does not forgive your brother from your heart.” --New English Translation (for comparison)
Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Since Jesus had raised the question of reconciliation (verse 15) and, by implication, forgiveness, Peter raises the logical question of how often forgiveness is required. Would seven times be adequate? (The rabbinic consensus was that three times was quite adequate--using Amos 1:3 and 2:1 as their rationalization.)
Although we sometimes may look back at the passage and wonder how he could have been so limited in his thinking, we do the man an injustice. Forgiveness can be hard--especially when we have been scarred emotionally rather than just superficially annoyed. How many find it within themselves to forgive the same person even seven times? For that matter one time?
Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. Jesus boldly rejects limitations on forgiveness: forgive as many times as the person genuinely seeks forgiveness, is His standard. Since it is hardly likely that one must forgive the exact number of times stated in the text (70 x 7 = 490) and on the 491st time we are to scorn the individual, this passage warns us against excessive literalism when hyperbolic exaggeration is clearly utilized to underscore a point. Yes, interpret scripture literally . . . but don’t interpret it contrary to the point being made.
Sidebar: In Genesis 4:23-24 Lamech boasts that his revenge will be seventy times seven!
Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. To illustrate the need for forgiveness Jesus provides a lengthy parable (-35) about how a king decides it is time to settle the debts owed to him. These servants, though servants, were also independent authority figures in their own right: if we adopt the way we would mean the words, he had advanced them money and any profits (since they were servants) would likely have been split on a prearranged basis between the two. But at some point the original loan would still be due and the king “calls in” these debts at this time.
In the context of the first century setting the meaning very probably shifts to those collecting revenues for the government and who discover that the amount they have pledged to pay is not available. They have not only spent their own expected yield from the business but have also spent so much they have, in effect, stolen from the king what is rightly due him.
And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. In our modern society think in terms of an individual who owes, say, a billion dollars to get some flavor of the point being made. The idea it conveys is of “an unimaginably large amount. Something so large you’ll never encounter it in real life--not even among the rich.”
in the western world dealt heavily with cash until about the late 1990s with
the amounts now being conveyed primarily electronically through credit and
debit cards. However the ancients were,
in comparison, cash poor. “Even if silver talents are meant, the sum is
enormous. . . . It was probably more
than the whole annual revenue of
The ESV has an interesting footnote on this: “A talent was a monetary unit worth about twenty years’ wages for a laborer.” 20 times 10,000 equals 200,000 years in debt!
But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. In accord with ancient customs regarding debt, the king had the right to sell the debtor in order to gain back part of what was owed. But debt, though entered into by the individual head of household, was viewed (at least by this ruler) as a family rather than just a personal obligation. Hence the wife and children and all his possessions were to be sold as well.
This would come nowhere near earning enough to pay off the debt, of course. Even after all the sales were made, the debt would be essentially “written off” the king’s books as a total loss. But the king was determined to get “everything” he could out of the man and this was “everything.”
The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ The servant begs for mercy because he is convinced that if the king will be patient longer that the financial circumstances will drastically change and that it could all be paid back. This intervention assumes that it was at least theoretically possible and that the king would view it as such as well--or at least be willing to generously pretend that it was the case. (Even getting a major part back would still be an improvement over the current situation.) In fact the ruler goes beyond either in his generosity. . . .
Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. In purely monetary terms the suggestion may or may not have made sense: the king certainly had some type of idea of what the man was doing with the money and whether it was a feasible proposal. That information is not shared with us. The emphasis, instead, is on what motivates the king: it’s not the possibility of saving the investment; rather it is “compassion,” motivated by the transparent sincerity of the man’s request. He sees in this man something worthy of trying to salvage.
In fact he goes far beyond the man's request--promptly “writing it off” his books by “forgiving him the debt.” Not that he'd be unwilling to get the money back, but that he no longer will consider it of importance whether he does or not.
“But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ This well off servant who had just gotten himself out of the worst danger he had ever faced was himself owed money. In this case it was a modest hundred denarii, a mere pittance in comparison with his own massive debt. Yet so greedy and demanding is he that he grabs his debtor by the throat and demands immediate payment.
all this was a debt that he had a reasonable chance to get back. “The denarius was a day’s wages (Matthew 20:2). The sum therefore is about three months’
wages for an ordinary laborer, by no means a hopeless debt as the other was.” (
this callous soul immediately “took him by the throat:” “began to choke him” (ESV, NASB, NIV);
“seizing him by the throat and nearly strangling him” (
(Speculation, but not unreasonable: Did the man so hate having had to beg the ruler that he took physical vengeance on the first available target? Was there part of him that resented having to ask forgiveness of anyone, no matter how much he had been in the wrong? One “master” harbored the ability to have mercy; the lesser “master” lacks the trait that had saved his own hide.)
So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Just as had the rich debtor, the poor one falls down and begs for patience and assures him that if he would but grant it, the money would be paid back. Same problem as previously; same pledge as previously. But the reaction is far different.
And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. That he had the right to throw him into prison is unquestioned—but how in the world could a person who had been granted mercy for far worse . . . possibly avoid treating a far lesser offense with restraint and even mercy? But for this kind of self-centered individual, mercy is something he himself is “obviously” due and everyone else is pretty much owed nothing. “I” am all that is important. Just ask me.
An obvious modern parallel is one who has so fouled up his or her life that the only option to utter despair is to beg God for forgiveness. But the extent of that forgiveness only need go so far as what is done to benefit me rather than what I might do to benefit others.
Legally what he did was quite proper and justified. Ethically and morally was a totally different matter.
So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. This did not go over well with the other servants. The contrasting treatment could hardly have been a secret and the hypocrisy was flagrantly profound. Hence they were not just upset at the double standard but “very grieved.” This was no petty ante matter! So much so that “they”--the word indicating a number of employees / servants--were willing to give personal testimony and went and reported the ill treatment.
We have irony here. In any large enterprise “word gets around.” But in this case a number actually “saw” with their own eyes what had happened and were shocked (“grieved”). It was such brazen hypocrisy, not only was it appropriate to go to “their master” on its inherent merits, how could they properly avoid doing so? It was not (if it figured in at all) a desire that the man be punished but a sense of the despicable inconsistency that had been inflicted by someone who had escaped so much.
Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Although his superior called the heavy debtor before him and denounced him as “wicked,” these were not the only terms he could have used. He could just as easily thrown in “callous,” “blind,” and “stupid” for he was these things as well.
Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ It was an unanswerable challenge. At least unanswerable so far as any reply that would get him out of trouble. To concede greed, selfishness, hatred or personal animosity would have been but to confirm his own baseness.
Jesus had earlier taught His disciples to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew ). Treat us with the same generosity of mind that we treat others. Yet it is so easy to want and expect kindness while being unwilling to grant it. “The chickens ultimately come home to roost”--the only question is when and in what form.
And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. The king was so outraged that he did worse than merely imprison him: he delivered him to the torturers and ordered that he be held there until all the debt was repaid. This is far worse than what he had been originally threatened with (verse 25): being sold, along with his family, and losing everything they had.
But if you really want to be sure that every last penny has been yielded, even more secure measures are called for. Such a rich debtor as this could have “salted away” some money; with the appropriate “convincing” he could be made to reveal it. The punishment, however, is strictly a personal one. Only he was consigned to it. Unlike the earlier near sale for debt, his family is not threatened at all with bearing the results of his folly.
The threat is dire: It is to last until they have gotten every penny owed out of him. The amount owed precludes that ever happening. They may get some, but not that much. What he is effectively sentenced to by his own behavior is unending anguish. It is not something forced upon him arbitrarily or without reason.
“So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” In a parallel manner to what happens to the arrogant debt ower, God will punish everyone who does not forgive their “brother” (= co-religionist) for their transgressions. The assumption is that, like in the parable, the person has actually sought such forgiveness and the plea has been greeted with a cold shoulder.
How strictly parallel is God’s vengeance for unforgiveness and that of the human interrogators in the previous verse is not developed. The fact that there was a meaningful parallel was quite adequate to convey the warning of coming pain and hurt. What sane man or woman really wants to find out just how “literal” this turns out to be . . . or how many “actual” years it will last . . . or the actual nature of the suffering?
The Pharisees Challenge Jesus on When It Is
Moral to Divorce and Remarry (Matthew 19:1-9):
when Jesus finished these sayings, he left
3 Then some Pharisees came to him in order to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful to divorce a wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” 8 Jesus said to them, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of your hard hearts, but from the beginning it was not this way. 9 Now I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another commits adultery.” --New English Translation (for comparison)
19:1 Now it
came to pass, when Jesus had finished these sayings, that He departed
19:2 And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them there. The wording is that they “followed” rather than “traveled with” the Lord. When it was time to “move on,” He did so and those who wished to hear more of Him or seek healing for loved ones naturally followed on the roads in the direction He had gone, confident that they would catch up with Him.
19:3 The Pharisees also came to Him, testing
Him, and saying to Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any
reason?” This is a controversy that
contemporary religious opinion was divided over: the
For one to whom truth matters far less than victory over the opponent, this challenge had a two-fold appeal. At the least it had the potential for driving away from discipleship those aligned with the opposite opinion and the fewer disciples, well, what foe of Jesus could look upon that result unkindly?
Then if “luck” were really with them . . . Jesus was currently in the region where Herod Antipas had had John the Baptist arrested and executed for his teachings on the subject. Might not they be thinking how “pleasant” it would be if they could provoke this to happen again?
Sidebar on divorce practice of the time: “The easiness with which divorce was obtained may be seen in Josephus, who thus writes: ‘He who for any reason whatsoever (and many such causes happen to men) wishes to be separated from a wife who lives with him, must give it to her in writing that he will cohabit with her no longer, and by this means she shall have liberty to marry another man; but before this is done it is not permitted her to do so’ (Antiquities, 4:08, 23). Josephus himself repudiated his own wife because he was not pleased with her behavior (Vita, § 76). And Ben-Sira gives the curt injunction, ‘If she go not as thou wouldest have her (κατὰ χεῖρά σου), cut her off from thy flesh, . . . and let her go’ (Ecclus. 25:26).” (Pulpit Commentary)
19:4-5 And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? What God wants and what God puts up with are two different things and the example of divorce is as perfect an example of this as you are likely to find: No matter what people land up doing (even divorcing over adultery) the Divine intent at creation was for the relationship to be a permanent one . . . for a man to eventually leave his parents and become married and stay that way.
To do this, the Lord does not appeal to what God had revealed through Moses as acceptable, but to what God Himself had intended as the role model at creation itself. Hence what even Moses had allowed was still just that--an allowance rather than the ideal.
Sidebar: Note that Jesus emphasizes that the intended pattern from creation itself was only for male-female marriage. It was not societal prejudice, but the Creator’s will, that locked it permanently within those boundaries. Calling substitutes “marriage” can not truly make them such in God’s eyes--or that of Jesus for that matter for He is the One who makes the argument!
19:6 So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” Since the husband and wife are now “one” in God's eyes, no person should ever separate them. Like modern “super glue” that, when applied to objects is intended to keep the parts permanently together, when God joins “two in holy matrimony,” He does so with the same intent.
19:7 They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” They misstate the Torah: Moses had not commanded divorce but, rather, what to do if divorce is to occur. In that circumstance the husband had to give a written “certificate of divorce.” This would provide the woman proof that she was now free to marry someone else. In other words, there is a subtle misstatement of fact in their argument: Moses did not “command” anyone to divorce. He had commanded that if divorce was to occur at all, this was the way to handle it. Their wording makes it sound as if there was a Divine smile upon divorcing; the proper (and Jesus’) way of wording it shows that if divorce had been decided upon that this was the just, fair, and honorable manner of handling it.
19:8 He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. Jesus chooses not to deal with their misstatement of the Mosaical system. Instead He points out the reason that a divorce right was provided at all: “the hardness of your hearts” caused there to be a waiver from the original and desired pattern. No longer was the heart of one (or both) sensitive and concerned about the other. Alienation had developed and divorce was the result. Yet this had not been the intended goal at creation--or afterwards for that matter.
The text does not tell us whose heart has been “hardened”--the husband or the wife. The wife may have been guilty and out of spite cheated on her husband . . . or the husband may have been guilty and, to use the modern idiom, “wanted to trade in his wife for a younger and newer model.” Or both may have irresponsibly been at fault.
Or the splintering may not have had anything to do with sexual behavior at all. Some people can become so obnoxious that living with them becomes an “experiment in living agony” until one or the other can not take it any longer.
19:9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” Divorce is such a serious matter that only sexual misconduct should cause its destruction--radical teaching for His age . . . and ours for that matter. The person who divorces and remarries for any other reason treats marriage with as little concern as a partner in adultery--indeed, worse than that for it is contaminated by that sin from the very beginning. Of some value and temporary interest to the individuals involved, but not necessarily anything more. The heart of the message is that divorce is serious business and not to be treated as a mere easy escape from an inconvenient or displeasing situation.
(When discussing being divorced by an unbeliever--a much narrower situation and quite different from what Jesus has in mind here--the apostle gives every indication that the moral taint does not occur: When divorced by such an individual he stresses that the believer is “not under bondage in such cases” [1 Corinthians 7:15; context: verses 10-16].)
The Apostolic Shock at Jesus’ Doctrine of Divorce and Remarriage (Matthew -12): 10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the case of a husband with a wife, it is better not to marry!” 11 He said to them, “Not everyone can accept this statement, except those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are some eunuchs who were that way from birth, and some who were made eunuchs by others, and some who became eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who is able to accept this should accept it.” --New English Translation (for comparison)
His disciples said to Him, “If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” This kind of message is unpleasant to our age because it limits our “rights.” In Jesus’ age, since men were the party that carried out the divorce, it was they in particular who felt restricted and that the teaching denied them their proper “liberty.” Hence the disciples protest that if a man can not divorce for any reason he pleases, it is better not to marry at all.
If these were children arguing about things, the term “spoiled brat” would surely come to the lips: “How dare you keep us from doing whatever we want to do!” We might also see here more than a touch of male arrogance.
But He said to them, “All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given. Jesus is quite willing to concede that not everyone is capable of accepting His restrictive teaching. It is intended only to those “to whom it has been given.” Since He was teaching for the benefit of the disciples, disciple ethics and not those of the world at large are in mind. It would be only that smaller group that would heed restrictions the general population found unacceptable.
For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it.” To illustrate the point that there are teachings not every one can accept, He gives the example of eunuchs. Both those who are such physically or become such spiritually (i.e., adopt a life of celibacy) are in situations where the teaching about divorce obviously does not apply--since they do not marry . . . because they lack the physical ability to have a mate or because they do not have any passionate sexual desire or need. Here there is no need to worry about divorce because they will never marry in the first place.
But for everyone else, Jesus readily concedes that the teaching is challenging and difficult to accept and urges, “He who is able to accept it, let him accept it.” (A recognition that not even all disciples will be able to live by it? But, whether easy or not, they should.)
It is common to interpret verses 11 and 12 as Jesus commenting on the difficulty of living a sexually moral life without marriage and how an unmarried lifestyle is appropriate only for some. In which case the point would be that to be able to do so requires a special capacity that not every one has, making marriage a practical (though not theoretical) essential.
However what these disciples are doing is offering a vehement objection to Jesus’ teaching rather than actually advocating in behalf of such an alternative. It was “unthinkable;” therefore it couldn’t possibly be right. Hence Jesus can be read as actually responding to what they are really objecting. In effect, He says, “your scenario of not marrying at all is at least equally difficult to live by because of the limitations of human sexual nature!” Not being able to divorce indiscriminately may seem a hardship, but living a morally pure single life is as well.
Jesus’ Concern for the Spiritual Well Being of Small Children (Matthew -15): 13 Then little children were brought to him for him to lay his hands on them and pray. But the disciples scolded those who brought them. 14 But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not try to stop them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” 15 And he placed his hands on them and went on his way. --New English Translation (for comparison)
19:13 Then little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked them. Not all cases of those dealing with Jesus involved those seeking either healing or religious instruction. Looking upon Jesus as an authoritative teacher (because of His excellence in both of these areas) it is not unexpected that very young children were brought to Him so that He might both touch and pray for them. In Luke's account they are not only called “little children” (Luke ) but also “infants” (Luke ).
The apostles considered this an inappropriate interference with Jesus’ time and criticized the parents for doing so. They had confused the ideas of something distracting from teaching and healing time with something that is a waste of time. Something did not have to be the top priority to still be both useful and appropriate.
But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” Alluding back to a theme He had raised earlier (18:3-4), He reminded them that “the kingdom of heaven” consists of child like individuals. People who are not arrogant and proud but receptive and teachable. Traits they themselves should have as adults.
Sidebar: Note the “then” at the beginning of verse 13, which suggests that this happened immediately after His teaching on divorce. In this kind of context, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that--in addition to His main point that even the “small ones” are of great importance--that He is also symbolically reminding them of the joy that usually happens in a successful marriage: having children that one takes joy and pride in. They wish to wallow in the potential “problems and horrors” of marriage and the resulting “need” for divorce; He wishes to remind them of the accompanying happiness. We might well call this the “sub-text” of what is happening.
And He laid His hands on them and departed from there. Having firmly rejected the apostles’ intervention, Jesus persisted in laying His hands on the various youngsters in order to provide them a blessing until it came time to depart for another place. This was not something He had to do, but the parents clearly wished it (verse 13), and it was a symbolic way for Him to show concern not just for the adults in the audience but for the young ones of the next generation as well.
An Important Young Man Wonders What He Must Do To Be Saved (Matthew -22): 16 Now someone came up to him and said, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to gain eternal life?” 17 He said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 “Which ones?” he asked. Jesus replied, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
20 The young man said to him, “I have wholeheartedly obeyed all these laws. What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 But when the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he was very rich.
--New English Translation (for comparison)
Now behold, one came and said to Him, “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” A well intended man approached Jesus not with a request to become a disciple but with a query as to what had to be done to “have eternal life.” This could indicate that he was someone hostile and considered this a trick question that might embarrass Jesus. His reaction of sorrow when he left, however (), argues that the question was quite sincere: He really wanted to know.
Jesus had repeatedly proven Himself as one who could turn conventional religion upside down by insisting upon scriptural insights religious leaders either ignored or misunderstood. By asking Jesus this, he does not deny that he himself had done everything right that he knows about, but reflects the concern that there is something different or additional that he has overlooked. He is smart enough to know that he doesn’t know everything.
So He said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” Jesus responds with the challenge as to whether the questioner really knows what he is talking about. He had described Jesus as “good Teacher” (verse 16), but does He comprehend what that really covers? Does he recognize that in its full sense the term could only be applied to God?
Today, similarly, we have people who “throw around words” without paying attention to what they are saying: It is the custom to say “such and such” in certain situations and the words or phrases are repeated so much that they easily become mere “idle words” (cf. Matthew 12:36-37)--language that means nothing beyond the superficial. Yes, Jesus is rightly described as a “good teacher,” but does he have the slightest idea just how good?
Then, instead of giving anything that might be considered “new” or “innovative” in His own teaching, He calls for strict adherence to what the person already knew: Since they were living under the Jewish Torah, they must keep its commandments in order to “enter into life.”
Sidebar: Most translations follow a different Greek textual tradition and translate the verse along the lines of “And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? [Rather than “call Me good.”] There is only One who is absolutely the embodiment of “good.” If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” Here also the emphasis is on how we must define what is good in terms of the Holy One who is uniquely good and in terms of what such a Being inherently can only give . . . “good commandments.”
He said to Him, “Which ones?” Jesus said, “ ‘You
shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You
shall not bear false witness.’ The
generalization of the essentiality of obeying Divine law isn’t good enough for
the man. Is this man motivated by guilt
like a good number today who seek out some one special way that they can
(hopefully) atone to God for whatever sin that besieges their life? They feel so guilty about X sin (fill in
whatever act or attitude you prefer), that they are zealous to do something specific
that will demonstrate their intended good will . . . and not neglect something
that is absolutely pivotal to their spiritual well being. Or he may be one of those souls who divides
the Divine requirements into what “must be done” and into “what should
be done” and subdivides the former into an order of which one(s) must have
priority interest if the others are neglected.
Whatever may be going through his brain, Jesus is content to quote several of the well know prohibitions of the Ten Commandments. The multiple commands convey the message that there is not simply one single thing involved in faithfulness to Jehovah. One must not seek out a single “good thing” (verse 16)--which he has inquired about--but all “good things” and these can be found within God’s moral code.
Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” Having discussed some of the prohibitions, Jesus moves to a positive command of the Ten Commandments and then quotes the non-Ten Commandments admonition that one love neighbors as oneself. The Ten Commandments were important, in other words, but there were other principles just as vital.
Sidebar: This should also serve as a vivid reminder to those who insist today that acceptable morality is defined by the Ten Commandments standing alone. It’s a good starting point, but Jesus makes clear that there are other important things as well—love in particular, which is conspicuously not mentioned in that list!
Some attempt to make the commandment against covetousness equivalent to the love commandment, but love surely involves something far, far broader than this--does it not? Nor does lumping together the final six commandments as “summarized” in the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” do better. You can obey most of these by simply not doing evil, but abstinence from doing evil is surely a tremendous distance from the positive mind frame of actually loving them--is it not?
The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?” This questioner is clearly an individual who does not know when to shut up. He is the type of person who keeps demanding more and more obligations until he finally gets one where he fails. First he wanted to know what to do to have eternal life. That answer was not good enough. He had to know which specific commandments had to be obeyed. Even that answer was not enough: I’ve done this since I was young. What more must I do? “Give me yet more!” he clearly begs.
Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” If doing what was necessary was not enough, well, Jesus would give him more than was actually necessary. If he genuinely wants more He will give him the needless: Go and sell all you have and donate it to the needs of the poor. Then “you will have treasure in heaven.” Also, you will need to “follow Me,” a request the man had not made or even hinted at.
But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. Having demanded yet more and more, he had received an answer he could not embrace. He left in sorrow because he had many possessions--too many, he was convinced, to give up.
The irony in this is that Jesus would not have made such an extravagant demand if he had not kept insisting upon yet greater tests of faithfulness to meet. A lesson for later generations in this: pray for strength to do what you should; never pray for “greater tests” to prove or show your faith and obedience. Life is going to give you quite enough.
Not Wealth But Loyal
Service to God—Whether You Are Prosperous or Not—Assures Salvation (Matthew -30): 23 Then Jesus said to his
disciples, “I tell you the truth, it will be hard for a rich person to enter
the kingdom of heaven! 24 Again I say, it is easier
for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter
25 The disciples were greatly astonished when they heard this and said, “Then who can be saved?” 26 Jesus looked at them and replied, “This is impossible for mere humans, but for God all things are possible.”
27 Then Peter said to him, “Look, we have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” 28 Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth: In the age when all things are renewed, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
29 “And whoever has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” --New English Translation (for comparison)
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. The discussion that had just occurred (ending in verse 22), we now discover to have involved a rich man--and the concluding instruction to sell all he had virtually requires that assumption . . . since the poor person has precious little to give up in the first place and it would be far less an obvious discomfort.
What happened--Jesus now explicitly drives home--illustrates a truth far above and beyond that individual’s own immediate situation. Indeed it shows that the very joy and love of what one has can easily cause one to rebel at the thought of giving up any part of it. He never again suggested to any person of wealth such a requirement and even here only when pushed for “yet more” to be done.
Although it can only be speculation, it could easily be that the individual had been motivated in his repeated queries by the barely unconscious recognition that he was essentially greedy and needed to do something to compensate for it. Though, even then, he would not have been anticipating this extreme a solution to his distorted priorities!
(As to the reference to the “kingdom of heaven,” that refers not only to the eternal, heavenly kingdom that lies in our future, but the earthly manifestation in the form of the church. Both require such a drastic re-evaluation of the role of earthly wealth that it is a serious challenge: however note that Jesus only says it will be “hard” for the rich to enter the kingdom--not impossible.)
again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle
than for a rich man to enter the
Sidebar: That the image of a camel was then used as an exaggeration of large size can be demonstrated in Jesus’ invoking of the same image in a very different context: “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:24). If the image was in any sense literal, both would have been strained out.
on non-Biblical invoking of the needle/camel comparison: “Compare the
Jewish proverb, that a man did not even in his dreams
see an elephant pass through the eye of a needle. The reason why the camel was substituted for
the elephant was because the proverb was from the Babylonian Talmud, and in
When His disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” The disciples' reaction is not all that hard to grasp. The rich have all the material advantages. If the rich have such difficulty being saved, where would middle class and poor people such as they appear? Had not Jesus effectively ruled out the salvation of anyone?
But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” In purely human terms, it is impossible for such things to happen. On the other hand, the power of God makes the impossible a reality. In other words, the rich can be saved just like everyone else--but only with God’s help. Salvation becomes a moral/ethical miracle, just as a camel passing though the eye of a needle would be a physical miracle. It flies in the face of everything one anticipates and expects. Yet it happens. If those involved truly want it to happen.
Then Peter answered and said to Him, “See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have?” Unlike the affluent young man, the apostles had left everything behind in order to follow Jesus from place to face. What then is their status going to be--what are they going “to get out of it”? This is not really a greedy question; it is simply a logical one after the disillusioning words they have just heard. If the rich can’t obtain the kingdom, what of the poor and the other non-wealthy?
19:28 So Jesus said to them, “Assuredly
I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne
of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging
the twelve tribes of Israel. Their
reward is not wealth or glory or fame; it is to function as judges over the
spiritual “tribes of
However “regeneration” is used of those who have been baptized (Titus 3:5) and the apostles’ active role in “judging” (= ruling, steering, advising, teaching, correcting, rebuking) those in the earthly manifestation of the kingdom--the church--is quite adequate to fit what is being promised. Jesus is in heaven on His throne while He guides them through inspiration on earth (John -15).
And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life. This generalization of abundant reward would be true of all disciples: note the all encompassing scope of the term “everyone:” Anyone who had left or lost loved ones or possessions because of their discipleship would receive far, far beyond what they had lost; the recompense will be viewed as if “a hundredfold” (if not more) than what was sacrificed. Not to mention the “eternal life” that would also be granted.
But many who are first will be last, and the last first. Many who we think in this life will be rewarded most will turn out to actually receive comparatively little. The reverse would also be true--those we counted as “last” in service and importance would receive the most abundant reward. (On the other hand, in the parable that begins the next chapter the expression is used of all receiving equal rewards; cf. 20:9-10, 16. This would produce the same effective result of some receiving more proportionately and some less.)
A Parable: Regardless of How Long or Short a Period That a Person Serves God, an Appropriate Reward Will Be Given (Matthew 20:1-16): “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 And after agreeing with the workers for the standard wage, he sent them into his vineyard.
3 “When it was about in the morning, he went out again and saw others standing around in the marketplace without work. 4 He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and I will give you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.
“When he went out again about and that afternoon, he did the same thing. 6 And about that afternoon he went out and found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why are you standing here all day without work?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go and work in the vineyard too.’
8 “When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give the pay starting with the last hired until the first.’ 9 When those hired about came, each received a full day’s pay. 10 And when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each one also received the standard wage.
11 “When they received it, they began to complain against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last fellows worked one hour, and you have made them equal to us who bore the hardship and burning heat of the day.’ 13 And the landowner replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am not treating you unfairly. Didn’t you agree with me to work for the standard wage? 14 Take what is yours and go. I want to give to this last man the same as I gave to you. 15 Am I not permitted to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.” --New English Translation (for comparison)
20:1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. At certain times of the year a landowner would be in heavy need of temporary hired labor. This would especially be true at harvest time. Whether then or at any other season, it would be natural to start as early in the day as possible to get as much done before the heat of the day slowed down productivity. Hence the parable speaks of how the landowner seeks these laborers “early in the morning.” (This parable is only found in Matthew.)
20:2 Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. The pay scale was agreeable to both the workers and the owner, arguing that both accepted that a denarius was a decent wage for a day’s work of the kind they would be performing. A full work day was taken as twelve hours; as Jesus remarked in passing, “Are there not twelve hours in the day?” (John 11:9).
The amount offered was the de facto standard of pay among both Romans and Jews. Among the Romans, the denarius was the daily wage for their soldiers as well. The Dead Sea Scrolls--collectively dated at somewhere between 100 B.C. and 25 A.D.--include fragments of the apocryphal book of Tobit, which argues that this had been the criteria for a long time: “But tell me, what wages am I to pay you--a drachma a day, and expenses for yourself and my son?” (RSV). This was for accompanying the son on a journey.
20:3 And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace. A few hours later (c. ), the owner returned to the marketplace and found additional unemployed standing around doing nothing. Either they had arrived late--for good or bad reasons--or they calculated that there would be repeated opportunities to pick up work even if they arrived later than the others.
The “marketplace” was apparently the place to pick up casual labor and it was a very logical one: Due to people visiting the market for other purposes as well, there would be foot traffic throughout the day.
20:4 and said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. These he also offered the opportunity to work in the vineyard. Their pay, however, was left vague and indeterminate: “whatever is right I will give you.” Willing to trust his good will, they departed for the fields to begin work. They have nothing to lose. Whatever they gain will be more than if they had remained behind doing nothing. (The story may also presuppose the owner’s reputation for fair treatment of all that were employed.) They begin their labor about a quarter of the way through the workday and the individuals mentioned in the next verse enter it when it is half over and three-quarters over.
20:5 Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise. Three hours later and then again after three more hours (= and ) the owner again entered the part of the city where he could anticipate finding the unemployed congregated. Both times he gathered more workers with the promise of a just but an indeterminate amount of pay.
20:6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day?’ Very late in the work day (c. ) he checked things out yet one final time and found a few still available. He inquired why they weren’t working. Earlier might have been “coincidence” in one form or another--but this late in the day, when the work day is almost over?
20:7 They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.’ In essence, they explain that it was through no fault of their own. Their explanation can be taken two ways: (1) for whatever reason there simply had not been adequate demand to use all the available labor or (2) for some reason no one thought they in particular would be good picks. This landowner is of a different opinion.
In spite of how little time they would actually have to work, the owner viewed some work as still far better than none and agreed to take them on for what little remained of the day. Again they receive the same vague promise of an appropriate compensation. Indeed, at this late an hour they would probably have been happy to get anything at all.
20:8 “So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.’ This was according to the custom of the day: pay was on a daily basis and distributed after the workday was over. It was mandated by the Jewish Law itself (Leviticus 19:13; Deuteronomy 24:14-15). This was a responsibility the owner delegated to his manager (“steward”) of the property and carried out as evening began and the work ended.
For whatever reason, the owner instructed the manager to pay those who worked the least hours first. From the standpoint of the story, this puts in center place the owner’s generosity of mind. From the standpoint of those who did not receive the increased wage they thought they deserved, this provided the opportunity to gripe now--and to the owner himself--rather than harbor resentment and anger within themselves.
From the standpoint of the reader of the text, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that it is intended to remind us of the last two verses of the previous chapter, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (verses 29-30). This is a point Jesus Himself makes in verse 16 of this chapter as well. The teaching in both chapters make a similar point.
20:9 And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. This “full day wage” was a generous blessing--neither obligated nor required by anything the property owner had promised. It was unbounded generosity. Although the parable does not explicitly say it, the wording leaves the necessary implication that those who came at and were also given the same pay. There is nothing in the text to suggest that they had done superior work to the others and outperformed them; everything hinges upon the owner’s profound generosity of spirit. On his unmerited grace, if you wish to word it that way.
But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius. When it came time to process those hired first, they naturally assumed that such a openhanded owner was going to pay them even more than promised. After all, had he not paid those who worked so much less a full day’s pay? Then--to their profound surprise--they received exactly the same amount and no more . . . the promised denarius.
And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner. The problem with being so generous with those who had worked fewer hours was that those who had worked longer could feel aggrieved that what they received was not proportionately increased. This they did not appreciate and promptly began to complain to each other about what the owner had done--some translations take the wording to mean that they complained to the vineyard owner as well.
Some have reasonably suggested that we see here much of the same mindframe of the elder brother in Luke 15 . . . he who had been so upset that the repentant elder brother had been received back with joy and celebration. Shouldn’t he himself be appreciated and rewarded even more?
saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.’ They deserved more, didn’t they? After all, they had labored a long, hot and uncomfortable day while the last men had worked a mere hour. There are few who would not sympathize with their complaint. On the other hand, there was more to the situation than just the one factor of length of labor; there was the right of the landowner to be generous as well.
But he answered one of them and said, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? The owner responded to one of the complainers that however much they might want more, no injustice had been done. He had promised a denarius and he had given everything he had pledged. They had entered into the agreement to work the entire day for that amount and they knew ahead of time exactly what to expect. What did they legitimately have to complain of?
On a spiritual level, those who have gone through much turmoil in an extended discipleship will receive the same salvation promised to those whose discipleship was short and relatively uneventful--but even those in the former case will fully receive what they were promised. And that promised reward is inherently a satisfying and abundant one, far above and beyond anything this earth can ever offer.
Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Having received a quite reasonable explanation, they should go about their own business and not worry about it any further. But if they are still bothered, perhaps they should consider the fact that they money is his own, to give away in any fashion he wishes. It is something that he properly has exclusive control over and no one else. Hence the explanation in the next verse. . . .
Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?’ You can look at the generosity from two standpoints. From the owner's standpoint, was it not proper and “lawful” for him to be bountiful with his own funds without being criticized for it? He had done no harm with it; he had done nothing immoral or deceitful. In fact, he had done a positive good by being extra generous.
From the criticizer's viewpoint, they must examine their own attitude as well. Isn't there a real possibility that the problem is their own envy? Has their way of thinking . . . their viewpoint . . . their “eye” on the world . . . become twisted and “evil” by concluding that someone doing good is in the wrong because it doesn't benefit them personally?
So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.” So those who were the last to become involved received the same reward as those who had worked the most. The last were first--had received proportionately, so to speak, far more in reward for the length of their labor than those who had been involved the longest.
Then Jesus moves on to a different topic: Numerous individuals would receive no reward at all for many would be “called” to work (= called to be disciples) yet few would become such. They would turn down the opportunity entirely; they are not “chosen” to be rewarded because they never answered the “call” to go to work for the Lord in the first place. In contrast, in the parable everyone is both “called” to work and “chosen” to work. Hence the closing words are applicable to a much broader array of individuals than those directly touched on in the parable itself.
This explanation assumes the textual genuineness of the words. Without such an interpretive gloss on the wording, there seems no reason for their inclusion; they have no obvious application to the narrative itself. Many take a different approach: On the basis of inadequate manuscript evidence for including it, it is omitted by the large bulk of modern translations--exceptions being the ISV, NKJV, WEB. This would remove the question of how the words are relevant to the parable.
A Third Prediction of the Certainty of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection (Matthew 20:17-19): 17 As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve aside privately and said to them on the way, 18 “Look, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the experts in the law. They will condemn him to death, 19 and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged severely and crucified. Yet on the third day, he will be raised.” --New English Translation (for comparison)
Now Jesus, going up to
emotionally unprepared for what was actually going to happen. Hence He felt it necessary to temporarily
separate the apostles from the traveling crowd and remind them of a dire
prediction He had made previously (Matthew -23). There He had spoken of death in
“Behold, we are going up to
and deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify. And the third day He will rise again.” Legally unable to carry it out themselves, they would deliver Jesus to the Romans to deride, beat, and execute. Even if the religious leadership could have found a legal way to put Jesus to death, this was sound political strategy: it guaranteed that Roman hands would be on the death warrant, so to speak. It allowed, if necessary, the blame to be piously passed on to some one else if the whole thing somehow “blew sky high.” At the minimum, it assured that those in the religious leadership would not have to bear the blame alone.
A Lesson on Religious “Superiority” Being “Purchased” by Service to Each Other and Not by Appointment to a Post (Matthew 20:20-28): 20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling down she asked him for a favor. 21 He said to her, “What do you want?” She replied, “Permit these two sons of mine to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 Jesus answered, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink the cup I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He told them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right and at my left is not mine to give. Rather, it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”
24 Now when the other ten heard this, they were angry with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them. 26 It must not be this way among you! Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” --New English Translation (for comparison)
Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Him with her sons, kneeling down and asking something from Him. Perhaps because she had heard the preceding conversation (verses 17-19) being discussed between the apostles or because of some vaguer report of something dramatic and climatic that would soon occur, the mother of James and John (4:21) approached Jesus. We are not told which of them came up with this scheme—children searching for a “well deserved” reward and using their mother . . . or a mother anxious for the advancement of her children and “dragging” them along with her--perhaps being only vaguely aware what she was going to do. Either way, she broached her desire misleadingly while kneeling before Him, simply saying she had a request to make. What could be more innocent?
And He said to her, “What do you wish?” She said to Him, “Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom.” Jesus naturally wanted to know what was being wanted before agreeing to give it. It's called “prudence.” It’s based upon the well established reality that not even the well intended always have the best judgment.
Now she made her power play: Let my two sons be your number two and number three men (= in ancient parlance, sit on His left and right) in the triumph of the kingdom. If Jesus survived, that would place them in the key secondary positions; if He did, indeed, die they would have the leadership of the movement.
Sidebar: The underlying logic of her request--“The favor which had already been bestowed might, in some degree, seem to warrant the petition. John was known emphatically as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ (John ; ; John 20:2), and if we may infer a general practice from that of the Last Supper (John ), he sat near Him at their customary meals. James was one of the chosen three who had been witnesses of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1). Both had been marked out for special honor by the new name of the Sons of Thunder (Mark ). The mother might well think that she was but asking for her sons a continuance of what they had hitherto enjoyed. The sternness of our Lord’s words to Peter (Matthew ) might almost justify the thought that his position had been forfeited.” (Ellicott’s Commentary on the English Bible)
But Jesus answered and said, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” One wonders how Jesus reacted internally to this. Facing a quickly approaching death, He is pestered by the issue of leadership among His apostles. Should He laugh or cry tears of frustration? That the two sons were part and parcel of this power play is seen by the fact that Jesus’ response is addressed to them (it wasn’t a situation solely produced by a mother seeking the advancement of her children): Can you endure what I am about to endure is the challenge--drinking the same “cup” and receiving the same “baptism?” In direct language: die also?
20:23 So He said to them, “You will indeed drink My cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with; but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared by My Father.” It looks like they responded aloud in the affirmative that they were, indeed, willing to die: the statement “so He said to them” makes more sense as a response. On the other hand it could simply be that Jesus answers His own question: He affirms that they would indeed go through similarly painful suffering. They would drink of that “cup” and be “baptized” in that agony. On the other hand, He firmly insists that it is up to the Father alone to decide primacy issues among the apostles. Even as their Teacher and Leader, this is one decision beyond His own to make.
Sidebar: “A cup is an ordinary metaphor in holy writ, by which a man’s portion in this life is expressed, whether it be a portion of good things or evil: Psalms 11:6; Isaiah 51:17; Jeremiah 25:15; Lamentations 4:21; Matthew 26:39; John 18:11. Drinking of a cup is usually put for suffering: Jeremiah 49:12; Ezekiel 23:32; Obadiah 1:16.” (Matthew Poole’s Commentary) Just as drinking a cup was used of being overwhelmed by suffering, since “baptism” means a burial or overwhelming that was also a highly appropriate image to convey the same idea.
And when the ten heard it, they were greatly displeased with the two brothers. One could hardly expect any other reaction than anger and outrage: This was a blatant, sneaky, underhanded effort to gain recognition and position. Commentators often argue that the other ten were just as bad as these and this motivated their anger. Even so none of them had resorted to this kind of scheming to gain their goal.
But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. This was an explosive situation: The apostles at each other’s throats over status and Jesus knowing that He was facing death. So He promptly acted to calm things down by calling the entire group together rather than letting them “stew” in private, collective rage.
It was a characteristic of Gentile rulers to “lord” it over others and to utilize “great . . . authority” over their social and political inferiors. Note that it is "Gentile" lords: an incarnation of badness in the conceptual shorthand of popular Jewish opinion. And usually a well deserved evaluation. That itself should warn them that their attitude rests on dangerous ground.
Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. Their priorities were to be different than those of the surrounding world. Theirs was to be an ethic of service. Hence their greatness would be determined by, and grow out of, willingness to serve . . . unlike human political and social affairs in which greatness of position often becomes a substitute for service. The true “work” is left for their “inferiors;” “important” people don't bother themselves with it.
And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—. To be a leader one must be willing to be a lowly servant: to use the reality of the first century situation, if one wished to be “first” (prime leader) one must be willing to act as if he or she were a mere slave. One of my major memories as a teenager is of no less than a Federal Reserve vice president quietly cutting the grass at church. It needed to be done so he did it, without complaint or thinking about it--though he was a church elder and the job would “properly” seem to be someone else’s.
just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” If they wanted to know what Jesus’ illustration and teaching meant, they should consider Jesus’ own example. He did not come to be served by others but to be of benefit to them. Even to die for them. The ultimate sacrifice. He was simply demanding that they reflect that same mind frame.
Two Blind Men Cured Outside of
32 Jesus stopped, called them, and said, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” 34 Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him. --New English Translation (for comparison)
Now as they went out of
Sidebar: This is the only mention of Jericho in the gospel of Matthew and since our memories of the city are usually shaped by our reading of its destruction during the conquest of the land under Joshua (it being the first city to fall), it may be useful to stress how important the community was in the first century:
“The upland pastures of Peraea
were now behind them and the road led down to the sunken channel of the
“Rising like an amphitheatre from amidst this luxuriant
scene, lay Jericho, the chief place east of Jerusalem, at seven or eight miles
distant from the Jordan, on swelling slopes, seven hundred feet above the bed
of the river, from which its gardens and groves, thickly interspersed with
mansions, and covering seventy furlongs from north to south, and twenty from
east to west, were divided by a strip of wilderness. The town had had an eventful history. Once the stronghold of the Canaanites, it was
still, in the days of Christ, surrounded by towers and castles. A great stone aqueduct of eleven arches brought
a copious supply of water to the city, and the Roman military road ran through
it. The houses themselves, however,
though showy, were not substantial, but were built mostly of sun-dried bricks,
like those of
20:30 And behold, two blind men sitting by the road, when they heard that Jesus was passing by, cried out, saying, “Have mercy on us, O Lord, Son of David!” In a different context, “mercy” might mean nothing more than the request for financial help. “Son of David” was obvious; in a setting of a crowd heading for the Passover, the chance of the man being such was nearly an absolute. “Lord” would be a respectful courtesy title, an erring on the safe side by those who could not physically tell whom they were addressing.
But more is clearly present because they knew it was Jesus passing by--note “they heard Jesus was passing by:” They couldn’t see who it was, but they gathered the identification from what was being said. Hence they wanted healing (verse 33) since it was no secret that He had performed such.
Did their hopes go even further? Many find in “Son of David” intended Messianic overtones as well. “Lord” could reinforce that idea but yet also be regarded as the well deserved verbal honor and respect due to someone who could make even the blind see again. They would certainly not be repelled by the Messianic idea, but so far as solving their physical problems, His ability to heal would be even more important.
Chance had presented them with an opportunity to be rid of their curse and they were going to take advantage of it. A useful lesson for our own daily lives as well.
20:31 Then the multitude warned them that they should be quiet; but they cried out all the more, saying, “Have mercy on us, O Lord, Son of David!” The accompanying crowd clearly regarded them as a nuisance and “warned” them to shut up. This did not work for they persisted even more emphatically in their repeated requests for help. Indeed, why should they shut up? This was as ideal an opportunity as they would ever have for being cured so it would be irrational not to use it to the fullest.
So Jesus stood still and called them, and said, “What do you want Me to do for you?” So far the language had been vague and unspecific. Just what did they have in their minds, He demanded. The request also forced the crowd to pay attention to what was going on and allow them to verify the fact of healing.
They said to Him, “Lord, that our eyes may be opened.” Their sight was needed. Hence “that is what we wish,” they responded. Doubtless with passion in their pleading voices.
So Jesus had compassion and touched their eyes. And immediately their eyes received sight, and they followed Him. Motivated by heart felt “compassion” for their condition, He “touched their eyes” and they immediately had their sight back. Again we see that there was no delay in the miracle—no: “Go home for healing has just begun!” Nor any of the other cop outs that modern healers routinely use to avoid facing responsibility for their failures.
They were clearly grateful for they continued in the
crowd of followers that accompanied Jesus.
Above and beyond that, this was also Passover season and the crowd was
Sidebar: Explaining differences in the account found here when compared with that of Mark (-52) and Luke (-43). Although a bit “longish” the Pulpit Commentary brings together a concise summary of the constructive alternatives that are available:
“The miracle narrated in this passage is common to
the three Synoptists, but with some remarkable
differences, not one of them agreeing altogether in details. St. Matthew speaks of two blind men, St. Luke
and St. Mark of one only, and the latter mentions this one by name as Bartimaeus. St.
Matthew and St. Mark make the miracle performed as Jesus quitted
“It is an easy solution to say, with
“As to the number of the blind men, we have seen the same
discrepancy in the case of the demoniacs at
“Another hypothesis is that a single blind man first
addressed Christ as he entered